Eruption seems likely on Icelandic peninsula
November 6, 2023 8:09 PM   Subscribe

The peninsula of Reykjanes, which is home to the town of Keflavik as well as the famous "Blue Lagoon" geothermal spa, has seen a number of recent earthquakes as well as a measurable movement of ground level centered on the mountain known as Þorbjörn. The lava ledge growing below the peninsula is estimated to be one metre thick and six million cubic metres large. Evacuation plans have already been circulated for the towns nearest Þorbjörn, however experts fear that fast moving magma could isolate the residents of the peninsula without power or clear escape routes.

For those who crave hard stats:

Aerial views (with thermal cams) from a local -- in English but with good subtitles available if the accent gives you trouble

Local earthquake data in real time

Daily tracking of the movement of the peninsula -- it has risen 60mm since the middle of October.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta (37 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Full disclosure: I'm a USian who has never set foot in Iceland and doesn't know geology nor Icelandic, so if anyone has more specific or local knowledge, please feel free to chime in and correct.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 8:11 PM on November 6

Isn’t Keflavik where the airport is?
posted by eirias at 8:30 PM on November 6 [6 favorites]

Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising warned against underestimating attacks on Keflavik.

Hopefully any evacuees don't need to walk all the way to the Northern edge of Iceland to escape this time.
posted by Comstar at 8:46 PM on November 6 [4 favorites]

Isn’t Keflavik where the airport is?

The US Navy has had a Naval Air Station there as well - my father was attached to it at one point while in the Naval Reserve, and had to do his annual two week drill up there. I'm not sure if the base is still active after the waves of base closures, though.
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:00 PM on November 6

I just wanted to mention that "Þorbjörn" and variants is a common Norse man's name. It's like you named a mountain in the US "Brian".
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 10:47 PM on November 6 [25 favorites]

For the record, Mount Bryan is Australian.
posted by ryanrs at 11:15 PM on November 6 [15 favorites]

For scale, note that the distance between Þorbjörn and Reykjavik [pop 135K] is the same 50km=30mi as between Kīlauea and Hilo [pop 44K]. Keflavik [pop 15K] and the International Airport about half the distance. USAF withdrew all personnel in 2006. The Reykjanes peninsula is where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (a divergent / constructive plate boundary) pops out of the sea for the first time since the Açores. The linked aerial view YT is great.
posted by BobTheScientist at 12:08 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]

Oh. Stay safe everyone.
posted by mumimor at 12:17 AM on November 7

Mod note: Jokey derail deleted.
posted by taz (staff) at 1:24 AM on November 7 [2 favorites]

There have been smaller eruptions there for the last three summers. I was there in 2022, and saw the second one at Fagradalsfjall.

The small eruptions have seemed remote--there was a considerable hike to get to the viewing area--but they're not that far from towns like Grindavik. The 2022 eruption was bubbling up inside its own valley and not causing a lot of issues beyond it, but to get there, you had to pass very long lava fields from the 2021 event, which showed how far even a small eruption could spread problems. At the time, the concern seemed to be that if the eruption increased, lava could threaten the coastal highway just to the south.

There is a road that goes all the way around the coast of the peninsula, then a couple of roads that cross it. There aren't a lot of other options. If a road gets cut off, it's a long way around to detour, and the chance of being cut off dangerously is there, too.

The Blue Lagoon is on one of those cross-peninsula roads, and it's only a couple of miles from the 2022 eruption site (and the others). It seems like a long way on foot, over the hills and boulders, but as the crow flies, it's extremely close.

The international airport is at the tip end of the peninsula, on the other side from the previous eruptions, and to the west. A bit further away, and the direction of the smaller lava flows looks like it's been in the other direction, but future eruptions could be in a different place and could be bigger. I'm assuming several people here have been to Iceland, if you went from the airport to Reykjavik city center, you went down the main highway on the north of the peninsula. The only alternative to that main highway is to go the long way around the southern coast road--the one where there were worries in 2022 about it getting blocked if the eruptions got larger.

I'll note that Reykjavik does have a smaller city airport--right close to town--but it's only capable of handling small planes.
posted by gimonca at 5:53 AM on November 7 [6 favorites]

Full disclosure: I'm a USian who has never set foot in Iceland and doesn't know geology nor Icelandic, so if anyone has more specific or local knowledge, please feel free to chime in and correct.

Needs more Kattullus.
posted by y2karl at 8:50 AM on November 7 [9 favorites]

I remember the Eyjafjallajökull eruption took out most of europes flight plans for weeks.
posted by clavdivs at 10:31 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]

It’s still not certain that an eruption is imminent. From what I’ve gathered, geologists think it’s more likely than not, but that it wouldn’t surprise them if things would quiet down again.

So far, a lot of the discussion in Iceland has centered on the Blue Lagoon, as it’s near the area which has had the most geological activity. Two bus companies have stopped driving there as they don’t feel like they can guarantee their employees’ or passengers’ safety, but the Blue Lagoon’s reaction, so far, has only been to change its refund policy to make it easier to request a refund. The Blue Lagoon has refused to answer questions from the media. It’s fairly shocking that they don’t seem to have planned for this eventuality, even given the three nearby volcanic eruptions in the last few years. As you can understand, this has not gone over well in Iceland where being careful around nature is ingrained in people from a very young age.

And because the Blue Lagoon is threatened, that means that the Svartsengi geothermal power station is also threatened. No one is particularly worried about loss of life there, as most people expect them to have a decent evacuation plans if it comes to that. However, Svartsengi supplies most of the homes in the Reykjanes peninsula with hot water, and it’s an important part of the national power grid. If it would need to be shut down, that would cause all kinds of problems.

All that said, it’s unlikely to come up exactly there. The eruption is expected to be similar to the other three in this series, though it might be a bit bigger. Unless it’s close to the airport, it shouldn’t affect air traffic at all. But until it erupts, Icelandic authorities will plan for the worst, and hopefully the Blue Lagoon will see sense.
posted by Kattullus at 12:00 PM on November 7 [19 favorites]

"The Control of Nature is a 1989 book by John McPhee that chronicles three attempts (with varying success) to control natural processes. ... The residents of Heimaey, Iceland saved their harbor by spraying water on the volcanic lava flow threatening to close it off....."

It's a riveting book.
posted by neuron at 9:23 AM on November 8 [3 favorites]

Blue Lagoon resort closed for a week today after a 5.0 magnitude shock at 00:45hrs in the morning which induced ~40 guests to call a cab and depart.
posted by BobTheScientist at 12:18 AM on November 9 [4 favorites]

I love that live quake site. And that there were people in the Blue Lagoon at 00:45.

From my trip there I gathered that for proper Icelanders, living with volcanos is just a thing you have to get used to, like living with monsoons in Nepal or storm tides on Helgoland.

There's a tourist attraction of a bent 10 feet wide steel H-bar that's all that's left of a bridge constructed to withstand the worst melting of a glacier from a volcano erupting right under it.

The had a few weeks of advance warning (like now!) and prepared the bridge, but engineers underestimated what nature can do by about 15 feet of steel.

These days, they build the same bridge from cheap wood. They have to close it and sometimes rebuild it - it happens.

These days, I think the proper Icelandic way is to not bother with anticipating events too much, treat those local folklore trolls well and... cope with whatever happens once it happens.

Also, never omit a chance to spook some tourists out of their sweet hard currency.

They will have to rebuild that power plant sooner or later because it's fairly sure to be blown up sooner or later. And Keflavik airport. Maybe even Rejkjavik. But they know their volcanos, and trolls, and have a few weeks usually

They did rebuild a water well right on my trip - 24 hours no water, a few cuss words maybe, but no problem.

Iceland, my friends, is still fairly wild.
posted by flamewise at 10:15 AM on November 9

There’s a lot of seismic activity right now, and as this map shows, it’s pretty close to the Svartsengi power station, and therefore the Blue Lagoon. Crucially, it’s on the other side of a mountain from it. The alert level has been raised and geologists are saying that this could be an eruption starting. Hopefully it won’t be dangerous to anyone.
posted by Kattullus at 9:58 AM on November 10 [1 favorite]

Many inhabitants of Grindavík have started leaving the town, though the authorities have not issued a recommendation to do so yet. To make that rather more difficult, the main road out of the town, which goes across the peninsula, has been badly damaged by earthquakes today, but there’s a road crew there now and they expect to patch it up so that it’s drivable in about two hours. Until then people have to leave by the coastal road.
posted by Kattullus at 11:26 AM on November 10 [4 favorites]

Magma has been moving, subterraneously, towards Grindavík, so the town has been evacuated. RÚV, the Icelandic public broadcaster, has an English language liveblog, though it’s mostly dormant now that the evacuation is over.
posted by Kattullus at 9:52 PM on November 10 [5 favorites]

This photo taken from the air provides a good sense of the landscape. The magma tube is mostly underneath the area on the left, the town of Grindavík (pop. 3700), the mountain Þorbjörn, and the craters Sundhnúkar. The Svartsengi power station and the Blue Lagoon (Bláa lónið in Icelandic) are to the north (on the right of the photo). The English-language liveblog I mentioned before is active again.
posted by Kattullus at 3:40 AM on November 11 [7 favorites]

Kattullus, thanks for continuing to add updates to this thread.
posted by RichardP at 4:01 AM on November 11 [6 favorites]

Ditto! not least for retaining the áccents (in Grindavík etc.) about which Irish Irish-speakers get sensitive in an Anglophone world.
[derail] I note that the Icelandic Emergency Management teams . . . has launched a page with information in Icelandic, English and Polish. Like Iceland, there is a lot of kiełbasa hereabouts and more people speak Polish at home [N = 120K] in Ireland than Irish.[/derail]
posted by BobTheScientist at 7:10 AM on November 11 [1 favorite]

This photo taken from the air provides a good sense of the landscape...

After glancing at the place names thereon, I am curious as to whether there is a local version of Wheel of Fortune on Icelandic television. That would be interesting.
posted by y2karl at 10:35 AM on November 11

The latest news is fairly worrying. It’s considered likely that the eruption will be within Grindavík town limits. The whole area is now off limits to people, including people who’d be on official business, but there are still animals in town, around three hundred sheep, sixty horses and a number of pets that were left behind. None of these animals can be rescued, as things stand now, but a great number of volunteers are at the ready once they’ve been given the go ahead by scientists. The latest readings say that the magma is around 800 meters deep, which means that the eruption could start any minute now, though it could also yet be in a few days time. The worst case scenario is if it erupts under the sea, because that would mean a phreatic eruption, which is much more violent than a normal eruption. It wouldn’t be an immediate danger to humans, but there’s a lot more ash, and generally it’s just more explosive.
posted by Kattullus at 2:14 PM on November 11 [8 favorites]

All our fingers are crossed for the pets, sheep, horses and humans, too, I am certain.
posted by y2karl at 3:58 PM on November 11 [4 favorites]

Morning. Good quality, no voice-over, 5 mins of pictures from deserted Grindavík showing cracks in pavement etc. Dateline 02:00GMT 12Nov23.
posted by BobTheScientist at 11:49 PM on November 11 [1 favorite]

Twitter thread by basketball coach and player Danielle Rodriguez [Nitter link], who's from Los Angeles:
An update on life in Iceland right now…[thread]

The town I coach and play for was evacuated yesterday after two weeks of earthquakes that have been increasing in frequency and size. There is going to be a volcano eruption either near, in or around the town. (Read link)

My girlfriend and I lived in the town last year but recently bought an apartment 15 minutes out of the town. We are grateful that our home is okay.

The craziness started while we were in practice yesterday, with constant 4 & 5 magnitude earthquakes happening, our coach decided to cancel practice 45 minutes in.

While we were driving both our cars out of the town, one of them decided to break down on us so we pulled over to talk about where we would leave it. I got out of one of the cars and was leaning into our other car talking to my girlfriend.

In that moment I felt the most scared for my life I have ever been, the ground started shaking so much I had to grab a hold of the car and honest to god for a good 30 seconds I felt as though the ground was going to crack open and take us both.

We drove our broken down car back into town quickly and left it there.
On our second attempt out through the main road a huge bump appeared and we had to exit the town through another route. [Nitter video link]

There are a total of 3 ways out of the town so we took another road out. We are grateful that we are safe and that likely right now the only thing we may lose is our car. Our people in Grindavik will lose their homes in the worst case scenario.

[Nitter photo link]

[Nitter photo link]
Right now geologists are going over the data to see if it's possible to let people rush into town, get medicine and other necessities, and allow in the team of volunteers to rescue animals. Everyone is at the ready.
posted by Kattullus at 12:01 AM on November 12 [6 favorites]

Mod note: Thank you, Kattulus; I've added this thread to the sidebar and Best Of blog.
posted by taz (staff) at 12:47 AM on November 12 [1 favorite]

The Chief of Police in Suðurnes has decided to allow residents to enter a defined area in Þórkötlustaðahverfi in Grindavík, it is only done to collect pets and indispensable property. It is an organized operation under the control of the police.
posted by the antecedent of that pronoun at 1:17 PM on November 12 [3 favorites]

According to the search-and-rescue volunteers who accompanied the people of the one neighborhood of Grindavík that was considered reasonably safe to go into, the town is a lot more damaged than was expected, lots of road damage, cracks in houses and broken pipes.

The situation mostly remains the same in terms of the animals. According to a surveyan animal welfare organization that specializes in reuniting lost pets with their humans, at the beginning of the day there remained in town 58 cats, 2 rabbits, 2 hamsters, 49 horses, 13 parrots, 130 pigeons, 204 sheep and 15 thousand chickens. A few pets were rescued today, and most of the sheep and horses, but most of the pets and chickens remain.

Animal welfare volunteers are at the ready with truckfuls of animal carriers, but the disaster management authorities have not let them into Grindavík, because the authorities don’t feel that they can ask search-and-rescue volunteers to escort the animal welfare volunteers into areas of Grindavík that they consider too dangerous. So the situation remains the same, the animal welfare volunteers await permission to enter the town, and the animals remain in Grindavík.

Seismically, this has been a quieter day than previous days, which has geologists hoping that it will be a small eruption, though it’s still likely that it would erupt close enough to the town to cause lots of damage.

Meanwhile, most inhabitants are staying with friends and family, though some are sleeping in evacuation centers, which have been set up in sports facilities, mostly. The interviews that have stayed with me was with a two couples of Polish origin, who had sold their apartments in Poland and bought houses in Grindavík, and now don’t know if their houses are still inhabitable, and if their jobs will still be there when–if–the danger is over.

And if you want to check up on what’s going on, the English language liveblog by RÚV is your best source.
posted by Kattullus at 1:58 PM on November 12 [6 favorites]

Not much happened today, thank goodness, which gave the authorities an opening to let people return briefly to their homes to collect their most important belongings and rescue their pets and other animals. Companies were also allowed into town to get valuables out. It looks like almost all animals have now been evacuated.

In terms of the magma, the options seem to be four. Here they are in order of likelihood (if I understood the geologists correctly):

1) A small eruption near or in the town of Grindavík
2) Nothing more happens, the magma will slowly cool and harden underground.
3) A large eruption.
4) An underwater, phreatic eruption.

That last one is now considered fairly unlikely.

While a small eruption is currently the most likely result, if it is in Grindavík, this will still be a major disaster for that community, and Iceland as a whole. Judging by interviews, the whole population of the town is on edge right now, waiting to see what happens, and the uncertainty is gnawing at them.
posted by Kattullus at 2:44 PM on November 13 [7 favorites]

Here’s a video interview about what’s going on in the town, in English, with geologist Gregory de Pascale, taken inside of Grindavík.

More on the English language RÚV liveblog.
posted by Kattullus at 9:59 PM on November 13 [4 favorites]

Thank you for the updates, Kattullus.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 6:21 AM on November 14 [1 favorite]

Over the last few days, people have been going to their homes, escorted by search-and-rescue volunteers, to collect their most important belongings, and any animals that were left behind. From what I understand, the pluponderance of inhabitants will have done so by the end of the day. Companies were also allowed back into town to rescue equipment, material, and their products.

Various financial things are being set in order. People who can’t work will receive unemployment benefits, companies will receive some compensation, and insurance things are being sorted out. The one wrinkle so far was that banks are going to pause payments on mortgages, without pausing interest, and the outcry is understandably loud.

Today construction will start on a protective dyke around the Svartsengi geothermal power station, and therefore the Blue Lagoon. It will protect it against anything except for the largest eruptions, though if that happens a power station is the least of anyone’s worries, or if the eruption happens right under it. People have been put out that, at least so far, neither the power company nor the Blue Lagoon are expected to bear any of the costs.

The town of Grindavík is in poor shape. Many houses have cracks running through them, and so do roads, open fields and even the local golf course. Many people won’t be able to return to their houses, and some will undoubtedly want to move away. Even if it doesn’t erupt, this is already Iceland’s biggest natural disaster in 50 years, in terms of social disruption and financial costs.
posted by Kattullus at 2:51 AM on November 16 [8 favorites]

Not much in the way of news so far today, except that magmatic gas has been detected, confirming that the magma is near the surface, and geologists are still expecting an eruption in the next few days. Meanwhile, the Guardian’s Nordic correspondent, Miranda Bryant, had a good article about the inhabitants of Grindavík and how they’re holding up. Excerpt:
Some people say they could not go back, even if it is deemed safe, for fear of the threat returning. Others, despite their trauma, are determined to move back. Many are in a state of shock, having had to abandon their homes, and in many cases jobs, so suddenly.

Residents have been allowed to return for allocated five-minute slots – timed by a waiting official – to pick up essentials and keepsakes. In the meantime, life goes on: Sólný [Pálsdóttir]’s seventh grandchild was born in hospital on Wednesday and she has found a new school for her two younger sons. Grindavík’s school is closed for the foreseeable future.

But they still have to find a temporary home.

Sólný is especially concerned about the impact of the abrupt move on her 12-year-old son, who has Down’s syndrome, because the residents of Grindavík are “family” to him. “All these people in Grindavík took care of him. He was so independent, he could go everywhere, he has a lot of friends, he plays sports,” she says. “For him it’s the most change.”

Kristín María Birgisdóttir, 43, the head of information and marketing in Grindavík, bought a new flat in the town only a month ago after getting divorced. Now she is looking for somewhere temporary to live with her three young children for six months.

Kristín does not know whether they will be able to return. “Some people say the whole peninsula has woken up, so we might be expecting eruptions frequently now.”

All her family, friends and colleagues live in the town and the idea of not returning is “unthinkable,” she says. “But of course your home is supposed to be a safe zone. You want to be safe. And if you can’t feel safe at your house then it’s really difficult to live.”
posted by Kattullus at 2:01 AM on November 17 [3 favorites]

“But of course your home is supposed to be a safe zone. You want to be safe. And if you can’t feel safe at your house then it’s really difficult to live.”
This is so true. Gosh, what a thing. I don't really know what else to say, except thank you for the updates, and here's wishing for peace and safety for all affected.
posted by xedrik at 2:33 PM on November 18 [1 favorite]

Here's Professor Þorvaldur Þórðarson the volcanologist being public-quizzed about the Reykjanes Events. There is a good table of contents to save you having to watch all 60m. Also some links to give to Search&Rescue and RedCross if you're so minded. There's some interesting discussion about cost [~$15m USD] vs benefit [20-200x as much] of the [almost finished] defensive dirt-wall round the power-plant and Spa-hotel.
posted by BobTheScientist at 12:17 PM on November 22 [1 favorite]

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