Over 20,000 tremors since late Oct: Iceland declares state of emergency over volcanic eruption threat

Authorities in Iceland on Friday (Nov 10) declared a state of emergency after a series of powerful earthquakes rocked the country’s southwestern Reykjanes peninsula. Experts believe that the recent quakes could be a precursor to a volcanic eruption. 

The Icelandic Met Office (IMO) has detected more than 20,000 tremors since late Oct with 1,400 in the 24 hours to midday on Thursday as the quakes appear to increase. 

The Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management said in a statement: “The National police chief … declares a state of emergency for civil defence due to the intense earthquake (activity) at Sundhnjukagigar, north of Grindavik.” 

The administration further warned that an eruption could take place “in several days” as it said that “earthquakes can become larger than those that have occurred and this series of events could lead to an eruption”. 

The authorities have said that the village of Grindavik, home to around 4,000 people, is located some three kilometres southwest of the area where Friday’s earthquake swarm was registered. The Department of Civil Protection also said it was sending the patrol vessel Thor to Grindavik “for security purposes”. 

The local authorities have also come up with evacuation plans in case of an eruption and the police closed a road running north-south to Grindavik on Friday after it was damaged by the tremors. 

Two powerful earthquakes were felt as far away as Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital and along much of the country’s southern coast around 1730 GMT. The IMO officials have said that the preliminary figures suggest that the biggest tremor had a magnitude of 5.2, north of Grindavik. 

The IMO said that an accumulation of magma is underground at a depth of about five kilometres and they think that if it starts moving towards the surface it could lead to a volcanic eruption. 

“The most likely scenario is that it will take several days rather than hours for magma to reach the surface,” it said.

“If a fissure were to appear where the seismic activity is at its highest now, lava would flow to the southeast and to the west, but not towards Grindavik.” 

Watch: Climate change and volcanic eruptions 

Volcanoes in Iceland 

Three eruptions have occurred on the Reykjanes peninsula since 2021, in March 2021, August 2022, and July 2023. These three were placed in remote places with no infrastructure or people. 

Overall, Iceland has 33 active volcanic systems, which is the highest number in Europe. The North Atlantic island straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a crack in the ocean floor separating the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.

Prior to the March 2021 eruption in an uninhabited area around Mount Fagradalsfjall, the Reykjanes volcanic system had remained dormant for eight centuries.

But now, volcanologists believe the new cycle of increased activity could last for several decades or centuries. 

A huge eruption at another Iceland volcano, Eyjafjallajokull in the south of the island, in April 2010, forced the cancellation of 100,000 flights, stranding more than 10 million people. 

(With inputs from agencies) 

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