The earth is opening up in Iceland – and thousands of people have to leave their homes. What happens when a volcano erupts? And should I travel to Iceland right now? We asked a geologist.
In Iceland, things have been bubbling under the surface of the earth for weeks. Experts expect a volcanic eruption in the mystical island state in northern Europe in the near future. The Reykjanes Peninsula, southwest of the capital Reykjavik, has been affected by strong earthquakes and gas formation for more than a week. The approximately 3,500 residents of the local community of Grindavik have already left their homes and are now waiting from different places in the Land of Things.
But what does the current situation actually mean specifically for the country’s residents? And what should I do if I have planned a trip to Iceland soon? We spoke to a German geologist who has lived in Iceland for several years and answered the most important questions at a glance. “We are currently assuming that the magma is around 500 meters deep. An eruption is therefore still very likely,” says Bischoff, classifying the situation.
What exactly is happening in Iceland right now?
“Since mid-October we have noticed increased earthquake activity and ground uplifts north-west of Grindavik,” explains geologist Jasmin Bischoff in an interview with stern. The 33-year-old studied volcanology in Germany, among other things, and has been living in Iceland since 2020. There, with her company “GeoAdventures Iceland,” she regularly guides tourists from all over the world through the exciting landscape of her adopted home. She knows the country’s volcanoes almost as well as the back of her hand.
The latest volcanic activity is therefore not particularly surprising for them: “Since the beginning of 2020, we have had signs that the Reykjanes Peninsula is slowly waking up.” Below the earth’s surface there are five different volcanic structures that heat each other up, and the peninsula also runs directly over the border of the two continents Europe and America, which repeatedly leads to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. “However, since the last volcanic activity near an inhabited area was measured 800 years ago, many residents have not taken scientists’ warnings seriously in recent years,” says Bischoff.
Initially, the earthquakes were concentrated in the area around the Blue Lagoon, one of the country’s most popular thermal baths; everything looked like a volcanic eruption would soon occur there. But then everything turned out differently, the earthquakes spread as far as Grindavik: “The increasing tension in the earth’s crust probably triggered a tectonic movement of the plates,” explains geologist Bischoff, explaining the background. “This caused an old weak point in the crust reactivated and the earth’s plates moved about 1.5 meters apart.”
The result: The magma that had collected in the crust flowed into the cavity and formed a wall of magma within the earth’s crust. “This so-called dike is around 15 kilometers long and one to two meters wide and unfortunately runs directly below Grindavik.” In the village of 3,500 people, the geological peculiarity has caused large parts of the city to sink by up to one meter, the earth is partly riddled with cracks and toxic sulfur gases rise from the earth. Therefore, Grindavik was completely evacuated on November 10, 2023 – for an indefinite period. Since then it’s been a matter of waiting.
What consequences would a volcanic eruption have?
A concrete answer to this question is currently hardly possible, as there are several scenarios as to how the situation in Iceland could develop. According to the geologist, the following scenarios are most likely, which does not mean that one of them necessarily has to happen:
Scenario 1: There is no eruption and the magma solidifies within the earth’s crust. “In this case, people could possibly return to Grindavik within a few weeks or months and rebuild the city,” says the 33-year-old, describing her best-case scenario.
Scenario 2: In the worst – and according to the expert most unlikely – case, the entire magma breaks to the surface and a 15 kilometer long fissure eruption occurs. In this case, Grindavik, the Blue Lagoon and the adjacent geothermal power plant would be completely destroyed, so that the entire Reykjanes Peninsula would also be without electricity and water supplies.
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Scenario 3: It is also possible that only a small portion of the dike reaches the surface. In this case, an eruption reminiscent of the recent volcanic eruptions in Iceland would be expected. “The location of the eruption plays a crucial role here,” explains the geologist. The lava could flow to Grindavik and bury parts of the city, it could flow west and then endanger the geothermal power plant and the Blue Lagoon, or it could erupt in a place where neither the city nor the power plant would be affected.
Scenario 4: An eruption at sea would be one of the best scenarios in this case. According to Bischoff, this is possible in principle, but rather unlikely. If it did happen, the country would be spared and the eruption would only be noticeable through a cloud of water vapor and a light rain of ash.
What does the impending volcanic eruption mean for my vacation in Iceland?
Although winter is not the main travel time for Iceland, many people are drawn to the land of fire and ice during the cold season to hunt for the northern lights and have snow adventures. The recent events around Grindavik are causing uncertainty in some places. Can I fly if the volcano erupts? And should I even do that? In the end, everyone has to know this for themselves, but one thing is certain: volcanic eruptions are not uncommon in Iceland.
Keflavik International Airport is located in the north of the Reykjanes Peninsula, but experts say no disruption to air traffic is expected. Geologist Bischoff also confirmed this in an interview with stern, that there is nothing wrong with traveling to Iceland: “Even in the event of an outbreak, only a very small part of Iceland is affected. Neither Reykjavik nor the airport are in danger.” Your conclusion: Traveling to Iceland is absolutely safe.
To understand: The threatened volcanic eruption would have nothing to do with the eruption of Eyjafalljajökull in 2010. At that time there was such an enormous ash cloud that air traffic was restricted across Europe. This was a different kind of volcano, however. However, there is one restriction that holidaymakers have to take into account: a visit to the lava fields of Fagradallsfjall, which erupted in 2021, 2022 and 2023, is currently not a good idea because they are too close to the new volcanic activity.
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Can I cancel my trip to Iceland for free?
Basically there is nothing wrong with traveling to Iceland. But what if you have a bad feeling in your gut? Then you can cancel the vacation. However, this is only possible free of charge in exceptional cases. This means that anyone who has booked a package holiday with accommodation in Grindavik can expect a problem-free cancellation due to the direct impact on the holiday destination. Even if air traffic is affected by the volcanic eruption despite other forecasts, air travelers can plead exceptional circumstances and count on a replacement flight.
However, if you have planned an individual trip or a package trip with accommodation elsewhere in Iceland, you can only rely on the goodwill of the tour operator or airline in case of doubt, because the impending volcanic eruption does not directly affect the travel performance in these cases. The whole thing becomes easier as soon as the Foreign Office issues a travel warning for the destination. In this case, free cancellation is possible again.
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