Volcano erupts in Iceland near an airport, a power plant, and an evacuated town

The town of Grindavik was preemptively evacuated back in November.
A volcano spews lava and smoke as it erupts near the town of Grindavik, Iceland.
A volcano spews lava and smoke as it erupts near the town of Grindavik, Iceland on December 18, 2023. Snorri Thor/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Following weeks of increased seismic activity, a volcano erupted in southwestern Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula on December 18. According to Iceland’s meteorological office, the eruption began at about 10:17 p.m. local time, following a series of small earthquakes that began at 9:00 p.m. Between 3,530 and 7,060 cubic feet of lava was emerging per second at the time of the initial eruption, several times more than previous eruptions in this area. The eruption itself could stop at any time or continue for several months.

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The roughly 2.5 mile-long fissure spewed semi-molten rock and red-tinted smoke into the air near Iceland’s main airport, the Svartsengi Power Plant, and the town of Grindavík. A community of about 4,000 people was evacuated in November following increased seismic activity that raised fears of an eruption and damaged several buildings. According to Grindavík Mayor Fannar Jónasson, no locals were present in the vicinity at the time of the eruption on December 18. 

A view of lava after a volcanic eruption on Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula, taken on December 19, 2023. The eruption began following an earthquake that started about an hour earlier. CREDIT: Iceland Police Department/Anadolu via Getty Images.

In a press conference, Iceland’s Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir said “now we see the earth opening up. Our thoughts are with the local people as before, we hope for the best, but it can be clear that this is quite an eruption. It is important to give emergency responders space to do their work and follow traffic instructions.” 

Volcanologists initially stated that the eruption had occurred in one of the worst possible locations due to its proximity to a power plant and Grindavík. However, the immediate situation did not appear as dire after a flyover. “If everything is normal, this will subside in the afternoon tomorrow, the crack will begin to retreat into craters. The eruption could last a week to 10 days,” volcanologist Ármann Höskuldsson told RUV on Monday. The eruption’s size was anticipated, but the direction of the lava flow remains unpredictable.

“This is larger than previous eruptions on Reykjanes,” volcanologists Magnus Gudmundsson, a volcanologist among the first people to observe the eruption from the air, told The New York Times.

Iceland sits just above a volcanic hot spot in the North Atlantic. The island nation of only 387,758 people averages an eruption roughly every four to five years. The Reykjanes Peninsula about 31 miles southwest of the capital city of Reykjavik. In November, the peninsula was hit by a swarm of over 1,000 small earthquakes in only 24 hours. It put the entire island on alert of an imminent eruption. One of Iceland’s largest tourist attractions, the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa was also closed temporarily due to its proximity to the seismic activity. 

Volcanologists urged tourists and locals to strictly follow advice, as major hazards can quickly put people in danger.

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“As is common with this eruptive style, it began with a sustained eruption of ballistics that, over time, has lengthened to form a fire curtain—a long fissure out of which lava is being violently ejected,” University of Bristol volcanologist  Matthew Watson told the Associated Press. “This style of eruption is amongst the most spectacular ever seen, and there will be a strong pull for tourists, even though the Blue Lagoon complex has again shut.”

The most disruptive eruption in recent memory was the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano that spewed enormous clouds of ash and led to major airspace closures over Europe. This 2023 Reykjanes Peninsula eruption was not expected to release large amounts of ash into the air. According to Iceland’s foreign minister Bjarne Benediktsson, there are currently no flight disruptions and international flight corridors remain open.