Eruptions in Iceland and what it all means
Eruptions in Iceland and what it all means
On February 8, 2024, an eruption began on the Reykjanes Peninsula for the sixth time in three years. A state of emergency was declared in the area due to the infrastructure in the vicinity of the eruption site. As with previous eruptions in the area, this eruption posed no threat to air traffic and was declared over on February 10.
The area in question was evacuated and closed off to traffic. With five previous eruptions in the past three years in this area, the uncertainty is now mainly focused on the infrastructure in the immediate vicinity. We’ll cover how this situation might unfold with a bonus insight into the Icelandic psyche when it comes to natural disasters.
Is it safe to travel to Iceland now?
As long as you didn’t book your accommodation in the town of Grindavík or the Blue Lagoon, the situation in the Reykjanes peninsula should not affect your travel plans in any way. The eruption is limited to the area near the town of Grindavík and is closely monitored by the authorities. Further information can be found on ICE-SAR’s official website www.safetravel.isLink opens in a new tab.
The area in question
One thing’s for sure, Icelandic placenames aren’t easy, so for the sake of clarity we’ll try to keep it simple. The Reykjanes peninsula is that southwestern point of Iceland that kind of resembles a leg. The capital Reykjavik sits at the top hip joint of the leg and Keflavik International Airport is near the tip of the toe. The town of Grindavik is at the bottom half of the ankle with the Blue Lagoon within a 10-minute drive. The peninsula has vast uninhabited areas of old lava fields, lakes and mountains but the coastline has larger towns like Keflavik and Grindavik and smaller fishing villages.
Previous eruptions in the Reykjanes peninsula
After being dormant for approximately 800 years, the Fagradalsfjall volcanic system erupted in 2021. The eruption was small and in a perfect location that didn’t threaten any infrastructure and soon became a popular hike and tourist attraction. Seeing a volcanic eruption in such proximity with your own eyes is an incredible experience. The volcano erupted again in the summer of 2022 and July 2023, and in all three cases it was a peaceful event. For everyone except the inhabitants in the general vicinity, specifically the people of Grindavík. Following bursts of intense seismic activity, an eruption began in a different site on December 18, 2023, after the town of Grindavík had been evacuated. This eruption lasted only approx. 60 hours. Construction on protective barriers was prioritized as the lava flow from this new eruption site could reach local infrastructure. On January 14, 2024, the fifth eruption began, and while the brand-new protective barriers certainly proved their worth, the lava reached three houses in the town of Grindavík. This eruption lasted only 44 hours but caused the most damage of the eruptions on the peninsula so far. A new eruption began on February 8, 2024, a little further away from the town and lasted for two days.
Ongoing seismic activity indicates that earthquakes and eruptions are now to be expected regularly for some time in this area and it is subsequently monitored closely by the authorities and access restricted according to the activity.
Check out our Guide to Iceland's Volcanoes if you want to read more about previous eruptions and Icelandic volcanoes in general.
What about to the Blue Lagoon?
The Blue Lagoon is one of many geothermal luxury lagoons in Iceland and one of the top tourist attractions in the country. It’s a high-end treat of wellness in otherworldly surroundings that we normally highly recommend. Increased seismic activity in the area has put a spotlight on the Blue Lagoon. As previously stated, volcanic eruptions in this area happen with warning so they shouldn’t come as a complete surprise but that warning is very uncomfortable. Earthquake swarms leading up to an eruption warn of the magma movements and patterned tremors indicate that the magma is bursting upwards. This seismic activity and eruptions have led to the Blue Lagoon closing temporarily on and off since November.
Is it safe to fly to Iceland?
Absolutely. Flying is an extremely safe means of transportation and aviation adheres to strict rules and regulations where every possible scenario has been accounted for. PLAY’s aircraft are fueled for various rerouting possibilities so that they can land at alternate airports in Iceland, Europe or North America. The Icelandic aviation authorities are fully in control of the airspace and safety is everyone’s absolute priority. That’s to say that there are no chances taken in aviation. If things are questionable in any way, rest assured that in aviation, we always err on the safe side. The seismic activity and possible eruption do not threaten Keflavik International Airport which is located on the other side of the Reykjanes peninsula.
A possible submarine eruption could affect air travel as it could potentially create an airborne ash cloud. In that case, Keflavik Airport would shut down its operations during a period of assessment and incoming flights would be redirected to alternate airports during the closure.
How dangerous is Iceland?
It’s actually the safest country in the world. For real. You can read all about it here. Iceland continually tops the charts as the safest country in the world based on various and advanced metrics, including societal safety and security. A lot of that safety has to do with the excellent infrastructure in Iceland, and trust in authorities.
But let's be honest. Being Icelandic is no walk in the park. This magical country of fierce weather, awesome landscapes and incredible natural forces is easy to fall in love with, but it can also be a bit of a challenge to live with, kind of high maintenance actually. It’s all to do with the reason we love it: nature.
The natural elements
There are earthquakes, avalanches, storms, geothermal activity, and yes, volcanic eruptions. And there's been a lot of those in Iceland lately. Iceland is incredibly active in terms of seismic and volcanic activity and eruptions are something of a regular occurrence.
But during a standard year when nothing really happens, you'll still have to deal with the basic Icelandic winter. That includes a few months of long and dark nights, harsh storms with possible road closures and it does get cold. Iceland obviously makes up for it with its incredible winter wonder scenes complete with northern lights and lush geothermal spas but it is a long winter. And even during those magical summer months there's that endless daylight that some find difficult to sleep in. Then there's the other Icelanders. Icelanders are a tiny population, having not yet reached 400,000. In fact, the total number of all Icelanders, born in Iceland, ever, is estimated to be approx. 1,400,000. As a result, Icelanders are kind of close-knit and that, as any small-towner will tell you, comes with its pros and cons. The cons are the same as in all small communities. Everybody knows who you are, people gossip and emotions can flare up quickly as in any family. But the pros far outweigh the cons. Icelanders, although generally considered excellent hosts by visitors, can bicker and fight about the most trivial things, but when it really counts, they come together as one incredibly well-oiled machine, fiercely loyal to their fellow human being and willing to go to any lengths to lend a helping hand.
Which brings us to natural disasters, earthquakes, storms, avalanches and eruptions. Yes, they're scary, and while we wish disaster on no one, they have a silver lining. The incredible power of unity. Whenever a disaster strikes a remote part of Iceland, the entire nation immediately bands together as one. Evacuations of one small town means thousands will offer their homes to the displaced. Suddenly, as if by some miracle, nothing else matters than to lend a helping hand, come together and persevere. The natural elements also mean that the level of expertise in this tiny country is unparalleled and trust in the authorities is enormous.
The experts of Iceland
If you’re thinking such a small population may not be equipped to deal with possible natural disasters, think again. When it comes to the elements, Iceland is kind of the navy seals of the world. Our infrastructure is built to withstand incredible forces, our scientists have trained in the most active setting available in the world, the authorities have dealt with an incredible array of emergency situations and then there’s ICE-SAR. The Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue is a huge network of well-equipped, well-trained and superbly organized volunteers. In a country with no army, they are the equivalent of that special task force that you want on call 24/7. They know their local areas inside out and are trained to deal with pretty much anything. And they always choose to accept their mission.
How do Icelanders feel?
A huge part of the Icelandic psyche is a strange mixture of serenity, humility and responsibility when it comes to the natural forces. There's not much you can do when faced with a weather warning except huddle up inside and try to get cozy. Icelanders, and this is a huge generalization, feel a certain need to be well-informed when out on an excursion, to take proper precautions, not to take unnecessary risks and to act responsibly. They are aware, not only of the dangers of the unharnessed wilderness, but also the incredibly vast system of local volunteer networks, rescue services and overall manpower that will automatically come to their search and rescue if they run into trouble and Icelanders, above all, do not want to be a bother.
While an eruption sounds scary, and yes, some scenarios certainly are scary for the inhabitants of Grindavík, there is a bright side to natural disasters, one that’s very hard to describe to non-Icelanders.
As soon as Grindavík was evacuated in November 2023, something changed. Daily debates and conflict instantly turned into unity and harmony. Acting as one, the nation turned to its standard reply to any imminent disaster: an outpour of help.
During the public information announcement declaring a state of emergency and the evacuation of Grindavík, police chief Víðir Reynisson said: "We are now facing a situation we haven't seen since the eruption of Heimaey." What should be a unique situation, not faced by anyone ever before, was, in fact, an uncomfortable, yet at the same time comforting, reminder of a very similar situation, some 50 years ago in the Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland, the police chief’s hometown. The eruption of Heimaey happened in the middle of the night on January 23, 1973, and lasted until July 3 that same year. In what can only be described as a miracle, the entire population of nearly 5,300 was evacuated in a few hours before the incredible flow of lava and ash from the volcano engulfed approximately half the town. The technology at the time was far behind what it is now but the community and spirit of Iceland was the same. The people of Heimaey were housed all over the country with strangers offering help with their homes, clothes, food, work and shelter. In a beautiful moment of solidarity, one of the first responses to the evacuation of Grindavík came from the people of Heimaey who offered their help in any way. It’s a symbolic gesture as the island is nowhere near Grindavík but incredibly meaningful.
The focus in Iceland is now solely on the people of Grindavík who have had to leave their homes and do not know when or if they can return. This is not a national disaster in the sense that the country is facing danger but rather a national moment of unity and compassion with the people affected.
Is Iceland a safe destination now?
Absolutely. As long as you didn’t book your accommodation in Grindavík or the Blue Lagoon, the situation in the Reykjanes peninsula should not affect your travel plans in any way. Adhere to all road closures, trust the authorities and keep an eye on the situation on ICE-SAR’s website www.safetravel.is.