Is Iceland on the brink of another volcanic eruption?

Wednesday, 29th January 2020

Jo Coles

iceland reykjanes peninsula 1

You may have spotted on the news various reports from Iceland regarding potential magma accumulation and an associated risk of volcanic activity. Since January 21st there has been measurable inflation detected below Mount Thorbjörn in the Reykjanes Peninsula, approximately 8 miles from Keflavik airport and close to the world-famous Blue Lagoon.

Ground-swelling of around 3-4mm per day, with a total of a 2cm rise so far, is considered unusually rapid and geologists suggest this is most likely due to an accumulation of magma below the surface. It is difficult to calculate from ground measurements how much magma this could relate to, although some suggestions are in the region of one million cubic metres, at approximately 1-2km depth.

At the same time there has been an increased swarm of seismic activity, with more frequent and stronger earthquakes in the region. Earthquakes are a common occurrence in Iceland, however this combined with ground inflation makes the situation one to investigate.

You can see more up-to-date information such as this earthquake swarm map via the Icelandic Met Office.It is an excellent source of information for the latest tectonic conditions, as well as the weather.

Mount Thorbjörn is close to the fishing community of Grindavik, the tourist hotspot Blue Lagoon (which can see 1500 tourists per day!) and the Svartsengi Geothermal Power station. If there were to be any form of eruption then approximately 5000 people would need evacuating, and locals are regularly updated.

edu iceland earthquake swarm map

Scientists say there is no immediate threat, but due to the uncertainty the Icelandic Met Office has declared a Yellow Warning which means that the area will have increased monitoring. Already, new tiltmeters have been installed in order to track ground deformation. Should there be any escalation then decisions to evacuate will be made by the Department for Civil Protection. Local people have had information shared, and discussed possible plans for future evacuations during civic meetings in Grindavik.

The area is in close proximity to Keflavik and the international airport, therefore almost all visitors will pass through the region on their way from the airport to other destinations. There has not been an eruption here since the 13th century, and the lack of ice-cap or water interaction would suggest that any potential eruption would be lava flows rather than the huge ash columns that were seen during the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption. Therefore, we should not be fearful of the same sort of impact on aviation as was seen then. For example, the 2011 Grimsvötn eruption was 100x more powerful than the Eyjafjallajökull eruption and produced plenty of ash, yet caused only a tenth of the air chaos. The 2014 Bárðarbunga eruption caused lava flows larger than Manhattan and yet did not influence aviation.

It is suggested there are 5 possible scenarios, in order of likelihood:

  • Magma movement stops
  • Magma movement continues but there is no eruption
  • Magma movement continues with minor eruption
  • Magma movement causes an eruption up to 10km fissure
  • Magma movement causes large earthquake (M6 scale)

Iceland is one of the most highly monitored nations in the world, with sophisticated technology for monitoring and prediction and excellent coordination between public services. Currently the Met Office’s geological unit is being staffed 24 hours a day to constantly assess the situation and ensure rapid response to any changes.

We at Discover the World Education will continue to monitor the information supplied, and anyone who is due to travel with us to Iceland is welcome to get in contact for further updates and ask any questions. Unlike many other operators we offer a Travel Disruption Protection Charter. 

This situation can lend itself well to learning activities in the classroom, please check out our accompanying teaching resource! 

Popular blog posts

Over-tourism in Iceland – myths dispelled by the experts

Don't be put off Iceland. We'll tell you the facts about tourism in Iceland you need to know!

Friday, 10th November 2017

Destination Specialist

Ten volcanoes you can visit with Discover the World Education

What are your favourite volcanoes? We have picked ten very different volcanoes you can visit with us, from the Azores to New Zealand.

Thursday, 16th March 2017

Destination Specialist

10 Air Travel Tips For Effortless School Trips

We asked former teachers and current group tour leaders for their advice on how to make your journey as smooth as possible, from Departures to Arrivals.

Wednesday, 14th February 2018

Destination Specialist

Experience Iceland – Classroom Ideas

How to use our new GIS video map - GIS Iceland

Thursday, 25th April 2019

Jo Coles

Why You Should Visit West Iceland

A day or two in the West fits in nicely to a 5 day itinerary including the Golden Circle highlights so you don’t have to choose between them.

Tuesday, 13th November 2018

Destination Specialist