Iceland Is in a Holding Pattern as It Awaits a Volcanic Eruption

Iceland is fortifying a power plant that supplies electricity and hot water to about 30,000 people and is continuing to allow the residents of the evacuated town most at risk to go in one by one and gather personal belongings as the country waits for a possible volcanic eruption.

The work on the power plant is a preventive measure to protect Iceland’s infrastructure and people are working on it 24 hours a day, said Jon Phor Viglundsson, a spokesman for Iceland’s Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management.

To fortify the entire plant would take about 30 days, Mr. Viglundsson said. It’s unclear how much of the plant has been protected already, but “it is progressing,” he added.

The plant is a “massive infrastructure that we need to protect at all cost,” Mr. Viglundsson said.

Steam rises from a cracked street in Grindavik, Iceland.CreditCredit…By Storyful

A holding pattern

If and when a volcanic eruption may happen is unclear and hard to predict.

Since late October, tens of thousands of earthquakes have been reported in the Reykjanes Peninsula, in the southwestern part of the country. At one point there were as many as 1,400 in a single 24-hour period, and many hundreds more over the last few days. A nine-mile-long underground river of magma is moving under Grindavik, the evacuated town, and out to the ocean.

This week, officials said that the intensity of the seismic activity had decreased a bit, but they have continued to warn of a possible eruption. The seismic activity along the underground magma has continued.

As of Friday, the website of the Icelandic Met Office, the country’s weather service, continued to warn that there was a “significant likelihood of a volcanic eruption in the coming days,” as it has done for multiple days.

“We have to wait,” Mr. Viglundsson said. “There’s nothing else we can do.”

An eruption would be a highly localized event.

While the eruption could be big, it is a highly localized event, officials say. Last Saturday, officials evacuated the more than 3,000 residents of Grindavik, a small fishing town about 30 miles south of Reykjavik. Since then, residents have slowly been allowed back to gather some of their personal possessions with help from emergency workers accompanying them.

“It’s a precarious area to be in,” Mr. Viglundsson said.

No other towns have been evacuated, and the area around Grindavik doesn’t have any farms or smaller villages. But the popular geothermal spa the Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik has closed its doors until the end of the month as a precaution for a possible eruption and because of the disruption caused by the many earthquakes.

Iceland has fewer than 400,000 residents and about 130 volcanoes, most of which are active. The country straddles two tectonic plates, which are themselves divided by an undersea mountain chain that oozes molten hot rock, or magma. Earthquakes occur when the magma pushes through the plates.

Another ash cloud?

The question many people are asking is whether this will have similar effects as in 2010, when the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano caused a major ash cloud that disrupted air travel in Europe.

Scientists are monitoring the situation closely, officials said, but it’s hard to know where the eruption would start if and when it does. One possibility is that the volcano erupts under the ocean floor, which would cause a lot of ash to shoot into the atmosphere. But scientists have said the chances of that happening have diminished.

This time, it seems unlikely that disruptions will be as intense. As of Friday morning, there’s no disruption to air traffic, and flights going in and out of Reykjavik’s airport have gone uninterrupted.

Mr. Viglundsson, the government spokesman, said that while there was a possibility of disruption to air travel, it was “not very likely.”

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