A volcano erupts in southwest Iceland, spewing magma in spectacular display of Earth’s power

GRINDAVIK, Iceland — A volcano erupted in southwest Iceland, sending a glow across the evening sky and spewing semi-molten rock into the air in a spectacular display of the power of an earth known for fire and ice.

Monday night’s volcanic eruption occurred four kilometers (2½ miles) from the town of Grindavik, the Icelandic Meteorological Office said. The town, near Iceland’s main airport, was hit by severe seismic activity in November that damaged homes and raised fears of an imminent eruption.

Sitting above a volcanic hot spot in the North Atlantic, Iceland erupts on average every four to five years. The most disruptive in recent times was the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in 2010, which spewed huge ash clouds into the atmosphere and led to widespread airspace closures across Europe.

But the eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest of the capital Reykjavík, was not expected to release large amounts of ash into the air. Iceland’s Foreign Minister Bjarne Benediktsson tweeted that there were no disruptions to flights to and from the country, and international flight corridors remained open.

Icelandic broadcaster RUV showed a live feed of the explosion on its website. Christmas carols played in the background.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Icelandic Meteorological Office announced that the level of the Sundhnuksgígar eruption was “continuing to decrease”. The lava flow is estimated to be a quarter of what it was at the time of the eruption. The lava fountains reached a height of 30 meters (yards).

Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdóttir told RUV that the lava posed no danger to critical infrastructure near the volcano. Although the lava was moving in a promising direction, precautionary measures were taken near the Schwarzenegger power station.

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“We also know that lava flows can change the surrounding landscape, so it can change at short notice,” Jakobsdóttir said.

The evacuation of Grindavik in November meant that few people were near the site of the explosion, and authorities warned others to stay away. The nearby Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, one of Iceland’s biggest tourist attractions, was temporarily closed last month as a series of earthquakes put the island nation on alert for volcanic eruptions.

Still, residents of the evacuated fishing community of 3,400 had mixed emotions as they watched the orange flames touch the dark sky. A month after the evacuation, many are still living in temporary shelters and do not expect to be able to live in their homes again.

Ale Kermarek, a French tour guide who lives in Iceland, said the city involved would end up in lava. “It’s amazing to see, but there’s a bitter feeling at the moment.”

Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson, a scientist who flew over the site on a Coast Guard research plane on Tuesday morning, told RUV that he estimates twice as much lava has already spewed out of the peninsula than erupted in an entire month in the summer.

Gudmundsson said the eruption’s intensity is expected to continue to decrease, but scientists don’t know how long that will last.

“It will be over in a week, or maybe a little longer,” he said.

Matthew Watson, professor of volcanoes and climate at the University of Bristol, said tourists should strictly follow travel advice because risks such as new eruptions could quickly put people in harm’s way.

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“As is typical of this eruptive style, it started with a series of ballistics bursts that, over time, stretched to form a fire curtain — a violent ejection of lava,” he said. “This style eruption is one of the most spectacular ever seen, and although the Blue Lagoon complex is closed again, it will remain a strong attraction for tourists.”

Spectacular natural phenomenon is already difficult for people to resist.

“It’s like something out of a movie!” American tourist Robert Donald Forrester III said.


David Keaton reports from Stockholm.

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