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Iceland Town: Silent Lava River Flows for 800 Years

 

In a recent revelation, scientists uncovered an extraordinary event beneath an Icelandic fishing village, where molten rock, or magma, surged at an unprecedented speed in the past year. This phenomenon coincided with the region's latest volcanic eruption, marking the third fissure on the Reykjanes peninsula since December.

The accelerated magma flow prompted Icelandic authorities to declare an emergency after lava damaged a crucial water pipe, intensifying the challenges faced by the community. Before 2021, the Reykjanes peninsula had not experienced a volcanic eruption for an astonishing 800 years, indicating a significant reawakening of volcanic activity.

Researchers, led by Freysteinn Sigmundsson from the University of Iceland's Nordic Volcanological Centre, delved into the study, examining how magma ascended from a deep underground reservoir through a kilometers-long "vertical sheet" beneath the evacuated village of Grindavik in November. The findings suggest that this volcanic activity shows no signs of abating, as confirmed by the emergence of a new fissure near the village just hours before the study's publication in Science.

Sigmundsson acknowledged the challenges in predicting the duration of this newfound volcanic era, warning of potential uncertainty persisting for several months in the affected region.

The study details a massive underground crack, 15 kilometers long and 4 kilometers high, created by a surge of magma beneath Grindavik over six hours in November. This "dyke," as scientists call it, formed after an accumulation of 6.5 million cubic meters of magma underground. The subsequent eruption in the region unfolded just days later.

Highlighting the unprecedented nature of the activity beneath the Reykjanes peninsula, the study emphasizes that the area had not witnessed a volcanic eruption in 800 years before 2021. Despite the narrowness of the dyke itself, the volcanic potential is considered much broader.

The magma flow in November reached a rate of 7,400 cubic meters per second, a scale not previously measured in Iceland or elsewhere. This magnitude is notably higher than the average flow of the Seine River in Paris and more comparable to larger rivers such as the Danube or Yukon. Moreover, it was 100 times greater than previous magma flows before the recent eruptions on the peninsula from 2021 to 2023.

The accelerating activity, evidenced by increased underground pressure leading to earthquakes and ground uplift, resulted in significant damage to infrastructure in and around Grindavik. The village, along with the Svartsengi power plant and the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, faced repeated evacuations due to eruption threats.

Scientists expressed concern about the hidden crevasses in the town, emphasizing potential dangers surpassing the threat of lava. Ongoing uncertainty and magma's continued potential to surface pose challenges to the long-term viability of the region.

The study employed seismic measurements and satellite data to model the driving forces behind the magma flow. Iceland's location on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a tectonic plate boundary, contributes to the geological dynamics driving magma surges.

As the tectonic plates slowly moved apart over centuries, "tectonic stress" built up, becoming a key factor in magma surging through the underground geological crack, according to Sigmundsson. The researchers hope their analysis will contribute to understanding eruption causes in other parts of the world.

Feb. 12, 2024 4:31 p.m. 1343

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