OhFor several weeks, thousands of small earthquakes have rocked Iceland, splitting sidewalks, prompting evacuations and even closing the country’s most popular tourist attraction, as the country prepares for the eruption of a volcano less than 20 miles from the country’s main international airport.
“The risk of an eruption has increased,” the Icelandic Meteorological Office warned on Friday. “May start at any time in the next few days.”
Two thousand earthquakes have been recorded in the last 24 hours. “Most are small earthquakes less than magnitude 1,” the agency wrote in Friday’s update, “but this morning at 6:35 a.m., an earthquake with a magnitude of 3.0 was measured at Hagafell.”
The Fagradalsfjall volcano, on the Reykjanes peninsula in southwest Iceland, is located near Grindavík, a fishing town about 50 km southwest of the capital Reykjavik and just 26 km from the Keflavík Airport, the largest airport in the country and the main hub for international flights.
If an eruption is large enough, it could potentially disrupt air travel for days or weeks, and not just over Iceland. When Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in 2010, persistent northerly winds carried giant plumes of volcanic ash to mainland Europe. More than 100,000 flights canceled over several weeks, affecting 7 million passengers and slashing $4.7 billion from global economy, including $1.7 billion in lost revenue for airlines, analysis finds from Oxford Economics.
On Monday, global weather center Accuweather warned of potential impacts on air travel over the coming weeks. “Volcanic ash, if ingested in sufficient quantities, can cause jet engines to fail, posing a serious threat to aircraft,” said AccuWeather Chief Meteorologist Jonathan Porter. “As a result, during the 2010 eruption, as the ash cloud spread, civil aviation authorities in various countries halted air travel, stranding many travelers from Europe and Besides, for weeks, unable to fly.”
Since the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) says it is now better prepared for a major volcanic ash event and is monitoring the current situation at Fagradalsfjall. “In the event of an eruption and development of an ash cloud, the agency will work with other aviation stakeholders to assess the impact on aviation and make recommendations accordingly,” according to a published statement. on the EASA website.
On Friday, Iceland Air said ongoing seismic activity in Iceland’s southwest region “has not affected” flights to or from Iceland. “We are in close contact with the Icelandic authorities and are monitoring the situation closely,” according to the carrier’s travel alert.
The Icelandic Tourism Authority also calls for calm, noting that “Iceland is no stranger to volcanic activity and experiences a volcanic event every five years on average. Three eruptions have occurred on the Reykjanes Peninsula in the past three years, none of which caused harm to people or disrupted air traffic.
“It is impossible to predict whether a volcanic eruption will erupt, or exactly when and where in the vicinity of Grindavík a possible eruption might erupt,” according to an article published Friday on the Visit Iceland website. “It is important to note that there are currently 46 actively erupting volcanoes around the world, without any major disruption to international air traffic.”
Accuweather’s Porter does not believe the Fagradajsfall eruption will create the level of severe air travel disruptions seen in 2010, due to differences between the volcanoes. “The Eyjafjallajökull volcano is located at a high altitude (over 5,500 feet) and is essentially covered by an ice glacier,” he said. “When this volcano erupted in 2010, the ash cloud became more explosive because the molten lava interacted with the melting ice sheet.”
Still, Porter says the risk of flight disruptions is very real. “The volcano near Grindavík is not encapsulated in an ice cap, but if it erupts it can still introduce plumes of volcanic ash into the atmosphere, which can be moved by winds from altitude,” he said.