Icelanders are no strangers to volcanoes. But we know this time is different

A crack in a road in the fishing town of Grindavík, which was evacuated due to volcanic activity, in Iceland on Wednesday. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)
A crack in a road in the fishing town of Grindavík, which was evacuated due to volcanic activity, in Iceland on Wednesday. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

It is a surreal state, padding to the kitchen to blend a smoothie, while less than 25 miles away the ground is poised to split open and swallow a village.

The wild prospect — too huge to grasp, really — is that we residents of Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital, now live next to a reawakened volcanic system that might erupt any day, and every few months for the next few years, or even decades. It had lain dormant for 800 years until it rumbled back to life 2½ years ago.

More than 3,000 people have fled their homes as earthquakes portend an eruption. Magma is throbbing in the veins of the volcanic system underground, and the earthquakes keep coming, hundreds or thousands each day, of varying magnitudes. In Reykjavík, the ones that are above magnitude 3 shake my house; occasionally, objects tumble from shelves.

We Icelanders are no strangers to volcanoes. But ours is a sparsely populated country, so they used to feel far away.

That changed when eruptions returned to the Reykjanes Peninsula. This arm juts out on the bottom left of a map of Iceland. At the western end is the Keflavík International Airport, where well over 90 percent of travelers come and go. At the eastern end — about a 45-minute drive away — sits the capital region, where two-thirds of Icelanders live.

We’d long known that an eruption might come closer to home, yet it always felt the stuff of some far-off future — say, 1,000 years away. It was something we envisioned as catastrophic, like the eruption in Laki in 1783 that killed about a quarter of Icelanders and more than half of the livestock.

As it turned out, we did not have to wait millennia. The first eruption on the peninsula happened in March 2021, still in a spot far enough from towns and infrastructure to be just a “tourist eruption”. That’s what we call the ones that are not dangerous. These can be enjoyed at a safe distance, provided all precautions are taken: Keep away from toxic gas and do not walk on the new lava, no matter how solid it looks.

That March, due to the pandemic, there were few tourists, but I was one of the many Icelanders who flocked to the site with packed lunches and dinners to picnic on a nearby hill, as though around a gigantic bonfire.

It was not cataclysmic, but awesome and spectacular. The black crater tossed red-hot magma into the air. Incredible rivers and waterfalls of molten rock coursed along the plateaus they had created. Down at the lava’s edge, amazing formations took shape, hissing and cracking as though alive.

I had expected the eruption up close to seem threatening. Rather, it was graceful and natural, giving birth to a new landscape as we looked on in wonder. That eruption ended six months later. Since then, there have been two more, both similarly harmless and remote.

The one we expect now is different. Scientists predict a “major event”, much larger than the previous three eruptions in the area.

The signs of imminent eruption are constant. It is not pleasant to experience so many earthquakes. Each evokes a deep primal fear. My dog is terrified. Even though Iceland has very strict building codes, the nagging question never quite leaves: What if, this time, it is so big that the building collapses?

We go about our lives — heading to the gym, shopping for groceries, bumping into friends — and no one is talking about the volcano much, yet I am convinced we are all thinking about it and refreshing the news many times a day to see if it has begun.

Yet our experience in the capital is nothing compared with the ordeal of the residents of Grindavík, a fishing village on Iceland’s south coast. On Nov. 10, seismic activity suddenly shifted to directly beneath the community. Researchers warned that magma is collecting in a tunnel or chamber, and it could blow at any time. Large cracks formed in the main road and authorities ordered all the inhabitants to evacuate.

And so we wait. It is, at times, excruciating. It is possible, though unlikely, that there will be no eruption, if the magma pooling under the ground congeals. In my tiny nation of about 375,000 people, the mood is of both wanting the eruption to happen, and not.

If the volcano blows, it will end the uncertainty; if it does not, we will still have the looming threat that it might go off.

If nothing else, the past few days have brought home a stark reality: The sleeping giant is very much awake. A network of volcanic fissures extends right into the suburbs of Reykjavík. What this bodes, no one knows. One thing is certain: The forces shaking my kitchen, shaking the foundations of so many small and brittle lives, are far beyond our control.

Alda Sigmundsdóttir is a publisher, author and journalist living in Reykjavík.

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