Iceland's sinking town: Subsidence is going to get WORSE, experts warn

Iceland’s sinking town: Subsidence that has seen buildings split in half and roads collapse is going to get WORSE and lava could flow from fissures for weeks, local experts warn

  • The Reykjanes Peninsula has been hit by 400 earthquakes so far since midnight

An Icelandic town is continuing to sink with gaping chasms tearing apart buildings and roads, as magma gathers just a few hundred metres beneath the surface amid the prospect of a volcanic eruption.

Magma rapidly made its way under Grindavik like an ‘underground freight train’, said Matthew James Roberts, a director at the Icelandic Met Office, who warned that ‘nature always wins if the eruption lasts long enough’. 

Even if there is no explosive blast at the nearby Fagradalsfjall volcano, he told the BBC a low-intensity eruption could see lava flow from a series of fissures ‘for weeks’, possibly hitting Grindavik. 

Scientists have said that depending on where an eruption happens, it could ‘certainly’ flow into the fishing community, which was turned into a ‘ghost town’ after it was emptied of its 4,000 residents on Saturday.

As the area braces for a possible eruption, work is underway to urgently construct a huge wall which it is hoped could stop lava flows from hitting the town or a nearby geothermal power plant.

A police officer stands by the crack in a road in the fishing town of Grindavik, which was evacuated due to volcanic activity

The continued movement of earth has seen hot water from underground pipes burst out

An aerial view shows how a huge chasm has ripped apart the town of Grindavik

Gaping chasms have split open roads in the town, which has been emptied of residents 

Experts have warned the subsidence in Grindavik, which has seen huge sinkholes open up, will worsen

In case the worst happens, a large defensive wall, thought to be the biggest in Iceland, is being constructed to protect the Svartsengi geothermal power plant from lava flows.

The Reykjanes Peninsula, southwest of Reykjavik, has continued to be rocked by tremors, with 400 recorded so far since midnight and a 2,000-year-old fissure continuing to widen. 

The whole of the east of Grindavik is reportedly without electricity this morning, with subsidence potentially rupturing power lines overnight.

The continued movement of earth has also seen hot water from underground pipes burst out, with steam emanating from gaping cracks in roads and beneath homes.

Magma is thought to be as shallow as 500 metres beneath the surface, though some have expressed hopes that it could cool down and solidify rather than break through.

The activity indicates that there is ‘still something going’ on in the magma corridor, according to experts. 

‘It’s just been very similar to the past few days,’ said Sigridur Kristjansdottir of the Norwegian Meteorological Agency this morning. 

‘About eighty to a hundred earthquakes per hour, most below magnitude two, but a few above magnitude two.

‘We also see an expansion in our GPS measurements, so there is still something going on.’

Huge cracks across the main road in Grindavik, southwestern Iceland, have opened up

Steam rises from a fissure in a road near the town of Grindavik, Iceland

Two police officers look down a whole created in the middle of the road in fishing town of Grindavik

Thousands of quakes over recent days have wrecked houses and businesses, leaving many of the residents of Grindavik homeless or in limbo.

Resident Katrín Sigurdardóttir told local media that the uncertainty is the toughest part for her and her neighbours.

‘The waiting is the worst because we don’t know anything. It would be better if we knew the house was under lava because then we could just start from scratch,’ she said. ‘This uncertainty is so terribly difficult.’

A ‘seismic swarm’ hit Iceland on October 25, with a huge leap in the number of earthquakes recorded

Those who have been allowed to return to their properties with emergency services to collect belongings were ordered to evacuate on Tuesday after the Icelandic Met Office said its meters had detected increased levels of sulphur dioxide – a possible indicator of an eruption. 

Videos have shown apocalyptic scenes in the deserted town, with homes torn apart and gaping chasms opening up in roads.

Mother-of-four Magga Huld AfaÖmmudóttir, who was only given seven minutes to gather things from her house on Monday, said her family was left homeless after terrifying earthquakes completely wrecked their property.

‘Friday was terrible, the earthquakes did not stop for many hours, but we left our house Friday night at 9pm with clothes for two days and two boxes of photo albums, then just planned to come the next day to pick up more,’ Magga told MailOnline.

Mother-of-four Magga Huld AfaÖmmudóttir said her family was left homeless after terrifying earthquakes completely wrecked their house

Mother-of-four Magga Huld AfaÖmmudóttir said her family was left homeless after terrifying earthquakes completely wrecked their property

‘I feel ok, but get scared and jump at the slightest sound, and then we are homeless in one minute – I’ve got all kinds of emotions going on,’ said the 50-year-old.

‘We got to go inside the house on Monday. We had seven minutes to pick up what we wanted to save, but the emphasis was on personal things from my family – my mother, grandmother and grandfather – and clothes.’

Sharing the video from inside her home, Magga described her devastation at losing the house she and her husband worked years to buy.

Footage shows how her home was ripped from its foundations by the force of relentless quakes, forcing the family to flee on Friday taking just a few belongings.

The southwestern Reykjanes Peninsula has been shaken by thousands of quakes since a seismic swarm hit on October 25. 

Lava flows on active volcano Mount Fagradalsfjall, Iceland (file image from 2021)

Located between the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates, among the largest on the planet, Iceland is a seismic and volcanic hot spot as the two plates move in opposite directions.

In March 2021, lava fountains erupted spectacularly from a fissure in the ground measuring between 500-750 metres long in the region’s Fagradalsfjall volcanic system. 

Volcanic activity in the area continued for six months that year, prompting thousands of Icelanders and tourists to visit the scene. 

In August 2022, a three-week eruption happened in the same area, followed by another in July of this year. 

Q&A: How much damage could a volcanic eruption cause in Iceland? 

Where has been affected?

Thousands of earthquakes have been caused by a massive build-up of magma in a nine-mile fissure.

The fissure is around 3.5 kilometres northwest of Grindavik, a town of 4,000 people on the Reykjanes peninsula which has been evacuated.

How likely is an eruption?

The Icelandic Met Office said on Wednesday that the ‘probability of an eruption is still considered high’.

How bad could it be?

Vidir Reynisson, head of Iceland’s Civil Protection and Emergency Management agency, said experts are ‘really concerned about all the houses and the infrastructure in the area’.

John Smellie, a volcanologist at the UK’s Leicester University, said lava flows ‘relatively slowly, and people can generally at least drive away or run away from it.’

He said this means that deaths are unlikely.

The eruption could be more violent if it blows through ice or water.

If it occurs in the southern tip of the fissure, which is underwater, it could cause ash clouds that would affect flights at Iceland’s international airport.

Different to 2010 Eyjafjallajokull eruption?

Any eruption is not expected to have anywhere near as much impact as the one from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in 2010.

That eruption shot huge amounts of ash into the atmosphere, forcing the cancellation of some 100,000 flights and leaving more than 10 million travellers stranded.

It exploded through 200 metres of ice, making it ‘highly violent’, Smellie said.

The interaction with the water created more fine ash particles that would then drift across Europe.

The latest eruption threat is ‘completely different situation’ Smellie said.

Marc Reichow, a geochemist at Leicester, said it is ‘unlikely to happen this time as there is no substantial amount of ice in the area where an eruption is expected to occur’.

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