Iceland volcano: Grindavik’s people may never return after volcano spills lava into town

Lava flows from a volcano as houses burn in Grindavik, Iceland, January 14, 2024

By Hermann Gunnarsson

Reykjavik, Iceland

The resilient community of Grindavik has for the past weeks and months experienced the relentless forces of nature, once again proving why Iceland is often called the “Land of Fire and Ice.”

Three homes in this town on the Reykjanes peninsula in southwest Iceland were destroyed this month when molten lava spewed through two fissures created by the Svartsengi volcanic system.

Once a thriving fishing village with vibrant sports teams and a youthful population, Grindavik now lies empty. Its people have fled and are beginning to face up to the realisation they may never be able live there again.

So uncertain is their future, one woman said she wished her home had been swallowed up by lava.

Overhead photo of blackened lava after recently erupted volcano burns down three houses in the town on January 15, 2024
Image caption,Lava flowed into Grindavik on 14 January, burning houses in its path

Over the past three years, the peninsula – approximately the size of the West Midlands in the UK – has witnessed five volcanic eruptions.

On 10 November, faced with an alarming number of earthquakes and suspicions of magma beneath the town, Iceland’s authorities ordered the evacuation of Grindavik, home to approximately 3,800 residents.

Over the following days it became clear that several homes had been completely ruined by seismic activity. Residents hoped to return home as the frequency of the earthquakes diminished – but in mid-December, a strong eruption began in the nearby Sundhnuks crater series, lasting three days.

I witnessed the eruption myself then three hours after it had begun I drove home.

Along the road from the capital, Reykjavik, to Keflavik airport which leads to my town, Reykjanesbaer, I caught sight of fissure almost 4km in length, spewing molten lava. It felt as though I was watching the gates of hell opening.

Grindavik was spared for the time being -the eruption took place about 3km (1.85 miles) away – but additional fissures were subsequently discovered in the town, prompting authorities to close them and begin repairing damaged infrastructure.

Tragedy struck on 10 January when a man working in the town fell through one of the crevasses. After a brief search, the operation was halted due to the dangers involved.

Four days later, another eruption began perilously close to Grindavik.

From the Icelandic civil protection’s central command centre in Reykjanesbaer, I witnessed the live feed of the eruption from the Sundhnuks crater series.

Watching the eruption from the civil defence HQ

In the weeks leading up to the January eruption, the government had decided to erect protective walls in an attempt to prevent lava flowing towards Grindavik and the nearby Svartsengi geothermal power plant.

For the first few hours the protective walls proved helpful, though the fissure had to some extent opened through one of the walls.

That meant some lava flowed toward the town, but the walls kept most of it at bay.

Around noon on 14 January, I was watching with other reporters next to the protective walls in Grindavik, when I and others caught sight of smoke appearing from behind the walls, from the town itself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *