Volcanic activity in Iceland: 6 things to know before getting too close


For the second consecutive year, part of Iceland is facing the impact of a volcanic eruption.

The latest volcanic activity peaked last week north of Mount Stori-Hrutur, which is in southwest Iceland near the town of Grindavik on the Reykjanes peninsula, according to the Icelandic government.

Volcanic activity occurs about 9 miles from Keflavik Airport (KEF), which is a key airport that many travelers use when visiting the country. The area is not far from the site of last spring’s eruption which lasted six months.

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Fortunately, as of last week, the Icelandic Foreign Ministry said the risk to heavily populated areas and critical infrastructure from the volcano was low and international air travel should not be affected.

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Sunday at noon, for example, FlightAware data did not show the airport among those in the world with significant flight disruptions.

At the same time, volcanic activity – in a popular tourist destination, no less – raises significant safety issues for those visiting the region or those drawn to the region specifically because of volcanic activity.

Lava erupts near the Fagradalsfjall volcano outside the city of Grindavik, Iceland on August 6, 2022. (Photo by Sergei Gapon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

A dangerous situation if you get too close

When looking at images of lava and fissures in Iceland, chances are two thoughts come to mind: #1, the images are just amazing to look at. No. 2, it’s clearly dangerous to get too close.

That being said, here are some things you should know if you’re planning on trying to see an active volcano up close (or up close, at least) or if you find yourself caught in a situation like the one in Iceland or the ones we have seen develop in the past in Hawaii and Indonesia.

Related: 9 common mistakes you don’t want to make in Iceland

The situation can change quickly

One of the particularly dangerous aspects of volcanoes is that their behavior can be quite unpredictable.

“Volcanic eruptions can be dangerous and change at any time,” warns the National Park Service on its safety page for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

There “will be indications that a volcano may be erupting,” the US Geological Survey adds, noting that the time between the first indications of “unrest” and an actual eruption can vary widely. It can take days, weeks or even months between the first warning signs and a larger volcanic event.

For this reason, if you are planning a trip to an area near a volcano, it is a good idea to monitor the forecast closely.

In southwestern Iceland currently, the Icelandic Meteorological Office has set up a weather station near the volcanic activity and is taking measurements every hour.

Make Sure You Know Your Way…and Get Out

If you are going to be near a volcano, the USGS recommends familiarizing yourself with escape routes.

This is important in case the situation changes – whether it is a new eruption, an acceleration of it or a change in the wind changing the direction of the flow of ash and toxic fumes.

It’s probably a good idea, actually, to have multiple exit routes in mind.

Related: How Pilots Handle Volcanic Ash Encounters

(Photo by Ernir Eyjolfsson/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Stay on marked trails and watch where you step

This is generally a pretty good rule of thumb for any type of hike, but certainly the stakes are a bit higher when visiting the site of a volcano.

The NPS recommends visitors to volcanic sites stay away from cliffs, fissures, and steam vents, which, in addition to volcanism-related issues, can be unstable and slippery and have the potential to collapse.

The NPS also suggests carrying extra water while hiking, as areas can get very hot.

Wind direction is critical

When it comes to volcanic activity, much of the danger is the continuing venting, as well as the release of smoke and ash into the air.

The areas immediately around the eruption vent are the most dangerous, according to the USGS. Areas downwind of this vent are also threatened by tephra and ashfall.

The USGS is analyzing wind conditions amid volcanic activity to determine areas most at risk. That being said, we also know that wind speed and direction can change quickly, so this is something that needs to be monitored.

The Icelandic Meteorological Office is currently encouraging travelers to choose walking routes based on current wind forecasts.

It is “safer to watch the eruption with the direction of the wind behind you rather than towards you”, warn its experts.

Being up and down is also a concern

The lava flow is the concern here. Streams and river valleys can be polluted.

Icelandic authorities have warned that you should also think about your pets in these situations – if they have been on a trip with you.

Dogs are closer to the ground than humans, and therefore more exposed to the pollution (gaseous and otherwise) that occurs, points out the Icelandic Meteorological Office.

Regarding fumes, the NPS adds that people with heart or respiratory conditions, infants, young children, and pregnant women may be more sensitive to fumes.

You may be better off on a ridge than in a valley

This is something to think about when the wind is calm or when there is almost no wind at all. In these situations, gases can accumulate in the valleys, according to the Icelandic Meteorological Office.

This can put the valley region at risk.

Experts suggest moving to higher ground like a mountain or ridge (but not right above the eruption either, of course).

Related: Concerns over ‘volcanic tourism’

(Photo by Ernir Eyjolfsson/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

So how close should you get?

It almost goes without saying, but getting too close to an erupting volcano – no matter how spectacular the photos – can be a very dangerous decision.

The Icelandic Meteorological Office warns that gas pollution at the site of the eruption may “at any time exceed danger levels”.

Admittedly, specific recommendations on how far you can safely approach will greatly depend on the factors discussed above – current volcanic activity, wind direction, and other conditions.

New Zealand researchers note that the safe distance from an active volcano is usually five kilometers (3.1 miles) or more, but it’s always a good idea to check the latest developments.

Getting closer can expose the traveler to the risk of falling ash and volcanic gases.

At the end of the line

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to a safe distance to observe volcanic activity, given the rapidly changing nature of each of these situations.

However, if you’re venturing near a situation like Iceland, you’ll definitely want to be aware of the latest weather forecasts – especially regarding wind direction – and have a plan for getting out should the situation arise. exchange. …which he often does.


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