Is a new volcanic era beginning in Iceland?

This week, massive lava fountains illuminated the gloomy morning sky over Iceland, bringing with them another day of unrelenting fire. This time, the evacuated settlement of Grindavik was spared, but the molten lava still caused havoc, swallowing a pipe that supplies thousands of residents with heat and hot water and blocking a road leading to the popular tourist destination, the Blue Lagoon. This is the sixth brief eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula since 2021 and the third since December 2023. However, experts believe that decades or possibly millennia of volcanic activity could follow after this. What then is happening?

 

Being one of the most volcanically active regions in the world, Iceland is no stranger to volcanoes. This is due to the nation’s location above a geological hotspot, which is a place where heated plumes of material rise to the surface from deep within the Earth. However, Iceland is also situated at the meeting point of the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia. These plates are steadily separating from one another, making room for magma, or hot molten rock, to rise to the surface. The pressure builds up underground as the magma accumulates and eventually explodes to reveal the hot rock beneath (referred to as lava at this time).

 

In Iceland, there are over 100 volcanoes, of which over 30 are active at the moment. However, the last known lava flow on the Reykjanes peninsula occurred hundreds of years ago; it may have begun as early as the eighth or ninth century and persisted until 1240. The eruptions have resumed, but why have they stopped for eight hundred years? According to University of Oxford Earth scientist Prof. Tamsin Mather, “over geological time, the tectonic plates are pulling apart at about the speed that your fingernails grow, so a few centimeters a year.”

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