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Volcanic eruptions in Iceland for decades to come?

The earth beneath Iceland has been shaking for months, with cracks in the earth opening up again and again. Lava is also flowing into the populated areas of the island. Researchers now fear that the eruptions could be just the beginning.

Volcanoes erupt again and again in Iceland – in recent months there have been several eruptions, some just a few weeks apart. According to recent research, however, these eruptions could be just the beginning of a series that will continue for decades.

The study by international researchers, published in the journal Terra Nova, sees this as a threat to the most densely populated region of the country and the vital infrastructure there. In the past, the eruptions have repeatedly caused damage, sometimes opening up cracks in the earth that are kilometers long. Thousands of residents in the eruption areas have been evacuated.

Outbreaks in densely populated areas of Iceland

In 2021, the series of eruptions began on the Reykjanes Peninsula in southwest Iceland, just 55 kilometers southwest of the capital Reykjavik. Since December of last year alone, there have been five major volcanic eruptions. Lava flowed out of elongated cracks in the earth, and some houses were engulfed by lava.

A large part of the population of the North Atlantic island lives in the affected region. It is also home to the only international airport and several geothermal power plants that supply hot water and electricity to the country. Before that, the peninsula was largely volcanically inactive for almost 800 years, the study says.

Underground magma system suspected

For their study, the researchers evaluated earthquake data from the past three years and took lava samples from several locations. They compared the chemical and physical properties of the liquid rock that flowed out of the earth in different places. This allowed them to determine whether it came from the same magma chamber underground or from sources of different origin.

In fact, according to the investigations, it is magma with similar petrographic properties. This suggests a coherent underground magma system, the researchers write. Together with the seismic data collected, they come to the conclusion that it is a moderately large magma accumulation at a depth of about nine to eleven kilometers, which extends over a width of ten kilometers. It formed between 2002 and 2020.

Researchers fear long series of outbreaks

The researchers ultimately concluded that the current series of eruptions could be the beginning of a long episode. However, it is not possible to predict exactly how long the series will last. “Nature is never regular,” said co-author Ilya Bindeman, a volcanologist and professor of geosciences at the University of Oregon in the USA. “We do not know how long or how often it will last in the next ten or even a hundred years. A pattern will emerge, but nature always has exceptions and irregularities.”

Iceland lies on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the tectonic plate boundary where the North American and Eurasian plates are separating. This means that volcanic eruptions are common in Iceland, but the eruptions of the more centrally located volcanoes usually only last a few days or weeks, such as the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic glacier in 2010.

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