Reportage

Iceland braces for ‘imminent’ volcanic eruption with just 30 minutes warning

Evacuated residents are being allowed to return under supervision to collect personal items as the nation is glued to news channels, reports Barney Davis from Rejkavik

Wednesday 22 November 2023 22:55 GMT
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<p>A police officer stands by the crack in a road in the fishing town of Grindavik</p>

A police officer stands by the crack in a road in the fishing town of Grindavik

Iceland watches on helplessly as rescue workers escorting locals back to the evacuated fishing town of Grindavik say it is “now a waiting game” before an eruption.

Gripped viewers are glued to main TV News channel RUV.is as it plays a live stream of the glowing crater with modern Icelandic electronic music underneath as the countdown continued on Tuesday.

It comes as 1,200 households scramble to grab as many “heartfelt” objects as they can under observation from rescue teams from the town above the volatile Reykjanes Peninsula.

The police checkpoint lies 25km (15.5 miles) away from the town but only 12km (7.5 miles) from cracks starting to form across the roads and stretching far into the mountains.

On Tuesday, families waved as they were allowed out with cars full of toys, photographs and one vehicle towing a jetski amid intense hail storms and heavy winds hampering accurate seismic readings.

A disappearing road in the fishing town of Grindavik

Jon Baglundsson, spokesperson for the ICE-SAR, a volunteer rescue team escorting hundreds to retrieve valuables, said it’s “now a waiting game”.

He told The Independent: “Since the village was evacuated over a week ago we have been working to let residents retrieve their most heartfelt valuables in small numbers every day.

“This project has been going quite well and running smoothly.

“This takes time, there are 1,200 homes. People are mostly coming back for pictures of children, grandchildren on hard drives or whatever people store on their memories nowadays.”

A police checkpoint some 24km from Grindavik

In recent days, 1,500 to 1,800 earthquakes have been recorded daily in the region, according to the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO).

Mr Baglundsson added: “The seismic activity has dwindled slightly but land is still rising to the northwest of the town.

“An eruption is still expected and imminent but we just don’t know when or where. There is no time limit but they are asked to go as quickly as they can.

Iceland volcano: Police shut down roads as island prepares for eruption

“We always have concerns for their safety and that is why people are allowed in few numbers and escorted by people from search and rescue teams who have a radio on them at all times

“They are prepared with an escape route if something happens and will receive alerts from scientists at the Met Office if there are any indications an eruption is more imminent than it already is.

“When magma breaks to the surface you see a kind of murmur on seismological meters and a lot of small tremors. Which indicates that magma is reaching the last 100m to the surface.

“There hasn’t been any panicking but they do realise what can happen ... they show understanding and have concern for their own safety.

“Imagine being evacuated from your home and you have no idea when or if you will have a home to return to. The uncertainty is probably the worst.”

Britons were still boarding flights to Rejkavic with a nearly full plane on Monday morning unperturbed by reports of the possible eruption.

One couple Joseph and Rachel Hamilton, both 28, said they trusted in the Icelandic authority’s advice and had already paid for their “trip of a lifetime”.

Flights with airlines including Icelandair, Easyjet, Wizz Air and Transavia France have been cancelled due to the weather on Tuesday.

“If we get stuck here, we get stuck”, Joseph said.

Diggers were spotted frantically building a wall to protect the Svartsengi power plant from being damaged by any potential lava flow.

The Svartsengi geothermal power plant near the evacuated town of Grindavik

It came as authorities say rescue workers could get as little as “30 minutes notice” before the anticipated volcanic eruption.

“The challenge that we have is that we will not see any strong evidence that the magma is coming up, we will see some small earthquakes and we can see how they will probably form in one place rather than another,” Vídir Reynisson, the head of the civil protection and emergency management agency, told Fox News.

“We will maybe get a 30-minute notice before the eruption starts. That is what we are working with.

“All the big signs are already there, so we are looking for the small signs, the signs that say that even though we are monitoring very closely, it could be 30 minutes or less from now on until the eruption starts, but that could go on for days or weeks,” he added.

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