Iceland declares state of emergency as it braces for volcanic eruption

Iceland declared a state of emergency after earthquakes raised fears that a volcanic eruption will damage residential areas in the Nordic country for the first time in 50 years.

Iceland evacuated all 4,000 residents the south-western town of Grindavík after a 15km-long underground magma tunnel was detected close to the Fagradalsfjall volcano, increasing the likelihood of an imminent eruption.

The government convened an emergency cabinet meeting on Sunday as thousands of earthquakes were recorded in the area. The activity has rocked the Reykjanes peninsula — home to Iceland’s international airport and the Blue Lagoon tourist site, which has been closed since Thursday.

The mid-Atlantic island of 390,000 people is well used to volcanic eruptions, with several occurring close to Grindavík in recent years. The eruption of Eldfell destroyed several hundred homes on the southern island of Heimaey in 1973, though there were no fatalities.

The 2010 explosion at Eyjafjallajökull closed much of European airspace for almost a week after plumes of ash clouds spread south. Volcanologists said there is a lower risk of a big ash cloud from this volcano, but that one was possible if eruptions occur at sea.

Grindavík is only 19km from Keflavik airport, Iceland’s main international entry point, but flights are carrying on largely as normal.

Huge cracks have appeared in roads around Grindavík. Authorities said on Sunday that it should be safe for residents to return to collect essentials and evacuate pets and livestock, subject to close monitoring.

“I felt the most scared for my life I have ever been,” said American basketball player Danielle Rodriguez, who lives in Grindavík, about the evacuation on social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

“The ground started shaking so much I had to grab a hold of the car and honest to god for a good 30 seconds I felt as though the ground was going to crack open and take us both [her girlfriend and her],” she added.

Locator map of Iceland pinpointing the Fagradalsfjall volcano nearby town of Grindavik, capital Reykjavik, and Keflavik International Airport

Experts said that an eruption could happen at any time, and that the current seismic activity made such event likely but not guaranteed in the coming days.

“The overall assessment from the status meeting was that the likelihood of a volcanic eruption is high, and that an eruption could be possible on a timescale of just days,” the Icelandic Met Office said on Saturday night.

It added that the magma intrusion was slowly moving towards the surface and was currently estimated to be 800 metres below the ground. The likelihood of an underwater eruption had also increased “so preparations must be made for the possibility of explosive activity”, it added.