“A Song of Ice and Fire” is esteemed by many as a convergence of fervor and an espousal of romanticism. Nevertheless, for the approximately 4,000 denizens of the Icelandic town of Grindavik, they may presently encounter a “natural catastrophe” necessitating their exodus from domiciles.
Although this has yet to transpire, since the 10th of November this annum, inhabitants of these petite hamlets have resided in trepidation of the volcano erupting imminently, prompting a gradual abandonment of their abodes. However, a month hence, the volcano remains “muted” here, while residents of the Icelandic town lamented their inability to return home; conversely, the Malapi volcano in Indonesia erupted, claiming the lives of over 20 mountaineers.
When one’s reverence for “natural catastrophes” wanes, reciprocation inevitably ensues.
Iceland’s most severe natural catastrophe in half a century
The initial focal point that drew attention to the volcano was the nearly 4,000 inhabitants of the Icelandic town of Grindavik who found it imperative to vacate their residences to avert a potential volcanic eruption. The town’s populace is not even commensurate with that of a sizable community in Guangzhou; Grindavik, situated proximate to the capital Reykjavik, previously adorned with labels such as “Bird Watching Spot,” “Continental Drift,” and “Fishing Port Town,” now boasts an Icelandic salted fish museum chronicling Iceland’s extensive fishing history. Nonetheless, this winter portends an imminent explosion. Volcanoes command global attention.
Since late October, 24,000 seismic events have transpired in the Reykjanes Peninsula in southwestern Iceland. Concurrently, experts from the Icelandic Meteorological Office discerned the accumulation of magma underground, signifying an impending eruption. As the magma coursed through subterranean channels, a fissure measuring approximately 15 kilometers in length, 4 kilometers in depth, and 1-2 meters in width materialized. One extremity of the vein traversed the town, inciting a resurgence of frequent seismic activity. Surface indicators such as tearing and subsidence portend an impending volcanic eruption. Eruptions may manifest anywhere along the fissure, excluding the mountain’s summit.
On the 11th of November, Grindavik declared a state of emergency, prompting successive evacuations of local residents. This is no jest: volcanoes on the Reykjanes peninsula experienced a sequence of eruptions in the early 13th century. In March 2011, following over a year of seismic activity, the Fagradal volcano erupted. After an interval of 800 years since the last volcanic activity on the Reykjanes Peninsula, subsequent to 2021, volcanic activity appears to have rekindled. In August 2022 and July 2023, the volcanic system witnessed its second and third eruptions, with no denouement in sight.
Redirecting our focus to contemporary Grindavik, in the days following the town’s state of emergency declaration, the volcano refrained from eruption. Nevertheless, crevices proliferated, emitting steam from the earth, rendering the eastern part of the town powerless. The town incurred escalating damage daily, progressively infiltrating every infrastructure component, including the sewer system, water, and electricity. In mid-November, the Icelandic Meteorological Institute detected approximately 800 earthquakes on the Reykjanes Peninsula, underscoring the persistent urgency of a volcanic eruption threat.
Over ten days later, the Reykjanes Peninsula volcano remained dormant, prompting the downgrading of the state of emergency to a high-risk status. Nonetheless, the town sustained irreparable damage.
In late November, experts from the Icelandic Meteorological Office forecasted that in the event of an eruption, the likelihood of a effusive eruption surpasses that of an explosive one. This is predominantly due to the lower viscosity of the magma below, facilitating gas escape. Nonetheless, precise conclusions regarding the timing and location of the volcanic eruption remain elusive due to restricted predictive capabilities. Despite the prevailing “silence” of the volcanoes, numerous scholars concur that Iceland is embarking upon a protracted period of volcanic activity. As a precautionary measure against volcanic eruptions, alongside evacuating town residents, Icelandic authorities constructed earthen barriers, conduits, and channels in the town and nearby geothermal power plants to divert lava in the event of an eruption.
Indications such as tearing and subsidence on the surface suggest an imminent volcanic eruption.
So, what course of action will be undertaken post-eruption? Reports indicate that Icelandic authorities are contemplating injecting water into the volcanic lava during an eruption. This dual-purpose approach aims to cool the lava and channel its flow through water currents, safeguarding the town of Grindavik and critical infrastructure.
Insiders in the industry posit that this constitutes the most severe natural catastrophe Iceland has weathered in five decades. Half a century ago, volcanic fissures on the Icelandic island of Herma sprawled across the town of Vestmannäyal. The volcano erupted for six months, entombing automobiles, thoroughfares, and hundreds of edifices. A majority of the town succumbed, with 5,000 residents affected. Islanders evacuated.
‘Fire Mountain’ claims climber’s life
Volcanic activity no longer confines itself to regional manifestations. On December 3, the Malapi volcano in Indonesia persisted in eruption for 4 minutes and 41 seconds. Volcanic ash ejected to a height of 3,000 meters, surpassing even the volcano’s altitude. Residual volcanic debris scattered in adjacent hamlets. This eruption directly resulted in the demise of nearby mountaineers.
As per an earlier statement from the head of the Badong Search and Rescue Agency, some mountaineers had yet to evacuate when the volcano erupted. On December 4, search and rescue agencies discovered 14 individuals, 11 of whom were deceased. The subsequent day saw an updated tally, with the death toll escalating to 13 and 10 mountaineers still unaccounted for. By December 6, when rescuers located the final missing traveler on Malapi Volcano, the death toll stood at 23.
The prognosis for survivors remains pessimistic. Proximity to the crater led to burns for some, while others suffered fractures. The magnitude of the Malapi volcano’s eruption once again underscores the aptness of its moniker, the “Mountain of Fire.”
In 1979, a catastrophic eruption transpired at Mount Malapi, claiming the lives of 60 individuals. Since 2011, Mount Malapi has remained on heightened alert for abnormal volcanic activity. Following the eruption of Mount Malapi in December of the current year, the alert status was once again elevated. Indonesian authorities imposed a ban on any activities within a 2-kilometer radius of the crater and furnished masks to residents, urging them to remain within the confines of their abodes.
Agence France-Presse, in an interview with a survivor of the Mount Malapi eruption, reported that he hastily descended a sinuous path for thirty or forty meters. The volcanic eruption resounded with such intensity that some individuals leapt and subsequently plummeted. The 22-year-old survivor sought refuge behind craggy formations.
Volcanic eruptions wield the potential for global ramifications.
A volcano in Indonesia has erupted, exacting a toll on numerous lives and saturating the atmosphere with noxious fumes and contaminants. In Iceland, one terminus of the crevasse primed for eruption extends into the sea. Should it erupt beneath the ocean’s surface, copious amounts of volcanic ash clouds will ensue. Beyond disrupting the existence of nearby denizens, imperiling their well-being, they may even be compelled to seek refuge in distant locales.
Following a volcanic eruption, aviation in the proximate regions will encounter substantial disruptions, including diminished flight visibility, potential failure of aircraft jet engines, and impairment to the flight control system—all of which pose existential threats to the aviation industry.
From a global vantage point, the thermal output of volcanic eruptions is inconsequential, yet the perils posed by emitted sulfur-containing gases are not to be underestimated. Upon oxidation, these sulfur-containing gases metamorphose into sulfate aerosols, disseminating across the globe under the influence of atmospheric circulation.
These aerosols have enduring effects, obstructing solar radiation and the Earth’s reflection of sunlight. Data reveals that in the years subsequent to a volcanic eruption, global temperatures witness a decrement of several tenths of a degree Celsius; correspondingly, this temperature decline precipitates alterations in evaporation patterns and rainfall.
The phenomena of intense volcanic activity are rooted in the subduction of tectonic plates.
Northern Iceland, situated proximate to the Arctic Circle and positioned above the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, grapples with Earth’s crust fractured into diverse plates. The Eurasian and North American plates traverse centimeters annually, creating optimal conditions for molten rock ascent. When a volcano erupts in this vicinity, magma ascends directly from the upper mantle. The rapid release and replenishment of magma leave minimal time for gas enrichment. In essence, overflow volcanic activity predominates—explaining the rationale behind allowing residents of the evacuated town in Iceland to return home momentarily for possession retrieval.
The Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruption in 2010 remains etched in memory, distinguished by the presence of an “ice cap” atop the summit. The interplay of magma, ice, and melted water intensified the explosiveness of the volcanic eruption. The resultant colossal volcanic ash cloud led to the largest airspace blockade in European history since World War II, incurring estimated losses exceeding 1.5 billion euros.
The most substantial eruption in Icelandic history occurred 240 years ago with the eruption of Mount Naki, and its lava flow endured for a duration of 8 months.
In general terms, the nature and circumstances of volcanic eruptions are influenced by various factors, including rock type and plate movements. Encircling the Pacific Ocean is a horseshoe-shaped band known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, stretching from New Zealand northward to the eastern edge of Asia, eastward through the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, and then southward to the western coasts of North and South America—an expanse of approximately 40,000 kilometers. Indonesia resides within this region, and Mount Malapi, towering nearly 3,000 meters above sea level, stands as one of Indonesia’s most active volcanoes.
The convergence of the Pacific Plate, Eurasian Plate, Australian Plate, and American Plate within the Pacific Ring of Fire results in subduction and collision, fostering frequent volcanic and seismic activities. Three-quarters of the world’s volcanic eruptions converge in this region, accompanied by 90% of global earthquakes. The potent energy generated by the profound subduction of plates propels magma at high velocities, rendering volcanic eruptions in this domain considerably more violent.
Irrespective of the eruption scenario, in comparison to the preemptive evacuation of the denizens of the Icelandic hamlet, the tragedy wrought by Mount Malapi in Indonesia is heart-wrenching, yet it is not beyond mitigation. As technologies for monitoring geological activities and predicting volcanic eruptions advance, there is no imperative need for excessive trepidation in the face of nature’s might, though a sense of awe should persist.