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Sparks

This Icelandic Volcano May Surprise You

Seismic activity has picked up and there's a river of magma flowing underground near Reykjavik.

The Fagradalsfjall Volcano.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

If you were to walk down the street in the Icelandic town of Grindavik right now — which, to be clear, you shouldn’t — you would find a scene out of the apocalypse. Cracks in the road emitting ominous steam. A low rumbling beneath your feet. Deserted homes and buildings all around and nary a human in sight.

What you would be experiencing, as any Icelander could tell you, is the prelude to a volcanic eruption.

Iceland sits across two tectonic plates — the place where they meet is a tourist attraction — and many of the country’s 32 active volcano systems are simply waiting for the right moment to erupt. Since late October, researchers have been tracking increased seismic activity accompanied by a miles-long ribbon of magma flowing under the Reykjanes Peninsula just southwest of Reykjavik, the country’s capital.

The earthquakes ticked up in both frequency and intensity last Friday, prompting officials to evacuate the 4,000 residents of Grindavik, a fishing town sitting right above that magma river. The Blue Lagoon, a famous spa that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, closed as a precaution. Officials are working to fortify a power plant that supplies power and hot water to 30,000 people. People around the country are now anxiously waiting for what experts told CBS could be a “Hawaiian-style, lava-producing volcanic eruption.”

Volcanoes can be incredible forces of disruption and have sudden, surprising climate impacts. When Eyjafjallajokull, one of the largest volcanoes in Iceland, erupted in 2010, it created an ash cloud that shut down air travel across Europe — which, incidentally, led to an estimated 2.8 million metric tons of avoided carbon dioxide emissions. A recent study showed that the eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai in the South Pacific last January sent so much aerosolized water into the stratosphere it depleted the ozone layer. Something similar happened when Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991 and initiated a period of global cooling due to the vast amounts of sulfur dioxide it released, blocking energy from the sun.

Whatever is about to happen in Iceland, experts say, is unlikely to be nearly as intense as these previous eruptions; there’s still a chance there might not be an eruption at all, leaving Icelanders in a state of suspended dread.

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Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan. Read More

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