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Why the state of emergency affecting part of Reykjanes doesn’t mean you should cancel your Iceland trip

UPDATE: There are no active volcanoes in the area. This blog will be updated accordingly.

While Keflavik Airport and much of the rest of the Reykjanes peninsula goes about their daily business as usual, for one small area things are currently very different. On March 16th a state of emergency was declared for a relatively small area near to the town of Grindavik due to a volcanic eruption starting between Hagafell and Stóra-Skógfell. The decision was taken by the National Police Commissioner in consultation with the Commissioner of Police in Suðurnes.

This latest event was the fourth fissure eruption to take place since December 2023 and has had a serious but fairly localised impact on Grindavik and its immediate surroundings. It is also the seventh such event in the area since magma started to flow out of Mount Fagradalsfjall in 2021. None of these eruptions have caused disruption to travel in and out of Iceland; Keflavik Airport is sufficiently distant to be out of harm’s way. There’s also been no impact on Reykjavik and Iceland’s other regions.

Why is this different to the eruption that caused so much disruption in 2010?

One question that’s often asked is why geoscientists are able to tell us that this eruption won’t cause disruption to air traffic. After all, when Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010, it sent a huge ash cloud into the atmosphere. The impact on international flight paths was huge. Iceland’s location midway between North America and Europe meant that Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption didn’t just impact air travel to and from Iceland.

But here’s the thing: not all volcanoes are the same and that means not all eruptions are the same. You can get eruptions that are very explosive and volcanoes that puff out clouds of smoke on a daily basis without causing trouble for anyone. The eruptions that have taken place recently near Grindavik have been fissure eruptions.

Eruptions such as this tend to be characterised by relatively slow moving lava flows. This gives the authorities time to plan ahead. For example, they were able to safely evacuate all the residents of Grindavik and construct berms that helped divert the lava away from built structures. Occasionally, the effects can be challenging, such as when the lava flowed across a road near the Blue Lagoon. But as soon as it’s safe to do so, new roads can swiftly be constructed so that access can be restored.

So there’s no danger at all?

Unfortunately, no volcano can ever be considered 100% safe, which is why the authorities have declared a state of emergency. Tourists aren’t being allowed into the exclusion zone. While residents of Grindavik have been able to access their homes and businesses throughout most of this current phase of the eruption, the authorities can work much more effectively if people who don’t need to be there can be kept out of the way.

Close to the eruption site, there’s a risk at present from the gases that are being emitted from the fissure. Although volcanic activity appears to have decreased at Sundhnúksgíga, the concentration of sulphur dioxide has reached a concerning level in the area near to the volcano. Such gases can cause health issues such as lethargy, headaches, irritation to the eyes and throat and other respiratory symptoms. As the wind speed and direction dictates the way these gases will be blown away from the volcano, the Icelandic Met Office is monitoring the situation carefully.

Scientists are also watching the lava flow closely in case it nears the coast. If that happens, there’s a chance that an ash cloud could be created as the hot lava comes into contact with the much cooler sea water. So far, this doesn’t look likely, but it’s always sensible to have considered all scenarios.

What does a state of emergency mean in practice?

In any natural disaster, the safety and wellbeing of people has to take priority over everything else. By issuing such a statement, the police and other relevant authorities are able to keep local residents and visitors away from an area that they believe has the potential to cause injury or a danger to life.

When it comes to civil protection, the agencies involved act with an abundance of caution. In the early stages of an eruption, it’s often unclear as to how things will progress. First responders need time and space to ensure no one is in immediate danger. Their work would be far more difficult if sightseers were to descend on the area.

Scientific data is also gathered in the build up to an eruption and while it is taking place. However, until it has been analysed and interpreted it can be difficult to gauge the level of threat and the extent to which an area will be affected. It’s far better to be too cautious for a while than not cautious enough.

The work of Iceland’s Civil Protection Agency

In Iceland, a number of authorities collaborate to ensure everyone is kept safe in the event of any serious hazard. At governmental level, the Department of Justice has overall responsibility, while civil protection duties fall to the National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police (NCIP). The NCIP’s administration of the incident takes place via its Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management.

There are three alert levels that come into play if there’s a possibility a hazard might negatively affect people or property. These are as follows:

Uncertainty Phase

 Typically this refers to a known event that is already underway. It involves monitoring the situation so that the level of threat to people, their property and the environment can be thoroughly and repeatedly assessed.

Alert Phase

 If this defined threat increases, the response needs to be ramped up to make sure everyone affected stays safe. In practice, this means that the emergency and security services have the option to increase restrictions. For instance, they might instigate a mandatory evacuation, close roads or impose other restrictions such as allowing access only during the day.

Emergency/Distress Phase

 If the authorities believe that what is happening puts people or properties at risk – or has the potential to do so – the level can be raised to a state of emergency. Alerts are sent to mobile phones within the affected area to warn anyone who might be in harm’s way, so that they can move to safety.

There’s no reason to change your holiday plans

 While this eruption seems dramatic, volcanic activity is a way of life for Icelanders. If you look back over the country’s history, some kind of volcanic event takes place about every five years. Everyone – whether in a position of authority or a member of the general public – understands the need to be highly prepared, while its geoscientists are among the most experienced in the world. The situation remains fluid and you’ll need to heed official advice, not only because of the lava flowing from the fissure but also because of other hazards such as gas pollution.


You can keep abreast of the situation in a number of ways:


Read up on the eruption information on the Visit Reykjanes website
Learn more about the progression of this eruption from the Icelandic Met Office
Check the updates posted by the Civil Protection Agency
Follow the eruption advice from Safe Travel and the latest news updates posted in English on RUV’s news website
Use the Icelandic Road Administration’s website to find out about current road closures

As a visitor, you can travel to Iceland confident in the knowledge that your safety is of paramount importance. However, rest assured your trip can take place more or less as you envisaged because the effects of the eruption are only being felt across a small area.