December 19, 2023 - Iceland volcano erupts

By Aditi Sangal, Elise Hammond, Tori B. Powell and Maureen Chowdhury, CNN

Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT) December 20, 2023
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5:50 p.m. ET, December 19, 2023

Icelandic weather agency warns there could be a short warning window if new vents open along fissure

From CNN's Elise Hammond

While scientists say the volcano erupting on Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula is starting to diminish, that does not mean the risk is over.

There are currently three vents of lava pushing through a crack that is about 2 miles long, according to the Icelandic Meteorological Office. It warned Tuesday that more vents could still open up “along the original fissure as well as further north or south.”

The volcano erupted about 1.8 miles away from the town of Grindavík — an area where residents were evacuated from their homes earlier this year in anticipation of the eruption. Iceland’s Civil Protection Agency previously said the magma tunnel that is forming could reach Grindavik, but it didn’t know where the magma might break through.

The IMO said there were about 90 minutes between the “first indicators and the start of the eruption” on Monday and said that any window of warning for new vents opening could be short.

Jess Phoenix, a volcanologist and geologist, echoed that sentiment of unpredictability. She told CNN that it is hard to tell what will come next. 

“The only constant is change and that is because volcanoes are not predictable,” Phoenix said.

If the eruption continues to keep spreading south, it could put Grindavik in danger, she said. The biggest risk, however, is to property since most people have been evacuated.

“Right now most of the erupted activity is on the north end of what we saw from those images earlier – and that’s actually a good thing. That’s less populated,” Phoenix said.

“If we get more magma injected into the system, then we've got more places that it needs to go. So we hope that things stay on the calm side and hopefully peter out without actually spreading," she added.
5:26 p.m. ET, December 19, 2023

"Gushing fountains of lava": CNN reporter describes what it's like less than a mile from the eruption

From CNN's David Shortell

Molten lava is seen exiting a fissure on the Reykjanes peninsula on Tuesday.
Molten lava is seen exiting a fissure on the Reykjanes peninsula on Tuesday. Kristinn Magnusson/AFP/Getty Images

Authorities in southwest Iceland have set up a checkpoint about five miles away from the eruption zone — the closest point to the lava flow where members of the public have been gathering to watch.

A CNN crew was given access inside the perimeter and brought less than a mile away from the active fissures.

“You do see when you get a little bit closer massive, gushing fountains of lava,” CNN Senior International Correspondent Fred Pleitgen said.

The event is considered a fissure eruption, meaning lava is bursting from a long crack in the earth’s core that can extend for miles. The good news, Pleitgen said, is that this type of eruption doesn’t send ash into the atmosphere, which could prove disruptive to air travel. Fissure eruptions, however, can last for a long time and can also release dangerous gases, experts say.

“We are seeing a lot of lava being spewed into the air but also lava flow happening laterally from the actual fissure, from the actual crack, where the magma from the earth’s core burst through and is now coming to the surface,” Pleitgen said.

The lava is “very thin” and “liquidy" and is emerging from a small number of places along the fissure, Pleitgen said. The area is hilly with black, volcanic earth covered in snow. Even with fires, it’s cold outside, Pleitgen said, with temperatures reaching as low as 28 degrees Fahrenheit.

Still, he said the weather changes “extremely quickly" with strong winds giving way without warning to alternating periods of rain, snow, and sun.

“The elements are very strong because we’re right in the center of the Atlantic Ocean,” Pleitgen said.

Authorities are very active inside the cordoned-off zone. The nearby town of Grindavík has been evacuated for weeks as the volcano showed signs of eruption. A fissure that emerged running through that town has no lava coming from it yet.

Still, life in the urban area is proceeding mostly normally, Pleitgen said. Keflavík Airport, the country’s largest, is a half-hour drive from the volcano. The eruption is visible to plane traffic, but operations remain normal. Most roads in and out of the area are also functioning as usual.

“People seem pretty chilled about it. They’re quite used to volcanic eruptions,” Pleitgen said.

2:28 p.m. ET, December 19, 2023

In photos: Icelandic volcano spews lava and sends plumes of smoke into the sky

CNN Digital's Photo Team

A volcano has dramatically erupted in Iceland, expelling spectacular bursts of lava onto the landscape and emitting huge plumes of smoke after weeks of seismic activity prompted the evacuation of a nearby town.

Officials said the eruption was not posing a threat to life but warned the area was closed to all traffic and strongly urged people to stay away.

Take a look at what the scene looks like:

An active segment of the volcano near Grindavik, Iceland, is seen from above on Tuesday.
An active segment of the volcano near Grindavik, Iceland, is seen from above on Tuesday. Marco Di Marco/AP

Scientists with the University of Iceland take measurements and samples from the ridge of an active part of the fissure on Tuesday.
Scientists with the University of Iceland take measurements and samples from the ridge of an active part of the fissure on Tuesday. Marco Di Marco/AP

The evacuated Icelandic town of Grindavik is seen as smoke billows and lava is thrown into the air from a fissure on Tuesday.
The evacuated Icelandic town of Grindavik is seen as smoke billows and lava is thrown into the air from a fissure on Tuesday. Viken Kantarci/AFP via Getty Images

A volcano spews lava and smoke as it erupts north of Grindavik, Iceland, on Tuesday.
A volcano spews lava and smoke as it erupts north of Grindavik, Iceland, on Tuesday. Icelandic Coast Guard via Reuters

Lava bursts from a fissure on Tuesday.
Lava bursts from a fissure on Tuesday. Marco Di Marco/AP

A helicopter with the Icelandic Coast Guard flies by magma running on a hill near Grindavik late Monday.
A helicopter with the Icelandic Coast Guard flies by magma running on a hill near Grindavik late Monday. Icelandic Coast Guard via AP

Lava flows from the southern active segment of the fissure of an active volcano near Grindavik, Iceland, on Tuesday.
Lava flows from the southern active segment of the fissure of an active volcano near Grindavik, Iceland, on Tuesday. Marco Di Marco/AP

Houses in the village of Hafnarfjordur are seen as smoke billows from the volcanic eruption on Monday.
Houses in the village of Hafnarfjordur are seen as smoke billows from the volcanic eruption on Monday. Oskar Grimur Kristjansson/AFP via Getty Images

2:27 p.m. ET, December 19, 2023

Catch up: Here's what we know so far about the volcano erupting in Iceland

From CNN staff

Lava bubbles up from a fissure of the active volcano near Grindavik, Iceland, on Tuesday.
Lava bubbles up from a fissure of the active volcano near Grindavik, Iceland, on Tuesday. Marco Di Marco/AP

Scientists are working to assess the situation in Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula where a volcanic eruption took place Monday night — a process that could take several days.

While the eruption does not pose a threat to life, according to the country's government, gas pollution could reach the area of the capital, Reykjavík, in the next day, reports from the weather service say. Police are asking people to stay away from the area of the eruption, warning that the gas "can be dangerous.”

The size of the eruption continued to decrease on Tuesday, but the country's meteorological office recorded more than 300 earthquakes over the magma channels since the eruption started.

Here's what we know so far:

  • When the eruption happened: The volcanic eruption started on the Reykjanes peninsula at around 10 p.m. local time Monday, following an earthquake at around 9 p.m., the Icelandic Meteorological Office said.
  • Where is the fissure: The meteorological office reported that the eruption is located close to Hagafell, about 3 kilometers (about 1.8 miles) north of the town of Grindavík.  Earlier this year, residents from Grindavík and nearby settlements were evacuated. This is the fourth eruption since 2021 in the area and the largest so far with a fissure opening of 4 kilometers (2.5 miles).
  • What it looked like: At the start of the eruption, magma fountains reached "about 30 meters at their highest," which is about 98 feet, the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) said. While the height of the magma is lower on Tuesday, there are currently three eruption vents spread along the original fissure, it said.
  • Decreasing seismic activity: The IMO has reported a decrease in seismic activity around the eruption Tuesday. Since the start of the eruption, the service said there were at least 320 earthquakes, with the largest being a 4.1 magnitude quake on Monday. But, since after midnight, only 10 earthquakes have been recorded in the region. The size of the eruption also “continues to diminish," with the lava flow reducing to just “one-quarter” of the levels seen on Monday, the service said.
  • Impacts: The eruption is not expected to impact any populated areas or critical infrastructure in the coming days – but officials are asking people to stay away from the area because of the "considerable" toxic gases being released. Due to the weather forecast, gas pollution may reach the capital area, where Reykjavík is situated, late Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, according to the IMO. The government reported that there are no disruptions to flights to and from Iceland, and international flight corridors remain open.
  • History of volcanic activity: Iceland — which sits on a tectonic plate boundary that continually splits apart, pushing North America and Eurasia away from each other along the line of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge — is home to 32 active volcanoes. The island nation is accustomed to volcanic eruptions, though they often occur in the wilderness, away from populated areas. 
11:45 a.m. ET, December 19, 2023

Lava flow down to "one-quarter" of Monday level — but gas pollution may hit Reykjavik, weather service says

From CNN’s Caitlin Danaher in London

This image made from video and provided by the Icelandic Coast Guard shows magma flowing on a hill near Grindavik, Iceland, late Monday night.
This image made from video and provided by the Icelandic Coast Guard shows magma flowing on a hill near Grindavik, Iceland, late Monday night. Icelandic Coast Guard via AP

The size of the volcanic eruption on Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula “continues to diminish,” with the lava flow reducing to just “one-quarter” of the levels seen on Monday, the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) said in an update Tuesday. 

Gas pollution might be noticeable on Tuesday in Vestmannaeyjar, an archipelago off Iceland’s southern coast, but other populated areas will be unaffected, the IMO added.

Due to the weather forecast, however, gas pollution may reach the capital area, where Reykjavík is situated, late Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, according to the IMO. 

Magma fountains are lower than at the start of the eruption, “reaching about 30 meters at their highest,” which is about 98 feet, the IMO said. There are currently five eruption vents spread along the original volcanic fissure, but the length of the fissure remains unchanged, the met office added.  

Meanwhile, Landsnet, a power distribution agency in Iceland, has increased its alert to “emergency level,” a Landsnet spokesperson told CNN in an email.

Landsnet is “looking at possible lava flow scenarios and estimating whether further preparations to protect transmission infrastructure are necessary,” the spokesperson said.

The company is looking to build defenses around three power masts located outside the protective wall around the Svartsengi power plant, but the spokesperson told CNN that they do not foresee any power outages.

The main power line supplying the Reykjanes peninsula, called “Suðurnesjalína 1,” has not been affected by the volcanic eruption and is not in any danger, the spokesperson added.

10:21 a.m. ET, December 19, 2023

Iceland is accustomed to volcanic eruptions

From CNN's Mitchell McCluskey, Taylor Ward and Jessie Yeung

People watch lava flow during an eruption of Iceland's Fagradalsfjall volcano on March 21, 2021.
People watch lava flow during an eruption of Iceland's Fagradalsfjall volcano on March 21, 2021. Jeremie Richard/AFP/Getty Images

A volcano has erupted on Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula, the Icelandic Meteorological Office said Monday.

Iceland — which sits on a tectonic plate boundary that continually splits apart, pushing North America and Eurasia away from each other along the line of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge — is home to 32 active volcanoes.

As such, the island nation is accustomed to volcanic eruptions, though they often occur in the wilderness, away from populated areas. The Bárðarbunga volcanic system situated in the center of the country erupted in 2014, producing lava that covered 84 square kilometers (32 square miles) of highland that didn’t damage any communities.

The Fagradalsfjall volcanic system erupted in 2021 for the first time in more than 6,000 years. It also didn’t threaten populated areas and even became a tourist attraction as people flocked to witness the eruption.

Experts don’t expect a volcanic eruption to cause the same level of chaos as that seen in 2010 when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, since it is unlikely to involve the glacial ice that led to a huge ash cloud.

About 100,000 flights were canceled, affecting 2 million people, as a result of the ash spewed out by the 2010 eruption, which threatened to stall aircraft engines and cause electrical failure.

“Eyjafjallajökull involved an eruption through or next to glacial ice that melted and provided water that made the eruption more explosive than it would otherwise have been, hence the high eruption plume and very wide ash dispersal,” Lionel Wilson, emeritus professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Lancaster University, told CNN last month.

9:34 a.m. ET, December 19, 2023

Scientists need several days to assess situation in Iceland, police say

From CNN’s Caitlin Danaher in London

Suðurnes police, which covers Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula where a volcanic eruption took place Monday night, said scientists need “several days to assess the situation there,” in a statement released Tuesday.

“We will reassess the situation every hour,” police said. 

All roads to Grindavík will be closed for everyone, except emergency responders and teams working with the authorities in the “danger zone” near the area, according to the statement. 

Police are asking people not to approach the area of the eruption, and to be “aware that gas emitted from it can be dangerous.”

Icelandair released a statement at 10 a.m. local time (5 a.m. ET) on Tuesday, reiterating that the volcano eruption has not impacted their flight schedule.

“At this time, the eruption does not affect our operations or Keflavík airport. Our flight schedule remains unchanged,” the statement said.

Icelandair added it is monitoring the situation closely and will inform passengers of any new developments.

“Eruptions and earthquakes are a part of our DNA, and we Icelanders are always well prepared for volcanic events. The country’s incredible nature has given us excellent training and expertise to deal with unique situations,” the statement said.

The Icelandic Tourist Board said that notably, previous eruptions in the area did not impact air travel to and from the country, in a statement on their website.

9:27 a.m. ET, December 19, 2023

Volcanic eruption on Iceland's Reykjanes peninsula releasing "considerable" toxic gases

From CNN's Mihir Melwani and Sophie Jeong in Hong Kong

A view from a helicopter shows the volcano eruption on Iceland's Reykjanes peninsula, on December 19.
A view from a helicopter shows the volcano eruption on Iceland's Reykjanes peninsula, on December 19. Icelandic Coast Guard

The volcanic eruption on Iceland's Reykjanes peninsula is releasing "considerable" toxic gases, the Icelandic Tourist Board said in an email to CNN on Tuesday.

"Please be advised that this eruption is releasing considerable toxic gases and people are strongly advised against visiting the site of the eruption while responders and scientists assess the situation," according to the Icelandic Tourist Board.

The eruption is not expected to impact any populated areas or critical infrastructure in the coming days, the Icelandic Tourist Board said, adding no further evacuations are planned at this stage.

The lava flow is not currently expected to reach any part of the town of Grindavik or nearby infrastructure, according to the Icelandic Tourist Board.

9:08 a.m. ET, December 19, 2023

Volcanic eruption does not pose a threat to life, Icelandic government says

From CNN's Sophie Jeong in Hong Kong

A police vehicle is parked at the entrance of the road to Grindavík, Iceland, on December 18.
A police vehicle is parked at the entrance of the road to Grindavík, Iceland, on December 18. Marco Di Marco/AP

The volcanic eruption on Iceland's Reykjanes peninsula does not pose a threat to life, the country's government said in a statement Tuesday.

The eruption began at 10:17 p.m. local time northeast of the town of Grindavik on the Reykjanes peninsula, according to the government. This is the fourth eruption since 2021 in the area, and the largest so far with an fissure opening of four kilometers (2.5 miles).

The area is currently closed to all traffic, the government said, while strongly warning people not to approach the area. 

The nearby town of Grindavik was already evacuated on November 10 as a precaution after several days of seismic activity.

The government reported that there are no disruptions to flights to and from Iceland, and international flight corridors remain open.

The government said this eruption follows intense seismic activity over the past few weeks and is classified as a fissure eruption, which does not usually result in large explosions or significant production of ash dispersed into the stratosphere.