Volcano erupts in Iceland, first at Eyjafjallajokull glacier since 1820s; hundreds evacuated

By Gudjon Helgason, AP
Saturday, March 20, 2010

Volcano erupts in Iceland, hundreds evacuated

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — A volcano erupted near a glacier in southern Iceland, shooting ash and molten lava into the air and forcing the evacuation Sunday of hundreds of people from nearby villages.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, but a state of emergency was declared and scientists feared the eruption could trigger a larger and potentially more dangerous eruption at the Katla volcano.

Saturday’s eruption, which occurred just before midnight (2000 EDT, 8 p.m. EDT), came weeks after a series of small earthquakes. Television footage showed lava flows along the fissure.

“This was a rather small and peaceful eruption but we are concerned that it could trigger an eruption at the nearby Katla volcano, a vicious volcano that could cause both local and global damage,” said Pall Einarsson, a geophysicist at the University of Iceland’s Institute of Earth Science.

Authorities evacuated 450 people between the farming village of Hvolsvollur and the fishing village of Vik, some 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of the capital, Reykjavik, said Vidir Reynisson of the Icelandic Civil Protection Department.

Evacuation centers were set up near the town of Hella. The most immediate threat was to livestock because of the caustic gases.

“We had to leave all our animals behind,” Elin Ragnarsdottir, a 47-year-old farmer, told RUV, Iceland’s national broadcaster from an evacuation center. “We got a call and a text message … and we just went.”

Iceland sits on a large volcanic hot spot in the Atlantic’s mid-oceanic ridge. Volcanic eruptions, common throughout Iceland’s history, are often triggered by seismic activity when the Earth’s plates move and when magma from deep underground pushes its way to the surface.

Scientists in Iceland have been monitoring the recent activity using seismometers and global positioning instruments. Like earthquakes, however, it is difficult to predict the exact timing of eruptions.

“The volcano has been inflating since the beginning of the year, both rising and swelling,” Einarsson told The Associated Press. “Even though we were seeing increased seismic activity, it could have been months or years before we saw an eruption like this … we couldn’t say that there was an imminent risk for the area.”

The population around the Eyjafjallajokull volcano and the glacier that bears the same name is sparse — unlike the area around the Katla volcano, which is also covered by glacial ice and poses a greater danger of floods, according to Einarsson.

“One of the possible scenarios we’re looking at is that this small eruption could bring about something bigger. This said, we can’t speculate on when that could happen,” he said in an interview.

Authorities initially feared the eruption occurred below the 100-square-mile (160 square-kilometer) Eyjafjallajokull glacier and could have triggered floods if the glacial ice melted. But after an aerial survey Sunday they concluded that the eruption struck near the glacier in an area where there was no ice.

“This is the best possible place for an eruption,” said Tumi Gudumundsson, a geologist at the University of Iceland.

There hasn’t been an eruption near the Eyjafjallajokull glacier since 1821.

The Icelandic Civil Aviation Administration ordered aircraft to stay 120 nautical miles away from the volcano area due to low visibility in some areas.

All domestic flights were canceled until further notice, the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service reported, but Reykjavik appeared to be unaffected with clear visibility.

Three Icelandair flights from the U.S. — departing from Seattle, Boston and Orlando, Florida — bound for Keflavik airport in Reykjavik were turned back to Boston, leaving about 500 people waiting, the airline said.

Flights to Stockholm, London, Amsterdam and Frankfurt were scheduled to leave Sunday but a flight to Oslo was canceled and passengers were being rerouted. The airline expected further delays throughout Sunday.

First settled by Vikings in the 9th century, Iceland is known as the land of fire and ice because of its volcanos and glaciers. During the Middle Ages, Icelanders called the Hekla volcano the “Gateway to Hell,” believing that souls were dragged below. Hekla is Iceland’s most active volcano.

In the mid-1780s, the Laki volcano erupted, prompting scores to die of famine when livestock and crops were destroyed.

Iceland, an island with a population of just 320,000, has been better known recently for its financial troubles.

After a decade of dizzying economic growth that saw Icelandic banks and companies snap up assets around the world, the global financial crisis wreaked political and economic havoc on the island nation. Iceland’s banks collapsed within a week in October 2008, its krona currency plummeted and protests toppled the government.

The new left-of-center government has been trying to negotiate a plan to repay $3.5 billion to Britain and $1.8 billion to the Netherlands as compensation for funds that those governments paid to citizens who had accounts with Icesave, an Icelandic Internet bank that failed along with its parent, Landsbanki.

Icelandic voters this month resoundingly rejected a $5.3 billion plan to repay that debt.

Dodds reported from London.

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