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Iceland’s main volcanic eruptions

REYKJAVIK (AFP) – A volcano erupted just 40 kilometres from Iceland’s capital Reykjavik on Wednesday, spewing lava from a fissure in the ground near the site of a similar eruption last year.

Known as the land of fire and ice, Iceland is Europe’s biggest and most active volcanic region, home to a third of the lava that has flowed on Earth since the Middle Ages, according to Visit Iceland.

The vast North Atlantic island straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a crack on the ocean floor separating the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.

The shifting of these plates is in part responsible for Iceland’s intense volcanic activity.

Thirty-two volcanic systems are currently considered active in the country.

Here are the main eruptions in Iceland’s history:

The eruption of the Mount Fagradalsfjall volcano on March 19, just 40 kilometres from the capital Reykjavik, spewed more than 140 million cubic metres of magma into the valleys of Geldingadalur over six months, making it the longest Icelandic eruption in 50 years.

Lava had not flowed for eight centuries on the Reykjanes peninsula, and for nearly 6,000 years where the eruption occurred, according to volcanologists.

Relatively easy to access, the eruption became a major tourist attraction, drawing more than 430,000 visitors, according to the Icelandic Tourist Board.

Bardarbunga, a volcano located under the Vatnajokull glacier – Europe’s largest ice cap – in the heart of southern Iceland’s uninhabited highlands, erupted for five months, both under the ice and breaching the surface in a fissure at the Holuhraun lava field.

It created Iceland’s biggest basalt lava flow in more than 230 years but caused no injuries or damage.

The Grimsvotn volcano, also located under the Vatnajokull glacier, is Iceland’s most active volcano. Its latest eruption was in May 2011, its ninth since 1902. Over one week, it spouted a cloud of ash 25 kilometres into the sky, causing the cancellation of more than 900 flights, primarily in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia and Germany.

In April 2010, enormous plumes of ash billowed into the sky for several weeks during the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, causing the biggest air traffic disruption in peacetime until the COVID-19 pandemic. Some 100,000 flights were cancelled, leaving more than 10 million travellers stranded.

In one of the most dramatic eruptions in the country’s recent history, the island of Heimaey in the Westman Islands awoke one January morning to an eruption in a fissure just 150 metres from the town centre. The eruption of the Eldfell volcano occurred not only in a populated area – one of the country’s then most important fishing zones – but it also surprised locals at dawn. A third of homes in the area were destroyed and the 5,300 residents were evacuated.

Considered one of Iceland’s most dangerous volcanoes, Katla’s last eruption added five kilometres of land mass to the country’s southern coast. Located under the Myrdalsjokull glacier, when Katla erupts it ejects large quantities of tephra, or solidified magma rock fragments which are disseminated in the air and carried by the powerful glacier flooding caused by melting ice. Averaging two eruptions per century, Katla has not erupted violently for more than 100 years and experts say it is overdue.

Virtually unknown at the time, Askja, Iceland’s second-biggest volcano system, erupted in three distinct phases. Two of the three ash clouds rose more than 20 kilometres into the sky. The toxic fallout across Iceland, which in some places reached a thickness of 20 centimetres, killed livestock, contaminated the soil and sparked a wave of emigration to North America. Isolated in a plateau and far from civilisation, Askja is today a popular tourist attraction and its lava fields were used to train astronauts for the 1965 and 1967 Apollo missions.

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