Is it safe to travel to Iceland? Latest advice after volcano eruption

Is it safe to travel to Iceland? Latest advice after volcano eruption

A volcano has erupted in south-western Iceland for the second time in less than a month.

It is the fifth to take place on the Reykjanes peninsula since 2021, Iceland’s state broadcaster reports.

Straddling the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates, Iceland is a seismic and volcanic hotspot as the two plates move in opposite directions.

The country’s unique geology also makes it a big tourist destination, so how will the latest eruption affect travellers?

What is the latest with the Iceland volcano?

Molten lava flows reached the outskirts of Grindavik, around an hour’s drive south-west of the capital Reykjavik, around noon on Sunday, setting three houses alight.

The fishing town had already been evacuated so officials said there was no immediate danger to people.

It was the second eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula in four weeks and the fifth since 2021.

Two separate fissures opened up near the town within the space of a few hours. The first formed in the early morning on Sunday and had largely stabilised before the second fissure – much closer to the town at a distance of less than 100m away, formed in the afternoon.

Geologists on Sunday said magma corridors were believed to be flowing underneath the abandoned town, posing a continued risk. Lava flows reached Grindavik on Monday.

The Icelandic Met Office said that “existing faults and fractures were reactivated and likely new fractures formed within Grindavík”.

Live video footage on Monday showed glimpses of orange lava still flowing to the surface but at smaller volumes, and further away from the town.

“Unfortunately (the lava) went a little bit more south than we had hoped for,” the head of Iceland’s Civil Protection and Emergency Management, Vidir Reynisson, told a press conference late on Sunday.

Nevertheless, the defensive barriers built to the north of Grindavik had helped divert the flows of lava to the west, away from the town, Reynisson said.

Grindavik was a town of some 4,000 residents before it was evacuated in November. Just weeks ago, an eruption happened in the same area, closing the popular tourist site of the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, but on that occasion the lava took a different course and Grindavik was unscathed.

The Icelandic government met on Monday to discuss support for the residents of Grindavik.

Is it safe?

Iceland has raised the alert level to “emergency”, the highest of the three-level scale which signals there could be a threat of harm to people, communities, property or the environment.

Lava explosions and billowing smoke are seen near residential buildings in the southwestern Icelandic town of Grindavik after a volcanic eruption on January 14, 2024. Seismic activity had intensified overnight and residents of Grindavik were evacuated, Icelandic public broadcaster RUV reported. This is Iceland's fifth volcanic eruption in two years, the previous one occurring on December 18, 2023 in the same region southwest of the capital Reykjavik. Iceland is home to 33 active volcano systems, the highest number in Europe. (Photo by Halldor KOLBEINS / AFP) (Photo by HALLDOR KOLBEINS/AFP via Getty Images)
Lava explosions and smoke near homes in Grindavik (Photo: Halldor Kolbeins/AFP)

Residents of Grindavik had only recently returned to their homes after an evacuation that lasted for six weeks due to a series of earthquakes which began in late November and eventually culminated in December’s eruption.

Iceland’s President Guðni Jóhannesson has said that “no lives are in danger“, thanks to the successful evacuation.

Only the day before the latest eruption, rescuers were searching for a man believed to have fallen into a fissure caused by the December eruption.

According to local media reports, the man had been working to fill crevasses formed in Grindavik due to the volcanic activity. Hundreds of people have been looking for him since last Wednesday.

You can find more information on how to travel safely within Iceland on SafeTravel.is

Could this affect flights?

Many will remember the 2010 eruptions of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull, which saw an ash cloud cause the largest air-traffic shutdown since the Second World War. Millions of air passengers were stranded across Europe and further afield.

In 2010, magma came into contact with a glacier above the eruption, melting ice, which “flashed” into steam, causing the 2010 ash cloud.

President Johannesson said this time that while some infrastructure may be at risk, there is no disruption to flights.

The Government of Iceland’s website reads: “Iceland’s authorities are well prepared for seismic events which occur regularly as a feature of our country’s natural geography.

“This eruption is classified as a fissure eruption (often referred to as Icelandic-type), which does not usually result in large explosions or significant production of ash dispersed into the stratosphere.”

Flights to and from the country – including the island’s primary airport, Keflavik, just half an hour north-west of Grindavík – have not been cancelled.

What does this mean for tourism?

Overall, tourism should not be affected, but this depends on where you intended to travel to within Iceland.

The Government says: “If you have planned to stay in the vicinity of evacuated town Grindavík or near to the eruption area, please contact your hotel or travel agency directly to receive the latest guidance.”

Hotels are “opening as normal”.

REYKJANES, ICELAND - JANUARY 14: ( ----EDITORIAL USE ONLY - MANDATORY CREDIT - 'ICELAND PUBLIC DEFENCE / HANDOUT' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) An aerial view shows lava after volcano eruption located close to Sundhnukagigar, about 4 kilometers northeast of Grindavik town of Reykjanes peninsula, Iceland on January 14, 2024. (Photo by Iceland Public Defence / Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images)
The eruption is the second in six weeks (Photo: Iceland Public Defence/Anadolu)

Those who may be tempted to go and see the spectacle of the volcano have been warned not to.

The Visit Reykjanes website reads: “Although it is a spectacular vision, it is important to take all necessary precautions.

“Visitors are asked to stay away from the Grindavik area and not to stop the vehicles on the Reykjanesbraut highway (Route 41) while the situation is being processed. As for now all roads around the area have been closed.”

A recent update on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) website notes that the eruption is taking place, but does not advise British travellers to stay away from Iceland, adding that the capital city of Reykjavík and the rest of the country had not been affected.

It reads: “A volcanic eruption started on the Reykjanes peninsula in south-west Iceland on 14 January, north of the town of Grindavík. All roads to Grindavík are closed and you should stay away from the area.

“Keflavik International Airport is operating as normal, but you should check for latest updates. Reykjavik and the rest of Iceland have not been impacted. You should monitor local media for updates and follow the authorities’ advice.”

Georgina Hancock, marketing director for tour operator Discover the World, urged travellers not to panic.

She told i: “Iceland is probably one of the most prepared countries in the world for such events, they have extremely effective volcano preparedness measures, highly knowledgeable geoscientists, and the government and protection services are very used to volcanic eruptions and seismic activity.

Ms Hancock added that her firm had been in touch with all clients due to travel in the coming weeks.

“They have very strict safety measures in place. It is in an area that is reasonably remote and there is no disruption to important or main roads or any other facilities,” she said.

“Outside of that isolated area the rest of the country operating as normal. People definitely shouldn’t worry.”

Those who may want to visit the Blue Lagoon, one of the country’s most popular attractions – just four miles north of Grindavík – may be disappointed to learn that it has been temporarily closed as a precaution.

A statement on the website reads: “A volcanic eruption commenced south-east of Hagafell mountain on the morning of January 14. Following an increase in seismic activity detected in the area on the previous night, we took the precautionary measure of evacuating all our operational units. The current eruption site is at a safe distance from Blue Lagoon.

“Consequently, we will remain closed until Tuesday, 16 January. Further updates and information will be provided here as they become available.

“All guests with bookings during this temporary closure period will be contacted. Guests wishing to modify or cancel their bookings are kindly directed to use the My Booking portal.”