Giant magma flow in Iceland was the fastest ever recorded

Lava erupts near Grindavik, Iceland on February 8

Icelandic Civil Defense/Document/Anadolu via Getty Images

The flow of magma in a 15-kilometre-long fissure, ahead of recent volcanic eruptions in Iceland, occurred at the highest rate observed anywhere in the world for this type of event.

“We can have higher rates during very large eruptions,” explains Freysteinn Sigmundsson at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. “But I'm not aware of any higher estimates of magma flowing into a crack in the surface.”

Sigmundsson is part of a team that uses ground sensors and satellites to monitor recent volcanic activity under Iceland's Reykjanes Peninsula. It all started with a buildup of magma several kilometers below the Svartsengi region, site of a geothermal power plant that provides hot water to the Blue Lagoon spa, a tourist attraction.

On November 10, 2023, a massive crack several kilometers deep and 15 km long formed nearby. When it opened, some of the accumulated magma flowed into it at a rate of 7,400 cubic meters per second, the team calculated.

This is about a hundred times faster than the flow of magma that occurred during the 2021, 2022 and 2023 eruptions in the neighboring Fagradalsfjall region, Sigmundsson says.

The magma in the fissure can be visualized as a piece of paper, he says, because it is at most 8 meters wide. The rift formed because Iceland sits on a boundary where tectonic plates are moving apart.

On December 18, a so-called fissure eruption began on part of this formation and lasted three days. Another, which lasted two days, began on January 14, with some of the lava reaching the evacuated town of Grindavik.

Although the lava flows consumed only a few buildings, cracks in the ground caused significant damage to roads and pipes, and also created underground cavities, Sigmundsson said.

On February 8, another eruption began a little further from Grindavik. The resulting lava flowed through pipes carrying hot water from the Svartsengi geothermal power plant. This means that heating has been cut off in some neighboring areas – most buildings in Iceland rely on geothermal water for heating.

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