Iceland’s volcanic eruption is the longest in half a century

Sunday will mark six months since the eruption of a volcano currently mesmerizing onlookers near Reykjavik, making it Iceland’s longest eruption in 50 years.

The first lava began erupting from a crevice near the volcano Fagradalsfjall on the evening of March 19 on the Reykjanes Peninsula southwest of Reykjavik.

The ensuing spectacle — from slow trickles of lava in some instances to more dramatic geyser-like eruptions of rocks and stones in others — has become a major tourist attraction, attracting 300,000 visitors, according to the Icelandic Tourist Board.

The sixth volcanic eruption in Iceland in the last 20 years is already longer than the previous eruption at Holuhraun, in the center-eastern part of the island, which lasted from late August 2014 to late February 2015.

“Six months is quite a long eruption,” volcanologist Torvaldur Thordarson told AFP.

The lava field that formed this time was named “Fagradalshraun,” which can be translated as “beautiful lava valley,” and it got its name from nearby Mount Fagradalsfjall.

To date, almost 143 million cubic meters of lava have erupted.

But this is actually a relatively small volume, a little less than a tenth of the volume of the Holuhraun eruption, which erupted the largest flow of basalt lava in Iceland in the last 230 years.

The latest eruption “is special in the sense that it kept the outflow relatively steady, so it was pretty strong,” said Halldor Geirsson, a geophysicist at the Earth Sciences Institute.

“The normal behavior that we know from Iceland’s volcanoes is that they start out very active and pour out lava, and then the outpouring diminishes over time until it stops,” he said.

Iceland’s longest eruption occurred more than 50 years ago on the island of Surtsey near the southern coast and lasted nearly four years, from November 1963 to June 1967.

After a nine-day lull, lava reappeared at Fagradalsraun in early September, sporadically spewing out of the crater in a red-hot jet and accompanied by a powerful plume of smoke.

It also accumulated in fiery tunnels beneath the frozen surface, forming pockets that eventually gave way and splashed ashore like a wave.

The actual number of visitors who made the trek up the rugged hills to see the spectacle was probably even higher than the estimated 300,000, since the first counter installed on the paths leading to the eruption site was not set up until five days after the eruption.

Within the first month, 10 fissures opened, forming seven small craters, of which only two are still visible.

Only one crater, measuring 334 meters (1,100 feet), is still active, only a few dozen meters to the highest peak in the vicinity, according to the Institute of Earth Sciences.

Nevertheless, the volcano shows no signs of dying off anytime soon.

“There still seems to be enough magma in that reservoir that is erupting. So it could go on for a long time,” Geirsson said.

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