Story at a glance
- The country of Iceland has been hit with an unexpected string of thousands of earthquakes over the past week.
- The tremors have ranged widely in scale, most only lasting a few seconds with the most intense event recorded at a 5.7 magnitude.
- Residents of the country’s capital, Reykjavík, have been concerned about the possibility of an impending volcanic eruption on the island.
Most of us already know that there are certain areas of the world more prone to earthquakes than others and that residents of those places, such as Southern California, Indonesia and parts of China, are pretty used to it at this point. One such area that’s accustomed to the occasional tremor is the small island nation of Iceland.
There, earthquakes are common due to the country straddling two of the Earth’s tectonic plates, both the North American and Eurasian plates. They remain divided by an undersea mountain chain called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which oozes molten hot rock from deep inside the Earth.
Despite earthquakes being a common occurrence in Iceland, the country wasn’t prepared for the events of the past week, which included a mind boggling 18,000 earthquakes that hit the island in the span of about a week. The earthquake swarm began on Feb. 24 with a 5.7 magnitude earthquake, the largest to date, and was followed by thousands of smaller ones.
"I have experienced earthquakes before but never so many in a row," Reykjavik resident Auður Alfa Ólafsdóttir told CNN. "It is very unusual to feel the Earth shake 24 hours a day for a whole week. It makes you feel very small and powerless against nature."
What scientists have to say
Geophysicists and volcanologists say the seismic activity on the island has been intensifying since December 2019, and though volcanoes in southwestern Iceland have remained quiet for some 800 years, they said that period of rest may finally be coming to an end.
Experts assert that the intense string of earthquakes are the culmination of over a year of intense seismic activity, and that similar tremors have been observed ahead of volcanic eruptions in the past. The Icelandic Meteorological Office told The New York Times that magma movements were a likely cause for the quakes, and the agency warned that an eruption could occur within days or weeks.
“The two tectonic plates are moving away from each other, and that movement has created the conditions for magma to come to the surface,” Freysteinn Sigmundsson, a research professor of geophysics at the University of Iceland, told The New York Times.
Iceland has about 30 active volcanoes, but volcanologists have attempted to ease residents' fear over an impending eruption, saying that one in Reykjanes won’t actually threaten inhabited areas on the peninsula.
Icelanders can’t be blamed for worrying, though, considering the catastrophic eruptions of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull back in 2010. Releasing wide ranging plumes of black ash into the sky, the event was so intense that it caused one of the most significant air-traffic interruptions in decades.
“Of course it worries people,” Þorvaldur Þórðarson, a professor of volcanology at the University of Iceland, told CNN. “For this region, this is actually fairly unusual, not because of the type of earthquakes or their intensity, but for their duration. It's been going for more than a week now."
Experts have said that the most damage expected from the possibly impending eruption includes power line damage, and the road connecting the capitol, Reykjavík, to the airport could be impacted.
“The magma composition here is very different, the intensity of explosive activity would be significantly less,” Þórðarson said.
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