‘There’s a volcano in our backyard’: life in the Icelandic town that keeps erupting

<span>Molten lava overflowing on to the road leading to the Blue Lagoon near Grindavík.</span><span>Photograph: Kristinn Magnusson/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Molten lava overflowing on to the road leading to the Blue Lagoon near Grindavík.Photograph: Kristinn Magnusson/AFP/Getty Images

After four weeks of incessant seismic activity disrupting their sleep, a certain loopiness began to take hold of the longsuffering residents of Grindavík. By 10 November 2023, many people had left this small fishing town on the south-west coast of Iceland. Plenty more, though, went about their Friday night plans as usual. Oblivious to the scale of the volcanic timebomb ticking under their home, Brynhildur Blomsterberg, 58, and her partner, Ólafur Sigurpálsson, 75, were preparing to host their joint birthday party and were expecting 20 guests.

“We had hundreds of lamb chops to get ready,” says Blomsterberg, a nurse. “We were frying and the town was just shaking.” When, at about midday on Friday, she called Sigurpálsson to suggest they move the celebrations out of Grindavík, the former sailor and fish exporter said no, reassuring her it would die down. There was an element of business-as-usual: Grindavík had experienced regular earthquakes since 2020, and three volcanic eruptions in as many years. Sure enough, 12 guests made it to their house, just as parts of the town started cracking open, including the main street. Some of the fissures were 20 metres deep.

Before long, the contents of the garage were falling to the ground, and guests were literally tumbling through the door. The cars parked in the driveway were moving and sliding, their alarms going off constantly. As the 14 people gathered in the living room, they heard what sounded like cracks echoing from below. “The frequency was low – we could almost feel it, like the sound of a helicopter,” says Blomsterberg. Objects were coming off the walls. The fridge, meanwhile, was rattling “like a jackhammer”; Blomsterberg says they must have pushed it back into place 10 times. The mood at the party was tinged with shock and disbelief. Some guests helped to gather fallen objects, others started taking down heavier items like mirrors and the TV, and taping shut cupboards.

The party continued until about 9pm, when they were ordered to evacuate. The main road out of Grindavík was cracked, so the couple’s guests had to take another route home. When Blomsterberg and Sigurpálsson dashed out of the house that evening, carrying minimal possessions, they thought they would be back the next day. Little did they know that, for the foreseeable future, they were going into exile.

Just over three months later, as we talk in their rented flat in Reykjavík, their fourth temporary home since that night, the memory is difficult to compute. So much so that we are all inexplicably laughing. “I don’t believe what we went through that day,” says Blomsterberg. Looking back now, she can’t help think what a close call it was. “This crack could have opened under the house.”

The couple go back to Grindavík whenever they can, but are limited by the danger level and the likelihood of further eruptions. In December, a 2.5 mile (4km) wall of lava came within close range of Grindavík. In January, a further eruption set houses in the town alight, and in February another cut off hot water supplies to the region from Svartsengi, a geothermal power plant. When we meet in February, residents have been told to apply for timed visiting slots; this morning, Blomsterberg went straight there from a night shift. But when it comes to their future plans for the house, the couple see things very differently. Sigurpálsson, who was born in the town, is in little doubt: “I will go back,” he says without hesitation. This is a view shared by many long-term residents, while newer arrivals, such as Blomsterberg, who has lived there for eight years, tend to be more tentative. They need to find a permanent place in Reykjavík, she says. As for Grindavík, “We will see how everything is.”

* * *

Iceland’s location between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, which move in opposite directions, makes it a seismic and volcanic hotspot. In 2010, ash clouds from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption infamously led to 100,000 flights being cancelled across Europe and forced hundreds of Icelanders to evacuate their homes.

While pictures of the latest eruptions went around the world, the full scale of what has been going on under Grindavík in recent months is still coming to light. The town sits on the volcanic Reykjanes peninsula, which reactivated in 2019 after 800 years of dormancy, initially with a series of earthquakes. The following year, the first signs of magma moving towards the Earth’s crust were detected, and in March 2021, the Fagradalsfjall volcano – quiet for more than 6,000 years and a 7.5 mile hike from Grindavík – began to erupt. It went on for six months, in spectacular style, like a flaming torch protruding from the ground and surrounded by glowing lava flows. But it was widely seen as a spectacular “tourist eruption” that was relatively accessible and safe to visit.

The recent eruptions were different. Seismic activity around what’s known as the Sundhnúkur crater row – a volcanic field just north of Grindavík – created enough pressure to trigger a magma intrusion on 10 November 2023, when vast amounts of magma flowed into a crack under the town. The ground opened up, causing earthquakes, cracks and significant structural damage. Finally, after a month of this, lava came up above the surface a few kilometres from Grindavík in the form of a 2.5 mile wall of lurid orange jets flying up to 100 metres into the air.

The rapid speed at which the activity progressed, combined with the threat to life in residential areas, has meant that the small team of experts observing it at the Icelandic Met Office have been working around the clock. Benedikt Gunnar Ófeigsson, a geophysicist, says: “When we have these episodes in remote areas, it’s mostly just exciting; it’s really fun. But when it’s so close to people and their livelihoods, then it becomes more serious.” While the future is impossible to predict, experts studying the natural volcanic cycle of the region believe the area is entering a more active period.

Sure enough, in March, a couple of weeks after our conversation, orange lava again shot out of the ground – this time from a fissure near Grindavík that was almost two miles long.

With Grindavík’s 3,800 residents scattered around the local area and farther afield, the community is trying to hold on in whatever way it can. At first there was hope that life would soon go back to normal; now the future of the town – which dates back to the Vikings and is known for the tourist draw of its geothermal spa, the Blue Lagoon – is in doubt.

At the time of my visit, thousands of people across the Reykjanes peninsula were still waiting to have their hot water restored. To date, the eruptions have caused billions of Icelandic krónur worth of damage and at least one life has been lost. Lúðvík Pétursson, 50, went missing on 10 January while working to fill cracks in the ground created by the activity; after several days, the search for him was called off.

The situation poses difficult questions: are the emergency services up to the job of keeping people safe? Will certain areas of the country have to be abandoned? Could it even threaten the capital? Can the Icelandic way of life, in which resilience against whatever nature throws their way is a source of national pride, survive?

* * *

Four days after the February eruption, lifelong Grindavík resident Sólný Pálsdóttir is starting the painful process of packing up her family home. Pálsdóttir was first evacuated in November, and hoped to move back until a further eruption set fire to her neighbours’ homes. When I go to meet her at a petrol station near Grindavík, she is only just coming to terms with her new reality.

It’s an appropriately sombre morning, snow falling from dark skies. The 53-year-old teacher and photographer tells me there is growing anger about access to the town. Residents are still required to apply for permission and get a QR code to gain entry, and it will be a few weeks before this policy is relaxed. Meanwhile, she says, rescue workers are posting dramatic pictures of themselves with lava near her house on Facebook.

We have brought face masks to protect us against sulphur dioxide, and buy bottles of water to take with us into the town, where there is still no mains supply. As we get nearer, the jagged edges of the surrounding black lava fields protrude from the snow, and the road sign for Grindavík has been crossed out with a thin red line.

The first time I spoke to Pálsdóttir, in November, she described the lion-like roar that had come from under the earth while she cooked dinner for one of her sons and his heavily pregnant wife on the day of the evacuation. The ground outside was moving and the bookcase shaking. As we wait to be approved at the checkpoint, removal trucks pass, going in the opposite direction. “There’s a lot of them now,” says Pálsdóttir.

The town already feels abandoned, with fences cordoning off unstable buildings and deep cracks in the ground. There are handwritten signs in windows reading Farin (gone) to indicate that the occupants have left. The kindergarten, playground, library, sports centre, restaurant, all lively community spaces only a few months ago, lie empty. In an ice‑covered car park is a portable toilet for residents and a place to get packing materials.

As we approach Pálsdóttir’s street, next to where the fissure opened up in January, she points to the place where molten lava destroyed three houses, leaving black rock in its wake. Steam is rising from the ground, which is still hot. Pálsdóttir watched the disaster unfold on television with her younger son, who was celebrating his 14th birthday with a sleepover with his friends from Grindavík. The second house to go down belonged to their teacher.

Nearby, Grettir Sigurjónsson and his wife, Alda Margrét Hauksdóttir, are still trying to work out what to do. They came to the town seven years ago, with a plan to build six houses so that they could live alongside their children and grandchildren. But since November, all of that has gone. The family has dispersed. Sigurjónsson and Hauksdóttir are renting in Þorlákshöfn (a town about 35 miles along the coast as the crow flies, but under current restrictions, at least an hour and 20 minutes’ drive away), but they have to be out in a few weeks’ time – and after that they have no idea.

While they are clearly grieving for what they had, Sigurjónsson says no Icelander can ignore the power of nature. “When you have a volcano in your back yard,” he chuckles nervously, “you really have to respect this.”

Up the road, his daughter Nanna Grettisdóttir, 32, is trying to stay positive as she and her husband, Sindri Sigurðarson, 33, dismantle the home they lovingly built together. On 10 November, when everything started falling off the shelves in the local pharmacy where she worked, she had already been feeling seasick from living for days with constant vibrations. She went home and told Sigurðarson: “We need to go.”

The damage to their home is not obvious, but the structure is unsound. When they were building it, they found a cave under the house, which they filled in. Now they wonder whether that was in fact a lava tunnel.

Back at the house where she had lived for 15 years, Pálsdóttir points out a big crack on the driveway where a basketball hoop stands, and a 50cm-long crack in the wall that is still growing. Between the house and the veranda, there is a 30cm gap caused by the movement. After the recent eruption, volcanic slag – like hardened worm casts – rained all over the town. She hands me a piece of the brittle, black material, which breaks like honeycomb in my hand.

“Welcome,” she says as we step into the house, named Mánahraun (moon lava). “Do you see how the water flows?” says her husband, Sveinn Ari Guðjónsson, who demonstrates that spilled water now moves downhill on the newly sloping floor. In the stairway, a huge crack has recently appeared in the corner of the wall, and books and pictures lie scattered on the landing floor where they were flung by the earthquakes.

At 4pm, the police knock on the door to tell us to leave; residents have become used to these calls to remind them that their scheduled time at home is up. While Pálsdóttir believes Grindavík will rebuild, and still sees herself growing old in her home town, she is resigned to staying in Reykjavík until her son, who has Down’s syndrome, finishes school. Leaving Grindavík, where he could go out alone, meant losing his independence – but he is happy now in his new school in the capital.

* * *

‘Nei, nei, nei, nei (no, no, no, no). Iceland’s president, Guðni Jóhannesson, says his children told him they will never forget his words on the morning of the February eruption as they got in the car at Bessastaðir, their official residence, to go to sports practice. The former history professor ran for office in 2016 as a political outsider after the Panama Papers leak implicated top Icelandic officials. Despite his popularity, he is in his final months of office, having decided not to seek re-election after two terms.

When he wakes up, he usually looks out of the window towards Grindavík (on a bright, clear day like today, the Þorbjörn mountain is visible across the water). But on this particular day, he didn’t. As he got in the car, and saw the sky was red, he assumed the worst. “I feared it was erupting close to the town, or in the town,” he says, sitting at a long table in the presidential library. “Fortunately that eruption was a bit farther north – but those are images and moments you will never forget.”

The president has a longstanding relationship with Grindavík and had planned to go swimming there with his children on the day of the November evacuation. With more eruptions expected, he says, “We are still in the thick of it.” History suggests this could go on for decades or even centuries. “As we speak now, land is rising close to Grindavík, and it’s a clear sign that magma is gathering right under the surface of the Earth. And soon, based on the experience of the last few years, it will find its way up,” he says.

Jóhannesson praises the way Icelanders have responded, rushing to offer up their homes to friends, family and strangers. The president’s official guest house was also made available to people from Grindavík. But now, he says, “the task has changed. Now we have to look for permanent solutions.” Icelanders are by nature hardy, resilient and comfortable with adversity – whether that’s lava, ice, avalanches, wind or societal isolation. For some, it goes beyond acceptance to finding joy in the chaos. Icelanders love to get up close to eruptions, often returning multiple times to witness first-hand the power of what they live alongside. Songs are written about them. The geothermal energy that causes all this destruction also heats their homes, and enables them to soak in beautiful outdoor swimming pools all year round.

But what is the pull of Grindavík, I ask. What keeps people returning to a place that actively puts their lives in danger? He quotes an Icelandic saying in response, relishing every syllable: “Römm er sú taug er rekka dregur föðurtúna til.” He laughs. “The thread is strong that pulls you to the place where you grew up.” Just as happened after the 1973 eruption in the Vestmannaeyjar islands, when the entire island of Heimaey had to be evacuated, people want to return home. “But the way things are now, we have to face the harsh reality that the town itself looks uninhabitable as it is.”

While they cannot live in constant fear, the next step, he says, should be to prepare for the possibility that even Reykjavík could be under threat. “Well over two-thirds of the population live in Reykjavík and the surrounding areas, and we must make sure that whatever happens we will be as prepared as we can be.”

* * *

Grindavík residents’ deep roots are difficult to comprehend as an outsider. Margrét Gísladóttir, 74, the town’s former librarian, met her husband, Gunnar Vilbergsson, 77, a retired police officer, when they were teenagers, and they have lived in the town ever since. Until the evacuation, Vilbergsson’s family had lived there since 1890. But the experiences of the past few months have changed everything.

“It’s always going to be ‘before November 10’ and ‘after’,” says Klara Halldórsdóttir, 50. With the exception of a year spent as an au pair in Hamburg, she had lived her entire life in Grindavík until the evacuation. “Sometimes you have to have distance to see the values of your life – and yeah,” she sighs, “we had a great life for sure. But then, everything changed.” Now, living with her husband and daughter in a small rented flat, near the airport, she doesn’t have the same access to nature as she did, but she has got used to living more minimally. “We appreciate different things than we did before.”

And life moves on. Before the eruptions, Pálsdóttir’s son, Guðjón Sveinsson, and his wife, Ayça Erishin, had only recently returned to Grindavík with the intention of raising their first child there. But from their new flat in Reykjavík, with a “welcome baby” sign hanging on the wall, they are trying to focus on the present. “We were truly settled there,” says Erishin. They had decorated baby Sveinn’s room, but ended up leaving Grindavík before the birth and have since moved five times. They have been back to Grindavík one last time together, and taken a family photo. For now they have no plans to return, they say, gaze fixed firmly on their tiny son, but they won’t rule it out for the future. “Of course you never know,” says Sveinsson. “Five years, 10 years, whatever, we’ll see how it goes.”