Volcano Eruption Forces Icelanders to Hide as Europe Forgets

For the kids at the Graenuvellir kindergarten in Husavik, north Iceland, going out to play was not an option.

They were kept inside on Nov. 4 to protect them from sulfur-dioxide gases spewing from the Holuhraun lava field near the Bardarbunga volcano. The eruption has been going for almost three months and shows no sign of stopping. Red-hot lava has spread 70 square kilometers (27 square miles), covering an area larger than Manhattan.

“On regular days the kids go out to play to take in the fresh air, but that’s not really possible or safe under the current conditions,” Agusta Palsdottir, a manager at the kindergarten, which has 125 children between the ages of one and six, said in a Nov. 4 interview.

Icelanders can only wait for nature to run its course as they monitor how gas clouds drift across the island, itself a product of volcanic activity. As descendants of Viking settlers 1,200 years ago, Icelanders have learned to coexist with their volcanoes and to harness their power. Yet some events have proven deadlier than others. In the late 1700s, an eruption triggered a famine that killed 25 percent of Iceland’s population.

Tracking Gas

“There’s exactly nothing you can do, aside from going inside,” said Kristjan Thor Magnusson, mayor of Nordurthing, the municipality that includes Husavik, a 2,200-person town famous for its whale watching. “People that are more sensitive than others need to avoid physical exertion outside and try to stay inside and warm up their houses to prevent the gas from getting inside.”

The discomfort of the Graenuvellir kids is also being felt in other towns across Iceland long after the rest of the world stopped fretting over potential disruptions to trans-Atlantic air travel. The island’s Met Office tracks which way the sulfur-dioxide blows daily from the fissure that opened up in the lava field that dates back to an eruption from 1797.

“Which town is affected depends only on weather and winds,” Bergthora S. Thorbjarnardottir, a geophysicist at the Met Office, said in an interview.

Bardarbunga, one of Iceland’s largest volcanoes, began rumbling on Aug. 16. An eruption then started from a fissure 300 meters (984 feet) long and has since been moving northeast, away from the ice. An eruption under the ice of the glacier covering the volcano could cause an explosion that would spew ash into the air and disrupt air travel.

Quakes Continue

Since Nov. 7, about 200 earthquakes have rocked the area surrounding the eruption site, with the biggest one of about magnitude 5.2 measured yesterday evening. Iceland’s Civil Protection Agency today warned that gas pollution was expected mainly in the western part of the country.

At the beginning of the eruption, airlines were put on alert for a potential repeat of 2010, when a volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull ice cap spewed a column of ash 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) into the air. That event shut airspace across Europe for six days, forcing carriers to cancel more than 100,000 flights. Ash is a danger because the glass-like particles can damage jet engines.

Most Vulnerable

While the current eruption isn’t the largest on record, it’s being compared to the 1783 Lakagigar blowout, which lasted for seven to eight months and eventually covered 600 square kilometers in lava, Thorbjarnardottir said.

“There’s still a chance that the eruption in Holuhraun will pose a risk to international air travel,” she said. “Although there’s quite a bit of activity in the crater of Bardarbunga volcano, the activity does seem to be moving northeast, away from the ice cap.”

The government has issued warnings on the health risks. Exposure to sulfur-dioxide can cause irritation in the eyes, throat and lungs. High levels can lead to breathing difficulties. Children are the most vulnerable, according to the Health Directorate.

“Personally, I can feel the contamination a little,” said Palsdottir at the kindergarten. “Breathing is a little uncomfortable and it’s uncomfortable staying outside when the contamination comes in over our town.”

So most Icelanders are just hoping the wind blows the right way and also for rain to damp the gas clouds. They may be in luck, according to the Met Office.

“Wind and rain is the best thing to happen for Icelanders while the eruption continues,” said Thorbjarnardottir. “Iceland usually has plenty of that.”

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