Iceland Volcano 2023: Is It Safe To Travel And Is The Eruption Affecting Flights?

An eruption occurred near the town of Grindavik on Monday night.

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A volcano erupted on Monday night on Iceland's Reykjanes Peninsula, weeks after thousands of small quakes rocked the southwest coast.

The eruption began on 18 December at 10:17pm about 4km northeast of Grindavik. 

As the eruption spread, magma, or semi-molten rock, could be seen spewing along the ridge of a hill.

The vicinity remains closed and hiking in the area is prohibited.

Despite lying just 20 km north of the eruption site, Keflavik International Airport - Iceland's main international airport - remains open and flights are still arriving and departing. The road between the airport and Grindavik is closed, however.

Travel in Reykjavik has not been disrupted, but the Icelandic Met Office has warned that pollution could reach the capital on Wednesday.

If you are planning on travelling to or from the affected area, here are the full details on advice from European governments and airlines.

How long will Iceland's volcano eruption last?

Although the intensity of the eruption decreased into the early hours of Tuesday morning, according to the Icelandic Met Office, this is not an indication of how long it will last.

"It can be over in a week, or it could take quite a bit longer," says scientist Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson, who flew over the site on Tuesday morning onboard on a coast guard research flight.

On the latest surveillance photos the activity is now constrained to two craters, but was previously three, the Icelandic Met Office updated on 20 December.

Iceland's volcano eruption 'is not a tourist attraction'

Icelandic authorities declared a state of emergency in November after hundreds of small earthquakes shook the Reykjanes Peninsula - the island nation’s most populated region. 

As fears of an eruption grew last month, 4,000 people were evacuated from the area. They were only allowed back briefly to collect their belongings.

This meant few people were near the site of eruption went it occurred on Monday night and authorities have warned others to stay away. 

“This is not a tourist attraction and you must watch it from a great distance," Vidir Reynisson, head of Iceland’s Civil Protection and Emergency Management, told national broadcaster RUV.

The eruptive fissure is about 4km long, with the northern end just east of Stóra-Skógfell and the southern end just east of Sundhnúk.

Yet the spectacular natural phenomenon is hard for people to resist. “It’s just [like] something from a movie!” said Robert Donald Forrester III, a tourist from the United States.

For local residents, the emotions are mixed. “The town involved might end up under the lava,” said Ael Kermarec, a French tour guide living in Iceland. "It’s amazing to see but, there's kind of a bittersweet feeling at the moment.”

Have flights to Iceland been cancelled?

Despite concerns over the impact the eruption will have on travel, nearby Keflavik Airport remains operational. Icelandic airport operator ISAVIA advises passengers to monitor flight information here.

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Volcanic eruptions can pose a serious hazard to air travel as ash released into the atmosphere can cause jet engines to fail, damage flight control systems and reduce visibility.

But in this case, there is minor or no ash emission, as indicated by the orange aviation alert raised by Iceland’s authorities.

There haven’t been cancellations or significant delays at Keflavik International Airport due to the eruption. Icelandair says there has been no impact on its flight schedule, and Play says it does not expect any disruptions to its schedule.

Most airlines have said that they will directly contact customers if this changes. Passengers have been advised to keep a close eye on messages from their airline.

The roads from the airport to Grindavik and the Blue Lagoon are closed while the situation is being evaluated.

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A major eruption in Iceland in April 2010 caused widespread disruption to air travel between Europe and North America. The quarter of a billion cubic metres of volcanic ash it ejected into the air led to more than 100,000 flights being cancelled over an eight-day period.

Though there had been fears of a repeat, Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted under circumstances that contributed to the immense size of its ash cloud. A glacier on top of it caused meltwater to rapidly cool the lava, creating tiny particles which were launched into the air by the steam produced in the eruption. These were then carried on the wind towards Europe.

The recent eruption took place under very different circumstances lowering the chances of similar flight chaos. In the past three years, three eruptions have taken place on the Reykjanes Peninsula with no impact on air travel. 

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is also better prepared for a major volcanic ash event. 

"In the event of an eruption and development of an ash cloud, the agency will work with other aviation actors to assess the impact for aviation and make recommendations accordingly," a statement on the EASA's website from November reads. 

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Is it safe to travel to Iceland?

Various European foreign offices have advised travellers to stay away from Grindavik and respect local restrictions. They direct travellers to the Icelandic Met Office and Safe Travel Iceland for the latest advice.

They have said that the eruption area is closed until further notice and urge people to respect the closure. However they have not advised against travel to the country altogether.

Visitors are advised to stay away from the area surrounding the eruption, and to follow the directions and guidance of the local authorities.

Countries have not issued a ‘no-go’ travel warning for Iceland meaning that airlines and holiday companies are operating as normal and travellers who cancel their bookings have no automatic right to a refund.

“For those concerned about travel insurance coverage, and whether cancelling a trip is best, we’d advise travellers to exercise common sense and travel wisely," says Jonathan Frankham, general manager of travel insurance company World Nomads.

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"It’s important to note that policies purchased after the earthquakes and consequential volcanic eruption became a 'known event' are unlikely to be covered, but we recommend checking your policy wording for exact details."

He advises tourists to contact their airline or travel provider for assistance and the latest information.

The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa - one of Iceland’s biggest tourist attractions - temporarily closed on 9 November after being hit by earthquakes. After briefly reopening on 16 December it is now closed again following the eruption.

"All guests with confirmed bookings in the upcoming days will be contacted,” an update on its website reads. "We will continue to monitor the progress and maintain close communication with the authorities, prioritising safety and well-being."

Surrounding spas, hotels and restaurants will also be closed.

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