Pall Viggosson, a tour guide in Iceland, was driving a van carrying nine British tourists on Monday night in search of the northern lights. But instead of the greenish glow of the aurora borealis, he saw red — flames and smoke from a volcanic eruption that Iceland had been uneasily awaiting.
The area, the Reykjanes Peninsula, had been experiencing strong seismic activity since October, a harbinger of an imminent eruption. The earthquakes — there were as many as 1,400 in a single 24-hour period in November — prompted the evacuation of the town of Grindavik and the temporary closing of the Blue Lagoon, a top tourist attraction. With these shaky warnings, Icelanders were girding for the eruption that came Monday night.
“I realized quickly this was no ordinary light pollution,” Mr. Viggosson said. He pulled over on the highway so the tourists could take photos.
Soon, the highway, which connects the capital to Keflavik International Airport, became busy, as other curious spectators drove from Reykjavik and nearby towns to catch a glimpse of the spectacle for themselves: reddish and orange skies, billowing smoke and lava fountains reaching over 300 feet into the air.
“Against the mountains the flames were huge, and the fissure length grew larger and larger,” Mr. Viggosson said.
A police vehicle was parked at the entrance of the road to the fishing town of Grindavik, Iceland, on Monday.Credit…Marco Di Marco/Associated Press
One of the spectators was Bjorn Steinbekk, the head of a marketing and consulting company, left his Reykjavik home as soon as he heard about the eruption on Monday night. Using a drone, he captured footage of the lava shooting into the sky. Even for someone who has chased many eruptions in the last two years, “last night was a whole new chapter from anything we’ve seen before,” Mr. Steinbekk said. “It was much more violent for two or three hours, with bigger strokes and a lot of lava coming out.”
Iceland is prone to volcanic activity. It straddles two tectonic plates, which are divided by an undersea mountain chain that oozes molten hot rock, or magma. But the Reykjanes volcanic system in southwestern Iceland had been dormant for 800 years. In the last few years, however, magma began to gather under the surface.
José Alvarado, a pilot with the low-cost Icelandic airline Play, got a view of the eruption from the cockpit of his plane. He described what he saw as a big glow.
“The amount of light you got through the clouds was pretty amazing — it was completely red,” said Mr. Alvarado, who was flying to Reykjavik from Lisbon. Once he heard from air traffic control that the eruption would not produce ash clouds and therefore posed no risk, he gave passengers an update and suggested they look out of the right side of the aircraft for a view.
By 2 a.m. on Tuesday, the eruption had started easing. By later on Tuesday, lava was spewing at a much lower intensity, Mr. Steinbekk said, speaking from near the eruption, as he prepared to launch his drone to get more footage.
Kjartan Adolfsson, an accountant living in Grindavik, a town of more than 3,500, evacuated with other residents last month after heightened seismic activity prompted concerns that an eruption was imminent. The eruption on Monday was “uncomfortably close to town,” he said, although he was relieved that the lava was flowing away from Grindavik.
For weeks, Mr. Adolfsson, 59, said, he had been bracing for the worst. He said that the first time he had to evacuate because of an eruption was 50 years ago. His parents woke him up in the middle of the night at their home on the island of Heimaey, Iceland’s largest island settlement. They packed quickly and sailed away from the town, only to find out later that their home had been destroyed by lava.
The local authorities have not yet indicated when Grindavik will be safe enough for residents to return. Almost everyone had evacuated at the time of the eruption.
Stefan Kristjansson, who owns several fishing boats, was unwinding in his outdoor hot tub in Grindavik on Monday night when he saw the horizon light up. He quickly got dressed, left some food out for his sheep and drove to Reykjavik. “I would like to be back before Christmas,” he said.