The Current

Houses in Iceland 'split apart' by tremors as volcanic eruption looms

Iceland is bracing for what could be a significant volcanic eruption, after thousands of recent tremors cracked roads, opened sinkholes and damaged buildings.

Subterranean corridor of magma has spread under town of Grindavik

The earth splits open in Iceland as volcano continues to threaten town

13 days ago
Duration 2:07
Featured VideoFissures and tremors carve up the town of Grindavik, Iceland, whose nearly 4,000 residents remain evacuated. Officials have not given word on when they may be allowed back as the risk of an imminent volcanic eruption continues.

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A looming volcanic eruption in Iceland has already "ripped the whole landscape apart" in the small fishing town of Grindavik, said a nature photographer who has spent a lot of time there.

"Houses are being split apart … sinkholes [are] appearing around the town … the damage is enormous," Jeroen Van Nieuwenhove told The Current's guest host Nora Young.

"Not even a week ago, there was nothing going on. And now we have a town that's completely destroyed."

Experts fear an eruption is imminent after thousands of earthquakes struck Grindavik in recent days, prompting the evacuation of roughly 3,800 people. Much of the damage has been caused by a subterranean corridor of magma, or semi-molten rock, which has spread underneath the town itself from an origin point roughly 15 kilometres away. The magma has caused the land above it to shift, creating huge cracks and craters. 

WATCH | Bulwarks built near Icelandic town under threat of volcanic eruption:

Residents continue to evacuate Icelandic town under threat of volcanic eruption

16 days ago
Duration 1:00
Featured VideoDams of soil called 'bulwarks' are being constructed near Grindavík, Iceland, to impede lava flow and minimize damage should the nearby volcano erupt.

Grindavik resident Hans Vera said the tremors were well beyond the seismic activity that Icelanders are used to.

"You would never be steady. It was always shaking, so there was no way to get sleep," he told CBC News, after he evacuated to the country's capital Reykjavik. 

"It's not only the people in Grindavik who are shocked about this situation; it's the whole of Iceland," he said.

Grindavik lies 50 kilometres southwest of Reykjavik, on a volcanic hotspot called the Reykjanes Peninsula. The area has been the site of spectacular lava fountains over the past two years, drawing thousands of onlookers. 

Van Nieuwenhove has documented those eruptions in recent years, and returned to Grindavik on Tuesday to survey some of the damage. He said it felt "eerie" to see the town now deserted.  

"I went to restaurants, talked to locals. I took many, many tourists here," he said. "It's heartbreaking to see what happened here."

A man wearing a blue sweater kneels on brown grassland, preparing a large camera on a short tripod. Black and red smoking magma can be seen in the background.
Photographer Jeroen Van Nieuwenhove has documented eruptions on a volcanic hotspot called the Reykjanes Peninsula in southwest Iceland. The area has been the site of spectacular lava fountains over the past two years, drawing thousands of onlookers. (Jeroen Van Nieuwenhove Photography)

Iceland's 'otherworldly' landscape

In his photography, Van Nieuwenhove said he aims to show the emptiness of Iceland's "otherworldly" landscape. 

"I want to show a certain beauty and things that people don't get to see every day, for example, with the volcanoes and the lava," he said. 

But he added that "now it's a very different side of volcanoes that we are seeing, which makes it very challenging for me."

"It's very difficult to see something destroy a community like this."

WATCH | Faults getting bigger over time, says volcano expert:

Fissures from quakes in Iceland continue to grow

17 days ago
Duration 0:47
Featured VideoGregory Paul De Pascale, an associate professor of geology from the University of Iceland, compared the earthquakes and damage in Grindavík, Iceland, to 2010 and 2011's deadly quakes in Christchurch, New Zealand. He believes it's too soon to conclusively determine whether or not a volcanic eruption will happen, but if it does, he said it would occur rapidly.

While there was a decrease in seismic activity on Tuesday, experts warned that the probability of an eruption remained high — even if no one knows when it might happen. 

"Less seismic activity typically precedes an eruption, because you have come so close to the surface that you cannot build up a lot of tension to trigger large earthquakes," said Rikke Pedersen, who heads the Nordic Volcanological Centre based in Reykjavik.

Damage to a house in an Icelandic town, caused by seismic activity.
The seismic activity has damaged houses in the town. (Kjartan Torbjoernsson/Getty)

"It should never be taken as a sign that an outbreak is not on the way," she said.

Van Nieuwenhove is worried about what comes next for the thousands of people who have been displaced, and the impact on the wider peninsula. 

"I'm not going to lie, I'm a bit nervous because, like, we don't know what's going to happen," he said.

"Is it going to erupt, will it not erupt? Is the town [still] going to be there, or not?" 

With files from CBC News and Thomson Reuters. Audio produced by Samira Mohyeddin.

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