Iceland volcano: ‘We’re worried our village will disappear from map’

In normal years, the Christmas lights around Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, would steal the show.

Huge effort is poured into the festive illuminations.

But this December, the violent light and sound show that erupted along the Reykjanes peninsula has overshadowed everything.

“It’s a bit stressful,” says 63-year-old Andrzej, with an understatement characteristic of many we meet.

The former fisherman was among the 4,000 residents of Grindavik who were evacuated last month over fears the volcano would blow.

“It’s a wonderful, great town. But we’re always very worried Grindavik will disappear from the map.”

Iceland has been braced for volcanic activity around its south-west coast for weeks, as the area has been experiencing an uptick in earthquake activity.

The volcano finally erupted on Monday night.

A police officer near the volcano spoke to the BBC on Wednesday morning.

She said nobody is currently allowed near the volcano – only scientists and responders accompanied by the police.

That’s because it’s too dangerous, and the terrain is unpredictable.

“Now, the priority for the police is to try and save the town of Grindavik as it could be damaged by the lava. We are working on a plan on how to do that,” said the police officer.

“We will probably go back to people’s houses and pick up their most important belongings. It will not be today, as it’s too dangerous – likely tomorrow.

“The people who have been evacuated will almost certainly not be allowed to return home in time for Christmas,” she said.

An aerial view taken with a drone shows lava and smoke spewing from a volcanic fissure during an eruption, near the town of Grindavik, in the Reykjanes peninsula, southwestern Iceland, 19 December 2023.
Image caption,A photo taken with a drone on Tuesday shows lava and smoke spewing from the volcano near the town of Grindavik

On Wednesday, we met Andrzej – who is originally from Poland – at a counselling session at a centre run by local authorities and the Red Cross.

“They’re really great here,” he said. “Today I’ve been talking to a social worker, which I’m finding really helpful.”

Despite the emotional toll of experiencing four volcano eruptions here, he says he won’t abandon his town.

“No, I’m not afraid of going back. If it starts to shake again, I’m just going to leave. “

Image caption,Former fisherman Andrezj has lived through four volcanic eruptions

Inside the centre, a boy and a girl play in a soft area. There’s Lego, cuddly dinosaurs and crayons.

Cake, fruit salads and coffee await the parents who come here and try to plan the next few weeks of their upended lives.

It’s here that we meet father-of-three Eggert Solberg Jonsson.

“I think many were afraid to see the images and the videos, but the kids in Grindavik are used to it”

Eggert works as an official in the area that’s been evacuated and says the main priority is looking after the 500 children aged six to 16 at the elementary school.

“We are living in a place where there’s lava all around the town. And it is what it is, living in Iceland. There are threats in every town. Our threat is this volcano.”

Eggert’s wife is a teacher at the school. They have been trying to find alternative accommodation with their two sons, aged five and 11, and their eight-year-old daughter in the five weeks since they were evacuated.

“We are fortunate that some friends have just said we can stay until the spring so the next few months,” he explains.

“Not all people are as lucky as we are – but the safety net here is strong.”

Image caption,Grindavik will always be a great place to live, says Eggert

Eggert says his children are doing incredibly well in the circumstances but says he feels sorry for them being away from home this Christmas.

“But the volcano is part of their lives. They need to go back home and so do we. I hope we can go home as soon as possible.

“This is a unique location and will always be a great place to live.”

Tourists attracted

The new reality facing the 4,000 evacuees is a stark contrast with the experience of many tourists who can’t believe their luck.

About 40 minutes’ drive away, at the edge of the exclusion zone, emergency services have been moving on the visitors who’ve been trying to stop at the side of the dual carriageway to try to film the volcano.

Guorun, who works for the Iocal authority, was trying to look after the arrivals.

“We are fully prepared. Everyone today went to work, and went ahead with their normal lives. We know how to deal with these situations. The only people here taking pictures and videos are tourists.”

Onlookers gather to watch the lava flow after a volcanic eruption near the town of Grindavik, Reykjanes peninsula, Iceland, 19 December 2023. The start of a volcanic eruption was announced by Iceland's Meteorological Office on 18 December night after weeks of intense earthquake activity in the area.
Image caption,Onlookers gather to watch the lava flow after a volcanic eruption near the town of Grindavik

Two American friends, George and Matt, were visiting from Chicago with their two young children. They were taking selfies with the bright orange lava forming a spectacular backdrop.

“This is awesome! It’s a force of nature!”

George’s daughter said she was hypnotised by the flames and could hardly look away.

George said: “It’s like when in the US you see a hurricane on TV… you can’t look away. But here, we can actually see it happening in real life. I’ll never forget it.”

Even from a distance, you can hear the rumbling of the volcano. And the smell of the smoke hangs in the icy air.

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