This eruption in Iceland could mark the beginning of a new volcanic period lasting a few centuries

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A red cloud lit up the night sky after the eruption began in Fagradalsfjall on Friday, March 19, 2020, about 40km (25 miles) from the capital Reykjavik.

And just 10 days ago, Icelandic geologists warn”If an eruption occurs, it will likely mark the beginning of such a [volcanic] period – lasting a few centuries… That’s at least how it has been the past three times…

reykjanes peninsula volcanic eruptions, reykjanes peninsula volcanic eruption history
the 6 volcanic systems on the Reykjanes peninsula are shown in pink. The red lines indicate the tectonic plate boundary, where earthquakes are common. Geothermal areas are marked in yellow. Black lines indicate fissure swarms. Map by Isor

He is referring to the uncertainty regarding whether an eruption can be expected soon on the Reykjanes peninsula, Southwest Iceland.

This uncertainty is now fact… The volcano has started erupting yesterday evening after more than 40,000 earthquakes hit the peninsula… But now, scientists want to know how long this eruptive episode is going to last…

This is what the geologic history of the region tells us.

The past 3 volcanic periods

Magnús assembled data on the past three volcanic periods in the area. These were 3,000-3,500 years ago, 1,900-2,400 years ago, and finally between the years 800 and 1240 AD.

His information is based on geological maps of the Reykjanes peninsula and on a comprehensive book on volcanic eruptions in Iceland called Nátt­úru­vá á Íslandi, eld­gos og jarðskjálft­ar.

reykjanes peninsula volcanic eruptions, reykjanes peninsula volcanic eruption history
Although the list of eruptions is in Icelandic, you can see the dates of the eruptions and the corresponding lava fields. Graphic by mbl.is

Research reveals that during the latter part of Holocene – a term used to describe a period that began about 11,700 years ago – the volcanic systems on the Reykjanes peninsula have erupted every 900 to 1100 years.

Less is known about the first part of Holocene.

reykjanes peninsula volcanic eruptions, reykjanes peninsula volcanic eruption history
The map shows lava fields from the last volcanic period on the Reykjanes peninsula 800-1240 AD. Map by ÍSOR

Each eruption period appears to have lasted about 500 years. During this timespan, most of the volcanic systems appear to have been active, although not simultaneously. Each eruption lasted a few decades and resulting lava flows reached up to 12 km (7.5 mi) in length.

6 volcanic systems

On the Reykjanes peninsula, there are six volcanic systems, lined up side by side, pointing from southwest to northeast. Farthest west is that of Reykjanes, then those of Svartsengi, Fagradalsfjall mountain, Krýsuvík, Brennisteinsfjöll mountains and, finally, Hengill mountain.

The last volcanic period began around 800 in Brennisteinsfjöll mountains and in the Krýsuvík system, creating the lava fields of Hvammahraun and Hrútafellshraun.

During the 10th century, the Brennisteinsfjöll system erupted again, creating at least five different lava fields. This was followed by a 150-year-long break in volcanic activity. Then, most likely in 1151, an eruption began in the Krýsuvík volcanic system. According to written sources, it ended in 1188. Three lava fields resulted.

What followed was a 20-year break in volcanic activity. Finally, in 1210, an eruption began near the ocean, a short distance north of Valahnúkur peak on Reykjanes point – the westernmost part of the Reykjanes peninsula. It lasted until 1240, marking the end of 450 years of volcanic activity – which did include long breaks from eruptions in between. [mlb, Iceland Monitor]

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