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A volcano in Iceland erupts weeks after thousands were evacuated from a nearby town

People watch as the night sky is illuminated caused by the eruption of a volcano on the Reykjanes Peninsula in southwestern Iceland seen from the capital city of Reykjavik on Monday, Dec. 18, 2023.
Brynjar Gunnarsson
/
AP
People watch as the night sky is illuminated caused by the eruption of a volcano on the Reykjanes Peninsula in southwestern Iceland seen from the capital city of Reykjavik on Monday, Dec. 18, 2023.

Updated December 19, 2023 at 4:44 AM ET

GRINDAVIK, Iceland — A volcano has erupted in southwestern Iceland, sending a flash of light into the evening sky and spewing semi-molten rock into the air in a spectacular show of Earth's power in the land known for fire and ice.

The eruption Monday night appears to have occurred about 4 kilometers (2.4 miles) from the town of Grindavik, the Icelandic Meteorological Office said. The town near Iceland's main airport was evacuated in November after strong seismic activity damaged homes and raised fears of an imminent eruption.

Iceland, which sits above a volcanic hotspot in the North Atlantic, averages an eruption every four to five years. The most disruptive in recent times was the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, which spewed huge clouds of ash into the atmosphere and led to widespread airspace closures over Europe.

But the eruption on the Reykjanes Peninsula, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest of the capital, Reykjavik, is not expected to release ash into the air. Iceland's Foreign Minister Bjarne Benediktsson said on X, formerly Twitter, that there were no disruptions of flights to and from Iceland and international flight corridors remain open.

Icelandic broadcaster RUV showed a live feed of the eruption on its website. Christmas carols played in the background.

The November evacuation of Grindavik meant few people were near the site of eruption when it occurred and authorities have warned others to stay away. The nearby Blue Lagoon geothermal spa — one of Iceland's biggest tourist attractions — also closed temporarily that month as a swarm of earthquakes put the island nation on alert for a possible volcanic eruption.

The residents of the evacuated fishing community of 3,400 had mixed emotions as they watched the orange flames touch the dark skies. One month after the evacuation, many are still living in temporary accommodation and don't expect to ever be able to return to live in their homes.

"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."

Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson, a scientist who flew over the site on Tuesday morning onboard a coast guard research flight, told RUV that he estimates twice as much lava had already spewed than the entire monthlong eruption on the peninsula this summer.

Gudmundsson said the eruption was expected to continue decreasing in intensity but that scientists have no idea how long it could last. "It can be over in a week, or it could take quite a bit longer," he said.

"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 RUV.

Yet the spectacular natural phenomenon is hard for people to resist.

"It's just something from a movie!" said Robert Donald Forrester III, a tourist from the United States.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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The Associated Press