This week's sudden eruption of a volcano on Iceland's Reykjanes peninsula forced the evacuation of the nearby fishing town Grindavík just days before Christmas, displacing 4,000 residents.
Despite decreasing activity signaling the eruption may be waning, officials warn significant ongoing threats to preclude allowing townspeople to return home to celebrate the holidays.
Originating Sunday night along an extensive 3.5-kilometer subsurface fissure just 3 kilometres from Grindavík, fresh lava flows and billowing smoke plumes continue emanating from the site.
Yet, while the eruption initially unleashed intense bursts of seismic activity and molten discharge, both intensity measures eased notably within 48 hours.
"The hope that had ignited for a homecoming in time for Christmas was extinguished when the eruption began," lamented Grindavík Mayor Fannar Jónasson, who stressed authorities are urgently working to secure temporary housing for those evacuated.
With roads into the town still closed to nonemergency traffic, residents face an uncertain wait to resume their upended lives.
The Threat of Lava Flow Shift Still Looms
Mayor Jónasson warned that a directional change of lava flows toward the main Grindavíkurvegur thoroughfare could endanger critical infrastructure if substantial volcanic discharge resumes. To boost preparedness, contractors have recently installed protective barriers along area roadways.
While this week's decreased activity was welcomed news, geophysicists caution that significant subsurface instability around the extensive fissure zone remains. This keeps the potential for escalating eruptions or further vent formations high for now.
However, officials note that the fresh activity has appeared concentrated in uninhabited areas.
Still, Mayor Jónasson has stressed that evacuation orders will remain in place for the foreseeable future until hazards clearly subside. Accessing homes to retrieve essentials or assess damage has been strictly prohibited since the initial evacuation due to persistent seismic threats.
With aircraft operations so far unaffected but the potential for ash clouds if eruption activity reignites more vigorously, meteorologists are keeping a close watch on monitoring equipment near the fissure vent. Officials have warned heavy ash accumulation could prompt air traffic disruptions and other hazards.
Thus far though, officials say the hazardous clouds have remained relatively low in the atmosphere and the eruption mild in explosivity based on initial analyses. However, they note wind patterns could still spread fine particle pollution more widely if substantial new emissions occur.