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Bravely – or recklessly! – DAVID JONES straddles a terrifying fissure as the ground bucks and trembles, molten lava bubbles up... and Iceland holds its breath


Echoing eerily from a computer’s speakers, the voice is that of a middle-aged nordic man. To avoid causing undue anxiety, he adopts a calm and measured tone. Whenever an earthquake is detected in this perpetuall­y on-edge country of 40,000 square miles and 33 active volcano systems, his prerecorde­d warning message is automatica­lly activated, alerting staff in the monitoring room at the icelandic Meteorolog­ical office HQ in the capital Reykjavik.

on Friday, november 10, it was this unidentifi­ed man who informed them that grindavik, a remote fishing port 39 miles away on the island’s south-western peninsula, had been rocked by a massive tremor, sparking fears of an impending volcanic eruption.

By the end of that day, his voice had been triggered an astonishin­g 2,700 times — so often, in fact, that staff on ‘doomwatch’ duty turned down the volume to avoid repetition.

This was one of many fascinatin­g details revealed to me this week, when i was invited inside the office and given the first minute-byminute account of an unfolding natural catastroph­e being followed with awed trepidatio­n around the world.

Perched on a hill, on the outskirts of Reykjavik, the national weather forecaster’s unpreposse­ssing, three-storey building is an unlikely looking nerve centre. it looks more like a block of 1960s council flats.

Should zero hour come, however, the first warning signs will be picked up by the sophistica­ted seismic surveillan­ce system that operates here.

if the fates are aligned, the alarm might be raised three hours before a volcanic eruption, giving the few essential workers who remain in the otherwise evacuated town of grindavik just enough time to escape.

Yet, as Lovisa Mjoll gudmundsdo­ttir, a volcanolog­ist who works in the monitoring room, told me gravely, it might come at only a few minutes’ notice.

chillingly, she admitted, there might be no warning at all. ‘ in these situations, things can change very quickly,’ said the 29-year-old hazards specialist, who obtained her volcanolog­y master’s degree at Bristol University. ‘if there is an eruption, it could occur even before we can predict it.’

With a few clicks of her mouse, she shows me the hellish scenes we can expect to see, if — as remained ‘probable’ last night — a volcanic disaster does revisit iceland, 13 years after the eruption of volcano Eyjafjalla­jökull. That event sent vast ash clouds over the north Atlantic, paralysing air travel for several days in April 2010.

Since this is a so- called ‘fissure volcano’, lying under the land and sea, it would erupt very differentl­y from conical- shaped ‘ stratovolc­anoes’ such as Etna and Vesuvius, and the spectacle might be less dramatic. however, locally at least, it would be no less destructiv­e.

As the earth opened like a razor wound, molten magma would ooze out to form a livid, red-orange lava scar zigzagging for 10 miles from the hills to the Atlantic. Every so often, cones of flame would shoot skyward and poisonous gases would fug the once-pristine air.

Swallowed up by this conflagrat­ion, grindavik, whose 4,000 diaspora are bedding down with relatives, friends, and an admirable phalanx of strangers who have opened their hearts and homes across iceland, would be rendered uninhabita­ble for years.

There is, though, a sliding- doors version of this story. one that has a happier denouement.

having inched up through the earth’s crust — from an initial depth of about 12 miles to within just 1,500ft of the surface — the magma fails to make the final push.

Lacking the strength to break out, it stays where it is, gradually solidifyin­g until it no longer poses a threat.

BY LAST night, the speed of the upward surge had slowed, from an alarming 1,000 cubic metres per second to around 70, yet still i could find no expert rash enough to predict which of these outcomes might come to pass.

So, as iceland waits in limbo, how did we arrive at this point?

The Reykjanes Peninsula, beneath which this volcano system lies, has been humming with seismic activity since last year, when a major eruption occurred — fortunatel­y in an uninhabite­d zone.

however, the instabilit­y in and around grindavik was first detected on october 25 this year. it started with minor tremors but by Friday, november 10 these had grown stronger and more frequent.

The game-changing quake came at 6pm that day.

it would go on for nine, nervejangl­ing hours. Volcanolog­ist Ms gudmundsdo­ttir, says she could feel the ground shaking at her country house, a three-hour drive from the fishing port.

As commuters returned home from the capital and the salt-fish factories that provide most local jobs were closing for the day, great waves of subterrane­an energy began pulsing beneath the town like a runaway roller- coaster. They ripped cavernous holes in the roads and pavements.

geothermal heating pipes running below these vast holes burst, spurting jets of scalding water and plumes of steam.

As noxious gases seeped up through the crevices, residents gagged on the sickly stench of sulphur.

Meanwhile, a series of juddering landslips left parts of grindavik three feet lower than others.

While newer houses in iceland are designed to withstand earthquake­s, such was the force of this one that many of even the most sturdy homes were damaged beyond repair.

‘The town is basically torn in half,’ John Thor Viglundsso­n, a spokesman for iceland’s civil Defence department told me.

having been escorted into the worst-hit zone earlier this week, i had seen this first-hand. By some miracle, nobody was injured.

it’s since been discovered that, during those few hours of intense activity, a 10-mile long undergroun­d dyke filled with magma formed, running north-west to south- east. it was pressure from this that caused the rise and fall of houses and roads.

Back in the monitoring centre, the hi-tech gadgetry was now in overdrive, and data was pouring into a bank of computers.

its detection system is fivepronge­d. Scanners evaluate sulphur levels. Seismomete­rs triangulat­e the earthquake’s waves in much the same way that mobile phone masts can be used to locate a caller.

A GLOBAL Positionin­g System is deployed to discover whether land is rising and falling; a tremor detector picks up vibrations from magma when it is close to the surface and may be about to erupt. The hills around grindavik are festooned with these measuring instrument­s.

A satellite also hovers constantly over the area, scanning the surface and relaying images of the topography.

The icelandic Met office uses a colour coding system to identify activity in the country’s different volcanic areas. The Reykjanes Peninsula shows up as a purple band on its computers.

When there is an earthquake this band shoots up, its spikes forming a graph that resembles those one finds beside hospital beds. on Friday last week, the computer screen was filled with a forest of purple lines.

The decision to evacuate grindavik was taken at 11pm that day. TV programmes were interrupte­d by the emergency announceme­nt, texts were sent out, police drove through the crumbling streets with loud-hailers.

The fear of a full-blown eruption was so acute that people were given just five minutes to dash around their homes gathering a few essentials. That night, roughly 300 of them slept in a sports centre and in other makeshift shelters set up in safe, nearby towns.

The evacuees’ fear and bewilderme­nt is evident from poignant messages they posted on social media. ‘We are experienci­ng something totally unreal and we are paralysed, sad and unsure,’ wrote hans Vera.

‘We don’t know if we will ever be able to return to the place we have been building up for 23 years, our home, our nest.’

Requesting accommodat­ion, Karina Klara Drazkowska, said her extended family of 14 were sharing a cramped, 50ft square summer cabin, adding plaintivel­y: ‘We want to start functionin­g normally and send our son to school.’

gudrun Eyjolfsdot­tir, 50, told me she was lodging with her ex-husband (the father of her twins) and his present wife.

Did she get on well with them? ‘oh, no!’ she grimaced. Then she laughed. ‘ But, hey, they’ve offered me the spare room and taken

in my 75- year- old dad, so I can’t complain.’

For now, there is a disquietin­g lull in the drama. though a further 1,200 tremors were recorded between midnight and 2pm on thursday this week, they now send barely a shiver through one’s legs. It’s tempting to think the chances of a cataclysmi­c eruption have been overhyped, that all those doom-laden volcanolog­ists and seismologi­sts jumped the gun with their Armageddon prediction­s.

However, according to Rikke Pedersen, leader of the Nordic Volcanolog­ical Center, it would be unwise to lapse into complacenc­y because she believes we may be seeing ‘the calm before the storm’.

‘An eruption is usually preceded by less seismic activity,’ she tells me, explaining that, when magma reaches the final stages of its upward journey and has only a few hundred feet of rock to break through to the surface, earthquake­s tend to become weaker.

Amid the confusion and uncertaint­y, we can take some comfort from one universall­y accepted fact: that if this volcano does blow, the damage will almost certainly be localised — and pale in comparison with Iceland’s worst outbreaks.

Certainly, it will be nothing like the Great Eruption further along the south coast at Laki. that event began in June 1783, and continued for eight months, spewing a deadly amalgam of ash, steam, toxic gas and ‘ volcano bombs’ ( missiles made from molten rock) into the atmosphere.

THIS contaminat­ed much of Iceland’s farmland, destroying crops and livestock and causing a famine that killed a quarter of the population. It also sent temperatur­es plummeting throughout the Northern Hemisphere, possibly prompting droughts in India and North Africa.

Nor is it likely to cause disruptive clouds like those we saw in 2010, which formed when ash mixed with meltwater. As any explosion this time is expected to occur several miles inland, the air travel industry can rest easy.

Behind the permanentl­y locked doors of the monitoring room, however, no one can relax.

It has always been manned round the clock, but since the fateful Friday there are four pairs of eyes on all those computer screens instead of two — for the doomwatche­rs can’t risk missing even the smallest clue.

Come zero hour, they must be ready to send out the knell that will alert Icelanders and the watching world. the Voice is only activated by earthquake­s. He doesn’t do eruptions.

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 ?? Picture: ROLAND HOSKINS ??

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