She's The Best Hope Of Knowing When Iceland's Most Dangerous Volcano Will Erupt
Originally from Tuscany, Sara Barsotti has spent the past decade leading the task force monitoring Iceland's major volcanic eruption threat, following all the warning signs as her family evacuates the small town they've been calling home.
Updated Nov. 17, 2023 at 6:40 p.m.
REYKJAVÍK — "We haven't slept since Friday; we're extremely tired. We look at each other, colleagues with red eyes and contorted faces, forcing each other to go home and rest for a few hours. But then the phone never stops ringing, the situation keeps changing, and our minds are always there, trying to understand what is happening and what will happen."
When Sara Barsotti speaks, it's clear that she hasn't lost her Tuscan accent. It's ever-present as she coordinates the volcanic hazard task force from the operational center of the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) – Iceland's volcano observatory. It's the same accent with which she reassures her three children who have felt yet another earthquake in their Reykjavík home, advising them to go to the supermarket to get sushi for dinner because "mom will be very late, and the fridge is empty."
While she communicates in English with other volcanologists, seismologists, and mathematical model experts in a seemingly endless series of meetings, she switches to Icelandic to update Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir on the evolution of the emergency.
Originally from Carrara, the 48-years-old former researcher at the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Pisa was hired by IMO ten years ago through a Skype interview following the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.
This life-changing choice, made with her husband Matteo – now a tour guide who has opened some hundred new trails on Icelandic glaciers – has positioned her as a key figure in supervising the 30 active volcanoes on the island.
Following the signs
"We were aware that the situation on the Reykjanes Peninsula was still in flux, given the eruptions in recent years. But we did not expect a scenario of this magnitude. On Oct. 25, very intense seismic activity began, precisely in the area of the Blue Lagoon, one of the world's most famous geothermal areas. We continued to monitor it closely, and the data suggested that it was still manageable. But on Friday, seismicity suddenly increased, with a strong evening quake indicating a sudden change in the scenario," she explains.
There was a sudden accumulation of warning bells: earthquakes, evidence from probes scattered around the area, satellite images and values from GPS stations showing increasingly evident deformations. All this while the first cracks began to appear in the asphalt of Grindavík, a town of 3,800 inhabitants, an hour south-west of Reykjavík.
It's the magma pushing and deforming the ground, still deep at around three or four kilometers, but that could transform at any moment into a river — or a bomb — of lava.
But the specific kind of eruption and its consequences is not yet certain. An eruption at sea, for example could lead to an explosive event and release gases and particles in quantities sufficient to disrupt air traffic. However, a chaos like that of 2010, when Eyjafjallajokull erupted, is not anticipated. On a climatic level, in terms of CO2 emissions, there is not much concern – although experts emphasize that the precise details of volcanic events are still quite hard to predict.
The civilian risk
"Evacuating the town was necessary: the citizens left within three hours. We, as scientists, have the task — and responsibility — of interpreting the data and passing the information to civil protection, which is responsible for assessing the risk-related implications. It's true, history speaks clearly here: the entire peninsula is a lava field, and Icelanders have always lived with the vitality of volcanoes in mind. But telling someone they must leave their home immediately – perhaps the place where they invested all their belongings – with the possibility of never seeing it again, is not an easy decision for anyone."
The eruption could start at any moment.
After the evacuation, experts further increased monitoring. There are many concerns: the eruption of lava — in the case of an effusive eruption — could overwhelm the town, in addition to releasing harmful gases capable of reaching the capital, which is less than 50 km away.
But there is also a worse scenario, that of an explosive eruption, which could occur on the coast or near the town, with a much broader and lasting impact, causing serious repercussions on Reykjavík, the city's airport, and the entire peninsula.
On Monday, civil protection allowed the residents of Grindavík to return to their homes for a handful of hours, to feed and take away their animals, retrieve their most cherished belongings, and hastily arrange their abandoned houses.
"I took advantage of it too, taking a half-day off so I could accompany my son to the dentist," says Barsotti. "But then, when the sunset came and we knew that no one was left in the small town, we all breathed a sigh of relief: it means there is less risk for the population. The eruption could start at any moment: we are ready with our intervention and monitoring plans to try to anticipate any possible contingencies."
What happened to the Eyjafjallajökull volcano?
The Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland gained international attention in April 2010 when it erupted, causing significant disruptions to air travel across Europe. The eruption led to the closure of airspace in various countries due to the ash cloud, which posed a threat to aircraft engines. Thousands of flights were canceled, affecting millions of travelers. The volcanic activity also generated concerns about its potential impact on climate patterns. The Eyjafjallajökull eruption highlighted the vulnerability of modern air travel to volcanic ash and underscored the importance of international cooperation in managing such crises.
What is threatened by the Grindavik volcano's eruption?
The volcano's eruption would be destructive for the town of Grindavik, home to some 3,000 people, but damage could spread further than this. Six kilometres (3.7 miles) from the town there is a geothermal power plant which provides electricity and heat to 30,000 people in Iceland's peninsula. Authorities are building a protective trench around the power plant which would also protect the nearby Blue Lagoon, an iconic tourist attraction.
What are common signs of a volcanic eruption?
Common signs of an impending volcanic eruption include increased seismic activity, characterized by earthquakes and ground tremors as magma forces its way to the surface. Additionally, there may be ground deformation, where the shape of the volcano changes due to magma movement. Changes in gas emissions, such as an increase in sulfur dioxide, can also indicate volcanic activity. Thermal anomalies, detected through infrared imaging, may signal rising temperatures near the volcano. Changes in water levels, ground cracks, and the release of volcanic gases are other signs. Monitoring these indicators is crucial for early detection and risk assessment, helping authorities implement necessary precautions and evacuation measures to mitigate potential hazards posed by a volcanic eruption.
- Before The Eruption: Surveying The Argentine Ghost Towns Of Copahue Volcano ›
- Inside Volcanoes, In Front Of Trains: 10 Stunning Soccer Fields Around The World ›
- Stromboli, The Volcano Helping To Predict When Others May Erupt ›