Iceland has raised its alert over the nation’s largest volcano to red, banning all air traffic in the area, after detecting a small eruption.
A major explosion at the Bardarbunga volcano could signal a replay of the global travel chaos triggered when another Icelandic peak blew four years ago, creating a massive ash cloud across Europe.
On Saturday afternoon the Icelandic Met Office (IMO) said it believed there was a small sub-glacial eruption, but by late evening it confirmed there was no evidence of volcanic activity.
“Presently there are no signs of ongoing volcanic activity,” IMO said.
“The aviation colour code for the Bardarbunga volcano remains red as an imminent eruption cannot be excluded.
Airports in Iceland remain open
Although airspace was closed in the affected area, all airports in Iceland were open, authorities said.
The assessment came after three hours of aerial surveillance.
“It’s clear that there are no signs of melting that follows an eruption under a glacier, so the magma has probably not reached the surface yet,” geophysicist Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson told publicbroadcaster Ruv.
Tourist area evacuated
Police said 300 people had been evacuated from a tourist area north of the Bardarbunga volcano, which lies in central Iceland.
“It is only in the canyons themselves, not in the inhabited area,” Husavi chief of police Svavar Palsson told local media.
“Most of the people were foreign tourists.”
The authorities earlier this week evacuated tourists and hikers from the area around Bardarbunga, which kicked into seismic action on Monday with the biggest earthquake registered since 1996.
However, police said there was no sign of a change at the surface of the erupting area and that the ice layer was between 150 and 400 metres thick.
“The eruption is considered a minor event at this point,” Icelandic police said in a statement.
“Because of pressure from the glacier cap it is uncertain whether the eruption will stay sub-glacial or not.”
Not the first time volcano eruption triggers air traffic ban
The eruption of Eyjafjoell, a smaller volcano, in April 2010 caused travel mayhem, stranding more than eight million travellers in the biggest airspace shutdown since World War II.
“There’s nothing we can do if we get another big eruption like that of Eyjafjoell except to interrupt air traffic in the dangerous areas,” Icelandic Civil Aviation Administration spokesman Fridthor Eydal was quoted as saying earlier this week.
“It’s really the only thing we can do,” he said.
The volcano is located in southeast Iceland under the country’s largest glacier Vatnajoekull.
The area around it is uninhabited, with only trekking cabins and campsites used by tourists and hunters in the summer months.
Iceland’s second-highest peak, Bardarbunga rises to more than 2000 metres, and caps the country’s largest volcanic system.
On Monday, seismologists recorded an earthquake of 4.5 on the Richter scale in the area.
Scientists believe its explosion would be large enough to disrupt air traffic over northern Europe and the northern Atlantic, as well as causing major damage on the island nation from volcanic ash and glacial flooding.
In 2010, the Eyjafjoell volcano shot a massive plume of volcanic debris up to nine kilometres into the sky, blowing ash across to mainland Europe.
And in 2011, Iceland’s most active sub-glacial volcano Grimsvotn erupted, forcing Iceland to temporarily shut its airspace and sparking fears of a repeat of the Eyjafjoell flight chaos.