GRINDAVIK, Iceland, Nov 14 (Reuters) – Icelandic authorities are preparing on Tuesday to build protective walls around a geothermal power plant in the country’s southwest amid fears of an imminent volcanic eruption.
Seismic activity and underground volcanic flow on the Reykjanes peninsula near the capital Reykjavik intensified over the weekend, prompting authorities to evacuate nearly 4,000 people from the fishing town of Grindavik on Saturday.
The Icelandic Meteorological Agency said in a statement on Tuesday that the possibility of an eruption remains high even as seismic activity has subsided.
Nearly 800 earthquakes were reported in the region between midnight and noon on Tuesday, fewer than the previous two days.
“Low seismic activity usually precedes an eruption because you’re so close to the surface that you can’t build up enough tension to trigger big earthquakes,” said Rikke Pedersen, head of the Nordic Volcanology Center in Reykjavík.
“This should never be taken as a sign that an explosion is not on the way,” he said.
Officials said they were preparing to build a large dike designed to divert lava flows around the Svartsengi geothermal power station, located 6 kilometers (4 miles) from the town of Grindavik.
Justice Minister Gudrun Hufsteinsdóttir told state broadcaster RUV that equipment and materials that could fill 20,000 trucks were being moved to the plant.
Construction of a safety canal around the power plant is awaiting formal approval from the government.
A spokesman for the power plant’s operator, HS Orca, said it supplies electricity to the entire country, although an outage would not affect the power supply to Reykjavik.
All 3,800 citizens living in Grindavik were allowed to return to their homes and collect their belongings on Monday and Tuesday, Iceland’s Department of Civil Defense and Emergency Management said.
In Grindavik, long cracks ran through the center of the town, leaving its main street impassable, and steam could be seen rising from the ground.
A few houses still had their lights on, but the town was deserted beyond the odd car and there were only a few locals there to collect their most important belongings before Grindavik was declared off-limits again.
Local resident Kristin Maria Birkistotir, who works at the town’s municipality, told Reuters on Tuesday that she only had the clothes she wore to work on the day the town was evacuated.
“I’m getting ready if I get a chance to go home and get some of my stuff,” said Birkistóttir, who moved to a summer home with his family.
Some residents had to be transported to Grindavik in emergency responders’ vehicles, while most people were allowed to drive to Grindavik in their personal cars with emergency personnel.
Most of the pets and farm animals had been rescued from Grindavik by Monday night, the Tyrfinna charity said.
In the afternoon, new meters installed near Grindavik by the Met Office detected elevated levels of sulfur dioxide, prompting a full evacuation of Grindavik at short notice, just ahead of schedule.
While there are no other signs of an eruption, the agency said in an update that it cannot be ruled out because gas does not appear until magma is high in the Earth’s crust.
Additional reporting by Louise Breusch Rasmussen, Johannes Gotfredsen-Birkebaek, Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen and Niklas Pollard; Editing: Christina Fincher, Alex Richardson, Mark Heinrich, Alexandra Hudson
Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.