There are active volcanoes across the globe. When they erupt people can die and whole communities vanish.

Two scientist stand on the ridge of a volcano in Iceland

Scientists of the University of Iceland take measurements and samples standing on the ridge in front of the active part of the eruptive fissure of an active volcano in Grindavik on Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula, 19 December 2023. (AP Photo/Marco Di Marco)

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What would you grab from your house if you were threatened by a volcanic eruption?

It’s a question that Siggeir Ævarsson, Soffía Sveinsdóttir and their two children faced when they evacuated their house in the small fishing town of Grindavik, Iceland in the last weeks of 2023.

The community had been shaken by days of constant earthquakes, powerful enough to remind Ævarsson of the time he worked at sea, sailing through the wild North Atlantic seas.

“Usually when you have earthquakes in Grindavik, you get small quakes then a big one that releases tension,” Ævarsson said. “But it didn’t happen. It was big quakes followed by more big quakes.”

Finally, the family had enough. “We packed our cats, clothing for one or two days, computers and my wife’s cello — it’s expensive and sensitive to all the vibration,” he said.

Soon after the family departed, volcanic fissures appeared. Fountains of orange lava cascaded upwards and covered roads. Huge cracks in the ground appeared around the area.

Lava spreads and people disperse.

Iceland’s Metrological Office, which monitors volcanoes and earthquakes as well as weather, has geoscientists with decades of experience in managing volcanic activity. The scientists believe that a series of eruptions which started in 2021 on the Reykjanes Peninsula, where Grindavik is located, could last for years.

Iceland is a prosperous country. The geologic forces that create volcanoes there also create geothermal power. Houses, buildings and factories are heated by harnessing this power. Greenhouses heated by geothermal in the middle of lava fields provide delicious vegetables year round. And millions of tourists visit every year to swim in the geothermal pools and travel through the dramatic landscape formed by volcanic activity.

Because of this wealth, Iceland has been able to adopt sophisticated volcano preparedness protocols that work well in a small, wealthy and well-connected country. 

It’s a different story for Indonesia, a nation of islands which stretch across three time zones. Monitoring and preparedness work is much more challenging and the infrastructure is underdeveloped in many areas.

When natural disasters such as volcanoes strike, wealthy nations with a robust civil society are better able to look after their citizens.

With there’s spewing of ash, it helps to have cash.

Since the first volcanic eruptions in Grindavik, Siggeir and his family have only returned to their home to retrieve more possessions. Some of the other residents of Grindavik took a risk to spend Christmas in their homes only to be evacuated once again three weeks later when more volcanic fissures appeared overnight. Live stream cameras, which monitored the eruption, showed several houses being swallowed by lava.

The residents of Grindavik are now scattered. Some are in the capital of Reykjavik as well as other towns. The Icelandic government is covering 90% of the rent for the displaced townspeople. The salaries of Grindavik workers who lost their jobs in the town’s businesses are now being paid by the Icelandic government. And the Grindavik children are continuing their classes in four different schools until they settle in new homes.

The Icelandic parliament will help homeowners in Grindavik transfer the capital from their uninhabitable houses to purchase new property elsewhere. This kind of financial support would be impossible in many countries.

There is also another kind of support that Iceland provides. As Iceland Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir pointed out in a press conference about the Grindavik eruptions, people talk about their feelings in Iceland.

“We will be focusing on strengthening the psychological support because until now people have been waiting for the day that they can return home,” Jakobsóttir said. “Now when they see the lava flowing over their homes it’s a great shock.”

The burning ring of fire

There are more than 1,300 active volcanoes on this planet, according to the U.S. Geological Service. Astronomers have also found volcanoes elsewhere in our solar system: on Mercury, Venus, Mars, our moon and at least one moon of Jupiter.

Iceland is one of the most volcanic places on Earth because the island sits bang on top of where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet, the continent-size geological underpinnings of the Earth’s crust.

The boundary between the plates is known as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where magma and lava rise from deep in the Earth’s core and are spewed out from volcanoes, like the ones that created Iceland.

To find even more volcanoes and earthquake zones, head to the countries surrounding the Pacific Ocean. The boundaries of where the Pacific tectonic plates meet are where 75% of Earth’s volcanoes are found.

It’s called the “Ring of Fire” for a good reason.

Active volcanoes, plate tectonics and the “Ring of Fire”

Active volcanoes, plate tectonics and the “Ring of Fire”

Eruptions across the Earth

Indonesia, a nation spread across 13,000 islands, has the largest number of active volcanoes. Indonesians have also suffered the most fatalities. One recent incident in December 2023 was the eruption of Mount Marapi, which claimed the lives of at least 23 people.

In May 2023, 1,000 people had to be evacuated near the tourist town of Antigua in Guatemala because of the eruption of the volcano Fuego, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Back in 2018, an eruption of Fuego killed 194 people and left many more displaced.

Volcanic activity is found worldwide with most eruptions in 20 countries spread around the globe from the United States to Antarctica. So why are some places hit harder in terms of loss of life, disruption and economic damage?

A key factor is the type of volcano.

Indonesia and many other countries in the “Ring of Fire” have composite or stratovolcanoes which are characterised by violent eruptions. The lava spewed by composite volcanoes is called “sticky”, meaning it forms steep-sided slopes that result in cone-shaped mountains.

Not all volcanoes pose the same danger.

Famous eruptions like Krakatoa in Indonesia and Vesuvius in Italy were from composite volcanoes.

Over 36,000 deaths were attributed to Krakatoa when it erupted in 1883. The dramatic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, near modern-day Naples, was well-documented by ancient Romans but the death toll, estimated at around 1,000, is impossible to verify.

Icelandic volcanoes are the less violent type known as shield volcanoes. As the lava is runny and flows a long way before it solidifies, shield volcano eruptions form only gentle slopes. The Hawaiian Islands are another example of shield volcanoes which formed the archipelago.

Living with active volcanoes is also easier if there are established early warning systems and evacuation procedures. Icelandic history and geology has encouraged the implementation of policies in the public interest. Seismometers and satellites which measure changes in the landscape are some of the methods used.

But despite living in a wealthy nation that can use technology to warn people and cushion the economic blow after an eruption, for a third generation resident like Siggeir, loss of the tight-knit community of Grindavik is irreplaceable.

Questions to consider:

  1. What possessions would you grab from your house if you had to leave suddenly?
  2. Do you ever encounter any safety issues from nature, rivers or even volcanoes? How do you deal with those natural hazards?
  3. How do you think recovery from volcanoes can be made more equitable across the globe?
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Tira Shubart is a freelance journalist and media trainer based in London. She has produced television news and trained journalists across four continents for international broadcasters, including BBC News, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Al Jazeera, over several decades.

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ScienceWhen the Earth erupts, what can you do?