Sometimes it is difficult to go to sleep

Sara Barsotti is a volcanologist and the volcanic hazard coordinatior …

Sara Barsotti is a volcanologist and the volcanic hazard coordinatior at the Icelandic Met Office. mbl.is/Kristinn Magnússon

“It was heavy and strange. I don’t have the number of meetings that were held,” says Sara Barsotti, the volcanic hazard coordinator at the Icelandic Met Office, about the atmosphere at the workplace the day Grindavík had to be evacuated, on November 10.

“Everyone was under a lot of pressure, as the responsibility was great and it was important to brief the public quickly and safely about the situation. There was a loud demand for clarification. We worked closely with the University of Iceland, the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management, and others, and thankfully the channels of communication were short and effective here in Iceland. That is a strong point. It always works well and you can reach everyone involved quickly and those who need to make decisions. It’s so important in situations like this that everyone knows their role. Still, I find it difficult to think back to November 10.”

Critical review of the process

Barsotti believes that everything went as well as it could on that day, but it’s still important to review the whole process critically – to learn from it. “The evacuation went well and there were no injuries. That’s of course the most important thing. But you can always learn from such big events and do better next time. Hopefully, nothing will happen next time, but if it does, we’ll have this valuable experience. That’s exactly why it’s so important to review all aspects of the situation thoroughly. The event itself has taught us a lot – and still teaches us a lot. You can always add to your understanding and knowledge.”

– Do you foresee that Grindavík will be a place where people live again?

“It’s impossible to say. Volcanic activity will continue over the next few years and decades, that much we know. It’s important to keep that in mind in this connection. It will move, though, and will not be confined to Fagradalur and Svartsengi. The continuation of the settlement in Grindavík must be viewed from that point. What I’ve learned during these years here is that the Icelandic people are resilient, as they have various habits, and know a lot of things when it comes to communicating with Mother Nature. So I don’t exclude anything. I’ll reiterate, though, that the event is nowhere near over. Right now, a volcanic eruption is going on while a magma run is shooting in Svartsengi. So, there are two events. This increases the uncertainty. The fact that pressure is building up again under Svartsengi means that magma levels are increasing, which results in continued tension. No one knows how exactly this will go. All we scientists can do is keep monitoring the area and sketching out possible scenarios.”

Not with a crystal ball

– As serious as these events in Reykjanes are, this must be an extremely exciting time for earth sciences people and volcanologists.

“Yes, of course. This has been exciting and horrible at the same time. It’s not always easy to find the balance between the two, as we don’t have a forecast to see what the future holds. The big responsibility lies with us at the Met Office and it’s a privilege to work with all these qualified specialists who always know everything, but at the same time not everything.”

She laughs.

Barsotti mentions trust in this context. “We find that the public-protection sector trusts us, and the public trusts us. Of course, we don’t have all the answers, but people can still trust our assessments and answers. They’re always based on the best knowledge we have. We’re all grateful for this support, but it doesn’t change the fact that sometimes it’s difficult to go to sleep. You always want to know more today than yesterday. Each volcanic eruption is a new journey and it’s easy to make mistakes, as volcanic eruptions are inherently different; no two eruptions are identical. There’s always some uncertainty and something unexpected that can happen.”

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