Sublime Icelandic Lava

The Fagradalsfjall eruption, on April 9th. Einat Lev, a volcanologist, says most active volcanoes are so dangerous or remote that they preclude casual visits. She said of Fagradalsfjall, “We’ll never get this kind of access anywhere, in any other place.” Photograph by Brian Emfinger

Our attention to Iceland started in 2013 and by late 2014 it might have seemed like an obsession. For good reason, whenever we see news about Iceland we pay attention and share here. And so it goes again:

Chasing the Lava Flow in Iceland

At a volcanic eruption, the sublime experience of watching land submerge land.

By mid-March, the people of Grindavík, a commercial fishing town at the western end of Iceland’s southern coast, were exhausted. For the previous three weeks, a strong seismic swarm had produced thousands of earthquakes per day, ranging from gentle tremors to tectonic disruptions powerful enough to jolt a person awake at night. Svanur Snorrason, a journalist who lives near the town’s harbor, told me that locals were “pretty much going insane” from sleep deprivation. “Earthquakes, or bad and very dangerous weather, we are used to it,” he said. “I don’t think people were afraid, but they were very tired.”

Icelanders are also used to volcanic eruptions. Yet the Krýsuvík-Trölladyngja volcanic system—which extends narrowly through the Reykjanes Peninsula, in the country’s southwest—hadn’t erupted for seven or eight hundred years. Three-quarters of the island’s population live either on the peninsula or in the nearby metropolitan zone of Reykjavík, the capital. The weeks of rumbling suggested that the system was about to become active again, but such warnings had sounded a year earlier, when similar swarms shook the peninsula. The activity then centered on Thorbjörn, a mountain situated close to Grindavík and the Svartsengi geothermal power station—which supplies heat and electricity to the peninsula—and also to the Blue Lagoon thermal baths, one of the country’s major tourist attractions. The prospect of all three being threatened by lava aroused considerable concern. Yet the earthquakes quieted down, and the lava remained underground, as if, like the rest of the world, it were abiding by pandemic lockdown protocols.

This year, when the earthquakes resumed, scientists recorded the most intense activity six miles northeast of Grindavík, near a comparatively remote mountain that is surrounded by valleys. On March 19th, just after 8 p.m., Snorrason’s seven-year-old daughter asked to go for a car ride. First, she and her father visited the fishing boats in the harbor; then they drove toward a two-lane highway, the Suðurstrandarvegur Road, which runs along a largely uninhabited stretch of Iceland’s southern coast. Though it was now past her bedtime, Snorrason’s daughter remained wired and awake. She pointed toward the mountains north of the road: behind them, surges of pink, red, and orange light brightened the sky.

Scientists later confirmed that, at 8:45 p.m., a six-hundred-and-fifty-foot-long fissure opened near Fagradalsfjall—which means the Mountain of the Beautiful Valley. Snorrason and his daughter were two of the first people to witness a volcanic eruption on the Reykjanes Peninsula since the thirteenth or fourteenth century. Minutes after returning home, Snorrason’s daughter fell asleep.

On May 26th, I drove through Grindavík, and along the edge of the wild, Caribbean-blue North Atlantic, to see the Fagradalsfjall eruption. Information about how far, and how hard, the hike to the crater would be proved elusive and contradictory. The hike might take six hours. Or three. The route was extremely, or only moderately, difficult. In one particularly steep section, there was—or was not—a rope.

The eruption could be seen from Reykjavík, some twenty miles northeast, but I wanted to witness it up close. While researching the trip, I’d learned that hiking to the site might require crossing a treacherously potholed expanse of eight-hundred-year-old illahraun, or “evil lava,” which could easily result in a broken ankle. Depending on the strength and direction of the wind, the crater’s emissions of potentially lethal gas could force the Icelandic authorities to shut the site down until conditions improved.

Because of the Fagradalsfjall eruption’s location near both the capital and the country’s biggest airport, it quickly established itself as Iceland’s latest volcanic mass-tourist attraction. On my computer, in New York, I’d seen videos of people cooking eggs on cooling lava, playing volleyball there, and getting married as craters oozed behind them.

It was therefore disconcerting when, on that late-May afternoon, I drove to the end of an access road and entered a brand-new—but empty—parking lot. A sandwich board was leaning against an uninhabited white trailer, advertising “lamb soup / fish n’ chips / hot-dogs.”

I parked beside a wooden stake on which someone had hung a lost hat, and spotted in the distance a newly laid path, which cut across a vast field of evil lava, hazed by moss, before angling upward and into the mountains. I couldn’t see anyone else on it and began to fear that I’d missed out on what Snorrason had described to me as “the hottest spot in Iceland, literally.” In the early weeks of the eruption, he’d said, Fagradalsfjall was an impromptu festival where you might encounter drunken revellers or the Icelandic President. The customs official who’d stamped my passport at the airport depicted the scene as a daily rager that started at midnight.

Scientists kept changing their estimates of the anticipated life span of the eruption—from a few days to hundreds of years. The last time the Reykjanes Peninsula became active, it remained so for about three centuries. In the nine weeks since the fissure first opened, the site had rapidly and abruptly changed in appearance and behavior. In the first month, eight vents had opened; they were given such nicknames as Norðri (Northie) and Suðri (Southie). In early May, a fissure known merely as Vent 5 transformed into a spectacular fire geyser, shooting lava as high as a thousand feet into the air. Since then, everything but Vent 5 had become inactive. And I worried that even that had gone dormant…

Read the whole article here.

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