Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Iceland's Volcano Show

The New York Post called it "The Volcano that Shut Down the World." The ash cloud from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull eruption in April 2010 caused more than $1 billion in losses to the airline industry and grounded thousands of travelers for days. In Iceland, it wiped out roads and water lines and covered farms with four inches of cement-like ash.

But when I was there that Easter weekend, it was just a "tourist eruption." I was one of 15,000 people who hiked, rode snowmobiles or jeeps, or flew helicopters or planes to the site.

Why did we go? 

"Volcanoes are sublime," said one person I asked. "It's terrorizing and beautiful -- and beautiful because it's terrorizing."

Said another, "I was depressed because I'd lost my job, and this woke me right up. Mother Nature was playing a role in my life." He added, "You must experience this with your own eyes."

I booked a jeep tour. Three hours from Reykjavik, we let some air out of our tires and climbed onto a glacier. We drove an hour on the icecap, guided by GPS, and parked in a long line of jeeps. 

A half-mile away loomed a black caldron, with gray-blue arms of lava stretching out over the snow. It sighed and breathed like a magical being, sending up mesmerizing red fountains of molten rock. Some bombs arced so high they looked like shooting stars. Others bounced on the crater rim and rolled like gold coins. At the cooling face, the lava bulged and broke, tinkling like bits of glass. As the sun set, the colors grew more vivid. A fluorescent yellow tongue oozed over the crater side. Lines of orange lights twinkled on the dark ridges of rock. The lava fountains turned hot pink.

Ten days later, the volcano forced a new channel straight up. Hot lava hit the ice our jeep had been parked on and blasted it 35,000 feet in the air. No tourists were there that day -- it was snowing too hard.

You can read a different version of this story in the August/September 2010 issue of The Penn Stater magazine and an interview I did with an Icelandic scientist, and Penn State alum, on the Penn Stater blog. A third, very different take on it will appear in the May 2012 issue of Highlights for Children.

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