Wednesday, May 7, 2014

At the Foot of a Volcano

Four years ago I had the adventure of a lifetime when a volcano erupted in Iceland and a friend and I took a jeep right to the crater's feet. I wrote about it in one of my first blog posts: "It sighed and breathed like a magical being, sending up mesmerizing red fountains of molten rock." It made me dream of dragons. 

Two weeks later a bigger eruption, of the famously hard-to-pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, shut down air traffic all over Europe.

Since then, I've been hearing at regular intervals that Hekla, or another one of Iceland's big volcanoes, is going to blow its top.  Here's the latest one, as reported in the Reykjavik Grapevine: "UK Govt: Icelandic Volcano As Great A Threat As Nuclear Terrorism."

It's true that Hekla is overdue for an eruption. Scientists can tell that the magma chamber is full. Warning signs are posted at all the roads and hiking trails in the vicinity of the mountain, with a QR-code you can use to access the latest safety warnings. Last time Hekla erupted, there was only 30 minutes' warning. (Read about the QR codes at Iceland Review.)

Iceland's volcanoes are already heavily monitored, and Icelandic scientists, including my good friend Kristín Vogfjörð, have organized a huge EU-funded research effort, FutureVolc, to try to improve their eruption predictions. (See for more on that project.) 

But sitting where it is, right over a hot spot where the European and American tectonic plates are spreading apart, Iceland is guaranteed to have another big eruption sooner or later. It might be an inconvenience, like the eruption in 2010. Or it might be a disaster.

One eruption of Hekla in 1104 wiped out the medieval farm called Stöng. Archaeologists call it Iceland's Pompei--though they found no preserved bodies. There's a beautiful reconstruction of the medieval longhouse near where the original farm stood.

Even closer to the volcano lies the modern farm of Leirubakki. Driving the long way around from Stöng last year, I went an hour without meeting any other cars. The mountain of Burfell looked like a sugar cube. The greenish glacial river Thjorsá rushed by. Across it, Hekla sat with her head wrapped in black clouds--as usual. "Hekla" means "Hooded One." 

Over the bridge and heading back south, I passed tumbled heaps of cold lava lying picturesquely along the roadside, interspersed with patches of black sand. Here and there grasses and spindly birch were reclaiming the desert. 

Finally, I turned down a lane, passed a hedge of trees, and found an endless meadow filled with horses. A half hour later, after checking into the Leirubakki Hotel, I was on a horse taking an hour's ride through a lava field. Then I treated myself to a long soak in the hot-tub and a delicious fish dinner, complimented by a local beer, in the restaurant of the Hekla Center, the volcano museum on the grounds.

Initially Leirubakki looked to me like a village, a jumble of buildings in vastly different styles. But when I saw it from a different angle, the strange combination of rooflines matched the foothills of the mountain behind them and it all made sense: the main house, the museum and restaurant, and the hotel all fit into the landscape. 

The windows of the restaurant look out onto the volcano, Hekla. The only complaint I had about dinner was the constant noise, like someone idling a big diesel rig outside the room--then I realized it was the soundtrack of the museum next door. A fake eruption was in progress. That put a different spin on things and I began thinking how vulnerable this farm was, sitting at Hekla's feet.

The farmers think about it all the time--which is why they built the museum (with professional help). The next morning I took the tour. It's a wonderful display, very scientific and with lots of educational content presented in an entertaining way. 

Big TV screens show loops of various kinds: aerial shots, eruptions, seismometer readings, a simulation of a magma chamber, paintings and photos of the volcano in action. The walls are filled with quotes about the volcano, including one that names it "the mouth of Hell." A timeline describes the 23 known eruptions since the settlement of Iceland, the first being the big one in 1104. The longest eruption lasted two years. The most recent was in 2000. The next one? It could be tomorrow.

If you want to learn more about Iceland's volcanoes, I recommend Island of Fire: The extraordinary story of Laki, the volcano that turned Europe dark, by Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe (Profile Books, 2014). Read about it here:


  1. This makes me want to seriously study geology.

  2. I trudged to the top of Eldfell on Heimaey on a cold summer day in 1998. I was amazed to scuff the grit with my shoe and find it smoldering underneath, and I though to myself, "If this young mountain decides to open up again and swallows me whole, no one will ever know what became of me." It was all rather sobering.

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