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Why Iceland's Volcanoes Are So Fascinating

As the author of Life Erupted, a novel involving one Icelandic volcano (Hekla), I've been asked quite a lot of late about Bárðarbunga and its recent rumblings and sputterings. Even though I'm not a volcanologist. Some of the questions concern my views as to whether the volcano will erupt and would any eruption prove as disruptive to transatlantic travel, as was the case in 2010 with Eyjafjallajökull. I tell people it is difficult for even real volcanologists to know right now as to how much any eruption would affect air travel but given the volcano's location, a major eruption could cause jökulhlaups, or glacial outburst floods, described so very vividly in some of the sagas. I also tell them Bárðarbunga produced the largest known lava flow to take place on Earth within the past 10,000 years.

Upon hearing this, one friend said, "oh God, no wonder so much of Game of Thrones takes place in Iceland." I guess that makes sense. But I think the interest people have in Bárðarbunga and other Icelandic volcanoes goes well beyond worrying about flights to Europe being messed up. I think much of the fascination can be attributed to Iceland's geography and to the Icelandic people and their riveting history and culture. As any Icelander with a working pulse knows, the past 15 years or so have seen Iceland become one of the world's most attractive and popular travel destinations. North Americans are especially drawn to the country, which is modern and familiar yet comfortably bizarre. Young North American men are particularly fond of Iceland, where they venture to search for volcanic Icelandic beer and beautiful Icelandic women with naturally ice blonde hair and dazzling blue topaz eyes.

The rest of us who are able to go there get on well priced Icelandair flights and hope we encounter the elves properly known as huldufólk, the spirits of virile Vikings at the site of the first Alþing, and a starry, wondrous drive around the Ring Road and its waterfalls, hills and lunar landscapes. Then there is the rotted shark, a prime minister who just might introduce himself to us in a bar by his first name, the tölt of the Icelandic horse, an affordable lopapeysa that doesn't make us look like a sheep, and maybe, just maybe, a volcanic eruption. Because as mesmerizing as volcanic eruptions can be in places like Mount Kilauea or Mount Etna, there is something about seeing a volcano erupt on a sparsely populated, glacier encrusted land mass created by volcanic eruption that also hosts the Aurora Borealis for much of the year.

A place no larger than the American state of Kentucky that counts some 200 volcanoes, most sporting names that cannot be pronounced properly by most native English speakers. Including some that could radically change life on this planet were they to blow in full fashion. It is well known we humans have powerful attractions to that which has the potential to destroy us. Drugs, alcohol, sex, jumping off cliffs, driving cars too fast. And gloriously erupting volcanoes. Especially when those volcanoes are in places as utterly and completely fascinating as Iceland. To be sure, we're worried what Bárðarbunga might do to the world's air travel and to the areas and people surrounding it. But we also just cannot get enough of such beautiful, awful, massive natural fury. We just cannot get enough.

Mary Stanik.

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