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Dancing Around the Volcano (JóB)

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Jóhannes Benediktsson's picture

How does it feel to be surrounded by craters, lava flowing on both hands, emitting toxic gases? Furthermore, you know that at any moment the earth could open up below your feet and ... You don’t want to think any further.

On Tuesday Iceland Review went to the eruption site armed with cameras. The team consisted of two professional photographers and me, a not-so-professional photographer.

The journey was tough. We left Reykjavík at 7 PM and drove through the center of Iceland, 12 hours of the worst gravel roads in Iceland. On the way we went through the thickest fog imaginable. Holuhraun, the site of the eruption is probably the most remote place in Iceland Most people had never heard of it before the earthquakes began in mid-August.

The Road to Holuhraun Eruption

Our first glimpse of the action was a flame-colored glow seen from afar. It was still dark outside and we were driving the through Mývatnssveit, located 80 km (50 miles) north of the eruption site.

At the crack of dawn we saw the smoke rise from the not-yet-visible volcano. The smoke was white and drew a huge line in the sky. It had the same shape as air pollution coming from a chimney. The sun turned red behind the smoke.

The eruption in Holuhraun, black sand, plume seen from a distance.

Photo: Geir Ólafsson

Finally we could see the lava. It was black and flowing very slowly. Its direction was north-east from the volcano and the smoke was floating in the air in the same direction. That was good news for us, because that meant that the toxic gases would not poison us at the craters. At least not while the wind was steady.

The five-day-old lava was already massive in size, but I still could get my mind around how big it was. For some reason I thought: “I could probably circle this area one hour, running”.

I noticed a strange phenomenon on top of the lava: Four dancing baby-tornados. They were pale and connected to the clouds above.

We arrived at the eruption site at 7AM. We were greeted by a handful of scientists, but apart from them we were alone. We grabbed our cameras and headed for the lava. On my way there I made a new friend – a dog dressed in an orange west. He was a bit shy and couldn’t care less about the volcano activity.

Holuhraun Eruption - a charming dog

The lava was around three meters high, very thick and with a razor sharp surface. It somehow crumbled onwards. A cracking sound could be heard in the field, as if something crunchy was breaking apart. Imagine a bowl full of tortilla chips. Now, press your hand slowly into it. That’s the sound.

I noticed many figures in the newly formed lava. It is easy to imagine trolls having turn to stone. I enjoyed the company of an old couple, a troll and the Sphinx. Who knows how steady they are – maybe they’ll collapse in the next storm.

Old couple in Holuhraun Eruption

Troll in Holuhraun Eruption

Sphinx in Holuhraun eruption

The toxic gas came up from the craters. First it was transparent, then white and it finally turned into a brownish/yellow tone like pollution.

The smell wasn’t bad at all, since the wind was in the other direction. Once it turned slightly and I smelled sulfur in the air, like when a match is lit. I immediately went to a risk free location. Of course I also carried a gas mask.

The danger of gases should not be underestimated. They have killed both men and animals in previous eruptions.

Toxic Gases in Holuhraun Eruption

The lava fountains were impressive, reaching up to 40 meters (131 feet). Some threw big red-glowing splashes into the air, whilst others were more polite, adding to rivers of molten lava. One crater was particularly interesting. It looked like an invisible hand was scooping lava rhythmically from the basin.

We didn’t go too close the craters, that’s just stupid.

Páll Stefánsson at Holuhraun Eruption

The day went by and we got some great photos. However, at 3.30 PM our team leader got a phone call from the scientists: Get out of there NOW!

We had no idea what was going on and ran to the car. We followed our own trail to get out of the danger zone. But wait… it had disappeared. The lava had crawled over it and now we didn’t have a 100% safe return road.

And all of a sudden, there was a new river to cross. The glacier had melted in the sun and made a stream of water that flowed directly into the volcano, producing a lot of steam. We were caught in between.

Somehow we managed to find our way back to safety, driving off-road on a rocky surface.

We met some scientists at their cabin in Drekagil. They told us that the earthquakes beneath the eruption were acting out of character. Something must have been going on. Two days later a new rift opened up, close to the old one.

Drekagil Cabin, close to the Holuhrau eruption

At eight o’clock, the scientists decided that we would not be allowed to return to the area. It was too dangerous. A bit disappointing, but nothing to say.

We got into the car and headed for Reykjavík. Fifteen hours later (Thursday at 11 AM) we were there, very tired.

I handed over the photos and went straight to bed. It was a though mission and exciting. I tried to collect my thoughts as I fell a sleep. I was too tired for anything to make any sense. Let’s just say... zzz… it was a blast.

Jóhannes Benediktsson joiben(at)gmail.com

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.