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Ode to Holuhraun (ZR)

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Zoë Robert's picture

On Saturday Iceland Review returned to the eruption site, this time accompanied by photographers Elisabetta Rosso (Italy) and Louis Emile Robert (Australia) and their drones. While it was editor and photographer Páll Stefánsson’s fourth trip to the site, the rest of us were here for the first time.

Instead of traveling the 12 to 15-hour journey by road, which Iceland Review took on its first visit to the volcano, we shortened the trip by flying to Akureyri.

Here we had to stock up on food supplies for the 48 hours we would be away from civilization, as well as sort out an all-important gas mask for Elisabetta. Gas masks are not easy to come by and with the main hardware store closed for stock take and other stores yet to open, we were lucky that someone overheard us discussing our dilemma and pointed us in the right direction.

Elisabetta Rosso buying a gas mask for the trip to the eruption

Elisabetta buying a gas mask.

Winter had arrived in Northeast Iceland and the road through the Lake Mývatn area was covered in snow and ice. A couple of hours after leaving Akureyri, we arrived at Möðrudalur, the last inhabited place before Askja. Here we had planned to fill up on petrol but with the guesthouse, café and gas station closed, we were forced to make a 40-km (24-mile) detour. With a long trip into the wilderness ahead, especially during winter and in an area which might need to be evacuated at any time, running out of gas was an unpleasant possibility if we didn’t plan carefully.

Horses on the way to Lake Mývatn

Near Lake Mývatn.

Elisabetta Rosso getting ready to fly her drone

Elisabetta testing out her drone.

After passing the first road closure on the bumpy 4WD track down to Askja, the roads started to deteriorate. After fording several rivers, we arrived at the checkpoint manned by search and rescue workers. Here we had to present our special permit for access to the area—and with everything in order we were given the green light.

Elisabetta Rosso opening the gate to the closed road to Askja

Elisabetta opening the 'gate' to the closed road.

The road on the way to Askja

The checkpoint on the way to the Holuhraun eruption site

The check point.

Getting closer, signs of the eruption in the distance came into view. The eruption was visible only through reflections of the light in the clouds directly above the site, creating some unusual light patterns.

After passing the cabin at Drekagil, which has been the base for scientists, police and rangers, we arrived at the eruption ahead of twilight, the perfect time to photograph.

First, the eruption appeared like a giant fire, undeniably beautiful, the new lava surrounding it with a wall eight meters (26 feet) tall in places. The colors were different, richer than a forest fire, in part due to the clouds of toxic gases rising from the craters. Once closer, the lava fountains came into view. Surprising was the silence, the dead silence as snow fell around us at night and the earth spewed lava from its belly.

The Holuhraun eruption

The following day, we got closer and walked up to the new lava. The silence was broken by an eerie sound, frightening even, like a river of metal, as if big chunks of metal were flowing slowly down a river, clinking and clunking up against each other.

Holuhraun eruption

Holuhraun eruption

The eruption at night.

We were too far from the craters to feel the heat described by those who’ve been closer. In any case, winter had arrived at Holuhraun two weeks earlier and the subzero temperatures—down to -3ºC (26.6ºF) during the day and -10ºF (14ºF) at night—kept us chilled to the bone.

Louis Emile Robert at the Holuhraun eruption

Louis photographing the eruption.

What about the smell? It’s difficult to say since I wore a gas mask almost the entire time. When I did take it off in the car, or when we were away from the volcano’s immediate vicinity, I felt the toxic gases immediately form an unpleasant metallic taste in my mouth. Our gas meter repeatedly indicated that the gases reached dangerous levels, despite the wind direction being in our favor, so I shudder to think what it would be like to work at the site without a mask. The gases are no joke, as the police, rangers and search and rescue workers had warned, and in some areas the oxygen level can drop quickly.

At the Holuhraun eruption

After seeing so many images and videos of the eruption—and having covered volcano Bárðarbunga’s movements since late August—it was surreal to finally see it in person and experience the eruption’s sights, sounds and smells.

At the Holuhraun eruption site

Páll, Louis and myself.

For as long as the eruption continues—which could be until March 4 if one volcanologist has it right—we will be covering its every movement.

Zoë Robert – [email protected]

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