Through the foreign media we learned that there was an emergency in Iceland. True, the main airports were closed, the inhabitants of a whole region in the south of the island had to be evacuated. The alarmists at Fox News even picked up some dubious science and prophesised imminent danger for the whole globe.
And, well, the volcanic eruption in Fimmvörðuháls, a popular hiking trek between the glaciers of Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull, dominated the news in Iceland for some days. To the population this came as a relief from the incessant nagging, gloom and ill feeling that has increasingly characterised local discourse since the economic collapse in October 2008. The Icesave scandal, on top of the media agenda for almost a year, was suddenly quite forgotten—just a few days after a high profile national referendum, closely followed by foreign media, that was supposed to be a turning point in Iceland’s struggle with its creditors.
However, it was not—and the issue seems to be just as muddled as before.
But an eruption—that is something you can feel and see, something tangible and clear-cut, with brilliant images, physical danger; opportunities for media people to shine with violent nature as a backdrop.
No spin, half-baked truths or lies.
A small and cute eruption
The media in Iceland love their volcanic eruptions. And they are very good at reporting them, as there were numerous eruptions in the last 60-70 years, more so than in other periods of Iceland’s recent history.
However there never was a real emergency. The alarm was due to overzealous members of the National Emergency Centre, who foresaw a scenario where aircrafts would be engulfed by clouds of ash coming from the eruption and farms being flooded by melted ice, rocks and debris from the area around the volcano.
This could happen with a major eruption of a volcano of the magnitude of Katla in the south of Iceland. Katla is due to erupt sooner than later, the last famous outbreak in the mountain occurred in 1918. But this definitely was not a catastrophe. Indeed Ómar Ragnarsson, Iceland’s most famous reporter of natural phenomena—as well as an environmentalist, pilot and popular entertainer—said that this was a “small and cute” eruption, “one of the smallest” of the twenty or so he had witnessed.
But of course volcanic outbreaks in Iceland can be deadly serious. The most famous one is the eruption of Lakagígar, close to the glacier of Vatnajökull, in 1783. This resulted in a period of unspeakable hardship, generally referred to as Móðuharðindin (The Mist Hardships), because of the smog engulfing the country at the time of the eruption. Scientists now believe that extreme weather in the northern hemisphere, both in Europe and America, in the aftermath of the eruption was due to fumes spewed out by this volcano. A poisonous cloud spread over Europe; the emissions of sulphur dioxide are estimated to have been 120 million tonnes, three times the annual European output in recent years.
The population was decimated, possibly a fourth of it died in the ensuing famine and more than half of the livestock. People who had lost their livelihood roamed around the countryside begging for food. At this period Iceland was probably the poorest, most desolate country in Europe. The time of Móðuharðindi is generally considered the lowest point in the nation’s history.
Some spectacular eruptions
Since then there have not been eruptions of this magnitude, and in fact very few lives have been lost in volcanic outbreaks in Iceland in recent history. Some eruptions have however been quite spectacular. The eruption of Hekla, Iceland’s most famous volcano, in 1947 lasted for a year and is in some ways the first real media outbreak; pictures of its clouds reaching high into the sky were ingrained on the minds of Icelanders. In 1963, there was an eruption in the sea just south of Iceland, lasting for three years and creating the island of Surtsey, a paradise for geologists. The 1973 eruption of the Vestmannaeyjar Islands was not big, but it posed real danger as it happened next to a thriving fishing town with more than five thousand inhabitants.
It is maybe the finest moment of the Icelandic republic when the inhabitants of the islands were rescued overnight and given shelter in homes on the mainland. The town was eventually saved, through great effort—including using water to cool the lava flow from the volcano—and this is still a shining example of national solidarity.
A tourist eruption saves the government
Back to the present outbreak of Eyjafjallajökull, which is now being referred to as a “tourist eruption”—good for attracting tourists and bringing sorely wanted foreign money into a country suffering from a total collapse of its currency, unemployment unheard of since the 1930s, internal strife and an unprecedented lack of confidence in a nation that usually has rather high ideas of itself.
Maybe it would be an overstatement to say that the eruption saved the government in its moment of greatest peril, but it sure took some pressure off it. After the Icesave referendum on March 7th, the government was perceived as being on its last legs. The government leaders, Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir of the Social Democrats and finance minister Steingrímur J. Sigfússon of the Left Greens, had not bothered to show up for the vote. The bill they had supported—stating how vast sums of money should be reimbursed to British and Dutch owners of savings accounts in the bankrupt Icelandic Landsbanki—was voted down by an unheard majority of 93 percent.
The polls showed that their left wing government, in place for little more than a year, was as unpopular as the centre/right wing government that presided over the great collapse. Luck seemed to have completely abandoned the coalition parties.
But then suddenly it returned in the guise of the eruption, which happened shortly before a long awaited Easter break—after this winter of discontent—when people either go travelling or turn their gaze inwards, to their families.
There were also other factors. The opposition sort of overplayed its hand when it started calling for the government to resign after the referendum. People more or less thought: The government is not good, but they are not the bunch to tell us so. For there is a general dislike of politics and politicians in the country—and it is not quite forgotten that the present opposition parties, the Independence Party and the Progressive Party, created the conditions for the collapse in 2008, the privatisation of the banks and the overblown financial markets.
Another group of people, not exactly popular, also went too far, unwillingly helping the government.
One of the main disputes in Iceland is a very long and drawn out struggle over fishing quotas. In a country where fish is the main source of wealth, this is very important. In stages, some twenty years ago, governments decided to literally give the fishing quotas to ship owners of that period, instead of, for example, renting out these resources. This created enormous riches in the hands of a few people. It is now estimated that 70 percent of the fishing rights in Icelandic waters are in the hands of 70 people who consider the quotas their private property, even if the law states that the Icelandic nation is the rightful owner of the fishing stocks.
This has for a long time been like a festering sore on the political body, but previous governments have been too weak or unwilling to do anything about it. The quota owners are also probably the fiercest interest group in the country.What happened is that some years ago monkfish increasingly started to be found in the sea around Iceland. The present government decided to rent out monkfish quotas instead of giving them rent-free to quota owners—who could then rent them out themselves—as is done with most species in the Icelandic waters. Under pressure from The Federation of Icelandic Fishing Vessel Owners (LÍÚ), the Confederation of Icelandic Employers (SA) answered by withdrawing its support for a stability pact between them, the labour movement and the government.
This gave the government an opportunity to shine. Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir gave a rousing speech declaring she would not cave into the demands of the quota lobby. It was the best day her regime had had for a long time.
But then, this is a very vacillating government. So a bit later, when it came to distributing quotas for mackerel, another recent and growing species in Icelandic waters—maybe due to global warming—the Minister of Fisheries decided to do almost exactly the opposite, giving almost all the quotas to the ship owners, thereby making the government’s policies totally unintelligible.
This is the case with many matters. The government has problems agreeing on anything. The larger party in the coalition, the Social Democrats, might be said to be quite coherent in its focus on joining the European Union and collaborating with the International Monetary Fund, policies that are not exactly popular at the moment. But the Left Greens are all over the place. They do have a pragmatic pro IMF faction, but the party also encompasses anti-globalists, people who generally dislike capitalism—who in some countries are termed as the “loony left”—environmentalists, but also a farmer’s faction with strong nationalistic leanings. This prompted Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir to say in a recent speech that to work with the Left Greens was like rounding up cats which, of course, in the present climate of suspicion, created a minor crisis within the government.