Farmer Erlendur Björnsson and his wife Þórunn Júlíusdóttir were in Reykjavík celebrating their son’s high school graduation when the subglacial volcano Grímsvötn began erupting on Saturday evening. “We were eating dinner when we got the message and we simply thought, ‘Grímsvötn, that’s nothing. It has erupted over the last few decades and we’ve never had any ash’”.
While Grímsvötn is Iceland’s most active volcano, its eruptions have typically been small and short-lived. Not overly concerned, Erlendur and Þórunn left Reykjavík just after midnight, got back to their farm Seglbúðir at 3:30 AM, and went to sleep. In retrospect they said they were fortunate to get back that night while it was still possible to see through the ash.
The eruption turned out to be ten times larger than the 2004 Grímsvötn eruption, and it produced more ash in the first 24 hours than the entire forty day long Eyjafjallajökull eruption, which just one year ago paralysed air traffic and stranded travellers all over Europe.
When they awoke the next morning around 7:30 AM, it was absolutely pitch black outside, Þórunn told me. Their farm, which sits just southwest of Kirkjubæjarklaustur—80 kilometres from the eruption site—was pummelled with thick ash and,unfortunately, they had just put their flock of 200 sheep out for the summer, as is custom after lambing season.
ASH BLOCKS OUT THE SUN
Iceland’s Route 1, which goes full circle around the island, was closed from Sunday morning until Tuesday evening between Vík and Freysnes, a 145-kilometre stretch in southeast Iceland where the ash was at times so thick that the sun didn’t shine.
“It was something you had been told about, but didn’t believe”, Erlendur told us. “People talk a lot about the 1918 when Katla erupted; it is said that people crawled—they couldn’t walk—they crawled. I can tell you on Sunday it was like that”.
Erlendur explained to us that there is a specific Icelandic word to describe this darkness. It’s “öskumyrkur”, which translates to “ash darkness”. While it is sometimes used to describe a dark Icelandic winter night, that darkness pales in comparison to the darkness that ensues when ash blocks out the sun, stars and lights.
While Erlendur described the eruption as a “medium sized Katla eruption”, he also noted that today Iceland has a rescue team, which distributed masks and goggles to everyone in the area and stayed to help clean up the mess after the eruption quieted down.
We knew very well what he was talking about for we foolishly drove into the ash on that Sunday morning. Passing through Vík just before authorities closed the road on Sunday morning, we experienced first-hand what was probably as close to the doomsday evangelist Harold Camping had envisioned on May 21, the evening that Grímsvötn erupted. We were prepared for the ash to fill the car and seep into every nook and cranny, but we were not prepared for the hazy brown surroundings to turn pitch black as the ash blocked out the sun entirely.
“It feels like being snow-blind”, Grapevine photographer Maroesjka Lavigne said uneasily as she navigated the car into darker territory. We made it within a few kilometres of Kirkjubæjarklaustur when we could no longer see even one road marker ahead of us. Stopped in ‘öskumyrkur’, there was no choice but to call Iceland’s rescue team.
THE TRAVEL INDUSTRY WORRIES
A French man we had met earlier driving from Kirkjubæjarklaustur back to Reykjavík had strongly advised us against continuing on our trip. He was in here scouting the country for a French tourism company, and would be returning home with a negative impression of Iceland as a viable tourist destination. “I can sell snow, I can even sell rain, but I just cannot sell ash”, he said matter-of-factly.
The recent eruption was the latest in a series of crises to test the resolve of Icelanders in the past few years. First it was the collapse of the banks and the Icesave dispute with the Brits and the Dutch. Then it was the difficult to-pronounce-eruption that left thousands of travellers, like the infamous “I Hate Iceland” guy, stranded and Iceland’s hotels empty.
So the Icelandic government was understandably worried about the eruption’s impact on the tourism industry. Iceland’s president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, was harshly criticised for speaking overdramatically when Eyjafjallajökull erupted last year, and the Icelandic Travel Industry Association quickly sent a press release urging the media not to overdramatise the Grímsvötn eruption.
“It’s too much”, said Anna Þórisdóttir, who was with a group of hikers descending Vatnajökull glacier when the Grímsvötn volcano began erupting beneath the glacier. “We can explain one eruption, but an eruption year after year? People are just going to stop coming”. Unable to drive west, Anna and the hikers headed east, full circle around the island, to return to Reykjavík two days later. In the northeast, they faced snow and icy roads, which even in Iceland is not your everyday summer weather.
At the same time, the Smyril Line ferry made its first trip of the summer from Denmark to Seyðisfjörður, an artsy fishing village in the Eastfjords of Iceland. Its 600 passengers found themselves stuck in the small town, pop. 668, where grocery stores were out of milk for two days due to roads rendered impassable by non-eruption related weather conditions.
THE ASH SUDDENLY LETS UP
Meanwhile, Iceland’s volunteer rescue team could be counted on, and wewere guided to a community house in Kirkjubæjarklaustur where the Red Cross was looking after about a dozen others who became stranded in the ash that Sunday morning. They pointed to a stack of mattresses and suggested we make ourselves comfortable.
Local residents and volunteers Páll Ragnarsson and his wife, MaríaGuðmundsdóttir, had made a big pot of asparagus soup and an assortment of open-faced sandwiches for everyone. The clock read 1:30 in theafternoon, but everything else pointed more to 1:30 in the morning. “I thought I would have time to knit today”, María said pointing to her bag full of unfinished work, “but we’ve had about 50 people, counting nurses and the rescue team, come in and out”.
Then just as we had prepared to spend the night, the wind died down, the hazy brown landscape reappeared and a local policeman informed us that we could drive back to Reykjavík. “But hurry”, he said.
This was a relief for farmers who had just let their sheep and new lambs out for the summer before Grímsvötn began erupting. Among them were Jóhanna Jónsdóttir and her husband, Pálmi Harðarsson, who have 300 sheep at their farm Hunkubakkar. “It was really difficult to hear them crying ‘baaa’ while we were inside”, Jóhanna told us. “We couldn’t do anything; it wasn’t possible to go outside. It was so dark that when you put out your arm, you couldn’t see your own fingers”.
While Jóhanna and Pálmi didn’t lose any of their sheep, other farmers were not as fortunate. Looking for shelter, some sheep fell into trenches and died. Others went temporarily or permanently blind from the ash.
Ultimately it’s not travellers or tourists who faced the brunt of the eruption, but Iceland’s farmers, who have to deal with the ash. With the exception of southeast Iceland, the country was largely free of ash, and those travellers who were briefly grounded in Reykjavík were granted free admission to museums and swimming pools to ease the inconvenience it caused them.
Despite having spent the entire day cleaning, Jóhanna Jónsdóttir was in good spirits when we met her at Hunkubakkar late Wednesday evening. She had taped windows and sealed doors with damp towels, but the ash still made its way into her house and the twenty guesthouses she operates. She anticipated vacuuming through the weekend (so they can probably be booked by now at www.hunkubakkar.is).
Jóhanna, who relies on the guesthouses to supplement what she said was otherwise meagre income provided by sheep farming, wasn’t worried about the impact that this would have on tourism. “Some might cancel, but if anything, more will come out of curiosity”, she said. “I’m full of hope and happy to have the rain”.
As The Economist reported on May 28: “ICELANDAIR, the island nation’s national carrier, has been quick to put on a happy face in the wake of this week’s eruption of the Grímsvötn volcano”.
They based this on a press release sent from the airline: “Curious visitors have already begun to flock to the area, eager to check out the
affected area and see the ash for themselves. However, they will have to hurry because the efficient ash clean-up operation is already progressing quickly and local residents hope life in the southeast will be back to normal very soon”.
When we left Hunkubakkar, Jóhanna was getting ready to host seventeen fire fighters who were in the area to help spray houses down, for if the wet ash settles it becomes a stiff cement-like paste. To help with the cleaning efforts, the government also put to work Iceland’s unemployed, which are at 8.3 percent today compared with 1 percent before the economic crisis hit in 2008.
Harold Camping may have been right about earthquakes commencing at 18:00, but the rest turned out to be a bunch of hokey-pokey. While Þórunn and Erlendur were hit by more ash than they had expecting, they took it in stride. “We want to emphasise that this is not doomsday”, Þórunn told us. “This is simply nature at work, and nobody died”.
Thus, life on a volcanically active island goes on.
Saturday, May 21
Grímsvötn confirmed erupting at 19:00. Ash plume reaches 15 kilometres in height. It can be seen from Reykjavík.
Sunday, May 22
Road 1 is closed between Vík and Freysnes. Ash falls so thick in some areas that the sun is completely blocked out until 14:00. This is described as “öskumyrkur” or “ash darkness”. Flights are disrupted in Iceland.
Monday, May 23
Road 1 remains closed. Wind picks up and produces what is called a “öskubylur” or “ash blizzard” near the town Kirkjubæjarklaustur. US President Obama leaves Ireland a day early to avoid being grounded by the ash. KLM and British Airways cancel hundreds of flights.
Tuesday, May 24
The eruption is de facto over in the evening and Road 1 is reopened. Icelandic Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir releases statement: “Our geoscientists say that the eruption is waning day by day and that the problems arising in our neighbouring countries as a result of volcanic ash should be resolved quickly”.
Hundreds of flights remain grounded in British airspace. Ash is expected to reach Germany late Tuesday evening, early Wednesday morning. Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary sends test flights into the “high ash concentration zone” and concludes that it is “perfectly safe” and that “there is nothing up there.” He accuses Civil Aviation Authority of incompetence.
Wednesday, May 25
Rain falls in the southeast and the cleanup effort begins. President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson visits ash-affected residents and farmers. Bremen, Hamburg, Berlin, and Hannover briefly close their airports on Wednesday morning. Flights resume to normal later that day.
MORE VOLCANO FEATURE:
Killer Volcanoes: A Comparative History
Icelandic Volcanism: Where, Why & How?
Volcanology? That’s from Star Trek, right?