Published September 26, 2014
“This is what we call a ‘washing board,’” our guide Kormákur Hermannsson says, his voice barely intelligible as we jostle violently on the bumpy mountain road. Indeed it feels like we are driving over one. It’s been nine hours since we set off from Reykjavík to see the Holuhraun eruption in Iceland’s remote highlands, and we are shaking. To our right, the sun is a blinding red ball peeking out from behind the clouds. Mount Herðubreið looms over an orange haze that blankets the horizon. We are still a few hours away from the eruption, yet its presence is unmistakeable.
When we finally pull up to an outpost at the artificial border crossing into the closed-off eruption area Kormákur tells us to mind the doors, as the wind is blowing hard now. Inside a shipping container that has been converted into makeshift living quarters, Gísli Sigmarsson and Hrund Snorradóttir are wrapping up their dinner. As members of Iceland’s rescue team, the couple volunteered to monitor the area for the next 24 hours. Only scientists and the media, provided they have a permit and an Icelandic guide with them, are allowed to pass.
The four of us—Grapevine photographer Matthew Eisman, our guides and I—have travelled nearly 600 kilometres to catch a glimpse of Holuhraun, which is now the biggest lava eruption in Iceland since the 19th century. At the time of writing, it has spewed enough lava to fill every building in Iceland, or more than 8,000 Hallgrímskirkjas, if you prefer.
We are filled with anticipation, a mild sense of dread and a lingering feeling of disappointment—by the time we had made it to Akureyri a few hours earlier, the eruption area had been completely closed off due to poisonous gases. Hoping the closure was going to be temporary, we had decided to keep going, but it was now fairly clear that our laboriously obtained permits would be of no use to us, at least not tonight. Our plans had been foiled by gas and southerly winds.
A life or death matter
“It’s unbearable in there,” Hrund tells us from inside the shipping container while Gísli communicates over the radio with the scientists who are on their way out. “Given the situation today—how much pollution there is and the fact that all of the scientists are leaving—I think it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll get in, but if there’s less pollution tomorrow, it’s a possibility.”
Icelanders know all too well that eruptive gases—carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide—can be fatal. When Laki erupted in 1783-4, the gases had a devastating effect on the country, reportedly killing 60% of the livestock and almost 25% of the population. The “Laki Haze,” as it has been referred to, reached mainland Europe and some say contributed to the great famine that in turn led to the French Revolution.
Poisonous gas was also responsible for the only casualty of the Heimaey eruption in 1973. “That’s a sad story,” says Gísli, who we learn, was a refugee of that eruption. “I was always told growing up that nobody died in the eruption except well, one drunk or drug addict from Reykjavík who was trying to steal drugs from the pharmacy. But this man, who had been at sea, had actually lived in the Westman Islands for a few years, and he had gone into the pharmacy to get painkillers after having been in an accident. It’s sad that all these years we’ve had the wrong idea about this man. It was like he didn’t matter.”
Gísli was one of the 5,200 people evacuated to the mainland after the unexpected eruption began just after midnight in the middle of the winter. His partner Hrund recounts: “When my mother-in-law was on the boat with Gísli, a two-years-old boy at the time—she didn’t know it would turn out so well. You can imagine, if you put yourself in that position, the island is on fire and molten rock is raining over you, and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Although the evacuation was successful, and the Westman Islanders even managed to save their harbour from being closed off by the new lava, the eruption buried half the town in ash and left it uninhabitable for six months. It was a devastating event for those who lost their homes, and a great number of people never returned.
The gas, of course, lingered long after the eruption. “It sits in all of the recesses, and depletes the oxygen. When people drove into lower-lying areas, the car sometimes just stopped working,” Gísli recalls, at once noting the same danger in the Holuhraun area. “Everyone who goes into the eruption area must have a gas mask, and people are advised to stay within five minutes of their car so that they can quickly drive away if gases rise to dangerous levels.”
He emphasises that the area is not being closed just for the fun of it, and brings up the three Icelanders who were caught in the area without a permit not once, but twice. The second time, they had gone disguised as geologists, wearing helmets and yellow vests. They even had a sign made for their truck that read, “Íslenskar jarðrannsóknir” (“Icelandic Earth Studies”). “There’s a reason for closing the area, and people have to respect that,” Gísli says. “I can feel the gas even just walking around here, and the wind is not even coming directly at us—it irritates your throat, you feel it on your lips.”
Only time will tell
An hour’s drive later we find ourselves back at Möðrudalur, an old settlement in the highlands. At 465 metres above sea level, it’s the highest inhabited place in the country, and the farm, which has been run by the same family since 1874, advertises that their sheep and goat are especially tasty given their highland diet. As is common amongst sheep farmers these days, they have branched out into tourism and now run a small restaurant/coffeehouse called Fjallakaffi in addition to offering sleeping accommodation.
Outside Fjallakaffi we meet Jeffrey A. Karson, a geologist from New York’s Syracuse University, who has been in the eruption area for almost a week. “It’s incredible,” he says, his eyes full of wonder. “We don’t have volcanoes, at least not in the Northeast, so we have to make our own lava,” he tells us. “Icelandic students may be able to come out and see the lava flows here, but in the US it’s not so easy.”
While we are now almost thirteen hours into our trip and we still haven’t seen the volcano, Jeffrey waxes lyrical about easy access. “It’s happening in a very flat place, so you can drive around. A lot of times we were going to the main eruptive site or the lava flow and there was no one around. It’s a very restricted area. There are probably only twenty people there. It’s probably better that way because there are some dangers,” he says, “but it’s a spectacular thing and it’s part of Iceland.”
Jeffrey doesn’t have a good sense for whether we would get into the area tomorrow. “The main thing is the wind,” he says. “If the wind changes so that the gases aren’t a problem, I’m sure you’ll go in.”
Unfortunately, we wake up the next morning to find the wind direction unchanged. But that doesn’t stop us from jumping at the sight of a man fuelling up, as if he intends to make the long drive into the highlands. “What kind of vehicle is this?” I ask him. “It’s a German military truck,” he replies. “I made it myself from two trucks. The tyres are 200 kg each. It’s like five of you—with the camera.”
The man is Siggi B, which is short for Sigtryggur Baldursson (no relation to the Sugarcubes’ drummer). He’s guiding Olivier Greunwald, a world-renowned eruption photographer who is also hoping to see the site later today. “He does this for a living,” Siggi says. “He was showing me yesterday when he went to a volcano in Congo. He had something like 25 people carrying all his stuff for two days before they reached the volcano, and when they got to the top of the crater, they went down by ropes, and he was wearing a special heating suit because in the middle there was a pool of magma. He takes amazing photos. He’s professional.”
Siggi grew up in the area and seems to know it inside and out, unlike many Icelanders who he says probably didn’t know where Holuhraun was before two weeks ago. “Reporters talk a lot about the eruption between Askja and Bárðarbunga, but Askja and Bárðarbunga are here,” he says, gesturing into one direction, “and the eruption is over here,” he says, gesturing into the other. “Bárðarbunga is really far away. So it’s between Dyngujökull and Askja, or Vaðalda, but so few have heard of it.”
We learn that Siggi’s father started offering snowcat tours on Vatnajökull in 1970, long before you could get a loan from the bank for that kind of tourism. “It was a family operation, so my brother and I grew up in the area,” he tells us, proudly. Today Siggi runs his own company, Extreme Iceland, and offers special tours. He’s also an avid parachutist and claims to be the first Icelander to land on Bárðarbunga, whose caldera continues to sink and is likely feeding magma to the Holuhraun fissure.
From the horse’s mouth
While Siggi knows the area well, it seems there is just one person who can tell us whether we should stick around or make the long drive back to Reykjavík, and that’s Ármann Höskuldsson, the volcanologist whose name has appeared in nearly every eruption story since unusual seismic activity was detected in the area.
Ármann was on-site taking measurements after the first, brief eruption at Holuhraun when the second eruption started. “It was very impressive, when we came upon the second eruption,” he says. “It happened at night, so when the magma came up from the fissure, which sits on the hills, it was like seeing a giant serpent-like dragon. It was really, really quite impressive.”
With a team of eight PhD students, Ármann has been in the area more or less since the eruption started. “We are documenting the event, and trying to get as much information about it as possible, both after the fact, and also while it’s happening to help the authorities make informed decisions,” he explains to us from a house in Mývatn. “All of this helps us to understand what’s happening. Ultimately it’s also important for an Icelander who is born one hundred years from now, so when there’s another eruption at Bárðarbunga, he doesn’t stand there with his mouth wide open, saying, ‘Oh no, there’s an eruption, what should I do?’”
When I ask him about the future, he’s quick to say that he’s not in the business of looking into a crystal ball. “We’re trying to collect the best information possible so that the authorities can react and advise the public,” he explains. “It doesn’t make sense to tell all Icelanders to close their windows because there’s poison gas coming from the eruption. Then you would have everyone in the Westfjords closing their windows, though the gases weren’t there.”
Speaking of gas again, Ármann does not mince his words. “Due to southerly winds yesterday, the poisonous gases lay over us, and it’s not healthy to sleep in this stuff, so we left. We aren’t there to kill ourselves. We’re there to try to get information,” he says. “If you go in, you’ll have to have gas masks, and it’s at your own risk. If you die, you just die. We can’t help you there.”
He continues: “We are fully prepared to find people lying there, and in that case we’ll just call the police, give them the GPS coordinates, and they’ll come get the body,” he says. “We ourselves are battling to stay alive. The rule is that can’t go further than five minutes from the car. If you’re fifteen minutes away, we’re not going to wait. In this case, it’s not ‘all for one, one for all.’”
By the end of our chat, it’s clear we aren’t going anywhere but home. “I’m not in charge,” he says when we ask him if he thinks the area will open later today. “It’s up to the sheriff in Húsavík, but I’m not going to go in, so I won’t be giving him any information about the gas. If it’s anything like it was yesterday, it’s disgusting, but I mean if you want bronchitis or something, you can go in.”
And so we set off, not toward the eruption, but in the opposite direction, making another near-half circle around the country before returning to Reykjavík almost 36 hours after we took off, bright eyed and excited the previous morning.
Our guide, Kormákur Hermannsson, runs the company Iceland Expeditions. check them out here: www.icelandexpeditions.is/