This September, almost 100 years after Katla’s last eruption, a particularly volcanic piece of history is brought back to life. Fittingly located in the middle of the Katla UNESCO geopark in the town of Vík, The Icelandic Lava Show pours forth the molten remains of the volcano’s old fury, including real molten lava for the common person to behold.
It’s a pretty neat box to check on your bucket list. Where else, if not in Iceland—the place with more than 30 active volcanic systems—should you get the opportunity to toast the tip of your nose staring down at a viciously sizzling flow of molten rock.
The real deal
The booklet for the exhibition features the unnerving line: “The show recreates a volcanic eruption… by pouring molten lava into a room full of people.” But there’s really no reason to worry. The organisers have made sure that none of the spectators will be at risk of singeing their shoes or getting a lungful of dangerous gases. The show takes place in a small auditorium, with two rows of seats placed around a sort of lava catwalk, caged behind safety bars. We don our protective goggles and prepare for the eruption.
The presentation starts with an introduction to the natural forces that have shaped Iceland’s volcanic landmass. This includes a true story about one of the exhibition founders’ great grandfather, who witnessed the infamous and devastating Katla eruption of 1918. After the tingle of excitement in the room, a more serious mood sets in. We’re about to lay our eyes upon one of the most wild and ferocious phenomenons in all of nature. Even in this controlled setting, it’s still a raw and merciless force.
The lights dim, and as the speakers send the deep rumble of a volcanic eruption vibrating through the walls and into your body. An opening in the wall lights up, and a slender, slow-moving trickle of candescent, glaringly bright, searing hot amber pours onto the platform, where it meets a plate of ice and starts to blister into gleaming bubbles.
The air thickens with heat and the sizzling sound of the rapidly hardening and continually breaking crust. The molten stone slows down, solidifying into dozens of transparent and pitch-black obsidian bubbles. The whole room flickers, and as the lava cools it sends unimaginably thin transparent threads floating slowly above our heads. This light-as-air volcanic glass is known in Iceland as nornahár, or “witch’s hair,” and indeed, it does seem magical.
Home baked lava
You might think baking cinnamon rolls would be a more traditional path for a small family business. Well, not in Iceland. Here, families bake genuine lava. The hard-working couple behind the Icelandic lava show is Júlíus and Ragnhildur, along with their three boys.
The idea for this venture was a puzzle that has been clicking together piece by piece since 2010. The grain of inspiration that started it all was the vivid impressions from the eruption of Fimmvörðuháls (the area between the glaciers Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull in southern Iceland) in 2010. Among many other Icelanders, Júlíus and Ragnhildur were overtaken with curiosity, and went to witness the eruption first-hand. They were astounded by the contrast of flaming lava streaming onto white, melting icefields; the thunderous sounds and overwhelming heat. “It was like nothing we’d ever seen before,” says Ragnhildur.
This sparked the idea. What if this mesmerising experience could be brought to people in controlled conditions? Although many would like to see an eruption, most people aren’t able to schedule their lives around volcanic forecasts, nor jump on a plane to visit an eruption site filled with molten lava and poisonous fumes.
In the following years, the idea was set aside when Júlíus and Ragnhildur’s sons were diagnosed with autism. But, as Ragnhildur says: “Seeing our boys overcome so many challenges and grim expectations, we were inspired not to give up.”
In the fall of 2015. another piece of the puzzle clicked into place. A YouTube video brought them together with scientists at Syracuse University, in New York. After seeing two guys crazy enough to conduct experiments with man-made lava, the couple packed their bags and went overseas to discuss a curious business idea. After several years of passionate work, and with the help of their friends, family and business partners, their vision has now become a reality—one that pours real molten lava out before your very eyes.
The focus of the exhibition is very much the substance of molten lava, rather than Hollywood theatrics, so don’t expect a massive installation of liquefied rock splashing down a mountain side. However, despite still being in its early stages, the show does have a notable “wow” factor. It’s also the perfect addition to a day spent exploring southern Iceland. After marvelling at real life volcanoes and hiking along their slopes, the Icelandic Lava Show is the final point in experiencing the molten hot origins of this chilly island.
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