We really don’t stand a chance, do we?
With calm surrender to my fate, these were the words that entered my mind as the helicopter steadily emerged over a ridge on the Reykjanes peninsula. In front of me—of us—the pudgy black tephra of the Geldingadalur eruption site unceremoniously materialised surrounded by a bed of fresh snow, which we were now landing on. In the centre of the flow, rising ominously like the spires of a cathedral, lied the craggy cone, which—as fate would have it—was in the midst of vomiting up a violent gush of bright, neon lava. Flying high in the air, the lava then landed, spilling out the sides of the cone and settling down into the basalt until it cooled and, ultimately, slowly assimilated with the days- or hours-old rock.
At the moment, I couldn’t put my finger on what I felt. It was something that I had never experienced before. Something that truly hit me, that truly troubled me. But now, days after my flight with Norðurflug Helicopter Tours to the baby volcano, I know what it was:
The limits of life
The maximum body temperature a human being can survive is around 44°C. After that, proteins denature and the brain, essentially, cooks. Lava, meanwhile, varies between 700º to 1,200°C. It’s outside the realm of our existence and, despite having concocted various inventions—kevlar and such—to handle it, it’s up there with gamma rays and prions. It’s death.
Gamma rays and prions, though, can’t be seen by the naked eye. Lava, meanwhile, is like a peacock. Stand in front of an erupting volcano and you can’t help but gape at the shining orange sludge. It’s mesmerising, calling out intrinsically to the depths of the human soul much like the songs of the sirens. The French call it l’appel du vide or the call of the void—man’s innate fascination with that which would destroy us—but perhaps, it’s time to rename it l’appel du volcan.
Because, as the helicopter slowly circumvented the volcano, Geldingadalur called out to me. In my head, I saw my foot reaching out to softly poke the pillowy lava or putting my hand into the cloud of ash just to see what it felt like. And so I watched, buckled comfortably into my seat, as the smoke poured out of the volcano, casting a shadow over the pristine snow. It was Plato’s cave realised—and like those poor inmates, I couldn’t look away.
Watching from afar
Softly, we landed at the volcano for a prompt 15 minutes, which gave us a chance to admire its beauty from atop the surrounding hills. Opposite us, hikers marched like ants; some keeping their distance while others ventured bravely just metres from the destruction. I, perhaps in a stroke of good fortune, was relieved of the choice to go close—we were too high to walk down and back in 15 minutes. I, therefore, didn’t even have to consider whether I would heed the call of Geldingadalur or ignore it. I could, like those cave-dwellers, merely watch from afar.
The creation of the watch
If you look at the Earth on the geologic timescale, volcanoes are commonplace. Iceland, in particular, would probably resemble a pot of boiling water. But for us humans, who exist for but decades on this speck of blue dust, a volcano is a wonder. And a volcano that you can safely stand but a skip away from and watch it erupt—that’s an anomaly. That’s serendipity.
The Watchmaker thought experiment, popularised by philosophers like Descartes, puts forward the notion that physical laws work so perfectly, like a watch, that they must imply the existence of a designer—a watchmaker. And it’s hard not to think of some sort of greater order, purpose or reason when you watch a volcano. We live so far from the cruelty of nature that seeing it naked in all its terror inevitably inspires some sort of existential nightmare. A falling drop of lava is the result of a geological domino effect that’s occurred for millions, if not billions, of years on our planet. And a falling drop of lava in an accessible, picturesque location like Geldingadalur—that’s a watch.
But the watchmaker here is ethereal. It’s nature as a whole, which—in its terror, in its death—is also perfection. A perfect nightmare. For while volcanoes spell death for humans, for the earth, they herald rebirth. Old crust becomes new, having undergone aeons in the depths of the mantle reforming to once again rise to the surface and say hello to the sun.
So no, in the face of lava, we don’t stand a chance. But that doesn’t mean we can’t sit, watch, and marvel over the shadows it coughs out into the sky.
Helicopter Tour provided by Norðurflug Helicopter Tours. Check them out at helicopter.is.
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