It was the third and final visit to the volcano in Iceland which proved to be most spectacular. After carefully monitoring the live webcam, we could see that lava was spewing out and so we once again made our way up to the site.
I’ve taught volcano geography lessons at secondary schools for twenty years but I was not fully prepared for how awesome this was going to be when fully erupting. Firstly, the sound – it was monstrous. The sloshing of molten lava, but a sinister sloshing. A violent and malevolent sloshing.
The lava flow was a surprise, too. I’d seen videos of lava, but the passage of it always seemed to be slow. Not here. As the lava came out of the crater and started flowing down the hill, it crashed over the edge of a rocky edge in a fiery waterfall, flowing as quickly and with the volume of a fast river. Through the binoculars, this molten stream could be seen surging down the slope, with patches of black in amongst the orange being the large rocks it was carrying, flashing by in a split second.
I’d been to the site when the volcano wasn’t erupting and it was very different. The lava that has been put down previously had cooled down and solidified, forming a hard new surface you could walk on. But as the lava flowed down the hill, streams of it peeled away from the main flow and dived under the rock. Underground lava tubes were filled up, meaning you could see the bright orange spots within the black.
Then it started to rain. Only for a few minutes, but the effect was mesmerising. As soon as the water drops hit the hot rock, it evaporated and created a field of steam. Hissing. Humid. The underground tubes full of lava had turned the entire flow into a giant central heating system. Once cold, it was now well and truly turned on and you could feel the heat 100 metres away.
One of the lava flows edged down to nearby the path. This allowed a group of us to get extremely close to the molten rock as it slowed, oozed slowly and gradually cooled and turn black. But when I say cooled, its relative. You could see the lava solidify in places but the heat was unbelievably. Hostile. Unbearable. You could get to a couple of metres of it, but no chance of getting nearer. Despite being out in the open, this was like being in a furnace.
The sounds were incredible too. The cracking and snapping of the rock was formidable, all caused by the new flow of lava forcing its way downhill. And I must mention the smell. At times intense, gassy odours came off the lava flow, pungent and sulphuric. Burnt and smouldering. A real bombardment of the senses. Apart from touch, obviously. You don’t want to touch lava!
Darkness fell later in Iceland, but it was well worth hanging around. The colour of the lava is vivid enough in the day, but at night it’s like a movie set. And the steady flow of people hiking up the mountain meant it was safe and you would not be alone. Some of them looked set up for the night with sleeping bags. It would certainly be a room with a view.
If you can get to Iceland while the volcano is erupting, I’d urge you to get involved. The later you leave it, the more chance you’re going to miss out. I wish you lots of luck.
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