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Living Under The Volcano

Three Months After Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull Eruption

Article and photos by Lies Ouwerkerk
Independent Travel Columnist

Farmland under the Volcano in Iceland
Farmland under the volcano in Iceland.

“Must be a thunderstorm” thought Hans-Martin Moser, one of the museum guides of the Skógar Folk Museum, when he was about to close shop on the evening of April 14, 2010 and looked out of a window. The enormous red sky and accompanying heavy rumbling sounds were nothing out of the ordinary, since for people living practically next door to the Eyjafjallajökull glacier, strong forces of nature had always been a mere fact of life, and glacial rumblings were, after all, the lullabies they had grown up with.

Soon, though, civil protection officials started calling and knocking on doors throughout the area, as a huge explosive eruption of the volcano under the ice cap had shot an incredible amount of smoke and steam into the air, causing torrents of melt water from the glacier to flood down the nearby rivers and onto the lowlands. The rivers rose by up to three meters, forcing folks living directly under the slope to evacuate their properties immediately and head for shelters in the nearby town of Vik. Of course, it had long been known that underneath the picturesque glacier cap an active volcano was brewing, but the 1,666 meters high Eyjafjallajökull had only erupted three times since Iceland’s date of settlement: in 920, 1612, and 1821-23. “Its peak is shrouded in ice, but fire rages below”, wrote Iceland’s famous poet Jónas Hallgrímsson in the early 19th century.

On March 20, 2010, there had actually already been a smaller volcanic eruption of the Fimmvörduháls, close to the Eyjafjallajökull glacier. It had been spewing lava for 24 days in a row, creating spectacular sights of burning red lava against the contrasting white snow and becoming a major tourist attraction for curious onlookers from Iceland’s capital Reykjavik, about 120 kilometers more to the west. The April 14 eruption, however, was many times more powerful and violent because of the interaction with ice and water, spewing volcanic ash not only into the small farming communities lying directly under the volcano, but also into the stratosphere. A strong northern wind spread the ash clouds far towards the south, and soon air traffic in Europe was severely disrupted for nearly a week, grounding more than 10 million air travelers worldwide. Culprit Eyjafjallajökull, having lain dormant for nearly two centuries and until that point unknown to most of the world, suddenly made headlines.

Glacier in the disaster area in Iceland
Glacier in the disaster area.

“Maybe we were too much in shock,” reflects Moser, when I meet with him in the small community of Skógar, three months after the eruption, “but all I could think of that night was my camera and whether I had enough batteries. I was more fascinated by the spectacle than scared of what was actually going to happen.”

It was only in the days following the April 14 eruption that reality slowly set in. The Thorvaldseyri compound, the largest farm in the district and situated at the separation line between mountain and farmland was totally inundated by water mixed with mud and ash, and shifted at least eight centimeters in the ground. By day three, at the peak of the eruption, a large area around the volcano was covered in ash as thick as 15 cm or even more, permanently blacking out the whole district, even on a sunny day.  “We lived in total darkness for days,” says Margrét Einarsdóttir from the neighboring Museum of Transport and Communication, “and thick layers of dust kept penetrating our houses, even after we had sealed all the windows. When we would open the door to enter the house, birds would immediately fly in towards the light. Even now, three months after the eruption, the tape has not been removed yet, as ash particles originating from the mountain or blown from the ground by strong winds, are still floating in the air everywhere.”

During the initial weeks of the eruption, Iceland’s main coastal ring road was completely flooded around Eyjafjallajökull, and closed off for many kilometers. Road workers had to smash a hole in the highway in an attempt to give all the water a route to the coast and to prevent a major bridge from being swept away.

Breathing masks were distributed in order to prevent the fine ash to penetrate the lungs of the area’s farmers who soon returned to the disaster area to take care of their animals, where a string of problems created by the ash fall were awaiting them. All animals had to be kept inside at a time when lambing was just beginning and cows should have gone outside to graze the fields. Now their lands were covered with ash and mud, and contaminated by the ashes’ toxic gases. Luckily there was still enough hay left to feed the cattle for one spring and summer. But as the eruption continued and the animals were kept crammed in their stables, lambs started to die in the overcrowded sheds. Finally, when grazing land outside the danger area could be borrowed, all animals were transported to safer, greener, and more spacious grounds.

The volcanic eruption lasted for 40 days and ended on May 23, 2010.

On the farmlands under the volcano, grass and barley soon started to grow from under the mud and ashes. But it cannot be used, as it is still unknown how far-reaching the consequences of contamination are. The area is recently declared “safe” again in terms of volcanic activity, while scientists keep carefully monitoring the fissures and holes in the ground for possible tremors and undercurrents. In fact, Icelanders are now more apprehensive about another potential volcanic eruption in a region northeast of Eyjafjallajökull: the much larger Katla. So far, this volcano has had a pattern of erupting twice per century, often occurring within months of an eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, to which it might be related geologically. Katla’s last significant activity took place in 1918.

Child showing mud from the flooded grass lands
Child showing mud from the flooded grass lands.

I ask my guide Dórotea Siglaugsdóttir, whether the Icelandic population has been shocked by this latest natural disaster, and her answer is very matter of fact: “that’s what can happen when you live on The Island of Fire and Ice, where snow avalanches, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and glacial floods are the order of the day. Here, we have a strong faith in fate and in the whims of Mother Nature, as well as in our own power to overcome setbacks”. Oddly enough, alongside this fatalistic and yet level-headed way of thinking, many Icelanders also seem to have maintained the centuries-old belief in huldufólk (hidden people): elves, trolls and dwarfs inhabiting rocks, hills, and mountains, and possessing supernatural powers. Maybe it is not surprising, after all, for people who grew up with Viking sagas full of gods and superheroes and spent long dark winters in nearly complete isolation.

Upon my return to the capital, my curiosity about these contradictions drives me to the Reykjavik City Library, one of the oldest cultural institutions of the city, where I delve into books on the geography, history, and folk tales of this nation, and on the supposed “national character” of its inhabitants. I read about the many active volcanoes erupting every few years, some of them having submerged whole towns in lava, about lakes still inhabited by monsters, about terrible ship wrecks and rumors of gold still on the bottom of the sea, about nuns burnt alive for selling their soul to the devil, about inexplicable disappearances and humans turning into animals, and about names for sons or dóttirs as old as the Icelandic sagas themselves. I see pictures of determined, weather-beaten faces, of barren rock and lava lands without any trees, and of merciless winter landscapes when the sun hardly rises. And I come to understand that practically anything is possible on this magnificent and inscrutable island just under the Arctic circle, where in spite of the many natural disasters and mysterious phenomena over the years, habitation and perseverance never died out, and where still to this day a deep belief in magic can go hand in hand with a totally pragmatic approach to life’s unexpected trials and tribulations.

Historical treasures not destroyed by volcano
Historical treasures in the Sk�gar Folk Museum remained largely untouched by the impact of the eruption.
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