Cooking sausages on an active volcano

"We are lucky to have such a friendly and quite small volcano — at least now it’s still small and friendly!"

Hi,

Just quickly — most of the Webworm tee-shirts sold out on day one. I did not expect that! It’s so cool to know these things are going to be dispersed all over the world! If you purchased one, they are going to start shipping today. The good news is that if you missed out, I had time to dive in and get another batch made — which should be ready by this weekend. Entirely my fault for underestimating demand! Thanks for bearing with me. Okay — onto this volcano I am obsessed with.

Right now there is an active volcano erupting in Iceland. You can watch it here:

In short, this what is going on:

Vefmyndavél hefur verið komið upp á Fagradalsfjalli við Geldingadali þar sem eldgos hófst föstudagskvöldið 19. mars. Myndavélin horfir til suðausturs. Fjallið í bakgrunni er Stóri-Hrútur. Horfa má á streymið í spilaranum hér að ofan og í sjónvarpi á RÚV2. Starfsmenn Ríkisútvarpsins unnu að því aðfaranótt laugardagsins 20. mars að koma vefmyndavélinni í streymi á ný. Hún var sett á Borgarfjall þegar líklegast þótti að eldgos myndi hefjast í Nátthaga, dalnum undir fjallinu. Þá hafði kvikugangurinn teygt sig í suðurátt undir Nátthaga.

I don’t understand that. But I do understand that people are getting very close to said volcano. Very, very close. This seems dangerous and, well, bad. Volcanos are unpredictable. My understanding is that you should definitely not walk up to one. Not when it’s exploding.

But — that is what Icelanders are doing right now.

So I reached out to my friend Olga Komarova who’s there. Olga is a former music promoter and filmmaker from Russia, who was born and raised in Siberia. She’s working with an incredible musician called Ben Frost as his assistant in Reykjavik, while she studies painting.

I asked Olga what the heck was going on with this volcano. And why she was so close.

Okay so first things first Olga, just tell me a little bit about you and why you chose to go to a volcano? 

I live in Iceland for three and a half years. I’m aware that it’s a volcanic island, but I could never imagine myself witnessing a volcanic eruption next to me. Last year I had such a strong feeling that an eruption will happen in Iceland soon, I thought it’ll happen in the end of December 2020, as it could’ve been such a logical end of the covid year.

But the eruption started one week ago, on Friday the 19th of March at around 9.40pm, after a series of earthquakes that started to be felt in Reykjavik about three weeks prior to the eruption. 

Going to the volcano — there were no doubts: it was obvious I’ll go there. Authorities were discouraging people to go there when the eruption just started, but quite soon the authorities actually managed to create conditions for people to be able to visit the eruption site. Information about volcano, weather conditions at the eruption site and so on is constantly updating. If there’s a risk of poisonous gas level from the volcano being high, the access to the volcano will be closed and people will be warned about it via certain websites or social media. I went to see the volcano on Tuesday 23rd of March with a couple of friends. 

Can you tell me a little bit about this volcano, like where is it — and is it sort of newly active and alive, or is this a new thing?

This volcano is absolutely a new thing. It all started on the 24th February with a series of earthquakes that were very well felt in Reykjavik. Earthquakes lasted for about three weeks — lava was searching for it’s way out.

I’ve never really experienced an earthquake, so the first day was a bit worrying, but soon it became a routine. Scientists started talking about an eruption. But no-one could tell when it’s going to happen. The main activity was happening around mountain Keilir, which is seen from my former house — it is very close to Reykjavik!

So, in the end, on Friday the 19th of March the eruption started around 9.40pm in the valley next to the Fagradalsfjall mountain, which is only about 55km from Reykjavik and 30 kimometres from Keflavik, the main international airport of Iceland. It’s called now Geldingadalir volcano.

Or I guess there’s no proper name for the volcano yet, as it’s just been born and it is changing. On Tuesday when I saw it, it was one main crater and a tiny one on the side, now, if you look at the webcam live stream of the eruption, you see our volcano with two even craters — it freaks me out! In a good way.

The last eruptions around that area happened about 800 years ago. And now the landscape is changing in front of our eyes. This volcano is not explosive. But sometimes the authorities close access to it because of poisonous gases.

How did you get to close? Like — is there a tour? Or do you just walk up to it by yourself?

The drive from Reykjavik takes about 30 to 40 minutes. Very quickly after the eruption started, conditions have been created for people to be able to come and see it safely. I think it was very wise decision, as people would go there anyway, now it’s just safe to go. The area is monitored constantly.

Car parkings were organised, and when we arrived to the spot there was such a long line of cars, I’ve never seen anything like that before here in Iceland. But everything was very well organised for cars to park. Then there’s a hike for about an hour. Quite an easy hike except for a couple of very steep parts — but even there they’ve installed a rope to hold on to. There were many people there on the day we went. 

Helicopters and small jets offer flights above the volcano, and recently the bus was organised for those who have no car. It all happened within just a few days. But we got some sudden covid cases — after no cases for a long time — so now we are in some sort of lockdown again. 

It seems that the volcano is going to erupt for a while, so we can imagine the tourism infrastructure being organised there in no time if needed.

What were the safety rules around this volcano?

There were quite a few helicopters and small jets — maybe they were also private and those that take tourists on the flight above the volcano. There are constantly scientists there. There’s a rescue team working on the spot all the time. They’ve told people to get further away from standing close to the volcano, as there were new streams of fresh lava expected in that direction. People obey the rules and follow instructions. 

What was it like? What did it smell like? Could you feel the heat?

I felt like we were at some big music festival with someone like Rammstein performing, or like we were the extras in some action Tom Cruise movie! It was just so surreal, so it was also normal. We are quite spoiled here in terms of natural phenomena: northern lights, geysir, nacreous clouds and stuff like that, so the volcano was not a big surprise, but what a nice surprise!

There was no specific smell really. Only the smell of moss and some grass being burned by fresh lava. I could feel the heat very much standing maybe four to six metres away from fresh moving lava. It’s not possible to come very close to it, super hot. But we were drying our butts standing close to it, after sitting on the grass. Everyone was taking home some fresh cooled down lava as a souvenir. It has a smell, when you smell it close — a bit like gasoline or something. 

You do realise that a volcano is just so powerful and you have no idea what is going on down underground and the whole thing could just explode?! I am terrified looking at your photos?

I was only worried that the earth might just crack under my feet suddenly… but nothing like that happened. There are no incidents so far. This type of volcano is not explosive. We are lucky to have such a friendly and quite small volcano — at least now it’s still small and friendly. But I’m also a bit terrified now, when I think of me and friends and many other people standing just a few metres from the erupting volcano. But no one was preventing us from doing so. Human curiosity was stronger than fear at that moment. 

Is this sort of thing normal in Iceland?!

I don’t know if it’s normal here, but I guess it is. Icelanders are very chilled people and probably used to natural disasters and phenomena. I am not Icelandic, I’m from a quite different area, I’ve never seen volcanoes erupting next to me. But I had no fear, I felt somehow very happy when we heard about the eruption. I felt so happy being close to the volcano. I don’t know how to explain it. There is no fear, but excitement and feeling of being part of nature, part of history and all these kinds of global philosophical thoughts! I miss the volcano and want to come back there as soon as it’ll be possible — these days the access is closed because of very bad weather.   

What was your favourite part of your journey?

I loved everything! The hike to the volcano and excitement, first moment of seeing it in the distance - it was snowing, so visibility wasn't good, one could only see a blurry silhouette of the volcano. Standing so close to the volcano and just watching the lava and listening to the chunks of lava breaking on the cone. Doing barbecue on lava, while chilling and watching the eruption in front of you, watching lava moving slowly and transforming, appearing out of sudden and cooling down: all in front of your eyes.

It was so impressive to see when parts of crater were breaking and large streams of lava would come out of the crater. The sound of it! I loved the atmosphere of the festival - many happy people in one place — it’s been a while since we had this experience. Surrealism of the event — I’d never imagine myself in such a situation. It was one of the best days of my life.

Did you clothes all smell like sulphur afterwards? 

No, not at all. No smell. 


So there you have it. I think Iceland is the most magical place. I really hope I can visit sometime. Olga just e-mailed me actually, with an update:

“I just found out that some viking-settler was buried in the valley where eruption is taking place now. And so now he is even more buried!”

She’s right — you can read about poor old Ísólfur frá Ísólfsstöðum here.

I hope you’re having a great week. Stay away from active volcanos, please (unless you’re Olga). More tee shirts this weekend. And some other things. Talk soon,

David.