Standing close to an erupting volcano is something we never dreamt of doing. It is a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience that changes you forever.
When the Fagradalsfjall volcano erupted in Iceland, we knew we had to go there. It was close enough and relatively safe to get near it. Witnessing a volcano erupting in person might have been a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I can only wish to experience such a thing again, although I am not sure that will ever be possible.
Being close to the volcanic eruption can’t be compared with anything else. No matter how many words I will use to describe it, nobody, who didn’t experience it, will be able to understand. Of course, we have all seen volcano eruptions on our screens, even documentaries with professional footage. But that is just an image or a succession of images. There is much more about being close to an eruption than that.
First of all, the colors and the light are completely different when seen with your own eyes than through the lenses of a camera and then on a screen. Secondly, you feel the heat warming up your body. You hear the sound made by the lava when it gets thrown into the air, then the sound made by the molten lava falling on the hardened lava. Adding to that are the short earth tremors under your feet.
When you move your eyes further away from the volcano, you will see the molten lava river that flows away and floods the surrounding valleys. The further the lava river gets, the more it will harden and turn black on the surface. The molten lava river doesn’t stop there. It goes underneath the hard shell on the surface. In some places, you will be able to see glowing orange cracks under the contrasting black lava.
All this flow of lava is not silent. The molten lava underneath will keep pushing forward, constantly cracking the hardened one. The sound produces by this is like no other. I can only compare it to a combination of stepping on cracked glass and your burning grill charcoals.
Even far away from the volcano, the hardened lava is burning hot. You can’t go too close, and even a few meters away, you will still be extremely hot. You should never forget that under the black hardened lava molten lava keeps flowing and pushing it forward. Under this pressure, the hardened lava can fall at any time. Occasionally, the molten orange lava is exposed, and you might be able to press on it with a long stick for example, or throw a rock. You see the lava flowing like a liquid, but surprisingly it is rock hard, and you won’t be able to stick anything in it.
Everything we were feeling there screamed that we shouldn’t be there, yet there we were. The exact feelings that should have scared us away is what kept us there in owe.
It is that moment that made us realize how alive our planet is. We step on it every day and take it for granted without realizing what sits underneath. We truly are at its mercy, and we’ve been able to witness a volcanic eruption up close just because Mother Nature wanted to let us do so.
The even more mind wrecking experience was the change in lava composition that you can see above. One day the lava looked one way, and the next day it had changed. With the chemical composition change, the density also changed. The lava was now flowing at the speed of our time-lapses. The hardened lava looked differently, too.
The Dangers We Faced
Getting to that erupting volcano was not easy, but it didn’t matter to us. We’ve done it by day and by night, sometimes twice a day. Some days we had snow, others rain, and some we even had sun. Unfortunately, some people slipped on the trail and needed medical assistance. We’ve been there in May, but in February and March, hypothermia was a menacing threat. Partly because of the weather and partly because the hiking path was different and longer.
As usual, I would like to share more details about the hike, but it doesn’t matter now. Since we’ve been there, the lava went over the trail changing it forever. The trail we hiked no longer exists, and the hill we used as a viewing platform is now an inaccessible island in the lava field.
The wind was the biggest threat. Not only that it intensifies cold, but it can get dangerous if it blows from the volcano toward us. The volcano gases can be dangerous, and the search and rescue team was constantly measuring the levels. They all carried gas masks with them for emergency situations, and so did we. One night the wind direction was dangerous, there was also a lot of smoke in the air, and some of the search and rescue members were wearing their masks. We considered it wise to do the same, although their devices still blinked green.
One night we witnessed the first lava bombs created by this volcano. After a powerful eruption, small lava rocks started falling from the sky like rain. Better said like hail, but without the rain. We turned away from the volcano and covered our heads and faces. At first, we got a bit scared and thought that we had to leave, but it shortly stopped. Most of the time, the lava bombs are made of tephra, some very light lava which floats. But not this one. This one was made of regular small pieces of lava.
Another dangerous and rare event that we witnessed was a lava tornado. The cold air and wind, combined with the hot air at the surface of the lava, create the perfect conditions for a tornado to form. A swirl formed several times on the surface of the lava, and it started throwing hot lava around it. It was scary, but we were up a hill and this happened down in the valley where lava was flowing. It posed no physical danger for us, although it was extremely scary.
For Icelanders, the volcano eruption was a weekend activity. On Saturday, many Icelanders gathered at the volcano to watch the spectacle their beautiful country was putting up. They were extremely proud. The whole gathering looked like people at the cinema, but felt completely different. It was more like a community reunion, where everybody was friend with everybody, and we all felt very good to be together and have each others companion.
No matter how much I wish to be able to live this experience again, I realize that any volcanic eruption comes with great risks. I can’t wish for another volcano to erupt because you can never know what disaster it will bring.
I am truly thankful that I have been able to experience such an uttermost moment. It changed me for life!
Don’t forget to stay safe!
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