'Indescribable': the heat and roar of Iceland's volcano as spectators flock to watch

The ground rumbles underfoot, then roars as red-orange lava fountains shoot up from the ground, the intense heat cloaking the nearby crowd awestruck by Iceland’s latest volcanic eruption.

“It’s indescribable”, says 40-year-old French tourist Magalie Viannisset, one of the curious onlookers gazing in wonder on Thursday at the fissure that opened up a day earlier in an uninhabited valley just 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Iceland’s capital Reykjavik.

“You feel it in your heart. Imagining it or seeing it on TV is nothing compared to seeing it in real life — there is heat, smells, the sound of the lava flowing”, she tells AFP.

As the lava fountains hit the ground, a blanket of magma reaching temperatures of 1,200 degrees Celsius (2,192 degrees Fahrenheit) spreads into the valley, plumes of smoke giving off an odour of rotten eggs from the sulphur.

Occasionally, helicopters whirring overhead interrupt the roar of the lava.

Some intrepid visitors walk right up to the cooling magma, including scientists measuring its thickness and taking samples to study in their labs.

Others, both locals and tourists overjoyed at being in the right place at the right time, keep a safer distance, taking in the dramatic views from nearby hilltops.

“It’s absolutely stunning,” says Theo, a 14-year-old Norwegian visiting with his family.

The Icelandic Meteorological Office has estimated the fissure is around 360 metres long, with lava fountains about 10-15 metres high.

The lava covers an area of about 74,000 square metres, it said.

– ‘Feel Earth’s power’ –

Visitors must make a strenuous trek to reach the site on the Reykjanes peninsula, around two hours from the nearest car park.

Walking along the trail, people can be heard speaking English, French, Spanish, Italian, and of course Icelandic.

The winding trail runs near the lava fields created last year by the nearby Mount Fagradalsfjall eruption, which spewed up molten rock for six months.

Like scars, cracks in the ground along the trail serve as reminders of the seismic activity that has been stirring underfoot in the region for the past year and a half.

Known as the land of fire and ice, Iceland has 32 volcanic systems currently considered active, the highest number in Europe. The country has had an eruption every five years on average.

However, until last year, the Reykjanes peninsula had not experienced one since the 13th century, when a volcano erupted for 30 years from 1210-1240.

Geophysicists have said the 2021 eruption could signal the beginning of a new period of eruptions lasting centuries. For now, the craters it left behind remain silent.

As the trail approaches the Meradalir Valleys (the Valleys of the Mares), the latest eruption comes into view, enthralling trekkers with nature’s raw force.

“You feel the power of the Earth. You look at the stone and you see it melting, it is not a usual thing”, marvels Agusta Jonsdottir, a 52-year-old Icelandic woman.

Icelanders never seem to tire of watching volcanoes.

“We came early and we were sitting in the moss, watching and enjoying for a couple of hours. And it was so calm”, says Audur Kristin Ebenezersdottir, 53.

“Just you and the nature — it’s very nice.”

Spectators flock to Iceland volcano
Fagradalsfjall, Iceland (AFP) Aug 4, 2022 – Curious onlookers made their way Thursday to the site of a volcano erupting near Iceland’s capital Reykjavik to marvel at the bubbling lava, a day after the fissure appeared in an uninhabited valley.

The eruption was around 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Reykjavik, near the site of the Mount Fagradalsfjall volcano in southwestern Iceland that spewed magma for six months between March and September 2021.

While last year’s eruption was easily accessible on foot and drew more than 435,000 tourists, the new eruption is trickier to access, requiring a strenuous 90-minute hilly hike from the closest car park.

Despite that, more than 1,830 people visited the site on the first day of the eruption, according to the Icelandic Tourist Board, and more visitors were seen trekking to the scene early Thursday.

Among them was American tourist Hather Hoff, 42, for whom seeing lava was “a life goal”.

“I had to sit down and have a little cry because it is so beautiful, so emotional — this is the raw power of our planet,” she told AFP.

Anita Sauckel, a 40-year-old German living in Iceland, visited last year’s eruption and could not resist witnessing the latest volcanic activity.

“This is special with the lava, huge fountains popping out in the middle, and I love that a lot,” she said.

The fissure was estimated to be around 360 metres (1,181 feet) long, the Icelandic Meteorological Office said Thursday, with lava fountains about 10-15 metres high.

Wednesday’s eruption was preceded by a period of intense seismic activity, with about 10,000 earthquakes detected since Saturday, including two with a magnitude of at least 5.0.

The frequency of the earthquakes has slowed since the magma burst through the ground.

The average lava flow in the first hours was estimated at 32 cubic metres per second, according to measurements done Wednesday at 1705 GMT — 3.5 hours after the eruption began — by scientists from the Institute of Earth Sciences.

That is about four or five times more than at the beginning of last year’s eruption.

“The current eruption is therefore much more powerful,” the Institute wrote in a Facebook post.

The lava covered an area of about 74,000 square metres (around 800,000 square feet), it said.

By comparison, last year’s six-month eruption saw 150 million cubic metres of lava spilled over 4.85 square kilometres.

– Gas risk –

Officials had initially urged people to refrain from visiting the site until a danger assessment had been conducted.

But on Thursday, the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management said only that young children should not walk up to the eruption site.

Gases from a volcanic eruption — especially sulphur dioxide — can be elevated in the immediate vicinity, may pose a danger to health and even be fatal.

Gas pollution can also be carried by the wind.

Mount Fagradalsfjall belongs to the Krysuvik volcanic system on the Reykjanes peninsula in southwestern Iceland.

Known as the land of fire and ice, Iceland has 32 volcanic systems currently considered active, the highest number in Europe. The country has had an eruption every five years on average.

However, until last year, the Reykjanes peninsula had not experienced an eruption since the 13th century, when a volcano erupted for 30 years from 1210-1240.

Geophysicists have said that the 2021 eruption could signal the beginning of a new period of eruptions lasting centuries.

A vast island near the Arctic Circle, Iceland straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a crack on the ocean floor separating the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.

The shifting of these plates is in part responsible for Iceland’s intense volcanic activity.

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