Off the rock: In the land of fire and ice

Iceland blows off steam (again).


In 2014, we featured a story about a man stepping up to a volcano in Iceland. Earlier this year, he interviewed the MV Times art director’s brother, who went with a friend to another volcano that erupted.

On March 19, Iceland experienced its most recent volcanic eruption. The eruption was forecast by what geologists call a seismic crisis, a protracted prelude of quakes and aftershocks numbering in the thousands. The location of the eruption is in an area known as Reykjanes. The valley called Geldingadalur is located only a short distance from the towns of Grindavík, Keflavik, and Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík. This valley and surrounding area are the site of ancient lava spawned from an enormous eruption many years ago. Given the proximity to more than half the Icelandic population, had this volcanic event been of the ancient eruption’s magnitude, the destruction would have been catastrophic.

My son Antonio (Tony) lives in Reykjavík. It didn’t take him long to plan his visit to the valley. What follows is his account of his visit to this newest volcano less than a week after it began. Equipped with a Nikon D810, a DJI Mavic Air 2 Drone F1.2, 48MPX Camera, and hiking gear suited for rough terrain, Tony and his friend Ingthor Juliusson left Reykjavík March 23 at about 5:30 pm.

Upon arrival at the trailhead, they were immediately confronted with a roadside parking jam. Due to high concentrations of sulfur dioxide and a shift in the wind, the authorities had ordered a mandatory evacuation. People were returning in droves from the roughly 8-kilometer hike to the site. It would be another day before Tony and Ingthor would make it to the volcano.

The next and successful attempt took place the following day. Rather than struggling to find parking at the trailhead, Tony and Ingthor, both physically fit, parked in Grindavík and rode mountain bikes 10 kilometers to the trailhead, arriving just before 6 pm. They calculated it would take about an hour and half to reach Geldingadalur, giving them the opportunity at the site to capture images just before sunset, and then spend the bulk of the time photographing at night. The terrain of old lava with a 4- to 5-inch coating of moss covered by fresh snow made the hike challenging. Add to that an elevation gain of about 700 feet near the end of the hike, intermittent snow squalls, and heavy winds, it made for a less than pleasant trek. Both remarked about having passed numerous hikers in small and large groups coming from and heading to the eruption. As they continued their hike, it seemed as though with each step the glow on the horizon intensified. Both said they experienced a surge of adrenaline which led to their increasing their pace. They soon were passing everyone heading for the site, and, breathless, didn’t stop until they had arrived on top of Fagradalsfjall, the mountain overlooking the eruption. Having arrived at the overlook, they took a break to hydrate, have a snack, and check their equipment. As planned, they had arrived at the valley during lingering daylight hours. Even then, seeing the volcanic fissure and iconic cones spewing lava on the valley’s floor made their effort overwhelmingly worthwhile. Both were smitten by the beauty and power of what lay before them. They were not alone. There were many people overlooking the eruption, and venturing down below to the cooling edges of the slow-moving lava flow. Even with so many others present, both expressed an overwhelming sense of awe at what they were seeing.

Blowing snow, the incendiary display of the lava fountain spewing from the fissure, the explosive lava display from the volcanic cones, the red-hot ooze streaming across the valley, the crackling sound of cooling lava, and the scent of gases had a mesmerizing effect on both men. Both remarked that nature had done a great job of framing the scene, as all the surrounding mountains were snow-covered. It was a surreal moment, the likes of which they had never experienced.

As night fell, both men realized the best was yet to come. The reds and yellows appeared to be more vibrant, more saturated. With no light pollution, the lava flow and projectiles that were remarkable during lingering daylight displayed an intensified brilliance. Both were speechless, smitten by the beauty of what lay before them. Equipped with headlamps, they decided to carefully make their way down to the cooling edge of the lava flow. Tony had taken some wide-angle photographs of the eruption and surrounding mountains. His next goal was to photograph the textures of cooling lava and intense glow of the exposed creeping lava flow down on the valley floor. Completing that task, he set aside his digital camera and prepared his drone to record a video of the eruption from above. The accompanying photos are from his digital camera, photos, and frames from the drone video.

Almost six months have passed since Tony and Ingthor made their way to the eruption. There have been dramatic changes. At least one of the original craters seen in the accompanying photos is now inactive. Additional fissures have opened, the volume of lava has increased, and there are now a total of five volcanic cones strewn across the area. The subarctic days are getting longer, and it will be months before darkness returns. The increased activity and international coverage of this event are drawing more and more visitors. As expected, with international travel increasing, thousands are making their way to this remarkable event. Tony and Ingthor are grateful to have visited Geldingadalur as early as they did.

Anthony and Antonio (Tony) are father and brother of Kristofer Rabasca, the art director of The Martha’s Vineyard Times.

This story was originally published in the summer 2021 issue of LOCALadk.