Taming Volcanos

REYKJAVIK, Iceland | Icelanders sometimes liken their lives to that of a fly perched atop an anvil. They have to be constantly on alert because a crushing strike of the hammer may come at any moment. On a volatile piece of hot land amidst the cool Atlantic Ocean, the hammer is constituted by more than thirty active volcanos. Their human co-habitants have already learned to both dodge and harness the tremendous power. And the country that has barely recovered from a financial crisis today views the tempestuous landscape with renewed hope.

Inga Júlia Ólafsdóttir near her family’s farm next to a glacier and the volcano Eyjafjallajökull

Inga spent her childhood haunted by nightmares of molten lava flowing toward her home. When it eventually happened, it was a relief. “And there it was, the volcano finally erupted,” the amiable blonde shares in perfect English. “Now we know what it’s like and that we can survive it.” Although Inga Júlia Ólafsdóttir (27) is strolling along a field of lush green barley and behind her looms a silo and cows are mooing, she hardly looks like a farmer’s daughter. With straight platinum bangs, pink nail polish and a black miniskirt she looks more like the cool young Icelanders in Reykjavík’s coffee shops. The impression is correct; just two years ago Inga still belonged to the city crowd.

The eruption Inga talks about is that of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in the spring of 2010 after it had been dormant beneath the glacier for nearly two centuries. The following week, apprehensions about the impact on jet engines of tonnes of volcanic ash spewed out by the volcano resulted in cancellations of more than a hundred thousand flights. The event, perceived by the rest of Europe and the global press as a threat to civilization (Obama will not attend Polish President Kaczynski’s funeral! Thousands of passengers stranded at airports, costs amounting to billions!), was, in the context of Iceland’s history, a mere episode of little importance.

I WON’T GIVE UP

That’s exactly how Icelanders looked at it. “It is just as well that we have foreign media – thanks to them we learned there was a state of emergency in Iceland. And we would have thought nothing extraordinary had happened,” wrote political commentator Egill Helgason when the eruption was at its peak. Aside from similar sarcastic comments, newspaper stories contained words of relief that Eyjafjallajökull caused some distraction from endless debates about the repercussions of the financial crisis that brought the country to its knees in 2008.

The first impression from the plains sprawling directly under the volcano reaffirms the descriptions of a “cute” eruption, as Iceland’s people still dub Eyjafjallajökull’s awakening. One has to employ a great deal of imagination to link this idyllic scene with volcanic activity.  Fuzzy sheep and stocky Nordic horses are lazily grazing in vast grassy valleys, where the eye never meets a tree under the cloudless sky, and rivers fed by the glacier and branching out into dozens of streams are running  fast into the sparkling sea. The breath-taking landscape is only sparsely populated by a farm or a cottage belonging to some Reykjavík inhabitants who need to make a 90-minute journey south to get here.

Only when the wind starts blowing grey ash from higher altitudes that grinds between teeth of both sheep and people can we gauge what force of nature we are faced with. One part of the glacier capping Eyjafjallajökull reaches out into the Markarfljót valley like a finger: this ice mass, normally pure white with turquoise glints, is still ashy grey and the surrounding landscape looks like a barren alien planet – no birds disturb the silence and not a single leaf adorns the blackness of volcanic ash and lava rocks. Sheep used to graze up there too, but after a hasty evacuation they never returned. This is where the flow of “jökullhlaup”, which is the local name for a muddy mix of volcanic ash, rocks and water produced by Eyjafjallajökull (similarly to any ice-capped volcano), rolled down after the eruption.

The final bill for some two thousand local people shows why this eruption has earned such a lenient nickname. Icelanders have experienced much less cute eruptions. For instance, after an eruption of the Laki volcano in the summer of 1783, when in excess of a hundred craters forming a 25-kilometre-long chain had spewed out ash and lava for eight months, one-fifth of the island’s population (more than ten thousand people) and most of their animals died. Those who survived faced starvation because ash smothered some of the crops and the rest failed due to subsequent rapid weather changes.

Eyjafjallajökull – since its power was only one-thousandth of Laki’s explosion – did not claim a single human or animal life. Of some hundred and fifty local farms only one was closed down. Repair of the damage cost millions, but it was covered partly by insurance and partly by government compensation.

The story of the Thorvaldseyri farm where Inga is from has also had a good ending, at least for the time being, even though its thousand hectares of fields and pastures with a two-hundred-head herd of cows and dozens of sheep are located right under the south edge of the volcano. For weeks on end, the wind blowing from the volcano emitting tonnes of ash had blown toward the farm that Inga’s great-grandfather purchased more than a century ago and now her parents and brother run. Their testimony is evidence that, as “cute” as the eruption was, it was still dramatic to be unable to see a thing and hear scared animals wailing in the darkness. The family feared they would lose the farm. But Inga’s mother quickly restored her Icelandic composure, “Yes, we thought we wouldn’t be able to farm here afterward, that it was the end. But [we thought that] only for a day. Then we decided we wouldn’t give up.”

The aftermath of the eruption has been affecting the farmers to date. They have yet to put back into operation their mini-hydroelectric power plant built by Inga’s enterprising grandfather in the 1920s that had made Thorvaldseyri energy self-sufficient. The sediment of volcanic ash in the water keeps clogging the machinery. But there is also a surprisingly long list of positive effects of the eruption: for instance, volcanic ash has proved its “fertilizing” reputation. “We haven’t had to use any fertilizers since the eruption,” Inga confirms.

In a hut they originally rented for pressing rape seed oil, a year ago they built a visitors’ mini-centre and a souvenir shop through which thirty-three thousand visitors have passed since. Incidentally, a family friend – filmmaker – was just shooting a documentary about the farm at the time of eruption. A tranquil farmer’s portrait was instantly transformed into a testimonial of a victorious fight against the volcano that is now shown in the centre.  In addition, the family realized that while they were struggling to get rid of tonnes of volcanic ash, tourists collected it as a souvenir. The result of this equation is extra income that has helped Thorvaldseyri’s owners get back in the black two years after they almost gave up amidst the volcanic darkness.

 

ICE AND FIRE

Iceland is volcanos. Literally and symbolically. Without them the island would not have come into existence. “Without volcanic activity Iceland would still be sitting at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean,” says Iceland’s leading volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson.  Volcanos are also responsible for expansion of Iceland’s territory; when the Katla volcano (a larger neighbour of Eyjafjallajökull) erupted in 1918, the southern coastline of the island stretched out into the sea by several kilometres. The area of the Heimaey island in the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago, located some twenty kilometres south of Iceland, was enlarged by one-fifth after an eruption of the Eldfell volcano in 1973, while the molten lava conveniently remodelled the local sea port.  A decade before an undersea volcano created a brand new island, Surtsey, that today is Iceland’s southernmost territory and scientific laboratory in one. Volcanos contribute to Iceland’s existence in yet another way: an almost treeless country suffers from severe erosion and volcanos at least slow down the “crumbling” process.

When this piece of land in the northern part of the Atlantic Ocean was initially discovered by Irish monks at the end of the 8th century and later by Vikings, its tumultuous volcanic development was far from over (and is not up to this day). Which is what they must have found out right away; soil analyses show that shortly before the arrival of first settlers one of the volcanos had erupted and the island was covered with volcanic ash. And the settlers’ descendants have seen evidence over and over: of thirty active volcanic systems, thirteen have erupted at least once since the beginning of settlement, one eruption every five years on average. Over that time, the record-holders Hekla and Katla have woken up seventeen and thirteen times, respectively. “The volcanos have done their best to get rid of people,” says Páll Einarsson, professor of geophysics at the Institute of Earth Sciences of the University of Iceland, laughing. “But they failed”.

They have scored partial success though: following the Laki disaster, the Danes considered an evacuation of the island’s population to the mainland, since Iceland was then under the Danish Crown. But the Icelanders rejected the invitation, allegedly with the words, “Better live with volcanos than with occupiers!” A hundred years later, however, after more eruptions, sheep epidemics and famines, several thousand islanders left the country, in particular for Canada. Only about a century ago the humans began to catch up in their uneven struggle against volcanos, specifically when Icelanders started figuring out not just how to best map out volcanic activity and protect themselves against it, but also how to use their fiery mountains to their benefit. The number of victims has fallen to a minimum (conversely, Iceland’s population has risen from sixty thousand before the Second World War to more than three hundred thousand at present), and the small island community began to prosper from the volcanos. Today, Icelanders are intrepid amateur volcanologists who discuss volcanos at coffee shops, create art about them, and never miss a close sighting of an eruption.

 

POPULAR ENTERTAINMENT

Lake Kleifarvatn is located thirty kilometres south of Reykjavík. The landscape there is typically devoid of any human activity within sight, with endless lava plains with moss of all shades of brown growing all over them. It is morning and Karolina Michalczewska’s (28) gigantic Toyota SUV has just climbed a nearly impassable path to one of the peaks on the south side of the lake. Here, driven into the ground amidst rocks, is a barely visible metal “point”, and above it is a GPS station which continuously monitors its position in collaboration with a satellite. Karolina, a doctoral graduate student at the University of Iceland and a native of Krakow, Poland, accompanied by another student, Telma, exchanges the battery that powers the station and downloads into her notebook all data collected over the past week. She also checks whether the point is in the right position. Later, in her office at the Institute of Earth Sciences of the University of Iceland in Reykjavík, she analyses data from this station (and another thirty she regularly checks in the region) and inputs the results in graphs and tables. For the past two years, the tables have shown a discernible trend: the land in the region lifts and sinks in regular periods. The Polish scientist’s research has unearthed other peculiarities of Iceland’s co-existence with volcanos, which attract a great number of foreign scientists, who are in turn often amazed at the expertise and enthusiasm of the local population. A few days later in Reykjavík, Gro Birkefeldt Müller Pedersen, a Danish geologist specialized in volcanic formations on Mars, elatedly confides that finally she has found a place where she feels people understand what she is doing. “When you say in Denmark that you study lava structures, people have no idea what you’re talking about; here, they instantly ask for specifics and know what it’s all about,” says Gro.

The land movement at Lake Kleifarvatn has also been keenly observed. “People keep calling, the public interest is tremendous,” Karolina observes with laughter. But there is no need to call. Instead, one can just make a few clicks with a mouse. Scientists gathering data all over Iceland don’t keep it for themselves, but post it on their website in collaboration with Icelandic meteorologists. In addition to Karolina Michalczewska’s tables with her findings, the web shows data from the entire island mapping out occurrence, strength and other specifics of earthquakes for the past forty-eight hours. Every day, the map of Iceland is dotted with colourful marks: for instance, red circular dots represent an almost direct transmission of mild tremors, i.e. tremors measuring up to 3 on the Richter scale occurring within the past four hours. (Tremors of higher magnitude are marked with asterisks.)

Volcanologist Karolina Michalczewska at work.

When scientists mention that Icelanders absorb the data on volcanos during their morning coffee, it sounds a bit pompous, but it’s the reality: farmers, tour guides, civil servants, journalists and the general public, they all do it. “I take a look at it about every couple of days,” says photographer Bjarki Gudmundsson at a coffee shop in downtown Reykjavík, nodding. “It calms me down. I like to know what’s going on.” No wonder these amateur volcanologists are well aware why they should be interested in a piece of volatile land at Lake Kleifarvatn, even though it moves only a few centimetres. When the land moves in an area smelling like rotten eggs and vapours are rising from many places, it might mean it is expanding prior to an eruption. “It might, but it needn’t. An eruption may occur, yet we don’t know when and we don’t know how big it will be,” Karolina Michalczewska acknowledges.

Although some foreign media, especially in the United Kingdom, once again paint a near-disaster scenario for Reykjavík, the locals don’t fret. And even if some volcano eventually does erupt, residents can be expected to run not away from it, but exactly in the opposite direction, as happened many times in the past. When Iceland’s most notorious volcano Hekla reawakened in the winter of 2000, rescue workers had to help thousands of Icelanders. However, they were not pulling them from the crater of the raging volcano, but from traffic jams and snow banks in which cars with curious passengers from all over the country got stuck. Old people, young children and pregnant women, they all wanted to see Hekla. “The eruption started on Saturday exactly at the time of the main evening news, so everybody immediately knew about it, and the moment thousands of people arrived there a huge snowstorm began,” Páll Einarsson recalls. “Volcano watching is popular entertainment for Icelanders and it’s hardly surprising – it’s a wonderful show where nature demonstrates what it can do.”

 

OPEN GAME

Naturally, the often-mentioned volcano Eyjafjallajökull also caused a lot of excitement among the local residents that some remember better than the eruption itself. Margaret Rundlfdóttir (75) was born in London, but during forty-five years of farming in a remote corner of the Markarfljót valley she completely forgot the hustle and bustle of the big city. Recently, Margaret handed her sheep farm to her daughter and has since enjoyed the serene life and breath-taking scenery scarcely disturbed by human activity. The Rundlfssons’ farm is situated on a slope facing the volcano, providing a good, yet safe view. That’s why an “observation station” was built near their house and local authorities directed there forty thousand cars and two hundred buses just the first week after the explosion. “Never before had we seen so many people here,” the retired farmer shakes her head, while sitting at the glass-walled veranda of her house. “Even the Japanese were here, which I didn’t understand at all. Why would they come look at our tiny volcano when they have so many at home and much bigger ones!”

People are attracted to the fiery cones even when those are momentarily dormant. Painter Arngunnur Ýr Gylfadóttir, who returned home with her American husband after years spent in San Francisco and Amsterdam, captures volcanos in her paintings, and also buys land around them. “I’m just irresistibly attracted to them, they are so fascinating,” says Arngunnur. They inspire writers, musicians, architects. A new concert and conference centre, Harpa, which opened in Reykjavík last spring, is a tribute to Iceland’s landscape and volcanos. Although the panelling at this latest gem of the nation’s architecture is not made from genuine lava rock, its dark grey colour and porous structure were designed to remind of it. The main concert hall is completely decorated in dark red and named after the Eldborg volcano, the “flaming castle” in western Iceland. The glass-panelled facade is made of parts shaped to resemble hexagonal crystals of basalt – volcanic rock covering ninety per cent of the island’s territory.

This hunger for information and its generous satiation (an opposite approach to that applied elsewhere in the world where authorities and scientists tend to at least partially withhold information to prevent panic) is precisely what some say explains the peculiar calm of Icelanders in their relationship to volcanos. “When you tell people everything, they won’t panic that somewhere something is happening they don’t know about,” says Páll Einarsson.

There are more prosaic explanations, however. “It‘s because we’ve got lousy weather here,” says an agile man with big glasses, gesturing. You would never guess he is seventy-three years old. Haraldur Sigurdsson can enthusiastically talk for hours about his field, which he has been pursuing for forty years and is still active at it. He spent this past February in Papua New Guinea studying local volcanos, while occasionally he would board a special submarine to monitor volcanic activity hundreds of metres under the sea level. “The weather here is so volatile  that volcanos are not extreme; in fact, they are the standard,” explains the legendary volcanologist who has secured a worldwide acclaim by discovering the Pompeii of the East, the city of Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, which was buried by an eruption of the eponymous volcano in 1815.

Whereas in Hawaii volcanos mar the idyllic paradise of pleasant temperatures and the turquoise ocean, in Iceland they just belong to the family of unusual natural phenomena. If you spend three months a year in permanent daylight and another three months in complete darkness, if you have to rebuild bridges and roads over and over again because unpredictable glacier rivers keep tearing them down, if the weather changes every hour, then you are unlikely to be really shocked by lava shooting into the skies. According to Sigurdsson, evidence of this goes back centuries. Although he continues in his globe-trotting style, he has slowed down a bit. Recently he founded a Volcano Museum in his native Stykkishólmur on the Snfoellsnes peninsula, displaying his own vast collections. During his travels he also collected art (his museum comprises stained glass from a 19th century New York synagogue, Japanese china and Nicaraguan naive art) and explored legends relating to volcanos. “In many places people linked volcanos with dreadful deities, but Icelanders perceived them in a sober, more realistic light,” he says. “People here feared them, respected them, but never viewed them as something supernatural and did not worship them out of dread.”

Indeed, old sagas and folk tales feature giant lake worms and elves, but there are few deities harming people through volcanos. Katla, for example, is named after an old, morose cook, who drowned a young herdsman. Tortured by guilt and fearing her feat would be exposed, she jumped into a glacier.  No one ever saw the murderer after that, but her bad blood awakened forces of nature. Later emerged some visions of a “gate to hell” and “Judas’ imprisonment” but, as Haraldur notes, they mostly originated from foreign sources. In the 12th century, the French Cistercian monk Herbert of Clairvaux described Hekla as a gate to hell, but he never actually saw it. Local chronicles relate a tale from around 1000 when the Icelandic parliament Althing succumbed to Norway’s pressure and adopted Christianity. When a nearby volcano erupted a day after the crucial decision, some chieftains interpreted it as the previous gods’ revenge for the betrayal. “One of the chieftains stepped up, pointed to old lava around them and asked what the gods punished them for when they spewed out lava in the past,” says Sigurdsson. “Already at that time he rejected the notion that volcanos were controlled by gods.”

 

BLUE LAGOON

The Blue Lagoon

Vapours are rising from a small, milky opaque pool of turquoise colour, surrounded by black lava fields. The depth of the pool is barely to an adult’s waistline, yet all bathers are completely submerged in it – except for their heads. The outdoor temperature does not exceed fifteen degrees centigrade, but the water is a pleasant thirty-nine degrees warm. On top of that, faces of the heads bobbing on the pool surface and blissfully grunting are smudged with white mud. The scene resembling a zombie horror movie is complemented by another odd view: a huge steaming power plant reminiscent of Verne’s Steel City, its giant pipes pointing to the sky and releasing clouds of steam with a deafening hissing racket. We are at the Blue Lagoon, forty kilometres southwest of Reykjavík. There probably isn’t a tourist guidebook failing to mention this attraction. What the guidebooks do not mention is that this place is a symbol of Iceland’s journey from poverty to prosperity over the past half-century and the hope that the country will continue in this journey despite the devastating financial crisis.

The Blue Lagoon with the Svartsengi power plant in the distance

At the beginning there was a hot spring. Because the water had to be extracted from considerable depth, its utilization was not developed until the early 1970s when it was facilitated by more advanced technologies (but buildings in Reykjavík were first heated with hot water in the early 1940s). Today the Svartsengi power plant supplies power to some twenty thousand residents of nine towns in the region and, as a bonus, the Keflavík international airport. Soon after the power plant was put into operation, someone noticed the recreational and curative potential of the pools forming around the plant. The water in the pools is in fact a waste product of the hot spring that first generates electricity in the turbines, then passes through special equipment separating steam for heating of houses in the nearby towns and, finally—by then cooled down to a tolerable temperature—is discharged from the plant. Around four hundred thousand domestic and foreign visitors come to the Blue Lagoon annually, with the spa operator ranking among top-earning Icelandic companies.

In recent years, tourism has grown into one of Iceland’s major industries, accounting for five per cent of GDP, compared to only three per cent in the Czech Republic. The sharp depreciation of the Icelandic krona in recent years made trips to Iceland much cheaper. Statistics show that 565 thousand travellers visited the country last year, whereby in the mid-1980s the number was below a hundred thousand a year. Paul Stevens (57) remembers the times of well under seventy thousand visitors, “Today people still come here to enjoy empty space, but back then there wasn’t a soul here.” Paul has just ordered tea and chocolate cake at one of the oldest hostels on Iceland, Fljótsdalur, offering a view across the Markarfljót valley of the aforementioned “dirty” glacier, and he has enjoyed this view every summer since 1971 when he first came as a student. Later he began to return to work as a tour guide who sits out the winter as a university library employee in Stoke-on-Trent, the UK, and come May he moves to Iceland and heads hiking tours up to the glaciers. Demand for his services grows each year from people hailing from more and more distant parts of the globe. “Back then no one even thought about vacationing here,” says Paul. “Today there is an awareness of Iceland.”

 

CHINESE MIRACLE

For a number of places in Iceland’s remote corners, this “awareness” means new hope, one example being the picturesque fishing town of Siglufjörđur on the northern coastline of the island. Once a prosperous settlement that lost more than half of its population after schools of herrings had been decimated in the 1960s, it has regained many inhabitants who need to serve thousands of tourists arriving here to admire the fascinating maritime scenery. Besides tourism, the region profits from geothermal energy which not only provides relatively cheap and clean energy–no other country boasts a larger proportion of renewable energy sources–but also opens a new chapter for the economy crippled by the crisis. These sources help Icelanders lure energy-intensive industries. The local climate is especially favourable for data storage as it adds to the mix, in addition to low-cost electricity, icy cold winds necessary for cooling and easy on the budget (unlike costly air-conditioning, Iceland’s cold weather comes free of charge). Over the past year, several such centres have been established, the last one this spring at the former NATO air base near Iceland’s second largest city of Keflavík. Although none has yet been snatched by a global Google-type giant as in Finland, their future looks promising since Icelandic services are cheaper due to specific climatic conditions.

Foreign countries’ envoys do not head northward solely because of the energy sources (a month ago the British energy minister came to Iceland to discuss supplies of electricity to the British Isles), but also to acquire the country’s know-how. Since the Icelanders began to employ mass utilization of hot springs in the 1920s, they have considerably improved the pertinent technology. In April, these new methods brought to Iceland even China‘s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. It was a remarkable visit dubbed by Icelandic commentators as a “small miracle”. The prime minister of an Asian superpower accompanied a hundred-member delegation arrives in a small island whose population roughly equals that of a residential block in Shanghai, and he does that prior to visiting major European capitals. In addition to showing interest in crude oil and natural gas, thought to be hidden under the bottom of the northern seas, the Chinese were also keen to learn about Iceland’s technologies for extracting geothermal energy. The politicians from these two very different countries agreed they will apply them both in China and in joint projects across the globe.

 

This article was originally published in the Czech magazine Respekt. Translated by Lenka Rubenstein. Photos by Kateřina Malá. See more photos from the trip at www.respekt.cz/fotogalerie