Iceland’s beautiful nature brings with it a monster

By | December 20, 2023

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in November and updated on December 19. Catherine Fulton is a Canadian journalist and editor-in-chief of The Reykjavik Vine. She lives in Reykjavík with her Icelandic partner and their two children. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. read more CNN Opinion.

The sky southwest of Reykjavik began to glow bright orange on the night of December 18: the Earth is erupting again.

Catharine Fulton - Courtesy of Catharine FultonCatharine Fulton - Courtesy of Catharine Fulton

Catharine Fulton – Courtesy of Catharine Fulton

Along the Sundhnúkagígar crater row that last spewed lava some 2,350 years ago, a four-kilometer rift has opened, allowing a curtain of glowing magma to spew into the air and deposit a new layer of volcanic earth at a rate of 200 cubic meters per second.

I remember the first time I experienced an earthquake in Iceland. I ran to the nearest door frame. That’s what you have to do, right? – under the sloping ceilings of my attic apartment in one of Reykjavík’s iconic bárujárn houses.

I remember being terribly aware of my fate if the old wood frame and corrugated iron siding decided to simply give way. The shaking ended within seconds, but my knees were shaking and my heart was beating for a while.

I remember the first time I saw an active volcano. It was the Fimmvörðuháls eruption in March 2010; the precursor to the infamous Eyjafjallajökull eruption that began just a month later, spewing ash and memes over its impossible-to-pronounce name.

In what seems like a daydream that I now think back on, I donned a snowsuit, boots, balaclava and helmet and rode a snowmobile across the creaking, crackling, fissured surface of the Sólheimajökull Glacier as the sun set and witnessed a crevasse opening that spewed forth glowing fountains of water. liquid magma high into the sky as a lava fall flowed down the sooty side of the newly formed crater.

Its location was beautifully multisensory. The glow of the lava against the night sky, the heat waves of the eruption that occasionally provided respite from the paralyzing cold on top of the glacier, the sound of the earth churning. That sound remains the most vivid memory: the sound of the earth’s heartbeat.

Hikers silhouetted against rivers of lava resulting from a volcanic eruption between Iceland's Myrdalsjokull and Eyjafjallajokull glaciers in March 2010. - NordicPhotos/Getty Images/FILEHikers silhouetted against rivers of lava resulting from a volcanic eruption between Iceland's Myrdalsjokull and Eyjafjallajokull glaciers in March 2010. - NordicPhotos/Getty Images/FILE

Hikers silhouetted against rivers of lava resulting from a volcanic eruption between Iceland’s Myrdalsjokull and Eyjafjallajokull glaciers in March 2010. – NordicPhotos/Getty Images/FILE

Such perceptible reminders of the tectonic plates shifting beneath me were not something I was used to. Growing up in the suburbs not far from Toronto, earthquakes and volcanoes were phenomena I saw on my television screen or described on the pages of back issues of National Geographic.

The closest my house came to an earthquake would have been the result of slamming my bedroom door with a little too much teenage angst.

It wasn’t until I moved to Iceland in March 2009, lured by the opportunity to witness and report on a country emerging from economic implosion, that I began to understand and appreciate the world’s explosive qualities.

It’s easy to appreciate the physical beauty of Iceland. With its lack of dense vegetation and vast, sometimes arid and sometimes moss-covered lava fields, it has been described to an almost clichéd degree as ‘otherworldly’.

But curious visitors soon learn that Icelandic nature must be respected, not only for its preservation, but also for their own safety.

It’s something all Icelanders know. Their country is beautiful, but there is always danger.

Icelanders have been reminded of this as they saw residents of Grindavík – a small town 50 kilometers from Reykjavík on the southern coast of the Reykjanes Peninsula – displaced and staying with friends and family, and in emergency Red Cross shelters across the country. Although most of the country is safe, much of this peninsula was evacuated in November as the Icelandic Meteorological Office predicted an impending eruption. That outburst has now become reality.

A volcano spews lava and smoke as it erupts in Grindavik, Iceland, on December 18.  - Civil Defense of Iceland/ReutersA volcano spews lava and smoke as it erupts in Grindavik, Iceland, on December 18.  - Civil Defense of Iceland/Reuters

A volcano spews lava and smoke as it erupts in Grindavik, Iceland, on December 18. – Civil Defense of Iceland/Reuters

It is perhaps the Icelandic realization that “this is just the way it is” that made Grindavík residents more likely to stay put when the ground began to shake not far from their homes in recent years.

The peninsula entered a new volcanic cycle in 2019, with an increase in earthquakes and measurable ground rise around the Fagradalsfjall volcano, culminating in an eruption in March 2021. The cycle of near-constant earthquakes heralding an eruption near Fagradalsfjall repeated itself in July 2022 and again in July 2023.

News during these seismic and eruptive periods characterized the earthquakes as an inconvenience to nearby Grindavík – close by, but far enough away from the epicenter of the volcanic action to be well out of danger. The trio of eruptions in as many years were touted as ‘tourist eruptions’ – far from infrastructure and safe to view if you fancied a 10 kilometer walk.

We could also feel the bigger earthquakes here in Reykjavík. Now, in a sturdier concrete house, I could hear shock waves approaching like a large truck barreling down the street before crashing into the building and rolling on.

The 140,000 of us who live in the capital have experienced much the same with the most recent activity on the Reykjanes Peninsula. An odd jolt or occasional rumble.

But the most recent burst of seismic activity, which began on October 25, was different for the residents of Grindavík. Instead of quirky news stories about residents taking seasickness tablets to cope with the constantly moving earth, the epicenter had shifted beneath the city, described by one resident of The Reykjavík Grapevine as a “monster beneath their feet.”

That monster was restless and caused tens of thousands of earthquakes before throwing a tantrum on November 10 that repeatedly pulled the ground from under people’s feet. It was late that evening that Grindavík’s 3,700 residents were ordered to evacuate.

The monster had dug a 15 kilometer long lava tunnel that stretched beneath the city. It then immediately fell asleep, leaving the nation wondering if it was all a false alarm.

But that wasn’t the case.

No one is in danger now and early activity gives volcanologists hope that the lava flow will spare Grindavík. But the explosive nature of this land that straddles tectonic plates, and its potential impact on humans, have been brought to the fore again.

Not since the Westman Islands woke up to an eruption in their backyard in 1973 has an entire town been evacuated. Now everyone waits and watches, wondering if the residents of Grindavík will ever go back home. Will they even want that?

I remember my first volcano. The long and dramatic lead-up to the Sundhnúkagígar eruption will also cement it in my memory.

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