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In which we brave the ash cloud, so you don’t have to

EPI and I headed out to take a look at the eruption last night. We left town around six, because a] AAH wanted to throw a belated birthday party and we needed to get the hell out of dodge, and b] because we hoped we might be able to see the eruption better if we hung around long enough for it to get dark. Or dark-ish, because we didn’t know if it would actually get DARK. It’s a bit touch-and-go on that front right now, since we’re entering the season of the midnight sun.

As many of you will know, Eyjafjallajökull was demonstrating some serious badassery yesterday, belching ash like there was no tomorrow. For the first time since it started erupting you could actually see the plume from the capital region, which is around 150 km away. It looked spectacular. Seriously seriously spectacular. I mean, it’s one thing to see all those amazing photographs, but quite another to witness it with your own two eyes. It is, literally, AWESOME.

I really wanted to experience what it would be like to be right inside the ash cloud, so that’s where we went. For those of you familiar with south Iceland, it started to get a bit ashy around the Markarfljót bridge, and just got worse from there. Every time I thought it couldn’t get much worse, it did. We went as far as Skógar before we headed back.

It’s really hard to describe the experience of standing in the middle of all that ash … so instead of trying to explain it, I made a video. Please indulge me with the commentary and the editing — speaking and walking like that is really not my forte, but this should give you some idea of what it was like.

Like I said, being in there was totally awesome, and also pretty awful. One thing I didn’t allude to in the video was how terrible it must be for the farmers in the area. I mean, it was a buzz going in there and experiencing the ash, but to actually LIVE in there … that must be a nightmare.

Today they made the first major transport of livestock out of the area, which is all good and fine, but the problem is that livestock can’t be transported back. Iceland is divided up into sections to contain livestock, in order to guard against diseases [those noisy grids in the road that you drive across periodically when you’re out in the country — those are livestock barriers]. So if farmers send their animals away, they’re basically saying goodbye to them.

If you watch the video, you may notice the point where I get out of the car that the sound is sort of muffled. That’s what it was like — everything kind of muffled, like when there’s a heavy snowfall and everything is completely still. Except a snowfall seems natural — whereas this does not. It seems eerie. And all that ash falling around you and getting in your nose and throat and eyes … ugh.

When we left the ash cloud we headed back the way we came, but then turned north up into Fljótshlíð. It was around 1 am by the time we got there, and there were quite a few people there. It was also pretty dark [as you can see from the last frame on the video, ahem. I decided to keep it in there, though, just for the commentary] and oh. my. God. it was incredible to watch the magma spurting into the air at the base of the plume, and then lightning flashes in its wake. And of course the humongous ash plume rising into the air, like a mushroom cloud, RIGHT IN FRONT OF US. The tour EPI and I went on back in March to watch the previous [benign] eruption also took us to that same location, but in contrast to that eruption which seemed so far away, this one seemed almost close enough to touch. Probably because of the size and density of the plume, which seems so … immediate.

Anyway. Definitely one of the more spectacular experiences of my life. We also took a bunch of photos that I will post separately. And I have to say I really CANNOT understand why tourists are cancelling their reservations to come to Iceland this summer. If I was them I’d be STAMPEDING to come here, to experience this once-in-a-lifetime event.



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Chris May 16, 2010, 10:52 pm

    Funny, I was there yesterday, too. Not that long (as I was there also the night before) but it was pretty impressive. The area around Fjlótshlid hasn’t gotten so much ash so far, but you can feel and see it everywhere. Really strange and I am really glad not to live there.
    The eruption itself is impressive, really impressive, I completely agree.

  • sigga May 16, 2010, 11:08 pm

    Thanks for that Alda and I think that the Icelandic tourism commission now owes you big time. I sort of want to go there too to see and experience this for myself, not sure if I could handle it though knowing the plight of the farmers and the livestock – I would probably be in tears the whole time thinking how ineffectual I am. Must join one of the volunteer groups to help with cleaning up. Again thank you for going there for me and for your other readers. Well done! bye the bye – did the party go well?

  • Anne B May 16, 2010, 11:38 pm

    Thank you for such a fabulous video!

  • alda May 16, 2010, 11:58 pm

    Sigga – the party went well and was still on when we got home at 3 am. All very civilized, though. 🙂

  • Skúli Páls May 17, 2010, 12:02 am

    Ég var þarna í dag. Undarleg upplifun.

  • sylvia hikins May 17, 2010, 12:25 am

    Wow Alda, that video is incredible- you really feel you are there, especially the pictures of Gullfoss. I think what is putting tourists off is the unpredictability of flight cancellations, which, if you have only got a couple of weeks max, can be really disruptive. We are not getting much info in the UK as to whether Keflavik Airport is closed for some of the time. Not that it would put me off….I’m going to try and get back asap.
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • Mike Richards May 17, 2010, 12:29 am

    Hi Alda,

    Glad to hear you got back safe and sound – if perhaps a little dusty. I’ll jealously watch the video when I’m on a machine that doesn’t suffer from Apple’s little spat with Adobe!

    People are cancelling a chance to see this? ker-azy! It’s just my luck that I’m broke this year and can’t get there for myself. The only problem then would be getting me back on the plane; they’d have to drag me kicking and screaming on to the aircraft.

    In the meantime, if anyone wants to see some videos taken probably a little too close for comfort, check out these ones below. The first one on the second row is simply astonishing.



  • Jon May 17, 2010, 3:07 am

    WOW! Did EPI change the air filter later? It makes me want to come over now and see it firsthand. Then I would feel bad for the folks living in the cloud and maybe help with the clean up and care of the farm animals. I would be worried half to death for my animals if I were in a similar situation. Thanks for the report.

  • Maja May 17, 2010, 6:42 am

    How will the farmers get new livestock when the eruption eventually ends? They’ll have to bring it from somewhere…

  • Joerg May 17, 2010, 7:29 am

    I have been to all those places at the beginning of May. The ashplume was smaller then but the experience was really awesome. I managed to get a sightseeing flight to the eruption site and could actually look into the crater, which was a livetime experience. I have never taken so many photos in such a short time. And the Skógar Foss in bright sunlight with rainbow and dark ash cloud behind and even a smoke ring above was a brilliant sight. I could even walk up some steps towards Fimmvörðuháls.

    The ash ridden farms a Þorvaldseyri and Rauðafell looked pretty dark and scary. Particularly, as I had seen this place last November, when it was all colorful autumn.

    In case of feeling uneasy under the ash one might try to wear a dusk mask. I did so sometimes and I saw people working and even children playing wearing dusk maks. And it is wise to have a cover for camera and equipment at hand, because the fine ash gets virtually everywhere. But it’s worth it.

    Actually, I’ll be back in Iceland in July but it has never occurred to me to cancel this trip. On the contrary – I’m pondering to extend my stay.

  • kevin oconnor,waterford ireland May 17, 2010, 7:34 am

    @Alda hope you enjoyed yourself immensely Grrrrrrrrrrrrr, yours insanely jealous Kevin O’Connor. Maybe Katla will blow especially for me when I stump up enough pesos to get there sometime later in the 21st century or will that be 22nd.

  • kevin oconnor,waterford ireland May 17, 2010, 8:33 am

    Just finished watching your video after 6 minutes you discover why the Selfoss place is not swamped with tourist no mask or goggles extreme sports enthusiasts eat your heart out !!!.Also your accent Canadian sort of laced with Icelandic ha ha ( I have cousins that live in Cornwall Ontario), When you moved back to Iceland did people say to you “You speak Icelandic quite well for a Canadian”. This ash cloud, starting to dawn on everyone that it could keep going for years, My niece is going to New Zealand for a year farm work or something to do with horses and I am in charge of mission/flight planning being an old Australia hand and this ash cloud will she get away in July ?, we are in a situation where the airports open, its closed, its open day by day, by the hour later today maybe. If this keeps up for six months the disruption cost €/£/$ will exceed the much lamented ICESAVE by a big margin.

  • Michael Lewis May 17, 2010, 10:44 am

    “I really CANNOT understand why tourists are cancelling their reservations to come to Iceland this summer. If I was them I’d be STAMPEDING to come here, to experience this once-in-a-lifetime event. ”

    Hassle of getting there may be one concern. I have a fishing trip booked for July. My wife is already giving me grief about it: she thinks the other volcano will go off and I’ll be cooked. I’m bit worried that I won’t be able to fly there: so I may travel up to Scotland and get a ferry if possible, having forked out for the river, I -will- fish the bloody thing. Fingers crossed. I’ll run a huge bar bill, to help the Icelandic economy 😉

  • Sigvaldi Eggertsson May 17, 2010, 11:00 am

    Alda, if the farmers move the livestock to the east, to Síða and Meðalland (they are preparing abandoned farms there) then they stay within the same containment area but if they move the livestock west, across Markarfljót then they are in another area and can only retrive the livestock with special dispensation.
    I also heard that someone was preparing a bill allowing such a dispensation.

  • kevin oconnor,waterford ireland May 17, 2010, 11:18 am

    Tourists canceling their trip ha ha “All the gear and no Idea”

  • Adam Bowie May 17, 2010, 11:52 am

    I think tourists cancelling must surely be down to uncertainty of actually getting there, rather than fear of an exploding volcano.

    As I write, UK airports are once again in an almighty mess (not helped by a BA strike due to start tomorrow). I’ve already had one trip to the US completely ruined, and I’m quite nervous about booking any more flights right now just because I’ll end up not going anywhere – or getting stuck when I get there!

    If there was a UK-Iceland ferry service, I’d happily do it having spent a brief time in Iceland in December, but the only ferry I’m aware of is one from Denmark via the Faroes, and it doesn’t look cheap!

  • kevin oconnor,waterford ireland May 17, 2010, 12:44 pm

    @Adam Bowie yes the ferry option, maybe this is the end of air travel as we know it jim, I am not an internet conspiracy theorist by nature but maybe this is mother earth Gaia reducing all that dreadful carbon footprint ( 2012 top movie) and oh yes it was only a lone gunman in the school book depository in Dallas 1963, it was was it not ????????????.

  • Rebecca May 17, 2010, 1:31 pm

    We tried to go see the ash cloud the weekend after it first erupted, but the day we had to take a drive it decided to calm down. It was crazy seeing the roads torn up by the water (and by the person who destroyed the road to save the bridge from the flooding).

    It’s cool you were able to experience it. I do feel so bad for those people with farms nearby.

  • mary May 17, 2010, 2:35 pm

    Great video, thanks for that. I was one of the tourists who wondered at the waterfall and everything else on my last trip there.
    The ferry trip is amazing, I loved it, like being on holiday. I recommend it.

  • JimJones May 17, 2010, 4:07 pm

    That was an awesome video. One question. Did you see a couple of really short guys, ranting about a ring or something, trying to get to the volcano? Because the scenes from the video look like something out of “Lord of the Rings”.

  • sylvia hikins May 17, 2010, 5:35 pm

    Does anyone know what is the most direct ferry going from UK to Iceland and if you can go as a foot passenger? Is it UK to Denmark/Denmark to Iceland? Or can you go Scotland to Faroes and Faroes to Iceland?
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • Voyager May 17, 2010, 5:49 pm

    Holy crap! Thanks for showing us this.

  • Mike Richards May 17, 2010, 5:56 pm

    Hi Sylvia,

    You need to get to Denmark then join the Symril Line’s weekly ferry to Seydisfjördur on the East coast. The journey takes three days and I bet you in good weather it is absolutely awesome (in bad weather it must be one of the worst crossings imaginable*):



    * but in no way can it be worse than the crossing between Penzance and Scilly which is something like being in a food blender.

  • PeterRRRRRR May 17, 2010, 5:58 pm

    Don’t worry about not bringing face masks along — the cheap, paper mouth and nose filters really only catch the “big” stuff, and it’s the little stuff, that makes it through the mask, that one has to worry about.

    Probably not all that great for your car, either. But, no doubt, looks like an amazing road trip.

  • alda May 17, 2010, 6:05 pm

    Thanks everyone for the input and kind words!!

    Sylvia – check out the Smyril Line website: http://www.smyrilline.com. They are the only ferry company that sails here to Iceland.

  • Mike Richards May 17, 2010, 6:24 pm

    Hi Alda,

    Finally, I’ve got a real computer in front of me – that’s a very cool video! And because you’ve raised my expectations of what you’re willing to do to keep us informed and entertained, is there any chance you’d be willing to shoot a video from the top of the mountain?

    Here’s the benchmark:




  • Michael Lewis May 17, 2010, 6:26 pm

    Mike R – you know volcanoes , any ideas on how long the thing is going to carry on erupting for? Im due to fly out 18 Jul, be good if you could fix it by then 😉

  • kevin oconnor,waterford ireland May 17, 2010, 6:48 pm

    @Sylvia major mission drive all the way to Denmark from UK, this calls for Plan B ie you join a Scottish Yacht Club befriend some yacht owner and say to him “I’ll give you €500 to take me to Iceland” or perhaps a historical society that specializes in Dragon Ship reconstructions but they expect you to help out with the rowing, picture the scene as you battle with the seas,freezing spray blown into your face etc etc, but then when you finally haul into Reykjavik harbour, you can say that you have done the authentic 12th Century Viking experience ha ha.

  • Mike May 17, 2010, 7:42 pm

    Hi Michael,

    There’s absolutely no way of predicting how long this phase of the eruption is going to go on for. I’m basing pretty much everything on what the folks at the Nordic Volcanological Center and the Icelandic Met Office are reporting:


    The last detailed stuff I saw was that the amount of material being erupted is pretty much being matched by new magma rising from deep under the volcano, so this could go on for a while yet.

    It’s certainly getting the vulcanologists I know scratching their heads. Pretty much everyone had expected the volcano to be quieting down by now, but Eyjafjallajökull seems to have more stamina than anyone would like.

    The figure of two years is often mentioned because of the previous eruption from the same mountain, but this isn’t as bad as it might sound. The 1821-22 eruption consisted of two short violent ashy eruptions (like the present one) separated by several months during which the mountain was relatively quiet.

    The good news is twofold:

    First, as summer advances, high pressure south and west of the UK will produce SW winds which will tend to push the ash towards the Arctic and clearing European airspace, and;

    Second, Channel 4 News here in the UK is reporting that Rolls Royce is close to agreeing a higher threshold for ash levels with NATS and the airlines. This means that they think engines are less susceptible to damage than previously thought, and with proper maintenance, the planes will be cleared to fly almost anywhere apart from close to eruptions.

    So your holiday looks safe – what’s the itineracy?

    Of course all of this could be theoretical… looking at the seismic map of Iceland there’s been a persistent cluster of movements deep under Bárðarbunga in the east of the country. Right under Vatnajökull. And unlike Eyjafjallajökull, Bárðarbunga is a monster. If that goes up, screw the credit card, I’m on the next plane/ferry/raft/log…


  • Joerg May 17, 2010, 8:52 pm

    Finally I could watch the video in full. It’s definitely more ash now than two weeks ago. I hope, your car didn’t complain, having to drive in the thick of it.

    By a coincidence I had decided at the beginning of this year to try the ferry this summer for the first time, at least for the way from Denmark to Iceland. Therefore, I am following the airport closures quite relaxed.

    BTW: The Smyril Line ferry does no longer include Lerwick in its sailing schedule. So, as far as I know there is no direct way to get from UK to Iceland via ferry.

  • Elizabeth May 18, 2010, 9:17 am

    Thanks so much for posting your video, it made fascinating viewing.
    My partner and I were hoping to go to Iceland this summer but have to admit we are a bit wary about being able to either get there or get back because of the uncertain nature of the ash cloud. Although having said that with the way things are going in the UK, re: ash and aircraft engine safety levels, give it a few more weeks and I daresay airlines will have decided that it will be ‘safe’ to fly in any amount of ash.

  • Michael Lewis May 18, 2010, 9:57 am

    MikeR – thanks for the info, flying out 18th July, flying back 20th, I’m going to be on the Seydisa river – will get out my Ray Mears book and learn how to build a raft, might be paddling out if its anywhere near Volcanoes 😉

  • Joe Jarrell May 19, 2010, 12:43 am

    Alda, In 1980 I sat on my garage roof and looked at Mt. St. Helens as it erupted in Washington State. We were living in a town just East of Seattle, about 100 miles North of the Mountain. Your video should help people feel what it is like to be close to an active Volcano, eyrie. Please change your cars oil and air filter, the grit will eat a cars motor in quick order. It took many years for the rivers to be dredge back to their proper depth for the fish spawning. The trees came back quickly to everyones surprise, I hope Iceland has a quick recovery.

  • alda May 19, 2010, 12:53 am

    Thanks Joe. I’ll definitely look into that. I had an oil change done just a few days before our trip, but I don’t think they changed the air filter.

  • Joe Jarrell May 19, 2010, 6:31 am

    Alda, The Seattle Times Newspaper is running some special video’s on Mt. St. Helens that you or your readers may want to look at.

  • Adam Bowie May 19, 2010, 11:26 am

    And the always wonderful Big Picture at the Boston Globe has a Mount St Helens retrospective which is full of photos from that eruption.

  • andy rooney obama 60 minutes video age December 19, 2010, 9:36 am

    I really like people who actually write blogs, it is really hard to put together this kind of awareness just about every other means. Splendid job.