We are lost in a whiteout on the side of the most famous volcano of the 21st century, Icelands Eyjafjallajkull. A blinding snowstorm rushed over us in a matter of minutes and we had to turn around to avoid driving right off into the crater. Now we are heading steeply downhill into a white void.
Suddenly our superjeepa jacked-up 4-wheel-drive with big balloon tireshas lost traction and were sliding sideways down the glacier. The windshield and side windows are a smear of disorienting snow and fog, and I feel certain we are about to plunge into the maw of a crevasse.
Do you know where the crevasses are? I ask my Icelandic guide, Karl Ingolfsson.
Ingolfsson, sanguine as the Viking he is, grins. Most of them. As a naturalist, historian, raconteur and professional glacier driver, Ingolfsson has spent more time on glaciers and in blizzards than anyone I know.
Author Mark Jenkins climbs out of an ice cave on Langjkull
Glaciers thrive on whiteouts and bad weather, he says. They wouldnt exist without them.
Perhaps Ingolfsson wouldnt exist without them either. As an accomplished skier, ice climber and mountain guide, glaciers are his natural habitat. Built like a polar bear, with a bald, basketball-size head and mischievous blue eyes, he isnt even looking out the windshield; hes hunched over the steering wheel staring at the little screen on the GPS.
We are somewhere on the eastern flanks of Eyjafjallajkull, the volcano that erupted 10 years ago and resulted in the largest air traffic shutdown in northern Europe since World War II. Spewing 500 tons of ash into the air every second, the Eyjafjallajkull eruption closed airspace across Europe for a week. Our original goal had been to drive up the heavily glaciated volcano and circle around the crater rim, examining whatever changes have occurred since the 2010 eruption. Zero-visibility conditions, which we would experience many times in the next few weeks, turned us back.
We should be crossing our uphill tracks, says Ingolfsson, talking directly at the GPS. Open your door and see if you can spot them.
I swing open the passenger-side door and the storm envelops me. I lean my face down close to the moving glacier and attempt to identify old tire prints.
Nothing, I shout. Cant see a thing.
No problem, Ingolfsson replies as I slam the door shut.
For over an hour we travel blind, Ingolfsson navigating exclusively by GPS, confidently guiding the superjeep through a swirling, opaque whiteness. We dont drop out of the storm clouds until we are off the glacier and back on black volcanic rock.
He spins the jeep around so we can see the storm cap over the volcano.
Well try again when the weather improves, he growls, clearly disappointed that he has been thwarted by the extreme conditions he so relishes.
Superjeeps are jacked-up 4-wheel-drive vehicles with big balloon tires
Iceland, a stark Arctic country with only 360,000 inhabitants, sits directly on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This is a 16,000-kilometre-long crevice where the North American plate and the Eurasian plate are separating and magma from deep within the earth is bubbling up. The island itself is entirely composed of lava.
By Icelandic standards, the Eyjafjallajkull eruption was quite small, and yet it caused enormous economic havoc. Between April 15 and April 20, 2010, more than 100,000 flights were canceled and the airline industry lost $1.7 billion. The postmortem revealed two reasons why this particular eruption was so disruptive.
"The magma exploded when it came into contact with the glacier ice, explains Pll Einarsson, fragmenting into very fine particles that would remain aloft for several weeks. Einarsson is a leading Iceland volcanologist who has published 150-plus papers on the subject. We meet in his office at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik.
"However, the most influential factor was the weather: The ash plume was blown directly south, says Einarsson with a wry smile. It was almost a joke how efficient it was at getting into an area where it could do maximum damage.
In comparison, an eruption 100 times more powerful occurred just a year later, from the Grimsvotn volcano, 70 miles northeast of Eyjafjallajkull. The plume reached 12 miles into the stratosphere, but the wind blew all the ash north over the Arctic Ocean.
Hardly anyone outside Iceland knew or cared about the 2011 Grimsvotn eruption, Einarsson adds.
Grimsvotn has a grim history here in Iceland. It has erupted at least a dozen times in the past 500 years. In 1783, a fissure on the southwest side of the volcano, called Laki, exploded, spraying clouds of poisonous hydrofluoric acid and sulfur dioxide across the country. Over half of the livestock of Iceland was wiped out, which led to a famine that killed about 25 percent of the islands population. The sulfur dioxide subsequently cycled through the Northern Hemisphere, causing crop failures across Europe and killing 6 million more people. Benjamin Franklin wrote about a constant fog over all Europe, and a great part of North America. Some climate historians even connect the food shortages started by the Laki eruption to the French Revolution of 1789.
And Grimsvotn is just one volcano, says Einarsson. We have 33 active volcano systems in Iceland, with an eruption occurring about every other year. Eruptions are our most popular form of entertainment, he jokes, obviously pleased. With the Brdarbunga eruptions in 2014 and 2015, everybody wanted to go have a look, and civil defense had to close the region due to the high levels of sulfur dioxide in the air.
Dark striations in the ice are layers of volcanic ash left over millennia
Tyler Stableford/Getty Images
Brdarbunga, another volcano beneath the Vatnajkull ice cap only 20 miles north of Grimsvotn, is the location of the most recent eruption in Iceland. Scientists had known Brdarbunga was about to blow for months. GPS measurements had revealed the volcano was inflating with magma, like a balloon, and seismographic recordings had revealed an increasing frequency of small earthquakes. By the summer of 2014, swarms of little earthquakes, sometimes over a thousand in one day, were rippling through the volcano. On August 29, rather than blasting out the old caldera, pressure from the rising magma created a dyke that flowed horizontally underground for 30 miles before breaching the surface. Although there was no ash explosion, lava flowed from the fissure for the next six months and 11 million tons of sulfur dioxide was spewed into the air, more than is produced by all the factories in Europe in one year. On February 28 the eruption officially ended, the fissure having acted as an effective release valve.
The source of the uplift for Brdarbunga is 10 kilometers underground, explains Einarsson. So it took a long time for the magma to reach the surface and we could track it quite well. But each volcano behaves uniquely; each is different, and you cant necessarily apply experience from one to another.
Einarsson says he tends to see volcanoes much like people, with their specific temperaments and behaviors. Grimsvotn, Brdarbunga, Kraflatheyre all restless, he explains. But Hekla, Hekla is ready to blow!
Hekla is a small, independent volcano that has erupted more than 20 times in the past millennium. Hekla is more dangerous than Brdarbunga or Eyjafjallajkull, says Einarsson, because it has such a short fuse. Most volcanoes give considerable warning before they erupt, but on Hekla, the time from the first earthquake swarms to the actual eruption can be just 20 minutes. Anyone on Hekla, a popular volcano for hikers, would not have time to escape.
The Brdarbunga eruption began in August 2014 and lasted six months
This dire prognostication inspires Ingolfsson to take me for a drive up Hekla, a volcano we hadnt explored on my last visit to Iceland. Awake before dawn for a proper Viking breakfasttwo slugs of cod liver oil washed down with a big bowl of skyr, a sour yogurtIngolfsson checks the weather on his computer.
Fog, then a bit of righteous sun, then cold wind, maybe some real snow, he says cheerfully, rolling his Rs, his accent sounding a little Scottish. Iceland has four seasons: morning, day, evening and night.
As we drive east from Reykjavik, the worlds northernmost capital, home to more than 200,000 people, two-thirds of all Icelanders, Ingolfsson says that his country has only two endemic species, the field mouse and the Arctic fox. The landscape is too severe to support large ungulates like elk or deer, he says. We have just three geographic zones: inhabitable lowlands where humans live, uninhabitable highlands where almost nothing grows and glaciers, where nothing lives.
Vatnajkull, the largest glacier in Europe, covering 3,100 square miles with an average thickness of 1,600 feet, fills much of southeastern Iceland. Vatnajkull is actually an ice cap composed of dozens of glaciers and paves over two large volcano systems, Grimsvotn and Brdarbunga. Iceland is also home to the most powerful waterfall in Europe, Dettifoss, which, engorged with glacial meltwater, can pour at 21,000 cubic feet per second, about a quarter that of Niagara Falls.
We stop at a roadside diner for a classic Viking lunch: mutton souplarge chunks of lamb with potatoes and carrotsand a hunk of dense bread. The wind is cuttingly cold, but Ingolfsson is inured. Im in mountain boots and a wind parka. He is wearing a holey wool sweater and sandals. Sandals and ski boots are all you need in Iceland, he insists.
Fortified, we set out in our superjeep, winding through high, barren, rust-colored hills up into the snow. Ingolfsson drops the double transmission into crawler gear and we begin to ascend.
Superjeeps are unique to Iceland, although a few have now been exported to Antarctica. Outwardly they appear similar to a customised, big-wheeled off-road vehicle, but in this environmentally sensitive country, ORV travel is prohibited. Superjeeps are designed exclusively for travel over snow and self-healing glaciers, not redneck mud-hogging. For flotation, the tires are exceedingly wide and soft.
Halfway up the vast white cone of Hekla, we start to bog down in deep snow. Drop the tire pressure to 7 psi, says Ingolfsson, adjusting his wraparound glacier glasses on his shaved head.
At my left knee, in the passenger seat, is a vertical metal rack with six switches on the front and pressure hoses extending out the back. The hoses weave through the vehicle, plugging into each tire and the air pump. There is a deflation switch, an inflation switch and a switch for each individual tire. I flip the deflation switch and open the gauges for all four tires. As the tires deflate, they begin to grip the snow and the superjeep lurches uphill.
As we traverse an eye-searingly white side slope, the superjeep, keeled over like a sailboat in a strong wind, begins to lose traction on the uphill side. Ingolfsson orders me to drop the right-side tire pressure to 3 psi. I hang out the window and watch as the huge tires go basically flat, the rubber wrinkling, and begin grabbing the snow like claws.
Ingolfsson has been glacier driving since he was a boy and can feel the consistency of the snow through the chassis of the jeep. We swing back to the northeast ridge of Hekla and the tires start to spin out. The angle is so severe it feels like the superjeep is about to flip over backward.
Icelanders mark history by volcanic events
I dont think we can make it, I say.
He winks. Drop the pressure to 2 psi for all tires.
I do so, but the tires continue to spin out. Ingolfsson opens his drivers-side door, stands up and gets his substantial body weight forward of the cab, steering with one leg.
"You need to get out on the front bumper, he yells.
I jump out, climb my way up the snow and pull myself onto a square aluminum platform that juts out from the front bumper. He had this perch specifically designed for redistributing weight and balance. My body weight gives the front tires just enough traction and we slowly begin to bounce our way up the icy snow.
Improbably, we drive right to the summit of a mountain that is a steep tramp for hikers in the summer. We park, get out and walk around.
Heat from the belly of Hekla has melted the snow off the top of the volcano. The black rocks are rimed with icicles and steam rises from holes between the rocks. It does feel as if this volcano could blow at any moment.
When Hekla blew in 1104, the Celtic monks of Iceland began spreading the word that Hekla was the passageway to hell, Ingolfsson remarks. Sailors steered clear for centuries."
The eruption in 1693 killed off many trout, salmon and ptarmigan, he continues, as if it happened just last week. The eruption in 1947 lasted 13 months and spread lava over 15 square miles.
Driving down off the summit of Hekla, we start to slide and Im tempted to just get out and walk. I think we might roll, but we dont. We just keep slipping over the ice, which doesnt bother Ingolfsson in the least.
Its just like being on skis, he says. Ingolfsson has been imperturbable in every situation Ive ever been in with him. He has ice in his veins.
Back on a sandy black road, he checks the forecast. Everything has changed, of course, he says. Weve got a window of decent weather. I think we should try Eyjafjallajkull again.
A drone captures the surface formations around the Kverkfjll cave
Iceland was founded by Norwegian Vikings and their Celtic slaves in 874 AD. Although there was periodic trade with Europe over the centuries, separated by an enormous, iceberg-filled ocean, Icelanders developed a distinct culture.
They still speak 9th century Norse, a language that modern Norwegians can no longer understand, and have a written record that goes back to the beginning. The literacy rate is 99 percent and literature is revered. All students still read medieval Icelandic literaturethe Saga of Eirik the Red, the Saga of Ref the Sly, the Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue.
Chess is a national sport, hkarlputrefied sharka national dish, and the otherworldly weather a national conversation. There is virtually no crime and no poverty and the police do not carry weapons. Almost half of all Icelanders are atheists. Homes are warmed with cheap geothermal hot water and soaking in natural hot pools is a national pastime. Icelanders have lower infant mortality and greater longevity than Americans. Taxes are high but health care is free. According to a United Nations report, Iceland is ranked as the 4th happiest nation in the world.
All this even though Iceland is covered with glaciers and volcanoes. Icelanders live in a world where geologic time and historical time are contemporaneous. They mark their history by volcanic eruptions.
Iceland has the oldest functioning legislative assembly in the world, the Althing, established in AD 930, and in AD 1000, floods caused by the eruption of the Katla volcano washed across the country. Hekla erupted in 1104, 1158, 1206 and so on. The Katla eruption of 1625 destroyed 25 farms. Three people died in the 1727 eruption of raefajkull. Grimsvotn erupted in 1903, the same year the first Icelandic fisherman bought an outboard motor. At that time there were no hospitals, no highways, no public schools, no police. A century later, despite continuing eruptions and the economic devastation of 2008 (after Lehman Brothers went under, the major Icelandic banks exploded and the value of the krona collapsed), Iceland is still one of the worlds most prosperous countries.
Never underestimate climate or geography, Ingolfsson told me a decade ago, after wed gone ice climbing inside a glacier cave on Langjkull; the cave collapsed several years later. Climate and geography are destiny.
Most of us imagine that the ground beneath us is relatively unchanging. We have metaphors about building a life on solid ground. Icelanders know better. The geography of their country is always changing. Icelanders expect change, even explosive change, and expect to figure out how to deal with it.
Change, not stasis, is our status quo, Ingolfsson told me.
Volcanologists in Iceland
I am probing along the crater rim for crevasses. After Eyjafjallajkull erupted in 2010, the caldera collapsed, snow fell and the glaciers began to grow again. Ingolfsson has sent me out ahead of the superjeep with an avalanche probe to make certain we dont drive into an unseen crevasse.
Dont get too close to the craters edge, he warns. You never know where heat from the volcano has hollowed it out underneath. Peering over the lip into the snow-filled caldera, I see steam rising from small black holes.
On mountains around the world, I have probed for crevasses, but I have never needed a snowbridge that could support the weight of anything more than a mountaineer. Now Ingolfsson, in our hefty superjeep, is crawling along behind me as we circumnavigate the rim of Eyjafjallajkull one pole punch at a time.
There are fantastic photographs of the Eyjafjallajkull eruption, a plume of black ash billowing into the sky above a white cone, some of which are in the Volcano Museum in Stykkishlmur, founded by glaciologist Haraldur Sigurdsson. In hindsight, the Eyjafjallajkull eruption need not have been so disruptive to air travel, says Sigurdsson, editor-in-chief of the gigantic 2015 Encyclopedia of Volcanoes. The European aviation agencies simply panicked. Decisions were made without data.
Several months after the eruption, Rolls-Royce released a study that revealed its jet engines could withstand 2,000 micrograms of ash per cubic meter of air. The Eyjafjallajkull eruption only created 40 to 70 micrograms of ash, Sigurdsson says, one-fortieth what the aircraft engine could tolerate.
The ash cloud never went higher than about 25,000 feet, and most transcontinental flights cruise above 30,000 feet. In truth, there was no real threat to the safety of airline passengers. European agencies were simply being extra cautious. In the decade since then, regulatory agencies and airlines have changed their disaster response models to include recent scientific data.
The real trick is to be able to predict eruptionsto know basically what will happen before it actually happens, says Sigurdsson. This requires ground deformation studies.
Inside the lower Kverkfjll glacier cave, formed by volcanic activity
Using radar and GPS data, the rate of inflation or deflation of a potentially threatening volcano can be accurately determined. Indeed, by closely monitoring GPS data from Brdarbunga, Sigurdsson predicted in October 2014 that, according to a formula his grandson Gabriel Solvi had developed, the eruption would end after 173 days, on March 4, 2015. He was almost dead on; the eruption ended on February 28.
This confirmed what Einarsson had told me when I first arrived in Iceland.
When we have the data, we can forecast eruptions quite well, actually. I know the popular sentiment is that eruptions are random, unpredictable events, but in the past 40 years, weve successfully predicted most of them, he said. What we cant predict is the human reaction.
Then he told me the story of the time he was on a talk-radio program during the Eyjafjallajkull event. An Irish woman dialed in and was aghast at Einarssons insistence that volcanic eruptions were largely predictable. Look at all these poor people stranded in the airports, she said. If you can predict an eruption, why dont you just stop it.
Ingolfsson and I manage to completely traverse Eyjafjallajkull by superjeep, and then without stopping continue on up Mrdalsjkull glacier to the top of Katla, another notorious Iceland volcano.
On the summit he steps out onto the glacier in his sandals, dropping into the snow. We are surrounded by brilliant whiteness that curves off to the horizon in all directions.
When this one goes again, its predicted to be 10 to a hundred times bigger than Eyjafjallajkull, says Ingolfsson, almost joyful at the uncontrollable geological exuberance of his country.
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