Making Sense of the Eruption: Volcano Island Skip to content

Making Sense of the Eruption: Volcano Island

The eruption in Eyjafjallajökull glacier last spring shook the world, not because the eruption itself was so violent but because the ash emitted by the volcano brought air traffic in Europe to a halt for many days.

A brilliant satellite photo on the back cover of Volcano Island by photographer Sigurgeir Sigurjónsson shows the ash cloud from Eyjafjallajökull drifting towards Europe.

Consequently, Iceland made its way into news reports all around the world with journalists butchering the volcano’s name while trying to pronounce it and readers and viewers trying to wrap their minds around what was actually happening—was the whole country covered in ash?

Volcano Island is not just a book of magnificent photography documenting the eruption in Eyjafjallajökull and the smaller eruption on Fimmvörduháls mountain range preceding it, but also a fountain of information for those who are still trying to figure out what went down in Iceland during the eruptions.

Starting with a general introduction about volcanic eruptions in Iceland, which occur every four to five years, Professor of Geology Sigurdur Steinthórsson guides readers through the course of events during the Eyjafjallajökull and Fimmvörduháls eruptions, with photographs illustrating the spectacle and thorough captions describing locations mentioned in the news.

This book helps make sense of these spectacular events and the photographs, by Sigurgeir Sigurjónsson and others, are sure to leave readers awestruck.

Aerial photographs by Ragnar Axelsson (p. 20-21 and p. 32-33) showing lava from the eruption on Fimmvörduháls down the Hrunagil and Hvannárgil canyons are particularly eye-catching, with a glowing orange stream of fire slashing through the predominantly white, blue and black landscape covered by ice and ash.

In the sub-glacial Eyjafjallajökull eruption, which didn’t produce as much lava, a picture of a lightning bolt in the volcanic cloud by Skarphédinn Thráinsson (p. 37) is mind-blowing and a fairy-tale-like image of the northern lights playing over the eruption site while lava spurts out of the glacier by Birkir Jónsson (p. 53) is nothing short of amazing.

The consequences of the eruption, in particular the ash fall, are also included with pictures showing farm sites, towns and popular tourist locations covered with a thick layer of ash, ominous ash clouds looming over peaceful areas and previously green fields turned into wastelands.

There are also pictures showing these areas before the eruption, green and luscious. Furthermore, other volcanoes and eruptions are covered in pictures and/or texts, such as the famed volcano Hekla, the eruption on Heimaey in the Westman Islands in 1973 and the most devastating eruption ever recorded in Iceland, the Laki fires of 1783. Maps are helpful in placing all the locations mentioned.

Overall, I’m very pleased with Volcano Island and recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about volcanic activity in Iceland, especially in regard to the two most recent eruptions, and in possessing quality photography of these events.

However, I can’t help but wonder whether the book is a little premature given that the eruption in Eyjafjallajökull has yet to officially be declared over, although the book boldly states that “it ended on May 23.” The last eruption in Eyjafjallajökull 1821-1823 was quiet for months before resuming.

The text is interesting and very informative but it may not have much literary value. It doesn’t really matter because it just accompanies the photographs which are plenty poetic by themselves, but I wouldn’t have minded some literary references, for example one stanza of Völuspá which I find very fitting:

Earth sinks in the sea, the sun turns black, Cast down from Heaven are the hot stars, Fumes reek, into flames burst, The sky itself is scorched with fire.

There are photos before and during the eruption but no photos showing the ash-stricken areas after the eruption, which is a shame because fields have turned green anew and frequented tourist destinations such as the Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls and the highland resort of Thórsmörk are as beautiful as ever. But maybe there wasn’t time to include such photographs before the book’s publication.

In any case, I suggest a follow-up. One of the daily newspapers ran a very interesting series of photographs showing areas during and after the eruption—the photographs were taken at the same angle and placed next to each other—leaving me stunned at how quickly they recovered from the ash fall.

As stated in Völuspá:

I see Earth rising a second time Out of the foam, fair and green; Down from the fells fish to capture, Wings the eagle; waters flow.

Also, it would be interesting to see recent pictures of Fimmvörduháls where a hiking path has been marked through the new lava and the ash-covered Eyjafjallajökull from which steam still emits.

I suppose you can always ask for more and there is no doubt plenty of material for many more photo books to come. I don’t think Volcano Island will leave anyone disappointed.

Volcano Island was published by Forlagid in 2010 and is available in English in bookstores in Iceland andon the publisher’s website (email [email protected] for further information).

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

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