18 April 2010

in the name of science

Yesterday was a perfect clear sunny spring day, so S decided it was time to see if he could collect samples of the volcanic ash for his research institute. We headed south along the ring road, passing the cars collected at Hellisheiði, and all along the road pass Selfoss who'd pulled over to gape at the plume that was so crisply visible on the horizon. From 70 km away it seemed surreal, beautiful and painted on the horizon, a clear plume etched above a perfectly white mountain. Hard to believe it's causing so much damage everywhere.

But, to collect samples we had to get closer, so at Hvolsvöllur, we stopped at the first road block on rte 1 where Björgunarsveit informed S he had to talk to the local police for permission to pass into the dust zone. S came out of the police station with a big grin and a hand-scrawled note on one of his business cards. Permission to enter, and a phone number if we had troubles. Then, we turned into Fljótshlíð along the same road where we'd gone to visit the first eruption. Flagged past the road block there, we entered a new kind of ghostly landscape, nearly devoid of humans, with only a sprinkling of horses munching below the menacing plume in front of us.

Second checkpoint came before the dubiously slouchy bridge that had survived the flood, the old single-lane bridge across Markarfljót. There, the license number was noted down and we were waved across the bridge into the territory where the floods had raged through. The land there was guttered with deep channels, embedded with ice chunks, and totally barren of human activity. We passed Seljalandsfoss, normally choked with tourists, now empty and oddly thin on water volume. A bit further, the picnic spot where families had gathered two weeks ago, now barren, with the picnic tables rucked up crazily against the hillside by the now-subsided flood.

When we came to the intersection with rte 1 again, the road to the right was totally missing, a channeled expanse of mud peppered with ice chunks in its place. To the left, an improvised track climbed over a levee and continued on the still-intact portion of the ring road. We passed a few people there- some camera men, some photographers, an occasional other vehicle emerging from the darkness ahead.

In front of us, the dust cloud rose like an evil tidal wave, pouring down brown from the glacier to our left and surging towards the sea and the Westman Islands. Spirals of dust rose up from the road, and the fields on both sides were monochromatically gray under the thick coating. We drove in only as far as needed to a place where the dust was scoopably thick along the roadside, then S turned so that he'd open the car door on the lee side. Out he went, while the rest of us waited in the closed car, breathing through masks and watching the gloom slide over the mountains.

Iceland is already a fairly sparsely populated place, but to be somewhere like this that would normally be full of tourists and traffic was creepy. The landscape was silent except for the ash blowing down the mountain, and the scrape of S's scoop on the pavement as he collected ash outside. After 15 minutes or so, he'd filled his bucket with a few kilos and we zipped out from under the ash cloud, pausing to examine the chunks of glacier that had washed out on the mud, to watch the repair work on the road, and then to watch the plumes of ash ejecting furiously from the eruption site. As we watched, lightning zapped from particles to the glacier, and sparks of red and white lit up spots within the cloud. This was no fluffy friendly cloud up closer- the density looked more like cauliflower than a cloud, and the sediment raining down from each new ejection was clearly visible in long sheets falling to the ground. At the edge of the crater, a thick carpet of ash was crisply delineated against the remaining portion of the glacier, still cleanly white.

From there we returned to Hvolsvöllur to wash up and eat at the N1 there. Unlike the previous volcano trip when we stopped there, there were no tour busses, no crowds jamming the grill line. Just a few photographers had taken the tables facing towards the eruption, where with telephoto lenses and wireless they were broadcasting photos to the world. We had a nice chat with the guy at the counter who told us all that our Icelandic was so nice, the coffee was free, and then from there back to Vegamót were D&J picked up their car to head home.

Compared to the last eruption, this one is spooky, unpredictable and not tourist friendly, so the opportunity to get this close was extremely fascinating. I took plenty of photos which are here.