Hekla, Eyjafjallajokull, Grimsvotn, and Laki.

These are the Fab Four of Icelandic volcanoes. The picture is of Eyjafjallajokull. Looks benign doesn’t it?

Travelling along the Ring Road near Skogar on Iceland’s southern coast is a birdwatcher’s delight. Arctic terns fly along the fences by the road, oystercatchers in flocks of between 5 and 13 hunt on foot in the fields around two miles from the sea, and whimbrels sit on the fence posts looking for something to eat. The wind blows fluffy clouds across the dark blue sky and although the sun is out the temperature rarely goes over 19 degrees C.

There are also a few volcanoes looming on the eastern horizon including Hekla and Eyjafjallajokull. The latter erupted in 2010 and caused air travel disruption around the
world. Grimsvotn – located under the Vatnajökull ice cap in central Iceland – followed suit in 2011 though luckily without the same issues for travellers. Hekla has been quiet for a few years but is overdue a large eruption, so don’t be too surprised if Hekla tries to join in the volcanic fun soon.

Travellers do benefit from the volcanic activity in a small way. When they have their showers or baths the hot water is instantaneous as it comes straight out of the ground and is accompanied by a slightly sulphurous smell – the cold water takes longer to arrive as hotels have to allow the water to cool before piping it to your room. As I thought about Grimsvotn I was reminded of what I’d read in the National Museum about the eruption of
Grimsvotn’s near neighbour, Laki, in 1783. The eruption at Laki began with a brief explosion and lava rapidly began to 36 flow into the Skaftfi river gorge. This eruption ultimately created a 15 mile long fracture and the lava flows eventually covered over 200 square miles – the largest single lava flow in recorded world history.

Laki’s eruption caused large amounts of gas to cover most of Europe in a blue haze for over 5 months leading to an extremely hot summer followed by a very cold winter. The eruption released fluorine that contaminated the grass, leading to the death of around 200,000 livestock in Iceland. With crops either contaminated or burned, people were reduced to eating all the remaining animals they could find and after that, shoe leather. Estimates of the number of deaths reach as high as 10,000.

The years 1783 to 1785 are known as The Haze Years in Iceland. Just for good measure, Grimsvotn joined in with several eruptions during the same period adding to the confusion and desolation. Iceland sits astride the meeting point of the Eurasian and North American plates, which run from the south-west to the north-east of the country. Most volcanic activity is concentrated along this boundary.

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