When we first got this film commissioned as a Natural World for the BBC last year, very high up on wish list was filming an eruption if one happened, if being the operative word!
In geological terms, everything that happens with erosion, tectonic plate movement and rock formation takes place over an absurdly long time in our timescales. These things take millions of years to do their thing. The exception to this of course are the sudden, dramatic and often catastrophic events of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, which is exactly what is happening under the ground at Vatnajokull.
We’d had a little break in filming for a few weeks in August, the boys returning home to see loved ones and catch up on life, so when the scientific news channels started reporting increased seismic activity under the Vatnajokull glacier we pricked up our ears.
Iceland has lived with massive geological activity for its whole life. its actually a very young country in world terms, lying directly on the northern edge of the Atlantic rift joining The US and European land masses, Iceland is slowly growing as the two plates move apart with fresh material forming the land as cooled magma.
Its no surprise then that it has a brilliant system in place for dealing with earthquakes, eruptions and glacial floods. Check out the met office here http://en.vedur.is and you’ll get an idea of how comprehensive their coverage is, one thing you can be sure of is that the Icelanders know their countryside and its little (sometimes world changing) tantrums.
So, earthquakes started going off around Bárðarbunga with some startling frequency and size, up to 5.7 on the Richter scale…which is substantial. Amazingly, the scientists can predict what exactly is happening underground through a network of measuring stations and GPS locators. It appeared that a substantial quantity of magma from the gigantic Bárðarbunga magma chamber was trying to break free. The fears (liberally expressed throughout the worlds media) were of a repeat performance of 2010 when air traffic was effectively knocked out over the atlantic for a period of time when the Eyjafjallajökull eruption burst out from under a glacier.
We were due to return on the 31st August and were on tenterhooks when the eruptions started the week before, especially if flight was going to be affected. Neil had already returned (to take his young lady Rachel on holiday, we just cant stay away from here!).
In the great way of these things, Lady Luck smiled on us and left the big eruption til the morning of our arrival on Sunday. We met up with our Eider friend Thor and his wife Erna for a spot of lunch and then got on with trying to film a volcano erupting.
Now getting to the site of an eruption is not an easy task. Quite rightly, the Icelandic authorities had taken the step of evacuating both the immediate vicinity and the flood plain down towards Dettifoss. Bárðarbunga is under the northern edge of the Vatnajokull glacier (the largest in Europe) and right slap bang in the middle of the deserted but beautiful highlands. Flying in was out of the question (all overflights were banned, though a couple of “intrepid” local pilots did some fly bys).
We were very fortunate to have the assistance of the brilliant Thor from True North in Reykjavik (http://truenorth.is)
Thor, Rafnar and the rest of the team there have been our on the ground help for the whole of this project (we couldn’t do it without them to be honest) and by great good fortune, Thor is also a team leader for the Icelandic Search and Rescue organization (http://www.icesar.com) so was the right man to get us in place safely. Part of his role is to investigate eruption sites, establish safe zones (if any!) and where possible collect any samples relevant. He and his colleague Freyn located the 2011 eruption site at Grímsvötn (the weather was so appalling no one could get or find an erupting volcano, though instruments told scientists it was happening).
We met up with Thor first thing on Monday morning, he outlined the plan for how to get there (superjeep was the only option for the last stretch) so it was straight off to the other side of the country by road. 7hrs later we headed off road into the highlands by the one route allowed, quite rightly access at the moment is only for scientific teams and the SAR, all other roads have been closed into the area. We stopped by at a lonely little SAR manned outpost to log our BBC ids and passports, and continue our journey into the darkening skies. It always amazes me the power of BBC id cards, but like alcohol and cigarettes, they must be used responsibly!
We managed to take our trusty 4wd van most of the way, but had to call it quits at a river too deep for us. A rapid debuss and all our filming, sleeping (ha!) and eating kit transferred across to the Superjeep and we were off again.
A couple more night time river crossings, weaving in and out of old lava fields (expertly handled by Thor and the Superjeep) and we were getting close…
Our first inkling that something was fundamentally different in our environment was when we spotted a red glow in the clouds….to the south, not the afterglow of sunset. The cloud itself of course wasn’t really a cloud, it was the huge column of steam, sulphur dioxide and a bit of ash (not anywhere near enough to affect anyones flight plans I hasten to add!) pumping out of the ground.
To say we were excited would be an understatement….not in a million years did we expect to be in this position.
It was now nearly midnight as we approached this massive red cloud belching and flickering like some devils breath. It was vital we approached from the right direction as the cloud contains very high levels of Suphur Dioxide, deadly in high doses. Thor checked the route visually and for any signs of the gas, as we crept closer across the flat sandy terrain.
The eruption is a fissure eruption, basically the force of the magma has opened up a huge crack in the ground (1.5km long) right next to the flood plain of a river draining the Vatnajokull glacier. Its actually the site of a previous eruption from the 18th century. This is not fire coming out of a perfectly conical mountain in the Hollywood sense of a volcano, it’s a huge gaping open crack going straight down to boiling, angry magma. Sounds benign doesn’t it, and it certainly gives food for thought as you get close. Thor was happy with it being safe so we stopped the jeep and got out to the most incredible sight.
The noise was incredible, a pretty much constant rumbling and banging as more explosions rocked the place. The wind was pretty strong too, whipping up sandstorms that are so common in the highlands. If you’ve ever been blasted by the fine pumice that gets carried by the wind here, you’ll know that it stings, and clogs the eyes pretty quick. Keeping behind the truck helped though and of course when there is a sight like this in front of you, you forget any discomfort pretty soon.
We had to work fast, not least because of the speed at which the lava was coming out and flowing along the ground, around 3m per minute.
Now bearing in mind that Usain Bolt runs 100m in under 10sec, 3m per minute doesn’t sound very fast, but hot as Usain may be, he’s not the same as a wall of molten rock, 500m across simmering away nicely at 1200c! keeps you on your toes I can say
Time seemed to stand still really, it was so strange being next to this living breathing beast for hours on end. It was both awe inspiring and humbling at the same time. Theres nothing better to my mind than being made to feel small by nature, its does the soul good to know that some things cannot be changed or even fully understood.
Sitting down you could feel feint rumblings underneath, and every few seconds a mighty explosion would thunder out
Volcanoes are obviously spectacular during the day, but the seeing this beast of a fissure spewing forth millions of tons of molten rock at night is extraordinary!
You can feel the heat of the lava fountains from a few hundred metres away, and when we were rigging our gopros and timelapse rigs (you’ll have to wait til next year to see those in the finished film on BBC2 im afraid!) to get the advancing wall of fire, you had to keep a close eye on the cameras in case the glass elements in the lens pop.
On a technical note, its worth remembering (for anyone who finds themselves filming volcanic eruptions) that heat haze plays havoc with focus, particularly autofocus, my advice, don’t use it! trust your eyes.
The night went by in a flash, and it wasn’t long before the first tinge of pink was in the eastern sky.
We did a quick reposition further away from the eruption and set ourselves up for a timelapse of the sun rising through the ash cloud. It seemed the right time to have a quick coffee and a quiet moment of reflection,attend to any ablutions and maybe a bit of food. Those regular readers out there will know that we have been using a lot of dehydrated food whilst we’ve been here, its been a godsend but not for long periods, perfect for here though we thought. Thor though surprised us all by whipping out a small bar-b-q and preparing hotdgs and lamb fillet. Unbelievablly good at 5am in front of an erupting volcano!
(Ed note. Andy looking like a chimney sweep! But thats a hard days and nights work right there….Ash and debris from the fissure finds a new home on Andy’s face)
The sun coming up through the dust and heat haze was extraordinary, the colours in the sky were just to die for and no camera can do them justice.
Once we were happy with the wides and lapses we returned to the lava wall and fissure.Ian even had time to break out the Leica once the sun was up, as usual his results were superb
It was amazing to think that areas we had been walking on, only a few hours previously, were now covered in new land, and that’s partly the story of Iceland and what makes it so special. Its a tough place, made vibrant and beautiful by the force of nature.
That’s one of the incredible things about this event though, I think I am right in saying that Iceland grows about 20mm a year as the plates pull apart, this event has in the few days since August 16th, grown 14 times that, astonishing.
The rest of the morning was spent in the company of some of the scientific teams studying this. For them it’s the chance of a lifetime to increase their knowledge base and understanding of whats going on under our feet. For some, this is the first view of an eruption in their entire career, good people all of them.
We’ll obviously be keeping an eye on proceedings at Bárðarbunga, Vatnajokull and Askja as there seem to be a number of possible outcomes at the moment, varying from a full stop to procedings to either subglacial eruption and massive flood or Askja going bang,
Im neither a Geologist nor a crystal ball gazer so cannot guess what will happen, but I do know we’ve been forever humbled by the power and majesty of Bárðarbunga and the Holuhraun fissure.
Suffice to say that the power of the planet is an extraordinary thing, It’s a part of Icelanders make up to work with nature and not against it, so whatever happens, this land will continue to grow
Til next time
Editors SAFETY NOTE Friday 5.08.14
several people have been arrested trying to get into the eruption site this evening http://www.ruv.is/frett/arrested-near-the-holuhraun-eruption
We must point out that we had special permits to enter the area, were accompanied by 2 guides both SAR personnel, and obeyed police and SAR instructions at all times. If you choose to disregard official advice and permissions on entry to the area, you are not only endangering your own life, but the lives of the rescue services too.