National Geographic photographer Ralph Lee Hopkins is the founder and
director of the Expedition Photography program for the Lindblad-National
Geographic alliance. For more than 20 years he has led expeditions from the Arctic to Antarctica and points in between.
Being close to an active volcano is an experience not to be forgotten. Long before you see it, you hear it, and you feel it. The distant rumble of each explosive event sounds like a jumbo jet taking off in the distance. Moments later the steam cloud rises above the landscape. The crater is just over the next hill still out of sight. It looms, larger than life.
Hiking towards an active volcano sounds crazy, right? But as a photographer and a geologist, this is a dream come true. It's like hitting the jackpot—two of my great passions colliding here in Iceland. The Geldingadalir volcano began as a series of small vents, “tourist cones” the locals called them. Now, fast-moving rivers of glowing lava spill from a central crater, flowing across valleys and cascading down canyons. It’s new and exciting, changing every day.
Blown Away! A Thrilling First Look
The first view of the crater eruption makes you weak in the knees. Cresting the top of the hill the volcano finally comes into view. Lava has filled the surrounding valleys forming a lake. The lava shoreline tempts you to get closer. You can feel the heat as you approach. The broken and jagged surface of the lava has solidified forming what is called an 'A'ā (a Hawaiian term pronounced "ah-ah") by volcanologists. In places, lava spills out on top of the flows forming smoother, ropey or “pahoehoe” flow. Through the cracks between broken slabs, you can still see red glowing magma underneath. A reminder that it’s not safe to walk across fresh lava.
It has been three months since the eruption began. It was forewarned by clusters of earthquakes months in advance. One of the local Icelanders remarked to me how it’s amazing what you can get used to, sleeping undisturbed as their house shook from the tremors. The eruption started along a fissure, or tension crack in the landscape.
In those early days of volcanic fireworks, rescue workers first installed ropes to help people navigate the steep terrain. It was still winter, there was snow, people twisted ankles. Cars were parked along the road for over two miles (5km). It was a festival-like atmosphere, with as many as 5,000 people visiting each day. It’s now estimated that more than a third of all Icelanders (over 100,000 people) have made the trek to see the active volcano, and tourists have begun to fly in from around the globe.
When I first arrived, the volcanic activity was episodic almost like a pulse—you could feel the heartbeat of the Earth. Glowing rivers of magma spilled across the surrounding landscape with each event. Each eruption cycle starts slowly with growing streams of red-hot lava spilling over the lowest point along the crater rim. In less than a minute it transforms into full-on lava falls, cascading over the rim, while fountains inside the crater eject magma skyward.
The landscape evolves in real time. The eruption style changed late one night when large waves of magma spilled from the crater. Part of the crater wall collapsed, widening the internal dimensions, and by the wee hours of the morning the action switched to a more continuous stream of lava, without the episodic surges. The volume flowing from the crater seemed to increase, forming glowing rivers that were spectacular to observe and photograph.
Not All Volcanoes Are Created Equally
This Icelandic eruption is different than Hawaii because of the scale and nature of the landscape. The Hawaiian chain forms a string of volcanic islands where the Pacific Plate moves over a fixed hotspot in the Earth’s mantle. Mauna Loa on the Big Island, considered the largest volcano on Earth, is known as a shield volcano because of its shape resembling a warrior’s shield. The current active volcano, Kilauea, has formed a huge caldera, a circular depression created by inward collapse as lava escapes with each successive eruption.
In contrast, Iceland is located along a rift zone, where the North American Plate is pulling away from the Eurasian Plate. This zone of tension and faulting is called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and bisects Iceland from north to south. The rift also cuts across Reykjanes Peninsula, from west to east, where the Geldingadalir volcano is located. As the tectonic plates move, stress is released in the form of earthquakes. Icelandic magma is also produced by a hotspot and has been squeezing to the surface along faults and fractures over the past 20 million years or more.
Iceland is unique because some eruptions are extremely explosive when they occur beneath the ice caps that exit in the country's highlands. Like a pressure cooker, when water from melting ice interacts with magma it causes explosive eruptions. The most recent eruption of this nature, Eyjafjallojokull, ejected an ash cloud that interrupted air traffic around Europe for a week in March of 2010. If the ice cap later disappears, the volcanic material from subglacial eruptions erode forming flat top mountains, called tuyas, that are characteristic of the Iceland landscape.
What is Geldingadalir's Fate?
Only time will tell. No one can predict for sure, not even the Icelandic volcanologists and seismologists who spend their lives studying the dynamics of Iceland’s volcanic activity. The chemical signature of the magma indicates a deep source, boiling to the surface from the mantle perhaps more than 12 miles (20 km) deep. This suggests the eruption will be long-lived.
Whether it goes five months, five years, or 50 years, it will be interesting to follow the progress of the Geldingadalir volcano over time. I’ll be interested to view the changes when I return to Iceland in August for a voyage on the National Geographic Endurance. Will the lava have crossed the road by then? Will it have reached the sea? I hope you'll join me to find out.