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Witnessing the fiery formation of Fagradalsfjall, Iceland's newest volcano

Earlier this year, the world was transfixed by images of Fagradalsfjall, Iceland’s newest volcanic fissure, spewing molten lava and ushering in a fresh wave of tourism.

Published 20 Sept 2021, 06:02 BST, Updated 28 Sept 2021, 10:09 BST
A photographer perches on the edge of a volcano and shoots an eruption from a safe ...

A photographer perches on the edge of a volcano and shoots an eruption from a safe distance.

Photograph by Getty Images

Separate clouds of smoke rise from either side of the road to Grindavík. On the right, steady white plumes emanate from the famous Blue Lagoon. Long before Iceland became a poster child for mass tourism, this was one of its main attractions — those stopping over en route to or from America could come to these soothing waters just 20 minutes from Keflavik Airport. Today the experience has been refined to become one of the sleekest spa experiences in Europe.

On the left, the smoke is coming from something altogether newer and less polished. Around three miles from the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s newest volcanic arrival, Fagradalsfjall, has had a spectacular birth. I’m visiting just three months into its fiery delivery, witnessing terraforming in real time; some scientists suggest it’ll continue to erupt for several years to come.

The mountain cracks opens again and again during my visit, thousands of gallons of bright orange lava crashing down the side of the ever-growing volcano. From a safe distance, watched by rangers, I join a few dozen visitors to witness this subterranean light show as it goes off, geyser-like, every 10 minutes or so.

Read more: Iceland travel guide

People have been drawn like moths from all over the world to this subterranean flame. If Fagradalsfjall (the name translates as ‘Fair Valley Hill’) keeps going and tourists return en masse to Iceland, authorities will have a lot of work on their hands to keep the site safe and accessible.

Nonetheless, it represents an incredible gift for the country at a time when global tourism is reopening after the Covid-19 pandemic — an elemental pull for adventurous tourists and a welcome boost for Icelandic coffers. “People were mesmerised by the material we were putting out online,” says Eythor Saemundsson, whose job promoting the Reykjanes Peninsula has got a lot easier with the new arrival. “But in the beginning, we were overwhelmed just trying to grasp the whole thing. The entire nation of Iceland came hiking to see it, along with a few tourists who were in the country at the time.”

In a way, the Covid-19 controls helped manage the number of visitors. In the volcano’s infancy, images of locals playing around Fagradalsfjall went viral. Some cooked food over the lava; others played volleyball. There was plenty of nakedness. At least a dozen drones were lost in the molten rock. This behaviour — and worse — would have been exacerbated were it not for the pandemic limiting the amount of global travel.

Whatever becomes of this newest addition to the country’s volcanic roster, it’ll likely be handled with the sort of smart entrepreneurship Iceland has learned to master. The Blue Lagoon is a good example of what’s possible when time and money are added to natural volcanic phenomena — even the infamous, ash-spewing 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull was quickly turned into a marketing opportunity. 

Elsewhere, near Reykjavík, there’s the incredibly rare opportunity to climb into a volcano, albeit one that’s been empty and dormant for millennia. Thríhnúkagígur was discovered by accident by cave enthusiast Árni B Stefánsson in 1974. Its potential as a tourism site wasn’t immediately obvious. “When I first got down there, I was so disappointed. It was nothing more than a quarry,” he says, preparing for our tour. He was so underwhelmed, he didn’t reinvestigate the site for another 17 years. 

Yet since 2012, visitors have been getting lowered inside the volcano, all the way to the bottom of its pristine magma chamber. Now lit dramatically, it looks like a subterranean cathedral, safe if not entirely tamed. The best guess is that unlike most of Iceland’s other volcanoes, here the magma simply drained away, creating an unusually welcoming environment in the heart of a volcano. 

Its pioneer now talks about it with a sense of wonder, though hearing his words, he could be talking about almost any of his nation’s volcanos. “I want people to come here and feel humble,” he says.

Travellers watch the lava flow from Fagradalsfjall, which started erupting in March of 2021.

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

In a way, the Covid-19 controls helped manage the number of visitors. In the volcano’s infancy, images of locals playing around Fagradalsfjall went viral. Some cooked food over the lava; others played volleyball. There was plenty of nakedness. At least a dozen drones were lost in the molten rock. This behaviour — and worse — would have been exacerbated were it not for the pandemic limiting the amount of global travel.

Whatever becomes of this newest addition to the country’s volcanic roster, it’ll likely be handled with the sort of smart entrepreneurship Iceland has learned to master. The Blue Lagoon is a good example of what’s possible when time and money are added to natural volcanic phenomena — even the infamous, ash-spewing 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull was quickly turned into a marketing opportunity. 

Elsewhere, near Reykjavík, there’s the incredibly rare opportunity to climb into a volcano, albeit one that’s been empty and dormant for millennia. Thríhnúkagígur was discovered by accident by cave enthusiast Árni B Stefánsson in 1974. Its potential as a tourism site wasn’t immediately obvious. “When I first got down there, I was so disappointed. It was nothing more than a quarry,” he says, preparing for our tour. He was so underwhelmed, he didn’t reinvestigate the site for another 17 years. 

Yet since 2012, visitors have been getting lowered inside the volcano, all the way to the bottom of its pristine magma chamber. Now lit dramatically, it looks like a subterranean cathedral, safe if not entirely tamed. The best guess is that unlike most of Iceland’s other volcanoes, here the magma simply drained away, creating an unusually welcoming environment in the heart of a volcano. 

Its pioneer now talks about it with a sense of wonder, though hearing his words, he could be talking about almost any of his nation’s volcanos. “I want people to come here and feel humble,” he says.

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