Feeling the heat in Vik, Iceland

The seafront town in Southern Iceland is a visual spectacle one cannot miss

By Kalpana Sunder

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Published: Thu 30 Mar 2023, 8:24 PM

Lava flows, columns of thick ash, steaming vents and melting glaciers… this is a country of incredible landscapes carved by geothermal activity. I am in Vik, Iceland, the country’s southernmost town of around 450 people, with a rich maritime history, which is situated in the shadow of the active volcano Katla, in the middle of a Unesco Geopark, which last erupted in 1918. Vik is surrounded by black sand beaches and large sea stacks, where Atlantic puffins with yellow beaks nest. We have driven up from the capital city, Reykjavik, revelling in the stark beauty of the landscapes and the dramatic coastline, from magnificent waterfalls to geysers, hot springs, glaciers and volcanoes, staying at charming Airbnb cottages and rooms, passing groups of wild Icelandic horses, and tying up with some brilliant local tour companies like Hidden Iceland to show us some off-the-grid sights.

By virtue of being located on the Mid Atlantic Ridge, a 40,000-km long crack in the ocean floor, where two tectonic plates meet, and a powerful magma plume under the mantle, Iceland is a volcanic island with as many as 32 active volcano systems and sprawling lava fields. In this land of ice and fire, there is a volcanic eruption, on an average, every three to five years. What is unique is that half of Iceland’s volcanoes are underneath glacial ice, and, therefore, when they erupt, they not only melt the ice, but also unleash floods which envelop towns and destroy power lines besides releasing noxious gases.

Since 2018, Vik has a unique Icelandic Lava show in a small building in Vikurbraut, which is a great way to see the fury of volcanic lava, and understand how it hardens and behaves, along with picking up interesting trivia about Icelandic geology and volcanoes. The creators of the award-winning show, a local Icelandic couple Ragnhildur Ágústsdóttir and Júlíus Jónsson were inspired to create the show after watching a volcanic eruption, when flaming hot lava melted vast icefields in a second, and they wanted other people to experience this intensity, up close. It took many years of ideating and learning about lava from scientists and researchers, to finally start the show so that people who do not have the chance to witness a live eruption, could still experience the raw power of nature.

The show takes place in a small auditorium, where there are seats around a ring. We are told to put on protective glasses. Our guide has reassured us that there is no danger in this controlled setting and safety standards are very high. As the lights dim, the programme starts with a film about Iceland’s volcanoes and their origin, and tells the story of Julius’s great grandfather who had a miraculous escape from the 1918 eruption of Katla, when as a young farmer he was rounding up his sheep and saw the tall wall of water and icebergs approaching, and rode his horse to the top of a hill.

We watch as France, the geologist, (who came from Australia to do her masters and stayed back in Iceland impressed by its geography and sights), pours superheated hot lava from a huge cauldron at 1100* C, onto steel bordered slabs. She then puts blocks of ice on the lava, and shows us what would happen in nature when volcanic lava and glaciers meet. As the room becomes warm and toasty, we watch as the hot lava sizzles and cracks glowing orange, and melts the ice and rapidly bubbles, generating steam, and then hardens into black obsidian. I am fascinated by the patterns and striations that are formed as the lava cools. “If it cools too quickly, then it forms volcanic glass,” she explains.

She manipulates the lava with an iron rod, creating Pele’s hair — thin, golden-coloured, hair-like volcanic formations that are very brittle and sharp, produced from cooled lava stretched into thin strands and carried by the wind. The term is derived from Hawaiian mythology where Pele is the goddess of fire and lightning. We also learn about Pele’s tears — little blobs of volcanic glass formed when molten lava is ejected into the air, and forms tiny droplets. “It all depends upon the velocity of the erupting magma,” she says.

The show uses a custom-made furnace designed by a company known for making rocket components. It also recycles its lava between shows and also heats up the lava from methane made from organic waste. After the show they have to wait for ages for the lava to cool, and shovel it with steel buckets and shovels. What I like about the show is that it is made for people of all ages: I see children loving the trivia as well as the lava show. It’s a great way to teach young people geology.

Katla, like many of Iceland’s volcanoes, is partly covered by the Myrdalsjokull Glacier. Close by is the Sólheimajökull, a glacier tongue of Mýrdalsjökull, with crevasses and ridges and a favourite for glacier hikes, which we drove up to. The last time Katla erupted, there was huge flooding and the coast was extended by three miles. Katla has not erupted since 1918, and it has been a long dormant period and could erupt anytime now.

What’s it like to live in a town that’s always in danger of facing a volcanic eruption that can cause floods and release poisonous gases? Most Icelanders are practical and accept the fact of living in a country where they are at the risk of facing nature’s wrath any time, from earthquakes and volcanoes, to avalanches and floods. Even though many researchers, volcanologists and seismologists are always monitoring the situation, it’s still impossible to exactly pinpoint the time of an eruption in advance.

“We are always ready with our emergency bag, packed with masks, protective glasses, provisions and some clothes and are to go to the church on the hill, which is designated as our emergency shelter. We have a system where text messages are sent immediately to mobile phones and an evacuation plan is in place. If houses are abandoned, they have orange placards placed outside so that rescue attempts are made only in the other houses. We also practise periodic drills and are trained to run to the church,” says France.

At the end of the show, we all get a small piece of shiny, volcanic glass to keep as a souvenir of our time here. In the small shop and café, which is attached to the auditorium, I pick up some coasters made of lava and black sand filled in lockets. Even our lunch is volcano themed, with lava bread (dark grey in colour) served with soup in a scooped-out loaf of bread.

After the sensory feast, we drive to Vik’s church painted white with a carnation red roof, perched on a high hill, with a panoramic view of the beaches, the Atlantic Ocean and cliffs and the town below. I gaze at the distant shapes of sea stacks and the Reynisfjara black sand beach with its basalt-lava columns sculpted by the sea, and whisper a silent prayer for the safety of the town and its people.


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