Eyja-something-or-other: The Volcano that Stopped the World

 

Eruption at Fimmvörduhals near Eyjafjallajökull


One evening in April 2010 I was on my way to an event in a library in Chiswick in West London to talk about Where the Shadows Lie, which had just been published. I was a little early, so I wandered through a park, running over the talk in my head. 

I was at that awkward moment in the book cycle where I had three books in my head: the book I was promoting (Where the Shadows Lie), the book I was writing (66 Degrees North) and the book I was going to write next (?, Magnus III?, Help!). I was searching for a topic for the next one. Like The Lord of the Rings and the financial crash, I wanted it to be something relevant to Iceland, but also of worldwide importance.

My phone rang. It was my wife, Barbara. She was in Beijing and had just been told that her flight back to Britain was cancelled because of a volcano in Iceland. This was the beginning of a fraught week for Barbara, who, after a few days hanging around in Beijing, returned to London via New York, Madrid, Saint-Malo and Portsmouth. But it was good news for me: I had the subject for my next book.

Every volcanic cloud has a silver lining.

Eyjafjallajökull.

Repeat after me

The first thing to do was learn how to say it. This is not as impossible as it first seems. There are two things you need to know. The first is that Eyjafjallajökull is made up of three words: eyja (‘island’), fjalla (‘fell’ or ‘mountain’) and jökull (‘glacier’). The second is that ‘-ll’ is pronounced ‘-dl’. So Eyjafjallajökull becomes eh-ya-fyadla-yerkudl. Kind of. If you say that you will be close, and let’s face it, with most Icelandic words ‘close’ is as near as you are ever going to get.

The next thing I needed to do was to set up ‘Ejz’ as Eyjafjallajökull in Autocorrect in Word, so that I could type the word Eyjafjallajökull easily as often as I needed to. It’s still there, in Autocorrect. Eyjafjallajökull. See?

In search of the volcano

I needed to get over to Iceland to find out more. It was a few months after the eruption by the time I arrived there, but the signs of the destruction were still visible. Dust devils of ash whipped up in the wind beneath the volcano, and the bridge over the nearby river was being reconstructed.

I visited the local police station at Hvolsvöllur and heard all about it. They had been busy.

The eruption had happened in two stages. The first was at a place called Fimmvörduháls, which lies between Eyjafjallajökull and the neighbouring glacier of Mýrdal. This was a pretty event. A line of craters spewed lava up in the air, glowing orange, red and yellow against the white ice of the glacier. A sludge of molten lava oozed down from the craters. 

People flocked to see it - arriving by snowmobile, super-jeep or helicopter. The police’s main job was to prevent tourists from doing stupid things, like sticking their toes in the lava to see if it was really hot (it was). But nobody died.

The Big One

Then came the big one. Eyjafjallajökull itself is a broad ridge under an ice cap. It’s often in cloud, and it was when the main eruption happened. There were rumbles, there were earthquakes, there were explosions, but you couldn’t see anything. 

And then the jökulhlaup came - literally ‘glacier run’. When a volcano erupts under a glacier, ice melts quickly. A lot of ice, very quickly. The water tumbled down the north side of the mountain taking boulders and earth with it, destroying everything in its path. Eyjafjallajökull is a few kilometres inland from the southern shore of Iceland, on the eastern edge of the fertile plain I described earlier. The jökulhlaup stormed around the mountain and overwhelmed the Markarfljót river dragging down bridges in its headlong rush to the sea.

Local construction workers were diverted to the bridge of the main Ring Road over the river.  There are some amazing pictures of a brave lone digger-driver desperately creating holes in the road around a long low bridge to allow the waters to pass as the jökulhlaup approaches. Another more direct jökulhlaup leaped down the southern slope almost taking out a farm.

The ash cloud

The clouds cleared to reveal a continuing eruption throwing ash thousands of feet into the air. Or at least that’s what it looked like from a distance. Near the volcano, the sky had turned black, as if day had been turned into night. The heavier ash particles fell on farmland, covering grass and crops with a thick grey film containing metals poisonous to animals. The farmers herded their livestock into barns and kept them there. Amazingly, nobody died.

The finer ash particles rose higher into the atmosphere and drifted south-west over Northern Europe. Little bits of Icelandic volcano fell on the roof of my car outside my house in London. Much more importantly, flights were cancelled amidst fears that the particles would destroy aero engines. People were stranded all over the world, including Barbara.

By coincidence, Wikileaks was in Reykjavík at the time, editing the video of an attack on Iraqis which had just been leaked to them.

So I had the subject for my third Magnus novel, Meltwater. A group of hackers are editing a video in Reykjavík and they take an afternoon off to go to see a volcanic eruption. One of their number is murdered next to the volcano. None of the suspects can leave the country.

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Photo Credit: Olivier AA Vandegunste via Shutterstock

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