There is something so majestic yet simultaneously frightful in a volcanic eruption that someone viewing it just cannot look away. In Iceland now, people are paying hundreds or thousands of dollars to experience this bucket-list thrill.
At the volcano Holuhraun, the eruptions — coming from two adjacent craters — are shooting more than 300 feet into the air. The magma is like a glorious reverse waterfall: It soars in curtains before plummeting back to earth.
The thickness of the eruption at any second can change, making the orange color less brilliant. But in the back of your mind, you know this is melted rock shooting up, so whatever the hue, it only underscores the tremendous temperatures.
Holuhraun began its significant eruption Aug. 31. Two weeks later, its lava flow, still a warm orange, stretched about 12 miles.
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The fissure eruptions are occurring near the Bardarbunga volcano, a large, usually dormant, volcano, said Haraldur Sigurdsson, one of the world's foremost vulcanologists, speaking to the Society of American Travel Writers on Wednesday in Reykjavik.
Bardarbunga is under Europe's largest glacier, where the ice is from 1,500 to 2,500 feet thick. The concern, Siggurdson said, is that Bardarbunga could erupt, melting glacial ice and causing violent steam explosions when the melted glacier water contacts the magma, which has a temperature estimated at 2,500 degrees. There might also be disastrous flooding.
But scientists have no way of predicting what will happen. An eruption in the 1970s lasted nine years but did little damage.
In 2010, the volcano Eyjafjallajökull experienced an explosive eruption, throwing particulates high into the atmosphere through which many transatlantic flights ordinarily pass. Air travel was halted for several days.
Holuhraun, now defined as a nonexplosive eruption, and without significant ash, is emitting dense white plumes. These clouds contain gases so toxic that even the researchers monitoring it from close-in ground stations have been evacuated several times.
But for the tourists, the chance to fly less than a half-mile above the brilliant, ever-changing plumes is more awe-inspiring than merely satisfying.
Pilots carefully check the latest reports on both wind and the danger of the expelled gases, so passengers may be kept waiting for skies over the eruptions to clear. The aircraft avoid the dense white plumes and do not fly directly over the ejected magma. If the volcano should turn explosive, all flights would be canceled.
But when they do approach the volcano, fixed-wing planes fly figure eights around it, so that passengers on both sides get a clear view. Helicopters hover but will rotate to provide similar views to all passengers. Both types of aircraft usually spend 25 to 40 minutes above the eruptions, always staying clear of the toxic clouds.
The flight back, whether to Akureryri or Reykjavik, to the south, is a time for passengers to ooh and ahh while reviewing their digital images — and to be thankful they put down their cameras to just stare at the tumultuous, Earth-changing event.
Robert N. Jenkins flew over Holuhraun Sept. 14 while attending the annual conference of the Society of American Travel Writers.
Within a week of this volcano’s eruption, leading Icelandic tour company Saga Travel had distributed new brochures advertising its flights from the two cities. In the seat-back pockets of the planes is a laminated map of the route.
The trip is not cheap. From Akureryri via the slow, loud, twin-engine Otter, the “Eruption Sightseeing Flight” costs 60,000 Icelandic krona, about $506. The helicopter version, out of Reykjavik, costs 270,000 krona, or about $2,280. But the helicopter can hover nearly above the plumes of lava, while the plane must keep moving.
To learn more about the flights and other tour companies, type a version of “volcano eruption tours” into a search engine. Among the companies providing tours are Saga Travel (www.sagatravel.is/en), Extreme Iceland (www.extremeiceland.is/en), Discover the World (www.discover-the-world.co.uk/volcanoes) and Iceland Travel (www.icelandtravel.is).
Volcano tourism is not new. There are tours to the cone of Eyjafjallajökull, but these are by land only, aboard specially rigged “super Jeeps.” Such tours usually include stops at other typical Icelandic geological displays such as waterfalls, geysers and the popular geothermal pools regarded as a chance to swim in nature’s own tubs. Volcano tours by plane or helicopter are popular in Hawaii, too.