Shooting Polaroids at the volcanic eruption in Fagradalsfjall

March 26, 2021

In the evening of Friday 19. March 2021 a volcanic eruption started in a mountain called Fagradalsfjall in a small valley called Geldingadalur, on the Reykjanes peninsula in southwestern Iceland.
Right from the start it was apparent that this was a small but extremely beautiful eruption, a real “tourist eruption, so to speak.
I was super anxious to get out there as soon as possible. Because of the the relatively small size of the eruption, scientists thought that it would only last a few day. They have since changed their minds, but i did not know that then. For various reasons I couldn’t make it out there until Monday night, which actually proved a huge blessing to me. Already on Saturday and Sunday there were literally thousands of people there, marveling at this spectacle of nature, and rightly so. I must say I’m proud of my fellow Icelander’s interest in nature. The area was closed down on Monday due to a storm. The Icelandic met office had issued a yellow alert, which meant hiking out there was not a great idea.
But on Monday night the storm was already calming, it was windy but not storming.
The search and rescue squads that have been present there for the whole duration of the eruption, to help our curious hikers should they need it, told me that there were about 7 to 10 people in the area that night. I can not even begin to describe how it felt being there practically alone.
After about an hour’s hike I started to see the volcanic cone from the distance. It looked and felt unreal. It was actually kind of like a big New-Years Eve pyre, a big bonfire shooting fireworks from the top. How can this be the work of nature? My mind was telling me this must be fake.
Getting closer I started to see the lava streams pouring out of the cone, filling up the small valley. The streams would constantly change their paths, so you’d actually see them go from yellow, to red, to finally disappear into the blackness. There was nothing else, just red, yellow and black, no other colours, no shades of grey. It was surreal and overwhelming in it’s simplicity.
Although I was in no danger, I had a strong feeling of how hostile this environment is. Not hostile as in aggressive, the volcano isn’t a sentient being, it has no interest in or opinion about you. The volcano just does what it does without prejudice, and what it does just happens to destroy all life that’s in it’s path. I can well see how people repressed by simple-minded religion would have thought of these eruptions as something evil, something literally out of hell, but in my opinion that diminishes mother nature to human moralities. Nature is above that. Nature just is, and sometimes we better make sure to get out of it’s way, or at least keep a safe distance.

I spent the whole night until about an hour after dawn just shooting Polaroids and chilling at the site. I’d just move around and find a spot to sit and stare at the show for a long while, before snapping out of it and picking up my camera. I also shot some videos on my phone and a small digital camera I had with me, you can check them out here:

Like a lone astronaut on a faraway alien world, nothing existed outside the valley. The volcano filled up all my senses. In a way it was like sensory deprivation, or I should say sensory overload, there wasn’t room for my mind to focus on anything else then this. There were sounds, there was smell and there was of course the magnificent sight that demanded my full attention.
It was interesting to hear the sound of the already cooled-down lava stone moving forward as the weight of the new lava above pushed it ever higher up the hills of the valley. The sound was like a bunch of tiles braking. Then there was the rumbling of the crater, the sploosh big chunks of lava made when they were catapulted out of it and landed on it’s side. Once in a while it would snow for a few minutes at a time, and I could literally hear the water sizzling on the hot lava, and then there was the snap and crackles of the burning moss as the hot lava stone set it on fire. The burning moss also produced a kind of a sweet smelling smoke.

volcanic eruption in Fagradalsfjall, Iceland, March 2021 – Fine art polaroid photography by Guðmundur Óli Pálmason –

At dawn I finally saw the whole valley, and strangely it felt much smaller in the daylight, the lava felt less ominous. The red glow against the darkness had made it seem like an endless ocean of death that stretched into infinity, but now in daylight, it was actually confined by mountains on all sides. Of course I knew that, I had seen pictures and followed the livestream, but the mind makes it’s own reality in a situation like this.
After dawn I hiked out again and people started streaming into the valley. I still can’t believe how lucky I was to have the place practically for my self, like a lone astronaut on a faraway alien world, an explorer that had gone where no man had gone before but now needed to return back home, back to reality.

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