Grimsvotn Volcano, Iceland

May 2011

By: Laura Crawford Williams

May 21, 2011
German and I had just returned from a long day of shooting around Vatnajokull National Park in Iceland. We were very tired and agreed to take the rest of the day off. Since the beginning of our trip, we’ve been plagued with above average rainfall and below average temperatures. I read that Iceland was relatively nice in May. Temperatures were said to average around 45F, the sun shines 20 hours a day, and fewer tourists this time of year. The reality was that we didn’t see the sun for 10 days and it rained constantly. There was sleet, ice, and snow on the roads and an overall average of 32F.  (Thank goodness for 4-wheel drive.) However, on Saturday evening the clouds floated away, the wind stopped, and the sun magically appeared. No rest for the weary. It was time to go back out and take advantage of the light. The mountains and glaciers were beautiful. Iceberg lagoons were icy blue while gulls, kittiwakes, and eiders fished all around them. As the sun finally began to fade, we headed back to the hotel cold and hungry…that’s when the real action began.

What we could see of the volcano erupting, a dark blue smudge behind clouds.

We were staying in the town of Skaftafel situated below the Skeidararjokull Glacier. This hotel sits inconveniently below the Grimsvotn volcano.  German was in the lobby around 7pm when he heard someone say that the volcano had erupted. He knocked on my door, I changed back into cold weather clothing, and we joined hotel staff and guests in the parking lot. From our vantage point it was difficult to see anything spectacular. We could just see the tip of the ash cloud rising into the sky but it quickly turned into an unimpressive blue smudge across the mountaintops. Employees said it was a small eruption and not to be concerned. The staff returned to work and tourists drove away in rental cars to get a better view. It was a gorgeous evening, so we followed and took a few pictures. On the way back, we talked with a policeman. He said not to be worried and mentioned that the bridge to Reykjavik had been closed. We hoped it would be open by morning, since we needed to cross it in order to return to the airport. Apparently, melted snow from the eruption can cause flash flooding and this bridge had been wiped out before.

May 22, 2011

It was 5am Sunday morning when German knocked on my door again. He was standing in the hall, still wearing his pajamas, telling me to look out of my window. I opened the curtains and saw nothing. It was pitch black where I should have seen light. That’s when I heard the low rumbling, small earthquakes caused by the eruption. We went to the lobby to ask why people weren’t leaving. The staff had no answer but casually handed us two facemasks left by police earlier in the morning. We thanked them, bought 3 large bottles of water, and immediately checked out! Once outside, it was hard to see. Ash was blowing like heavy snow directly into our faces and was covering the car. What had been a 1 ½ hour drive the previous day, took us 3 in the ash. For the first 40 minutes, we could barely see the road. I can’t describe how black it was. Eventually, we began to see the sun through a grey and tan haze. The wind was blowing drifts of ash across the road. Whenever they hit the car, we were totally blind. If it weren’t for the reflective road indicators and the fact that we were the only car on the road, it coud have been a bigger problem. We had no idea what we were doing.

When we first saw the light.
The scenery around us.

I’d make a terrible journalist. I didn’t even think to document ash covered vehicles and black roads in the darkness. We were really more interested in getting out of this mess than we were of taking pictures. Only when we literally “saw the light” did we begin to look around. The once snow-covered mountains had turned pale brown and the icy blue lagoon was now beige with black icebergs. But, with each kilometer the sun got brighter. Outside the cloud it was a beautiful sunny day.

Mountain tops with freshly fallen snow were now being covered by the ash.
Coming out of the darkness.

We reached a hotel at 7am and promptly arranged to buy tickets at a small airport on a 4pm flight to Reykjavik. Our international flight was on Thursday, but we decided it was better to leave the country early and avoid the post-volcanic mayhem. This was wishful thinking. By that time, the volcanic plume was 12 miles into the sky and all international and domestic flights were cancelled. So, we checked into the hotel.

Since no one knew when the bridge would re-open we went to plan B – to circumnavigate the country in the opposite direction from the volcano. This would be a 24-hour drive with no stopping. But, nature changed our plans again. There was a snowstorm in the mountains to the north and the roads were impassible.

May 23, 2011
Plan C was to drive a couple of hours north to Eglisstadir, a town with a larger airport. We left around 10am with a caravan of hotel guests behind us. We turned back forty minutes later after the wind nearly blew us off the road. Rocks were falling from slopes above us and spreading across the roadways. Even waterfalls were blowing upward. After our return to the hotel, we learned the tunnel we had passed through twice this morning, was now closed because of the wind. At this point it was gusting to 86 km/hour. Some cars were blown off the road and others had windows explode while driving. By 3pm, we were told a plane would be coming to the local airport at 5pm. By 5pm, the time was changed to 8pm. By 7:30pm, we received a call that the plane had been cancelled. Unbelievable! The plane was rescheduled for 9am the following morning.

May 24, 2011
By 7:30am the plane was cancelled again. The wind is still howling outside. It’s now 9:30am and we were just told that the plane might come at noon. Hope is fading fast and frustration pervasive throughout our newly formed family of hotel refugees. The truth is no one knows when the snow will melt, how long the volcano will erupt, where the ash cloud will drift, or how long the wind will blow. What we’ve learned is that you must give in, bend with the wind, and laugh in the face of frustration. Everybody knows…you just can’t fight Mother Nature!