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The Logistical Nightmare of Visiting a Volcano

I never imagined how difficult it would be to get to a volcanic eruption. It’s not like I pictured a curious herd of people just strolling up to take a look, but I neglected to consider the logistical cartwheels it would take to get permission to visit the Holuhraun fissure in Iceland. The eruption stemmed from the Bárðarbunga volcano and there were fluctuating levels of dangerous gas, the possibility of ice melting in amounts large enough to cause a flood, and of course, a spew of red hot lava.

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Gabriella and her guide, Anton, in the Holuhraun lava fields as seen from a video drone controlled by Gabriella. Video still by Gabriella Garcia-Pardo

Most of the videos I work on for my job as a video producer at National Geographic News are short documentaries created specifically for the Internet. I travelled to Iceland with photo editor Becky Harlan to produce three of these videos. One piece was about Futurevolc, a European collaborative research project bringing together specialists to better understand volcanic systems, openly share data, and provide early warnings before significant events. As luck would have it, a few days after pitching the initial idea, the volcano Bárðarbunga began to stir. The story about a volcano research community shifted to include an eruption from the second tallest mountain on the island.

But you can’t just pop on over to the site. You need a permit from the Civil Protection agency, a local guide, a four-wheel drive, and during the days we could be there, gas masks and gas monitoring tools. The original day we planned on going was cancelled based on gas levels being too high. After weeks of phone calls and emails from D.C., we arrived in Iceland to spend days mixed with video shoots, phone calls, emails, and visits, trying to fit together all of the pieces of the puzzle.

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A Civil Protection volunteer, watches as an arctic fox runs past the checkpoint station near the Holuhraun lava fields. Photograph by Becky Harlan
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An arctic fox sits near the Civil Protection checkpoint in Iceland’s highlands. Video still by Gabriella Garcia-Pardo

Physically getting to the site can also be a process, it’s in the middle of Iceland’s rugged highlands, and you need someone who knows the way. A few hours into our drive, after letting out air from our tires to help with the bumpy ride, we were stopped at a checkpoint two hours away from the eruption. The scientists we were following decided to go ahead without us to check the gas levels before opening the site up to the media. So we waited.

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Inside the Civil Protection checkpoint station, where volunteers work in shifts to verify and record visitors’ permits before they are allowed to proceed to the eruption site. Photograph by Becky Harlan

All you could see in every direction were rolling hills of earth. The wind was constant and only got stronger and colder as the day went on. We spent about five hours waiting at the checkpoint, as the day got later and later. An arctic fox appeared, amusing us all for a moment. But then we got word that no one was getting in. If we wanted any shot at being able to film, we’d have to come back at 5 am the next day. After more calls and workarounds we agreed on a sleep-deprived solution. We would come back tomorrow.

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The glow of the eruption lights up the night sky on the drive back to the guesthouse after the first attempt to visit the volcano. Video still by Gabriella Garcia-Pardo

Our heads hit our guesthouse pillows after 1:00 a.m., and a couple of hours later at 3:30 a.m., we set off again. The whole way there felt like a tentative trek. We’d come a long way jumping through hoops and this was the last day to try. My mind was busy churning out backup plans. Anton, our guide, talked about the wind direction and what our escape routes would be if needed. He taught me more about how volcanoes worked and how some of the mountains in the park had formed. I was also trying to pay attention to what he told me about noticing the smells. I kept waiting for a hint of the gaseous odor, a burning in my nose or eyes that would signal sulfur dioxide. At one point it seemed like there was an absence of any scent, it just felt gray. I can’t ever remember being surrounded by so much gray. Gray was the only color that existed—the sky was gray, the rocks were gray, the smoke was gray and the mountains were a blackish gray. The world looked 2D. We drove through these quiet, isolated areas, what you would imagine an empty, rocky planet to look like.

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Smoke rising from the gray landscape of the Holuhraun lava field. Video still by Gabriella Garcia-Parco
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A vehicle carrying scientists working with the FUTUREVOLC organization drives toward the erupting fissue at Holuraun lava field. Video still by Gabriella Garcia-Pardo

When we got to the eruption it didn’t seem real, the orange-red contrasted against the lack of color surrounding it. I could hear it growl and feel the vibrations. It was strange to look at something so hot it could swallow up our four-wheeled-drive vehicle, yet feel so cold while watching it. I guess I somehow thought that I would feel the heat from the lava, even from a distance.

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Gabriella with the scientists who are studying the volcano at the site of the Holuhraun fissure. Photograph by Anton Freyr Birgisson

On the drive back I felt a mixture of exhaustion, relief, and disbelief. My body was still sore from filming on horseback for 10 hours a few days before and the hike to a magma chamber coming up the next morning reminded me that I wasn’t done. I easily accept and adapt to strange situations though I knew what I saw wasn’t going to fully sink in until I looked at the footage later. But maybe these things will always feel both surreal and oddly normal with a sense of victory for just getting there at all.

Read more about the Holuhraun eruption and the team of scientists studying it on National Geographic News.

See more videos from National Geographic News here.

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