Tourists Are Getting Too Close to Volcanoes

Visitors to Iceland’s volcanoes are ignoring the rules, many to get the perfect selfie

Volcano and Cars
Cars getting too close to the Fimmvörðuháls volcano in Iceland. Amy Donovan

There’s been a lot of volcanic activity in the news in 2018: Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano had its largest eruption in decades, the Mayon volcano in the Philippines forced mass evacuations, and Guatemala’s Volcan de Fuego has erupted several times this year, killing almost 200 people. Despite the dangers, a new study suggests humanity's fear of volcanoes may be waning and a dangerous number of volcano tourists are getting a little too close to the bubbling calderas.

Sean Coughlan at the BBC reports that in recent years more and more people have put themselves in danger with risky behavior near volcanoes, putting more pressure on local authorities and placing rescuers in dangerous situations. There are several reasons why people want to feel the heat and rumbling magma in an active volcano, according to the new report published in the journal Geo.

In general, attitudes toward nature that began in the Enlightenment and Romantic periods have grown stronger; instead of seeing nature as a wild, dangerous place to be avoided, people want to see and experience the world’s wonders first hand, writes study author and geographer Amy Donovan of the University of Cambridge.

Geotourism and volcano tourism are a part of that. As a result, many of these activities have become “commodified,” with tour companies flying helicopters close to volcanoes or offering hiking tours to the caldera rim even if the activity isn’t completely safe.

Donovan conducted surveys of tourist and tour operators in Iceland where the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano on the island nation set off a volcano tourism boom over the last decade. The results indicate that social media is also pushing people to the edge of the volcano as well.

Between 2010 and 2017, foreign tourism to Iceland jumped from 488,622 to 2,224,074 visits per year. The majority of people visited the island to experience the natural world and the island’s active volcanoes.

“People reported being very keen to get close and experience the eruptions—to feel the heat and the gas and to hear the noises,” Donovan tells Oscar Quine at The Telegraph. “But there’s also a drive to get that photo that no one else has got—and to represent yourself as a person who's doing interesting things and having exciting times.”

That quest for the perfect snapshot, she says, is causing people to ignore safety regulations, push closer to the lava flows and even enter restricted areas. Quine reports Instagram is full of questionable photos of people sipping champagne on volcano rims or dangling over the edge wearing heat suits. Then there are the volcanophiles, obsessive lava lovers who chase erupting volcanoes across the world trying to get as close as possible.

So far, volcano tourism hasn’t led to many fatalities, though Donovan says people are injured by flying rock and hot gases. Just this summer, lava bombs from Kilauea injured 23 people on a sightseeing boat with one rock chunk breaking a woman’s leg.

Tourism can also be problematic in emergency situations. When a volcano begins to show signs of erupting, authorities have to deal with tourists trying to get closer to the volcano while also trying to evacuate people who need to get out.

“People break safety regulations. You can't police the site of a volcano at night,” Donovan tells Coughlan at the BBC. “Many active volcanic countries face the dilemma of wanting tourists, but also wanting to keep people safe, which creates a difficult conundrum.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.