Why Hikers Are Clamoring to Photograph a Volcanic Eruption in Iceland, Despite Risks

Toxic gas, hypothermia and fragile terrain are among the site’s dangers

Lava and smoke rise from the volcano in the dark, surrounded by a ring of glowing lava
Lava rises from the volcano eruption in Iceland's Meradalir valley late on August 6. Sergei Gapon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Spurts of hot magma are flowing across Iceland’s Meradalir valley after a volcanic eruption began last week. Its source is a massive fissure about the length of three football fields, according to Forbes’ Eric Mack.

The volcanic activity has inspired more than 20,000 people to hike to the eruption site and soak in the view, per Jeremie Richard of the Agence France-Presse. The volcano is on Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula, located about 25 miles southwest of the capital, Reykjavik.

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According to the New York Times’ Michael Levenson, the Icelandic government said in a statement that the “relatively small” eruption posed little risk to populated areas and critical infrastructure, and that fissures like this one typically don’t lead to large explosions or columns of ash shooting into the stratosphere. But the government still advised people to stay away from the eruption site.

Even if an eruption appears safe to view at first, it won’t necessarily stay that way. “Eruptions can amp up their intensity at any moment, hurling not only molten lava but also large chunks of solid rock across startling distances,” writes Forbes.

Dozens of spectators in winter jackets and hats watch lava flowing from a fissure
Onlookers watch lava flowing from Iceland's erupting volcano on August 10. Photo by Jeremie Richard/AFP via Getty Images

Eruptions can also release toxic gases, such as sulfur dioxide, that can cause health problems, per Forbes. According to the Iceland Monitor, police have banned children under 12 from visiting the eruption site, since the emissions pose a greater risk to young children.

But for those intrepid hikers that do visit the eruption, officials have urged they take safety precautions. The Icelandic Meteorological Office warns that gas pollution at the site can exceed dangerous levels at any time and says it is safer for viewers to observe the eruption with their backs to the wind. The office also suggests that spectators move to higher ground when winds are calm.

Hjordis Gudmundsdottir, a spokesperson for Iceland’s civil protection agency, tells the Times that visitors should be wearing the proper clothing and footwear for the five-hour hike to and from the eruption site. “It’s not just a walk in the park,” she says.

Three tourists experienced non-serious injuries while hiking to the eruption site last week, according to the Times. And the Iceland Monitor reported that two young children developed hypothermia while hiking with their parents over the weekend.

Iceland is home to more than 30 active volcanoes, and the country sits atop two tectonic plates divided by an undersea mountain chain that releases magma, per the Times.

Before last year, the Reykjanes peninsula had gone almost 800 years without major volcanic activity, writes National Geographic’s Robin George Andrews. The eruption that broke the streak began in 2021 and lasted around six months, Heather Handley, a volcanologist and geochemist at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, writes in The Conversation.

The new eruption has about five to ten times more magma flow than last year’s. It’s unclear how long this will last but a new era of regular eruptions in the area could be underway. “This could herald the start of decades of occasional eruptions,” Dave McGarvie, a volcanologist at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, tells National Geographic.

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