Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Volcano Aurora
The shimmering aurora borealis provides a backdrop for the glow of volcanic fires from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano. [Photograph ©2010 Arnþór Ævarsson. Used by permission.]

Volcanoes have always held a certain fascination for me. When I was a young snot-nose of five or six, I would gaze in rapt attention at the photographs of Parícutin, a volcano that reared its cindery head above the fields of Michoacán, Mexico in 1943 - a mere nine years before I was born. The incandescent fire of those lava fountains captured my childish imagination, tickling the back alleys of my brain-pan with a peculiar combination of fear and curiosity. And National Geographic, with its photos of the 1960 Kilauea eruption, planted in me a lifelong desire to - one day - see a volcano in action.

I have stood at the edge of the Kilauea caldera and looked deep into the Halemaumau fire-pit. I have walked the length of the Thurston lava tube. But, as yet, I have never seen Earth’s molten fire with my own eyes. That one’s still on the Bucket List.

Meanwhile, Ol’ Vulcan has been in the news lately, what with Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano blowing a monster plume of ash into the stratosphere and grounding tens of thousands of European flights. Perhaps the European aviation authorities are being overcautious, but anyone who remembers British Airways flight 9 won’t question their decision.

In June, 1982, BA9, a Boeing 747 enroute from Kuala Lumpur to Perth, lost all four engines when it encountered a cloud of ash from Indonesia’s Mount Galunggung. I’m sure there were any number of folks who filled their trousers after hearing the Captain’s masterfully understated announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them under control. I trust you are not in too much distress.” Fortunately, the crew was able to restart the engines after exiting the ash cloud... but not before a scary gliding descent to bring the plane down to an altitude with breathable air. The 747 limped into Jakarta on three engines, but with no casualties. (Except maybe those trousers.)

But back to Eyjafjallajökull.

The photograph above was taken by Arnþór Ævarsson (the letter þ - thorn - is pronounced “th”) in April, before the second phase of the eruption shut down European airspace mid-month. By a happy coincidence, the Northern Lights were in full play at the time, leading to a striking juxtaposition of lights from both earth and sky. As Arnþór himself says in another masterful understatement, it was “my biggest Kodak moment.”

Ya gotta love Iceland. Populated by the descendants of Vikings, packed with stunningly gorgeous blondes, and with active volcanoes to boot. I’ve gotta get me a ticket... when atmospheric conditions permit, of course.

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