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Why Icelanders enjoy their volcanoes

21 April
Smoke and ash billow from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano

Gunnar Jonsson
Reykjavik

"May you live in interesting times," has long been quoted as a Chinese curse - the idea being that anyone who is around to see the defining moments in his or her country's history is probably not going to have a good time of it or even survive.

While there is actually no such saying in Chinese, the sentiment certainly rings true for many Icelanders these days.

In a few remarkable years, we were transformed from a nation of thrifty pseudo-peasants to high-flying cosmopolitan citizens of the world. Money seemed to appear from nowhere and for a short time we could do no wrong.

People protest in the strees of Reykjavick on March 6, 2010
The economic situation has sparked protests against the government

It then took less than a week for our entire economy to collapse around a banking system that turned out to be based on a massive lie, and to this day most Icelanders are still coming to terms with what that means.

The government collapsed after unprecedented protests and was replaced by a left-wing alliance that promised changes that many people are still waiting for.

Enter Eyjafjallajokull. That most unpronounceable of all blessings. When the initial eruption began, people were for the most part, elated. The news broadcasts and newspapers were full of amazing images. People drove up to the site of the eruption by the thousands and many risked the dangerous trek through treacherous terrain and deadly weather just to reach... well, an even more deadly volcano.

'Gift from God'

Some commentators noted that nowhere else in the world would people respond to a natural disaster by flocking towards ground zero for a better look. One woman who got close to the lava-spewing chasm described the eruption as a "Godsend" on national news.

She even proposed that any new mountain formed by the lava flow be named exactly that: "Gift from God mountain". Others wryly commented that the eruption was clearly coming from a source down below rather than up above.

People were ready for something new to hold their interest and nothing holds the interest of an Icelander like geological activity

The excitement is perhaps understandable after 18 months of news coverage about the economic collapse. Coverage that was unrelentingly depressing. People were ready for something new to hold their interest, and nothing holds the interest of an Icelander like geological activity.

The national spirit was forged in the harsh landscape and moulded by the natural forces that act upon it with alarming frequency and intensity. This was not a catastrophe but a national event that oddly seemed to be bringing people together and burying coverage of the financial meltdown under a metaphorical layer of ash.

What no-one was expecting was that the eruption would have a global impact. To be honest, the news that our little volcano (and it is a very modest eruption on our scale) had caused massive disruption in Great Britain was met with some bemusement by most.

The United Kingdom is viewed by many as the enemy, and deep resentment still lingers because of the British government's decision to enact anti-terrorism legislation against one of our (albeit badly managed) banks. Jokes about having sent the British "ash" instead of the requested "cash" abounded.

New eruption looming

That died down once the seriousness of the situation became clear, though a few increasingly dated jokes still make the rounds on Facebook. It's hard to remain detached from the impact this is having when you see constant coverage of people whose lives have been thrown into chaos because of the flight disruptions.

Apart from all the lost revenue it's sad to know people are missing weddings, funerals or long-awaited holidays because of the plume of ash and smoke making its way across Europe. And we know there is another, far more powerful, volcano looming. It's called Katla and it historically erupts within months of Eyjafjallajokull, though there is no scientific consensus as to why.

An Icelandic farmer clears ash from the roof of a goat house
A number of farms have been hit by heavy ash fall

Most people in Iceland seem resigned to the fact that a far larger eruption is coming sooner rather than later. After all, eruptions and earthquakes are a fact of life here.

What has also changed the mood somewhat is the fact that the eruption in Eyjafjallajokull has now spread all the way under the glacier and melted part of the ice sheet. This caused massive flash flooding once the wall of ice burst and let the torrent of water and icebergs through.

This is a phenomenon that we are all too familiar with in this country, and one that has caused massive damage to infrastructure and several deaths in the past. This time around, the emergency services responded in almost superhuman fashion, evacuating hundreds of people from the area before a drop of water rolled downhill and digging trenches through the roads to allow flood waters to pass without washing away bridges.

This didn't prevent damage to nearby farms, of course, and the ash fall is now poisoning animals and destroying the livelihood of farmers. No one is amused anymore.

What comes next no-one knows. It is something you have to get used to when you live on a small rock sitting on top of a massive geological fault line in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Certainly there will be more eruptions of varying intensity over the coming years and decades. Right now, however, people are just taking a welcome respite from worrying about their financial security and their children's futures. A volcano, at least, is something we're used to. Something we know how to deal with.

Gunnar Jonsson is a reporter for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service (RUV)



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