A phonecall in the dead of night was the first inkling the people living on the Thorvaldseyri farm had that Iceland’s glacier-covered Eyjafjallajokull volcano was about to erupt.
Hanna Lara Andrews, a half-English, half-Icelandic farmer who lives at the foot of the mountain which exploded on Wednesday morning with ferocious power, picked up the phone at 2am to be told by a civil protection official that she had only 20 minutes to evacuate her family, including her one-year-old son.
The warning was clear: if they stayed on their dairy farm they risked being washed away by torrents of meltwater unleashed by the release of energy that had just begun inside the volcano, no more than four miles above them.It would be the volcano’s first major eruption since 1821, since when it has lain dormant and anonymous to most of the world. Yesterday it made headlines when it transformed swaths of western Europe and Scandinavia into an unprecedented no-fly zone.
“I had a bag ready because of the recent earthquakes in the area and grabbed a few things we might need for a couple of days and we went as quickly as possible,” Andrews said from a safe house yesterday. “It is a huge shock to us all and it doesn’t seem real at all.”Her family, including her in-laws, drove a few miles away to a farmhouse designated for evacuation in the event of such an eruption. There they waited in trepidation for the possible destruction to begin. Their herd of 60 dairy cows and all their possessions were still at the farm – the closest property to a volcano that they had thought was dormant. They were among 700 people evacuated from the area by the Icelandic civil defence authority. Many had to stay in emergency Red Cross shelters.The floods arrived early the next morning. Andrews saw them coming down the mountain. Water melted by the red hot explosive eruptions bursting through the 200m-thick glacier poured off in torrents, washing away roads and sweeping into homes, she said.
“By morning we could see through breaks in the cloud a huge evaporation cloud, like a mushroom. It must have been 20,000ft [6,100 metres] high. It looked enormous, far bigger than we have ever seen before.” One local farmer told Icelandic television that he woke yesterday morning to find a layer of ash covering everything. Residents of Kirkjubaerklaustur, about 60 miles east of the eruption, said yesterday that ash was falling thick and dark, making it difficult to see more than a few yards.“The ash is causing huge disruption to the east of the glacier,” Urður Gunnarsdóttir, a press spokeswoman for the foreign ministry, said at lunchtime yesterday. “You can’t see anywhere and you can’t drive because it is just black, like night.”
Erlundur Bjornsson, a sheep farmer 95km (59 miles) east of the volcano, told the Guardian that ash had fallen heavily and it had been “almost totally dark”.
“The plume came over my farm a couple of hours ago, but the wind direction has changed slightly and it is very fine here, a grey dust that gets in your eyes,” he said. “It covers everything and there is a smell of sulphur in the air.”In the early hours of yesterday, 24 hours after the eruption began and with the volcanic activity still intensifying, according to Icelandic volcanologists, the plume had risen seven miles into the sky and had blown across the Norwegian Sea to Scandinavia, and south east across the Shetland Isles, as far as the north coast of Scotland. The Met Office in Exeter produced diagrams showing the plume doubling again and again in size as it stretched to cover an area close to the size of Western Europe.
Shetland residents said the sulphuric smell of rotten eggs was strong by early yesterday morning.“I noticed a smell in the house and wondered what it was,” said Joanne Jamieson, from Sandwick on the southern tip of Mainland, the biggest island in Shetland. “It was coming from the outside, so I opened the door. It was very strong, and I initially thought it was rotting seaweed. I looked down to the beach and actually looked up to see if the sky was falling in.”
Jane Matthews, her neighbour, said: “It smelt strongly like rotten eggs, but I didn’t put two and two together realising it was coming from Iceland,” Initially, I thought maybe it’s something to do with my young daughter, or the animals in the field.”
Air traffic controllers in Aberdeen had seen the plume coming. By noon on Wednesday they had predicted that local airspace could be closed for a few hours, but by evening it was clear the situation was more serious than that.Maybe Katla will explode, and maybe it won’t. Maybe the new volcano will continue to grow, like Parícutin, until it towers over the landscape, but maybe it will just fizzle out over the next few months. There are simply some events over which we have no control.
By all accounts, the Icelandic public safety officials have taken all the steps they can to ensure that observers don’t endanger themselves or others. Although some farms and roads have been washed away, there have been no human or animal fatalities because of the volcanoes.
Nevertheless, this may be a black swan–a rare, but extremely significant, event. We need to feel that we understand and control our environment. We have spent enormous sums of money, and employed state-of-the-art technology to study the tectonic plates, to locate and measure the magma chamber, and to plot every tiny movement of the crust. Icelanders are justifiably proud of the fact that most of our houses are warmed with geothermal energy. We believe that we have tamed the Earth’s heat and made it our servant.Unfortunately, of course, we can no more completely tame the Earth’s molten core than we can completely tame a killer whale. We have the comforting illusion of control, but the uncontrolable beast beneath will ultimately emerge and destroy its putative master. As J.R.R. Tolkien noted, “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”
Much energy (and money) has rightfully been expended studying the effects of greenhouse gases on the global climate, and more will be spent to deal with the consequent problems we will face, even though this phenomenon is unprecedented.It is a fact, however, that volcanic ejecta has radically changed our environment in the past. The Laki and Asama eruptions of 1783 were followed by an unusually cold year. The Tambora eruption in 1815 was followed in 1816 by a “year without a summer.” A marked decrease in solar radiation in 1884-85 followed the Krakatoa eruption. Today’s flight delays are just a whiff of the possible disruption Katla could cause. The costs of a major eruption today would be catastrophic.We like our cataclysms to be gradual — like global warming, or distant — like the Haiti earthquake or the south Asian tsumani. If they’re gradual, we commission studies, present papers, assemble conferences, sign treaties, award Nobel prizes, and kick the can down the road to the next generation. If they’re distant, we hold fundraisers, sing songs, hold prayer services, participate in photo ops, and do just enough to feel good about ourselves before allowing the affected area slowly slip from our consciousness into oblivion.A sudden global disaster–such as an asteroid strike, the eruption of the Yellowstone volcano, or a nuclear war–could destroy our civilization. We’ve become more and more dependent on a house of cards, and a disruption of that magnitude would collapse our institutions.
Our man-made crises fill our everyday lives, but we ignore natural phenomena at our peril. We lose sight of how detached from our environment we’ve become, how thin the veneer of civilization really is, and how fragile our bodies and our institutions really are.

Just look at how dwarfed the helicopter top left is in the above pic!!!

The volcanic activity began with an eruption near the Eyjafjallajökull glacier about three weeks ago. This eruption appeared “safe,” and it quickly became a prime tourist attraction. The developing caldera is easily accessible from Reykjavik and, for the right price, guided tours were available by bus, all-terrain vehicle, snowmobile, and helicopter. At any given time, there were hundreds of spectators in the surrounding hills and overhead. People were getting so close that they were getting pelted with rock and ash. A new fissure opened a couple weeks ago about 100 meters from a group of tourists. Some enterprising chefs set up a restaurant of sorts near the volcano, and sold lava-grilled lobster and the like for premium prices. As Ómar Ragnarsson, an Icelandic environmentalist, news producer, and comedian, observed, it was a perfect “tourist eruption.”