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Lava in a cold climate: Icelanders rush to get wed at volcano site

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It was not the wedding they planned when they got engaged in 2017. But for Sumarliði and Jón, their ceremony in front of neon orange lava erupting from a volcano in Iceland was “weird, gorgeous and terrifying all at the same time”.

The grooms hiked for more than two hours through snow and wind to reach the spot on the Reykjanes peninsula. “I thought I might freeze to death at my own wedding,” Sumarliði told the Observer.

But as they changed into their wedding suits in a pop-up tent, the skies cleared and the sun came out. They exchanged rings and vows, and shared champagne and cake. “It was beyond perfect, a day we’ll never forget,” said Sumarliði.

The wedding couple are among almost 45,000 people who have visited the Fagradalsfjall mountains, about 20 miles from Reykjavík, since the volcanic eruption began a month ago. It is the first eruption in the area for 800 years.

The people of Iceland have embraced the natural phenomenon, posting thousands of images of bubbling lava on social media and watching round-the-clock live streams.

The country is “one of the most volcanically eruptive places on earth”, according to Thorvaldur Thordarson, professor of volcanology at the University of Iceland. “In simple terms, Iceland is one big volcano.”

But it is rare for an eruption to be as accessible to the public – and scientists – as this. “It’s very approachable, people can get reasonably close and still be safe,” said Thordarson, who has visited several times to collect samples and take measurements.

The eruption is comparatively “very quiet”, he added. “The flux coming from vents is about 10 cubic metres per second. With big explosive eruptions, you get tens of thousands – or even hundreds of thousands – of cubic metres per second. The probability of an explosive eruption here is very low.”

Almost 45,000 people have visited the Fagradalsfjall volcano since it erupted on 19 March.
Almost 45,000 people have visited the Fagradalsfjall volcano since it erupted on 19 March. Photograph: Jeremie Richard/Getty

Several new fissures have opened since the first eruption on 19 March. “The lava flow is gradually working across the landscape. I have a feeling it will continue [to erupt] for some time, maybe years, but there is no guarantee,” said Thordarson.

“For now, we are watching and learning. It’s not often we get a chance to study low-intensity activity. Volcanoes are always awesome, and this is no exception. It’s spectacular to see how the forces of nature work.”

The Icelandic Tourist Board is monitoring the number of visitors to the site, counting more than 5,000 on busy days, although the number drops dramatically when the weather is bad.

“I went last night,” said Skarphéðinn Berg Steinarsson, the board’s director general. “Science tells us it’s a small volcanic eruption, but it’s absolutely wonderful to experience the power of nature.”

Iceland has recently reopened to foreign tourists who have been vaccinated against Covid, but there are very few in the country. “We’re expecting numbers to pick up, and the volcanic eruption is likely to be a big destination for tourists,” said Steinarsson.

But there was no infrastructure at the site, such as toilets or paved paths. “You have to bring everything with you – water, food, warm clothes, good shoes – and take it all away with you when you leave.”

Fagradalsfjall volcano

Visitors also need to be aware of the hazards of volcanic gas. There have been no serious cases of health problems, but tourists are advised to stay upwind of the eruption and people with breathing difficulties are advised not to visit.

Birna Hrönn Björnsdóttir of Pink Iceland, a wedding and travel company which organised Sumarliði and Jón’s ceremony, knew that bad weather or gas pollution could scupper the event.

But when the sun came out, “we put everything into fifth gear, and got them as close to the lava as we could. It was out of this world – there was almost a waterfall of lava and steam was flowing all around them.”

After a difficult year for her business, she’s hoping to arrange more volcano weddings in the coming weeks and months. Sumarliði and Jón, whose original plan to get married last September fell victim to the pandemic, are now planning a party for friends and family when restrictions ease.

“We couldn’t invite anyone to the volcano, and we didn’t tell anyone until the day after,” said Sumarliði. “The whole thing feels like a dream.”

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