Volcano fun in Iceland while air traffic is shut down

A lava lake in Ethiopia's Erta Ale volcano crater.

A lava lake in Ethiopia's Erta Ale volcano crater.

For those of you in Iceland or elsewhere in Europe and the world, who are waiting for the air traffic to reopen some time after this weekend, we’ve collected some suggestions on volcano tourism, survival near the crater, volcano photography, and alternative modes of transport.

The current heavy volcano eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in combination with a special weather system has created a huge cloud of volcanic dust particles. The reason the airplanes stay aground is that these particles are small, extremely hard crystals that, when sucked into the planes engines, have the same effect as sand paper – or might stick to the engine’s interior like liquid glass. In the past, airplanes have nearly crashed when caught in volcanic ash clouds. Eventually, the ash cloud will distribute, rain down, and disappear.

However until that happens, flight authorities will evaluate flight routes daily, and make their decisions. If you’re stranded, you’ll have some time for a side trip or two, so who not check with ABC4Trip?

Eyafjallajøkull in hazy morning light (20.4.2010, from Mila security camera)

Eyafjallajøkull in hazy morning light (20.4.2010, from Mila security camera)

Know your rights!
First of all – in case of a cancellation, you should get your cancelled ticket refunded by the airline (at least in the EU). In addition, the airline should offer you food, refreshments, and eventually a place to sleep in a nearby hotel if there are no transport alternatives within a few hours. If, due to the logistic challenges, your luggage should get sent to the wrong place, get delayed, damaged, or lost, then the airline is fully liable. Check our post on how to deal with lost or damaged airline luggage!

Transport alternatives

A cancelled airplane ticket doesn’t imply that you’re stuck. There are many alternatives for transportation:

Enjoy the volcano – go sightseeing!

While stuck in Iceland, you might as well go sightseeing to the volcanic eruption. You’ll experience an unusual event, which, on a clear night, may be complemented with the current display of northern lights – see this once-in-a-century lava-and-aurora photo from Iceland!
Ask in your hotel or at the tourist office for excursions by jeep, snow mobile or helicopter (well, the latter when the ash cloud is gone). In addition, you might join a group that hikes up the glacier with ice equipment.

Kids play with volcanic ash

Picture 2 of 15

Children play with volcanic ash on the trail bridge to Þórsmörk, near the Eyafjallajökull volcano. The ash deposits are - for the time being - southern Iceland's biggest tourist attraction.

Safety on the volcano

Make sure you’re not behaving like a naive tourist! You do want to come back from the volcano, do you? Then you should pay attention to a few essential safety rules:

  • Stay upwind – the ashes will rain down on the downwind side. Both ashes and fumes are very toxic, and potentially glowing hot! A helmet never hurts, anyway!
  • Bring a filter mask – it keeps dust out of your lungs.
  • Stay away from mountain flanks – there is a high risk of flash floods and boiling mud slides!
  • Observe activity patterns and their traces! Don’t walk into areas that are covered with ashes, rocks and lava patties. There is no reason why there shouldn’t come the next rain of lava boms within a few minutes!
  • Don’t walk on the black rocks on the side of a lava stream before you checked the temperature. It will, most likely, still be very hot (and might, indeed, contain a liquid layer inside)!
  • If it starts to rain, run away from the lava stream immediately. People have been burnt seriously by steam jets created by the hot core when rainwater sunk down into the hot rocks.
  • Keep your stay in close surroundings of the eruption efficient, and short. Longer stays are risky!
  • Plan your escape route! Check landmarks, surfaces, and territory features – just in cases you’ll have to run! Stepping into lava puddles is a rather unpleasant experience!
  • Don’t walk around on ash-covered areas. You won’t know what the ash is actually covering. A lake? Deep snow? A deposit of glowing, loose ashes?

Taking good volcano photos

It’s about pictures, isn’t it? Take them!

  • Ash clouds are best when frozen with short exposure times. However, ash clouds create lots of static electricity – in twilight or darkness, there will be lightning hopping around on the surface of an eruptive ash cone. Use manual exposure and wait for a lightning bolt before closing the aperture.
  • Use a tripod!
  • When looking at lava, normally longer exposure times are prettier. When shooting lava fountains (strombolian eruptions), a tripod and a remote control are essential – otherwise the shaking and vibrations of the camera will create helix-like patterns in the glowing red traces!
  • Experiment with the amount of light!
  • The best time is twilight, which offers you the environment at dim light, while it accentuates the red glow of lava.
  • Clean your camera thoroughly in case it gets in touch with volcanic gas, fumes, mud or ash. All these volcanic products are extremely corrosive.

These recommendations are taken from the German-language volcano hiking guidebook Vulkane erleben, Lothar Fritsch, Conrad-Stein-Verlag, 2005.


Don’t forget souvenirs! Popular volcano souvenirs (other than your photos) are:

  • A lava rock younger than yourself  (you might even know tits exact birthdate & hours, and keep it wrapped in that day’s newspaper)
  • A pot full of the feared and dreaded Icelandic volcano ash (certainly to be banned on airplanes by the EU Commission any time soon). Someone tries to actually sell ashes for 5000 icelandic crowns per glass!

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8 comments to Volcano fun in Iceland while air traffic is shut down

  • mobileslebenundarbeiten

    There are a few webcams (Flash required) pointing to Eyjafjallajökull on this web page:


    Click these menus on the left side of the page:

    Eyjafjallajökull frá Þórólfsfelli

    Eyjafjallajökull frá Hvolsvelli

    Eyjafjallajökull frá Valahnúk

  • Tom Kazanski

    The official ash cloud prediction can be found here: http://metoffice.com/aviation/vaac/vaacuk_vag.html

  • Petty238

    Just check the Flight Radar 24 server.

    - it shows planes that actually are on the way.

    For the time being, the page loads somewhat slow …

  • Tobias

    You can also enjoy the situation close to big airports these days without harming your safety.
    1) Sleep well without any noise from starting and landing air-planes. Before going to sleep, a short walk to a beer-garden is recommendable.
    2) In the case of spare-time and sunny weather, take your bicycle and make a trip around the airport area. All the security staff, customs and police men will have an eye on you while cycling around. You will also have all the infrastructure just for you, including shopping areas and restaurants.
    3) In the case that you like stars, take your telescope and watch your favourite stars with reduced light-pollution.

    Get some impressions from a wonderful day.

  • Really good post! I wish this terrible volcanic ash cloud will leave us alone. My cousin is stuck in Italy and she’s running out of money. I heard the volcanic ash will be staying for at least another month but I don’t know if I should believe it. Does anybody know if it’s true?

  • Educated scientist

    Allright… let me get this straight…. it took most European countries from Thursday until Monday to get a plane with scientific instruments on the way that can actually find out how much volcanic ash there really is?

    What happend to all those “critical infrastructures” projects, homeland security, and risk analytics?

    Could it be that, after all, those politicians and security advisors who funneled all the research money into biometrics and full frontal body scanners, were so much in error that a simple volcanic ash cloud came to be much more damaging to Europe’s travel industry than 9/11?

    What if – just hypothetically – the Russians had used such an opportunity to send their tanks to Europe on such an occasion? Would NATO have needed 3 days to find out where the fighter jets actually could safely come off the ground?

    May the ashes be with you, anti-terrorism politicians!

  • It is really a lousy time for the air travel industry, and yet our hopes – regardless of whether the photos of the volcano are truly awesome – really have to be with all those men and women stationed very far from home.Thanks regarding your current write-up.

  • FrequentFlyer

    The game is on again…. the volcano Grímsvötn in Iceland is erupting… and the European authorities started the ash cloud craze caroussel. Let’s hope we won’t need your useful article this time!

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