Iceland's volcano site rises from the ashes

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It has been a long hard year for those living beneath the crater of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland.

When the volcano erupted in March, air passengers faced chaos as their planes were grounded amid fears that the ash, thrown high into the atmosphere, would damage aircraft.

But after little more than two weeks, and a safety all-clear, life started returning to normal for airlines and their customers.

The people of Iceland living near the eruption site were not so lucky.

The region of south Iceland where Eyjafjallajokull is situated has a significant farming industry.


Floods, caused by lava melting glacial ice, swept down the side of the volcano and ruined farmland.

Sixty hectares of the property Poula Kristin Buch farms with her husband was wiped away by the water.

"When the flood came over our land, 10 years of our work just went away in a second.

"Our crops were destroyed and it will take two years to get our fields ploughed properly again and ready for planting," she added.

Image caption,
Poula Kristin Buch says her property was covered with ash

When the eruptions first began, people were evacuated from the region.

"Being evacuated wasn't the worst thing. It was the fear of not knowing what would be left when you came back, that was the worst thing," Ms Buch said.

On her return, Poula and her husband, Sigurdur Thorhallsson, found their whole property covered in ash.

They were not alone: all life in the region was smothered by a thick grey and black carpet of choking, clogging dust.

Weeks of hard work has cleared most of the ash, but the dust has left a legacy, Ms Bush says.

All her cattle have had to spend the summer in a barn.

Sharp ash particles, harmful to cows' teeth, lie hidden in the grass, making it impossible to put the animals out to pasture.

Iceland's government is giving financial help to farmers.

But the emotional cost of the damage to farms, where some have toiled their whole lives, is not something on which a price can be put.

Hotel cancellations

Farming was not the only industry to suffer. The tourist trade's busiest months were hit too.

The south Iceland region alone lost over £3m ($4.5m) worth of income.

Mountain guide Arsaell Hauksson said an exclusion zone meant he spent two months unable to take tourists into the volcanic region.

Mr Hauksson, who witnessed the eruption, described what happened as "totally unreal".

"If you had been here you'd have seen the massive ash cloud and you would feel the massive sound waves from the rumbling.

"You would actually feel soundwaves hitting your chest, and see lightning and hear thunder.

"The average amount of lava that was coming up from the crater was 250 to 450 tonnes a second.

"At times you maybe saw one metre in front of you.

"It wouldn't have been [possible] for any human being to be there," he added.

Johann Frimannsson manages Hotel Anna in the town of Skogar, which sits beneath Eyjafjallajokull.

"We have seven rooms. Before the eruption here it was almost always fully booked. But after the eruption we got cancellations every day and April and May there was nobody here."

'Marvellous landscape'

But now, quite literally from the ashes, there is hope of a dramatic reversal of fortune for the tourism industry.

After scaring them away, Eyjafjallajokull is now drawing growing numbers of tourists to its still-settling landscape.

Mr Hauksson says that the volcano has become an "attraction".

"People really want to come here and everyone is asking us about the volcano. Asking how it affected us, where they can see lava, and we have all this so we have a lot to offer now."

Mr Frimannsson agreed, saying the bookings for September and October have "never been as good".

Eyjafjallajokull had multiple eruptions over a two month period, and while the biggest 2km-wide crater is still dangerous to approach, 6km lower down - the point where lava first exploded out - can be safely visited.

The earth there is coloured in ashes of red, yellow, and orange.

A smell of sulphur can sometimes be detected, tearing at the back of the throat if inhaled.

Steam still rises from piles of blackened ash, and though the lava is not yet cool in some parts, hikers are already setting foot upon it.

University Professor Andreas Rauch, who decided to trek to the volcano with his daughter Zoe, said it was "marvellous landscape".

"It's unique, it's almost like you're walking on the moon."

German sales manager Ruth Fokken was also on the trail to ascend Eyjafjallajokull.

"They've told us there's fresh lava which is really exciting for us, definitely," she said.

Eruption threat?

US tourist Christopher Bedics never thought he could visit the volcano so soon after the eruption.

Image caption,
The volcano has become a tourist attraction

"It's amazing, and it really is a privilege to be able to walk here.

"There were parts where you could still feel the heat coming up off the ground. There are so few places in the world where you can do this."

But the volcano could yet have a further say in the tourism industry's recovery.

Scientists are uncertain whether the eruptions are over.

"Historical eruptions of Eyjafjallajokull have been followed by a nearby volcano called Katla," says geophysicist Ari Trausti Gudmundsson.

"This cannot be seen as a rule but it's a possibility. So far there's been no signs of this activity.

"Lets hope for the best. I know Katla is going to erupt one day, but it's impossible for me or anyone else to assess the size or effect of the eruption right now."

That is not the what farmers or hotel owners will want to hear.

But life in Iceland has always been lived under such uncertainty.

The country is breathtakingly beautiful, but ever at the mercy of the powerful geological forces that lie beneath it.