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Lava hotlines and captivating infernos: Inside the volatile world of volcano tourism in Iceland

A man takes pictures as lava emerges from a fissure of the Fagradalsfjall volcano near the Litli-Hrútur mountain, some 30 km southwest of Reykjavik, Iceland, 10 July 2023.
A man takes pictures as lava emerges from a fissure of the Fagradalsfjall volcano near the Litli-Hrútur mountain, some 30 km southwest of Reykjavik, Iceland, 10 July 2023. Copyright AP Photo/Marco Di Marco
Copyright AP Photo/Marco Di Marco
By Portia Jones
Published on Updated
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Want to visit Iceland’s active volcanoes? Here’s how to do it safely.

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Thirteen years after the Eyjafjallajökull volcano famously spewed ash into European airspace, multiple eruptions across Iceland have spawned an unlikely new travel trend - volcano tourism.

Iceland is one of the most volcanically active places on Earth, with an eruption occurring roughly every three to five years, much to the delight of adventure seekers hoping to catch a glimpse of mesmerising lava flows.

The Nordic island is currently bracing for a new, localised eruption, as officials warn that a volcano near the region of Hagafell could erupt at any time.

Thousands of tremors have recently shaken the Reykjanes Peninsula in the southwest part of the country, and evacuation orders have been issued for the town of Grindavik.

But while Icelandic residents are fleeing, specialist travel operators are busy fielding enquiries on potential volcano viewing.

The rise of volcano tourism in Iceland

In recent years, visitor interest in volcanic eruptions has been booming, with the March 2021 eruption at Fagradalsjall attracting thousands of curious spectators.

According to the Icelandic Tourism Board, more than 356,000 tourists visited the smouldering site while the eruption was ongoing.

Long queues along the main walking paths often formed, and many visitors reportedly stayed near the lava field until evening, waiting to take enviable night-time photos of the fiery spectacle.

One of Iceland's most recent eruptions, Litli-Hrútur, generated massive interest from locals and tourists when it spewed crimson lava and ash clouds.

The spectacular eruption began on 10 July 2023, following heightened seismic activity in the Reykjanes Peninsula area - just 30 km southwest of Iceland's capital, Reykjavik.

Here, part of the Fagradalsfjall mountain split open and started blasting molten lava and gas plumes into the air, creating Litli-Hrútur - dubbed 'Earth's newest baby volcano.'

As soon as Icelandic authorities controlled the blazing fires, the brand-new volcano quickly became a unique natural attraction, with a trail established to the captivating inferno.

“In light of the recent volcanic activity, we must emphasise that due to the country's geological landscape, such occurrences are a part of Icelandic life,” says the head of Tourism in Iceland, Lína Petra Þórarinsdóttir.

“All Icelandic infrastructure is planned and executed with this in mind, and the Icelandic Met Office and teams of scientists are constantly monitoring all volcanic activity,” Þórarinsdóttir adds.

People look at the lava flowing on Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland on 3 August 2022.
People look at the lava flowing on Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland on 3 August 2022.AP Photo/Marco Di Marco

How to visit Iceland’s volcanoes safely

The Icelandic authorities prioritise having information about safety and accessibility readily available, and the Reykjanes Peninsula eruption was no exception.

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Þórarinsdóttir explains that tourists and Icelanders were provided regular updates about the eruption site and urged to follow instructions and safety information.

Travel agents were keen to capitalise on the eruption and set up specialist volcano tours, with volcano chasers flying out within hours of the first volcanic activity.

Specialist tour operator Discover the World was one of the first to allow travellers to see the live volcano eruption at Fagradalsfjall earlier this year.

Just days after the eruption began northwest of the peninsular at Litli-Hrútur, the Iceland specialist waited for the authorities to check the site and give the green light for their three-day volcano tour offering.

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“We closely liaise with the official authorities in Iceland to ensure that we follow their guidelines, and we only start arranging visits to see the eruption once it has been declared safe to visit,” says Georgina Hancock, marketing director of Discover the World.

“We ensure our clients understand that the situation at the site will be constantly monitored, and we may need to change their arrangements locally. Still, safety will always be our number one concern,” Hancock adds.

Discover the World already has a following of loyal volcano enthusiasts and launched its ‘Volcano Hotline’ in 1986 to offer the first-ever Iceland trip to view a live eruption.

The unique lava hotline is still operating today to inform clients about potential trips to witness new eruptions in Iceland.

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A person walks near lava emerging from a fissure of the Fagradalsfjall volcano near the Litli-Hrútur mountain, 10 July 2023.
A person walks near lava emerging from a fissure of the Fagradalsfjall volcano near the Litli-Hrútur mountain, 10 July 2023.AP Photo/Marco Di Marco

Is it safe to visit an active volcano?

However, travelling to an active volcano isn't without risks and ethical questions. Lava chasing can be the thrill of a lifetime or a fatal error.

Between 2010 and 2020, at least 1,143 people are estimated to have been killed in volcanic explosions. New Zealand's popular tourist site, Whakaari volcano, suddenly erupted on 9 December 2019, killing 22 tourists and injuring 25 others.

“Safety depends on the conditions, accessibility and type of eruption,” says Magnús Tumi Gudmundsson, Professor of Geophysics at the University of Iceland.

“Most people visiting the recent eruption and previous eruptions in the last two years at the Reykjanes Peninsula site go there at their own initiative, and the trips are not guided,” Gudmundsson adds.

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He also explains that although these eruptions produce lava, they are only mildly explosive, and flows only occur at the vents.

“They are not really dangerous if you approach them with respect and keep a safe distance between yourself and the lava.”

“The danger for tourists hiking in Iceland is mainly the weather and the possibility of getting lost, not finding the right way,” he adds.

People walk to get a view of the eruptions on Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland on 3 August 2022.
People walk to get a view of the eruptions on Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland on 3 August 2022.AP Photo/Brynjar Gunnarsson

What are the risks of visiting an active volcano?

Despite the flurry of glowing lava snaps on social media, not all eruptions in Iceland are as tourist-friendly, and there are inherent dangers for visitors attempting to access these volatile locations.

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Eruptions often produce poisonous gases - like SO2 (sulphur dioxide), which can cause lung damage.

Due to dangerous gases released during a sizable Holuhraun eruption in Iceland in 2014-15, a large area was closed to all traffic except for scientists and civil protection, who had the necessary protective gear.

During the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, certain areas were also banned for tourists due to the risk of flooding from melting glacier waters.

So, how can people visit erupting volcanoes in Iceland responsibly and safely?

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“A system of organised, marked paths is critical,” says Gudmundsson, “so people don't get lost.”

He explains that the recent eruptions on Reykjanes have had low magma discharge, and gas release has not been at dangerous levels - meaning these volcanic sites are safe, to some extent, to visit.

With Icelandic rangers and responders also controlling things, visitors can book specialist volcano tours or follow marked trails and tracks to witness the snaking lava flows from a safe distance.

According to a 2021 study, managing volcanic sites and opening them up to spectators is possible thanks to strong collaboration between Icelandic scientific institutions and civil protection agencies.

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The 2021 Fagradalsfjall eruption presented an opportunity to tune, test and validate hazard assessment models and improve safety information delivery to the public.

This cooperation meant no serious mishaps or human fatalities have occurred during the most recent eruptions, allowing Iceland to continue capitalising on volcanic tourism.

A close-up of the lava flowing from Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland on 3 August 2022.
A close-up of the lava flowing from Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland on 3 August 2022.AP Photo/Marco Di Marco

Is it safe to travel to Iceland right now?

Despite the current seismic activity, flights continue to arrive and depart as usual in Iceland, and the Foreign Office isn't advising against travel to Iceland - meaning holiday companies can operate as usual.

Current advice to British travellers from the FCO states, “While there is no current eruption, it is increasingly possible that one could occur.” It adds that “the Icelandic authorities continue to monitor the area closely.”

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The message from the Icelandic tourism board is also resolute: “Iceland is highly prepared for volcanic events,” its website states.

While the town of Grindavik and the world-famous Blue Lagoon remain closed, it’s business as usual in the Land of Fire and Ice, so pack your binoculars and hope you can witness an awe-inspiring eruption from a safe distance.

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