Ash Cloud Emergency

By Óttar Sveinsson


Fleeing the Deluge

The start of the Icelandic eruption of March-April 2010:

It was just past midnight on the night of 20 March. On the farm of Önundarhorn, which has a direct view of the Eyjafjallajökull glacier, Poula Kristín Buch, wife of farmer Sigurður Þórhallsson, sat at her computer. The time was 00.22:

Our daughters Sylvía (7) and Andrea (9) were asleep in their rooms. Sigurður burst into the room brandishing both our mobile phones. Both showed the same text message:

Eruption commenced under Eyjafjallajökull. Evacuate according to procedure.

I was thunderstruck. I looked down at my hands and saw that they were trembling. Sigurður and I exchanged a look. We knew we had to evacuate without delay.

I’ll take Andrea, you take Sylvía,’ he said.

I rushed into the girls’ room, grabbed Sylvía, stood her up on the floor and started to dress her, although she was still half-asleep. Was it like this for my parents in the Westman Islands eruption? I wondered. We had lived on the islands, and had to flee to the mainland by boat when a new volcano suddenly erupted in 1973. I was six years old. At that moment, I recalled the experience.”

Nine-year-old Andrea looked on:

There was Mum, and I didn’t know what she was doing. I kept asking: What’s happening? Dad, are we going to visit someone? I was still wearing my nightie, but we were going somewhere. I put my shoes on, but I wasn’t wearing any socks, and Dad dressed me in a coat that was much too small. And then I was suddenly wearing an enormous woolly hat. Dad was very stressed, and he dressed me in ski trousers, over everything else. It was weird.”

Day one of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption:

Farmer Sigurður of Önundarhorn had, like other farmers who had been evacuated, been permitted to go home to milk the cows, leaving his wife and daughters at Drangshlíð to the east, where they had gone after evacuating their home. After milking, Sigurður went into the farmhouse:

I was standing at the kitchen window. I could see up onto the glacier, but the top was shrouded in cloud. I was just finishing a cup of coffee when I looked up, and suddenly saw water flooding down the glacier. It was a horrifying moment. A wide dark-grey cascade came pouring down the white ice-cap, and I could see it tumbling into the gorge where the Fellsfoss waterfall is. There were massive clouds of spray, like you see at gigantic waterfalls. I called Páll at Þorvaldseyri to let him know, check whether they’d seen what was happening.”

Páll was shocked:

The phone rang at about 11 am. It was our neighbour Sigurður at Önundarhorn. I could tell that he was ringing on his mobile, from the car. He asked:

Páll, did you know there’s a flood started above you?’


There’s a massive flood coming down off the glacier. It’s coming in spurts. You must get away, now!’

I could hear that Sigurður was driving away as fast as he could. He was telling us, simply, to run for our lives.”

Páll knew that every minute counted. His family’s lives were at stake. He flung open the French window, stepped outside and looked up at the glacier above:

I saw something gigantic coming down the mountainside, with a thundering din. The Fellsfoss, normally about five metres across, was now a massive cataract, dozens of metres wide. The familiar little waterfall I’d seen every day of my life had suddenly been transformed into an overwhelming, terrifying sight.

I rushed into the living room, where little Ólafur was in his playpen. I picked him up, and told him we had to get out of there at once. Into the car was my only thought. Hanna knew what was happening. As I went downstairs I phoned Dad and said: There’s a flood coming! He went straight outside. We knew we had only a few minutes before the flood reached the farm, if the protective dikes didn’t hold.”

From the glacier above, deafening booms and cracks were heard. The floodwater was thundering down to fill the course of the Svaðbælisá river, and threatening the farms of Þorvaldseyri, Önundarhorn, Lambafell and Núpakot.

Day two of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption:

Anna Runólfsdóttir had got back home to Fljótsdalur, north of the glacier, after being forced to evacuate the farm the previous day, leaving her 230 ewes behind at the height of the lambing season. Some had already lambed, others were about to do so. She went to the sheepshed:

Þorkell and I were foddering the sheep, when we suddenly heard a shattering din, a thundering, whining noise, as if a big jet aircraft were landing nearby.

And the racket grew louder and intensified. We hurried outside to see what it was. My first thought was that the volcano under the Eyjafjallajökull glacier was actually exploding. The sky was overcast, and visibility up onto the glacier was poor. But the noise was clearly not coming from the peak – it was farther inland, and to the east, in the direction of Þórsmörk – probably the Gígjökull ice-cap. It was like standing on a runway, with a jet taking off right next to us. That was how loud it was. When we hear thunder in the normal way, it usually lasts just a few seconds, but this roar went on and on.”

Anna’s husband Þorkell had no idea what was happening, or where the deafening din was coming from:

It was as if a Concorde jet were landing outside the sheepshed. The sheds are roofed with corrugated iron, so the noise was magnified. I knew something was going on in Eyjafjallajökull, of course…. but we did our best to work out what it was. For some reason we couldn’t see the Gígjökull ice-cap. I wondered if the mountain was literally going to explode.”

Anna decided to report at once:

We knew there was an eruption under the glacier, naturally, but we hadn’t been aware of it ourselves before. This had to be something else. I thought a big flood might be coming down Gígjökull, so I rang the emergency number 112. I told them something drastic was happening, and they should keep an eye on it.”

The Iceland Coastguard helicopter TF-SIF was flying over the eruption site of

Eyjafjallajökull with a group of geoscientists when the crew were notified of the flood. The helicopter headed for the Gígjökull glacier to investigate. Captain Friðrik Höskuldsson was at the controls:

We could stay in the air for about another half hour. We flew inland towards

Þórsmörk , and soon spotted the flood from the foot of the Gígjökull glacier. It was cascading down steeply, and looked quite awesome from the air – it was a massive amount of water, and the front of the wave seemed enormously high, it must have been three or four metres. We immediately radioed in a report that there was a huge flood on the way down to the inhabited areas below. The evacuation procedure started at once. They had to make it clear at once that this was the real thing, not an exercise.”

To the south of the Eyjafjallajökull glacier, volcanic ash had started to pour down over the farm of Þorvaldseyri, and water was cascading down from the glacier on both sides. Hanna decided it was time to go:

I was determined I wasn’t going to be there with my baby when the ash came. I looked up at the eruption. I couldn’t believe how high the column of lava and ash rose into the sky.”

She headed for the old bridge across the Markarfljót river. The flood from the Gígjökull ice-cap was approaching the bridge, threatening to wash away the bridge and its access roads:

The road to the new bridge across the Markarfljót river was cut off in several places because of the flood in the river. I was uneasy, thinking of driving across that big river all alone…. or alone with little Ólafur. I had the feeling that something terrifying was happening. I didn’t feel good, I was awfully scared. I saw the old bridge coming up…”

Páll was nervous, concerned about his wife and child. The police knew which way Hanna was headed, and were waiting on the other side of the bridge. As she crossed to safety, the floodwater was almost at the bridge. Páll phoned her:

Where are you?”

I’ve just crossed the bridge.”

I heard there’s a massive flood coming down the river,” said Páll. Hanna was speechless. She had been nervous about making her escape alone. Her heart was hammering:

I wasn’t sure at first which way to go, but I’ve just come over the bridge,” she said.

Good,” said Páll. “There’s a gigantic flood on the way!”

I’d just made it across in time,” says Hanna.

Caught in the ash cloud

Saturday 17 April 2010

If the previous night had been a night of anxiety, the one ahead would be far worse. Now people had had a foretaste of the ashfall over their homes. It would grow far worse. Poula from Önundarhorn was staying at Drangshlíð, but could not get much rest:

When we were trying to get to sleep at Drangshlíð, we heard a great rumbling from the volcano, like thunder, but much louder, and the noise went on and on. It continued throughout the night.”

On the Friday night, nobody got much sleep. Páll’s mind was on his animals, inside the cowshed, with a storm of volcanic ash raging outside:

Would I even be able to go east to the farm for the morning milking? I thought to myself. My friend Jónas Hreiðarsson was already in the area, and I asked if he could help me out in the morning. He was more than willing. I heard that Dad was feeling better. I did my best to reassure my parents. The night passed… I was feverish and ice-cold by turns. I had no appetite. But I had to go and do what had to be done. I did my best to get some food down, just so I would have some energy. Jónas and I decided to set off from Varmahlíð at 8 am.

Páll and Jónas were on their way, in Páll’s Landcruiser. They had no idea what lay ahead – an alien world:

When we got to the farm of Steinar, visibility suddenly got much worse, and at times we were completely blinded. When the ash cloud lifted a little we drove on at a crawl. I used the fog-lamps. Without them we couldn’t really see anything. The headlights just reflected back off the fug, and made it more difficult to find our way. On a number of occasions we found we had driven off the road, and cautiously steered back onto it. I wasn’t expecting to meet any cars in the ash-storm – and that was just as well, as it would have been hard to avoid a collision. The distance from Steinar to Þorvaldseyri is two-and-a-half kilometres. It usually takes just a few minutes, but we were more than half an hour covering that distance. Sometimes I simply had to stop the car, as I couldn’t see anything. Just black clouds of ash. It was appalling.”

Sigurður from Önundarhorn was coming the other way, from Drangshlíð:

I drove off towards home in my daughter’s little car. Initially there was a lot of dust on the road, so it was hard to drive. But when I arrived at the Kaldaklifsá river, it was like hitting a wall. It was only now that I realised how dense the ashfall could be. It was literally like a wall. The dark ash rained down inertly. It was as dark as night, and I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I had to inch along in the car… I could just make out the bank of grass at the edge of the road, and used that to guide me along. I had nothing to go on, really, but I looked out of the side window to get an idea where the edge of the road might be.”

It had not occurred to Páll for one minute to turn back. All he could think about was getting home, to find out how the animals were doing:

When we thought we’d reached Þorvaldseyri, we couldn’t find the turning. After a bit we found a sign, and I saw that it was the sign for a passing-place on the road. Then I knew where I was. We’d passed the turning to the farm, we hadn’t even seen the sign. We had to turn back, then found the turning and followed the drive to the farm. The only landmarks we could see were the lamp posts along the drive. Then I saw the lights in the windows. Around the farm buildings, everything was grey, as if a layer of cement had been spread all over – that was the ash. It made me think of the scene of a nuclear bomb – everything buried or laid waste. Absolute silence. It was a scene of horror. I have no words to describe what it was like to see my farm, my childhood home, in that state of devastation. I couldn’t imagine that the land could be farmed for years to come …”

Páll and Jónas entered this alien environment, which was like something in a sci-fi movie, or a horrible nightmare. They were seized with feelings of distress, horror and astonishment. And fear. Where were the animals? Were they safe? In the dense, sound-deadening ashfall, the two men could hardly breathe or keep their eyes open.

Páll was traumatised by the sight of his home :

We inched the car forward almost up to the cowshed door, so we wouldn’t have to walk around in the ash. Inside the ash cloud we couldn’t hear any sound from the volcano. Not a whisper. Nothing. Suddenly there was a flash of lightning in the ash cloud, and a peal of thunder. That didn’t make us feel any better. Was the mountain going to come tumbling down on us? There were occasional flashes, and thunderclaps that lasted a long time. It was worse than any horror film. Earlier in the week we had experienced the flooding there from the glacier, and I was afraid there could be more flooding. Would another flood wash over all this? We had no idea, really, what we were getting into. There was a strong odour of sulphur everywhere, and when I entered the cowshed the sulphur smell mixed with the odour inside. The combination was dizzying…. I felt sick and had a retching feeling in my throat. We looked at each other, wearing our face-masks, coated in ash from head to toe … even our eyelashes, everywhere …”