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Nature in Action: Flying Over Iceland’s Hottest New Attraction

Code red (and orange and yellow)! Iceland is on fire … again.

With images of Iceland’s disruptive Eyjafjallajökull (pronounced eye-a-fyat-la-jo-kult) volcano still burning in our collective memory, one might approach the country’s recent volcanic rumblings with trepidation. But unlike in 2010 when Eyjafjallajökull’s billowing ash cloud stopped air traffic, the latest eruption—this time from Bárðarbunga—is encouraging it.

Deep inside Iceland’s desolate interior, the Holuhraun eruption, which began in late August, is a welcome one from what many would call a “behaving” volcano, whose sleeping caldera lies miles away under the thick Vatnajokull glacier. Instead of unleashing a large plume of ash, Bárðarbunga’s flank fissures are spurting symphonic fountains of fiery magma that glow, even in daylight, against the blackened Holuhraun lava fields. (And yes, its name is easier to pronounce, too.)

You can witness this rare, natural form of visual theater from the relative safety of an airplane (or a helicopter). I had the opportunity to fly over the volcano in September just days after flightseeing tours got clearance for takeoff. The verdict: It’s nothing short of spectacular.

While several companies offer tours, I signed up with Saga Travel, which has departures from the northern city of Akureyri. The small Norlandair prop planes accommodate a dozen or so passengers, and view-obsessed flyers can take heart: Everyone gets a window seat. By flying figure eights over the volcano, the pilot ensures equality, with four passes over the eruption on each side and each pass seeming better than the last.

The anticipation builds moments after takeoff as the plane navigates over barren stretches of land (for about 20 minutes) until glowing lava trails, which flow gracefully from the fissure crack, come into view. A light turbulence shakes the cabin, and, less than a half mile below, the eruption reveals itself, all ablaze, churning molten rock and venting steam. At first sight, it’s part terror, part awe.

For 45 minutes, passengers take turns gluing their heads to the windows, snapping pictures and gasping in disbelief. Rather than the expected violent unleashing of fire and ash, this eruption is more subtle. The lava bursts not from a large cone but from a gaping ridge in the hardened lava field, which looks as if someone took a massive blunt knife and ripped open a new wound in the previously cauterized earth. From a series of craters, the continuous explosions bubble up like fountains, shooting sky-high before splattering back down to earth.

My advice: Don’t strain your neck looking toward the opposite row’s window, thinking the view is better on the other side. It’s not. On my flight, those on the left got the first exciting glimpses, but those on the right (like myself) got to look directly down into the eruption on the last pass as the pilot tilted the plane before peeling away back to Akureyri. And while tempting, don’t spend the whole time snapping photos; instead, allow at least one or two passes to take it all in. Stay in the moment. Be mesmerized. The cinematic image will remain in your mind long after the plane has landed and will be brighter than any snapshot.

(I apologize for the low video quality. The plane was really getting bounced around.)

Many companies offer flyovers for upwards of $2,000 (departures are typically more expensive from Reykjavik, which is farther away from the eruption site), so it pays to shop around. With Saga Travel, flights (offered daily) last for 90 minutes and cost 60,000 ISK per person (about $500). Note: Tours might get canceled at the last moment due to unfavorable winds and the potential for dangerous sulfur dioxide pollution, so book early in your trip in case you have to reschedule.

Experts say the Holuhraun eruption might continue for a year, so now may be the perfect time to plan a trip to Iceland. Icelandair has many North American gateways and offers free stopovers to mainland Europe. Fares for the next few months will be cheaper as Iceland moves into its winter low season. Plus, it’s a great time to see the northern lights, so why not have two once-in-a-lifetime experiences in one trip?

Have a question for Anne about her trip to the Iceland? Want to share your own Iceland experience? Leave a comment below! You can also follow Anne on Google+.

(Cover photo: Global Panorama via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike); other photos and video: Anne Banas)

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