April 18, 2010
In the Light of Iceland's Volcano...
When the ground is just a few days old, lava coiled and freshly hardened, it is as hot as a skillet. You can't stand in any one place for long, you have to keep moving across miles of nothing but black, rolling horizons, the air boiling with mirages.
Living on the solid surface of the earth, it's easy to believe things have always been the way they are now...mountains here, lakes there. We get complacent. But we are floating on a molten sea. If you peeled the earth's skin off, it would look like a dim red sun. This heat is what greases the underside of continents keeping everything in motion, wrenching up mountains, tearing apart coastlines, even delaying air traffic.
In some places, the skin just pops, and the inside comes out. This winter, the East Rift Zone on the flanks of Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano was open and flowing heavily. Waves of lava rose out of holes and cracks, a new world forming every day. I was backpacking across the area with a photographer, navigating volatile, steaming fissures. At night we slept on hardened bulbs of lava and we breathed in flecks of volcanic glass blowing by in the wind.
It was at night that things really got exciting. You could see the active areas by the glow of the land underfoot. We followed the bright spots, trying to get close as safely as possible to the live heart of this volcano. Arriving upon lakes and tongues of molten rock, the bright fields hissed and crackled.
One night we watched from a distance as a previous camp was inundated. Billowing gas clouds were lit from underneath as lava filled the place where we had slept.
There was lava in every direction. It flowed slowly enough that we could walk alongside as streams swirled around us. Even the hard ground it flowed upon was only a day old, every crack glowing orange beneath us. My journal in my hand was too hot to touch. Sweat poured down my face.
A month earlier, living at the edge of the flow, a man's house had been next to a dense forest. Now, out his window, is a warm, black field of rock. He has watched other houses burn to the ground and roads vanish beneath unstoppable rivers of lava. I commented to him that over the years he must have seen a lot destroyed. His response was...no, he's seen a lot created.