In the footsteps of Jules Vernes
The Brennisteinsfjöll volcanic system can be found on a plateau about 20 kilomtres from Iceland’s capital Reykjavik.
I’ve been fascinated by volcanoes since I was very young, partly because of the books I read about them and some very impressive television documentaries. Of all these, ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ by Jules Vernes remains my favourite.
In this book, German professor Otto Lidenbrock and his cousin Axel decipher an old script containing instructions on how to descend into the crater of a volcano in Iceland, and from there on reach the centre of the earth. Under the guidance of Hans Bjelke, they plan the trip and undergo the most incredible adventures.
When I was little, I read the whole book in a single afternoon, and remember saying to myself that I would one day do the same when I was older...
Descending into a volcano is virtually impossible in practice. After an eruption, the residual liquid rock solidifies in the main vent and magma chamber, sealing off all access. Even so, there is apparently one exception, which was described by National Geographic in 2011.
The Brennisteinsfjöll volcanic system can be found on a plateau just 30 minutes from Iceland’s capital Reykjavik. This area is part of the plate boundary between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. The huge forces of underwater eruptions are pulling these tectonic plates apart at a depth of 10 to 15 kilometres. In this area of Iceland, the fault line is even visible on the surface, and moving about 2 centimetres a year. This might not seem much, but it is enough to make Iceland one of the most geologically active areas on earth.
In this area in Iceland, the fault line between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates is visible on the surface and moving about 2 centimetres a year.
The largest volcano on this high plateau is Thrihnukagigur, which is 50 metres high and derives its name from the three craters ('3 peaks') which were formed during separate eruptions. The oldest of the three craters originated 50,000 years ago during the last ice age, when Iceland lay under a 100-metre thick ice sheet.
After the middle crater formed 4,500 years ago, the youngest crater came into existence during the last eruption 4,000 years ago. This was the crater where Icelandic scientist Árni Stefánsson made a remarkable discovery back in 1974: a bottomless hole with no apparent end to it. With the help of a few potholing friends, he descended into the dark pit. Expectations were high, although he had no idea what he might find. In the end, he was disappointed by what he saw, which appeared more like an abandoned quarry that anything else, not least because he only took a single lamp with him.
One of the the three craters of the Thrihnukagigur volcano.
However, seventeen years later Árni Stefánsson decided to explore the crater again, and this time took better equipment with him. He descended into the pit twice, and realised that he had discovered something special. After some additional scientific research, he came to the conclusion that this volcano is unique in its kind. Volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson later
declared it a special phenomenon. After the last eruption, the remaining magma flowed back to the intestines of the earth, as if someone had pulled the plug out of a bathtub, leaving an empty main vent and magma chamber. This magma chamber is so large, it could easily hold the American Statue of Liberty.
This discovery was important enough for the National Geographic Channel to make a documentary about Thrihnukagigur in 2011.
In order to get the camera crew down to the heart of the dormant volcano, an open cable lift was built to the bottom of the magma chamber at a depth of 120 metres.
Visitors have been allowed to visit the inside of the dormant volcano since 2012.
Profile of the accessible crater of the Thrihnukagigur volcano. As the only volcano in the world, it is possible to descend 120 metres to the bottom of the magma chamber. This magma chamber is so large, it could easily hold the American Statue of Liberty.
A 3 kilometres hike to the Thrihnukagigur volcano.
In order to reach the volcano, we have to leave the road and walk 3 kilometres over a lava field. The views are amazing, and we come eye to eye with a fault line marking the boundary between two tectonic plates.
The edge of the volcano crater is reached by a steep path.
Climbing to the crater.
The crater opening measures 4 by 4 metres, and we enter the lift car via a walkway. As we descend into the pit during the 6-minute lift journey, the daylight gradually disappears.
Once we pass the main vent, we enter a huge untouched cathedral-like space measuring around 100 by 50 metres. The dome is composed of burned, broken and torn rocks. Gases and extremely high temperatures have stained the rock with varied tones of blue, yellow, turquoise, green, pink, purple, brown, red, black and… gold. It feels strange to walk around in this underground world amidst such scars of extreme natural violence, and come face-to-face with the unspoilt secrets of the earth’s inner world.
Video report of the descent through the pit to the magma chamber of the Thrihnukagigur volcano.
Through the narrow main vent, we can see a small clear circle; daylight reduced to a lonely star in a dark sky.
Remembering Jules Vernes’ story, we realise that the floor of the magma chamber is a passage to the earth’s core.
Volcanologists cannot answer the question of whether the volcano will ever erupt again, because they don’t actually know where the magma which flowed back is located.
The cable lift descend into the pit and reaches the magma chamber.
Gases and extremely high temperatures have stained the rock with varied colors.
After almost an hour in this parallel world, it's time to go back. In the elevator, our guide explains that Árni Stefansson's message is that we continue to make sure that natural wonders such as Thrihnukagigur are treated with care and respect, and that responsible access is maintained. According to him, more people have climbed Mount Everest than descended into a volcano's magma chamber.
Working on the photo- and video shoot in the magma chamber.
I stand alone on the edge of the crate, looking at the now clear sky. As I enjoy the view, I suddenly realise that I have covered a mere fraction of the journey undertaken by Professor Lidenbrock. A long standing wish has been fulfilled. What an amazing and incredible experience!
-Journey to the center of the world. By Jules Vernes. Editor: Elsevier, 1964.
-The Encyclopedia of Volcanoes. By Haraldur Siggadsson e.o. Editor: Academic Press, 2015.
-National Geographic News, April 2011