top of page


"I was floating on a lake of magma, dodging molten lava bombs hailing down on me from the sky. I may have been too close...

and at the same time, I felt alive."  Chad Copeland

Southwestern Iceland

On March 19, 2021, the Fagradalsfjall volcano, known locally as "the peoples" volcano, erupted on the Reykjanes peninsula in Iceland after more than 800 years of inactivity. The event was a culmination of over 40,000 earthquakes over three weeks, building anticipation among Iceland's most experienced geoscientists from the University of Iceland.

As the earthquakes subsided, the volcano remained silent for three days until, on a Friday evening at 20:45, the people of Grindavik reported a glowing light in the sky. The eruption was characterized by pulsating activity, with fountains throwing molten lava over 2000 feet into the air, followed by a steady flow of lava that would last for nearly 10-15 minutes, and then a short quiet period of no activity on the surface or on the tremor graphs.


Lava Tornado

"Formed by intense heat"

As the lava pours out and spreads across the ground, it heats the air above it, creating a powerful updraft. This updraft, combined with the strong winds that often accompany volcanic eruptions, can cause the heated air to spin, forming a vortex that draws in more hot gases and debris.

The result is a towering column of spinning fire and ash, known as a volcanic lava tornado. These fiery whirlwinds can reach heights of several hundred feet and can be visible for miles around, making for a truly unforgettable sight.

While volcanic lava tornados are a rare occurrence, they serve as a stark reminder of the raw power and unpredictability of nature.


Copeland talks on a radio with scientists over safety concerns.

National Geographic contributor and BBC cinematographer Chad Copeland was among the team of scientists and journalists who witnessed the eruption firsthand. "Moving across the ground was like running on a waterbed," he reported, "I was floating on a lake of magma, dodging molten lava bombs hailing down on me from the sky. I may have been too close... and at the same time, I felt alive."


Scientists hover near the volcano to collect data.

The eruption provided an opportunity for scientists to collect more than 10,000 years of chemical composition variability over just under one month. The variability was a result of the subsequent batches of magma flowing into the chamber from a much deeper location in the mantle. Sæmundur Halldórsson, the lead geologist from the University of Iceland, likened the process to a lava lamp, where heat causes regions of the mantle to rise and plumes to form and move buoyantly upward toward the surface. Molten rock from these plumes accumulates in chambers and crystallizes, until the pressure builds and the magma finds a way to escape.

The eruption initially produced the expected "depleted" magma type that had been accumulating in the reservoir located about 10 miles (16 km) below the surface. However, by April, evidence showed that the chamber was being recharged by deeper, "enriched" type melts with a different composition that were sourced from a different region of the upwelling mantle plume beneath Iceland. By May, the magma that dominated the flow was the deeper, enriched type. These rapid, extreme changes in magma composition at a plume-fed hotspot, they say, "have never before been observed in near real-time." For the scientists, this result presents a "key constraint" in how models of volcanoes around the world will be built, though it is not yet clear how representative this phenomenon is of other volcanoes, or what role it plays in triggering an eruption. For me, it's a reminder that the Earth still has secrets to yield.

bottom of page