Posts Tagged With: lava tube

No, NOT the One With the Green Handle

OK, I want to be clear here. In the United States, the petrol pump with the green handle is always diesel. Always! Am I right, or am I right? I thought so. And so my error was not only forgivable, but unavoidable. Unavoidable, I say! But I am getting ahead of myself.

We left Reykjavik at about 10 AM today, en route to the north, to the area around Borganes, a small town on one of the western fjords of the country. Our specific destinations were a lava cave and a couple of well-known waterfalls in the vicinity. But first we needed to fill the tank of our thirsty 4WD behemoth, a double-cab Isuzu pickup truck with an enclosed bed for our luggage.

There was a gas station just around the corner from the flat, a brand called Olío. (Notice the accent over the letter i, which gives it a long i sound.) Our vehicle requires diesel fuel, which I noticed that all the pumps offered. So I drove up to the first pump, inserted my credit card, and engaged the pump with the green handle since that is OBVIOUSLY DIESEL FUEL. I pumped about 40 liters — costing approximately 12 million dollars US — as Tim and I congratulated each other on our manly ability to pump gas in a foreign country. (By the way, for the record, petrol actually costs roughly US $9 per gallon here.) But as I hung the pump back in its cradle, my eye was drawn to an adjacent pump handle — stealthy black in color — with a tag on it that, in ominous Icelandic, read “Díesl”. By virtue of my highly advanced linguistic skills, I immediately realized that, in NASA parlance, I had screwed the proverbial pooch. In particular, I had just put about 40 liters of 95-octane petrol into a diesel vehicle. The only saving grace of the situation was that I had noticed this before we had set out on our drive and inevitably broken down in the middle of some godforsaken windswept glacial tundra, which is where it surely would have happened.

But since we were still at the petrol station, the potential catastrophe had been reduced to what Alice and I refer to in our travels as an “MSP”, which stands for “Money-Solvable Problem.” I went to the counter of the service station, where the friendly attendant called a local guy who handles this sort of thing. Said local guy, a creased, windburnt, businesslike 60-something in coveralls, showed up about 20 minutes later, siphoned out the contaminated fuel, and — because we had called him from home on a weekend — somewhat apologetically charged me an amount of money that was shockingly much even by Icelandic standards. Like I said, an MSP.

We refueled the vehicle — another 18 million dollars of “Díesl” this time — and, this particular misadventure behind us, set out on our away again. Our route to the lava cave first brought us past Borganes and its adjacent fjord, bordering a scrubby green and yellow steppe at the foot of a line of steep volcanic mountains. Despite the bleakness — it was an overcast, windy day with a smattering of rain — there was a certain stark idyllic quality to the setting, as you can see from scenes like this.

Iceland Borganes 2018-004-Edit

The fjord itself is broad and still, and at the time we were there the tide was out, revealing a maze of low muddy shoals. Fortunately both the wind and rain died down for long enough to allow a drone flight, during which I captured these panoramas from the air:

Iceland Borganes Drone 2018-030-EditIceland Borganes Drone 2018-017-Edit

The bridge at lower left leads directly into Borganes. But although we are sleeping there tonight, our lava cave of interest lay about a 45 minute drive beyond it. The cave — actually a lava tube — is called Víðgelmir, which like many Icelandic place names is best pronounced whilst eating a marshmallow. It sits in the middle of a lava field at the foot of the Langjökull  glacier, which you can see here.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-010

The cave is more than 30 meters underground with assorted ledges and overhangs, so we were first equipped with helmets with mounted flashlights. As you can see from this photo we were ready for some volcanic spelunking.

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The entrance to the cave is suitably maw-like, and we picked our way along the, um, unadventurous wooden stairs and boardwalk, following our guide and listening to his lecture about the geology of the place.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-019Iceland Lava Cave 2018-023

We are not unfamiliar with lava tubes because of our time in Hawaii, but Víðgelmir is particularly impressive. It’s nearly a mile long and sports a variety of lava formations much more typical of a “conventional” limestone cave, e.g., stalactites and stalagmites, albeit very small ones. But its most (to me) unexpected feature is a consequence of its temperature, which hovers at just about freezing. Consequently there are a large number of crystalline stalagmite-like ice formations like these.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-037

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-033

I found them particularly otherwordly. And indeed, if you get too close they break open and this thing that looks like a horseshoe crab jumps out and grabs your face, and you just know what’s gonna happen after that.

The cave tour lasted about an hour and a half, and we set out to our next destination, the Barnafoss and Hraunfossar waterfalls, adjacent to each other along a short looping walking path. They’re beautiful and would have made a great venue for a drone flight except that by this time the rain had started in earnest.  Hraunfossar — the name means “lava falls” — has an unusual property: its water seems to come out of nowhere. What actually happens is that the glacial melt percolates through the surrounding lava field and emerges as a line of cataracts along the river; indeed, you can actually see the water coming out of the rock. Take a look:

Iceland Barnafoss 2018-006

Barnafoss, only about 200 meters away, means “Child Falls”, named after a rather dreary local legend about them. The story goes that one day two boys, home alone while their parents went to church, got bored and decide to follow.  (The assertion that two young boys spontaneously decided to go to church on their own tells you immediately that this is a myth.)  Anyway, the legend tells that they tried to take a shortcut over a natural stone bridge that crossed the falls, but fell off the bridge and drowned. The mother of the boys then cursed the bridge, and shortly afterward it was destroyed by an earthquake. This is about as cheerful as Icelandic legends get. It must be the weather. In any case, here’s Barnafoss:

Iceland Barnafoss 2018-013

You can tell from the photos how gray the sky had gotten, and in fact it was pretty much pouring by this time. So we gawked until satisfied, then retreated to the car and returned to Borganes. Our lodgings are an AirBnb, a very pleasant two-bedroom cottage overlooking the fjord. Borganes has a population of only about 3,000 but I am happy to report that we were able to satisfy Janet’s craving for pizza: there are at least two pizzerias in town, and the one we chose was excellent.

Tomorrow: further into the frozen north!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Lava, Actually

Kilauea is rightly famous for being both the most active and the safest volcano in the world. It is a so-called shield volcano for its gentle convex shape, formed that way both because of the composition of the lava and its more or less continuous flow. This nonetheless does not prevent the active regions from looking like a post-apocalyptic hellscape, or a parking lot the size of San Francisco after a nuclear bomb has gone off. Yesterday it looked like this:

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If you look carefully you can see the zombies eating the tourists in the distance.

This is essentially a broad, flat crater, technically called a caldera. It’s about 3 miles (5 km) across and is dotted with number of craters-within-the-crater. The largest of these is Halema’uma’u, a good half mile across and 300 ft (90 m) deep. You’ve got a glimpse of it on the horizon in the picture above, where the steam is rising. said steam being the vapor cloud from the molten lava lake sitting at the bottom. You used to be able to hike across the caldera up to the edge of Halema’uma’u, a practice that the National Park Service strongly discourages today because of the likelihood that you will die. So access is closed off. It is nonetheless possible to get closer from a different vantage point along the caldera rim, from where it looks like this:

Volcano-012 That’s still not close enough to see the lava lake, unfortunately, but if you stick around till after sunset you can see still see the orange glow from it. Or at least you can if the vantage point is not completely socked in with fog, which it was when we tried. Speaking of which, you will notice that both of the above photos seem a little hazy. That phenomenon is the aptly-named “vog”, which is short for “volcanic fog”, a witch’s brew of water vapor, sulfur dioxide, and assorted volcanic particulates, and which on a bad day can blanket the entire island. You need an occasional healthy rainstorm to clear the crud out of the atmosphere and get you those beautiful views that you see on postcards.

A good fraction of the southeast corner of the Big Island is taken up by Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and a good part of that is taken up by one or another lava field. The fields are marked as having been laid down by one or another eruption, e.g., “November 1979 Lava Flow”. So you can collect all your favorites — “Ah, March 1972, that was a good one!” — though they pretty much all look like this:

Volcano-029Some of the lava fields are blacker than others — you can see that this one is kind of brownish — depending on the exact location and thus the gas content and mineral composition of a particular flow. There is not currently an active lava flow running down to the ocean, which when it happens affords the spectacular sight of the glowing 2000-degree stream falling into the sea and raising one hell of a steam cloud. When that does happen you can join up with a boat tour that sails along the coast and gets close enough to let the passengers see the show.   But alas, we won’t have that on this trip.

The caldera is at the summit of the mountain, at an elevation of 4000 ft (1200 m). It’s noticeably cooler there than at the coast, and much rainier than Kona as well. For those reasons, the vegetation at the higher elevations in the park is very different than elsewhere on the island. It is, in fact, very Jurassic World-y, with lots of ferns and cooler-weather plants.

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Plant and wildlife in the vicinity of Kilauea can be unique to an astonishing degree because of a combination of topography and evolution. As a wide river of lava flows down to the sea, the terrain may cause the flow to split and then rejoin further downhill, resulting in a small “island” of untouched land in the midst of the molten flow. The plants and small ground-dwelling fauna (mostly insects) are thus temporarily cut off from the rest of the world, and so they do what Charles Darwin told them to do: continue to adapt to their local environment, which may be as small  as a couple of football fields. Such a region is called a kipuka, and the Big Island is home to a number of them. Kipukas can be the home to species and sub-species that are found, not only nowhere outside of Hawaii, but nowhere outside the kipuka. How’s that for specialization?

I mentioned earlier that Kilauea is known as the safest volcano in the world, because its pattern of long-duration eruptions and the nature of its magma vents prevent explosive pressures from building up. However, Pele — the Hawaiian volcano goddess, not the soccer player — is not real big on predictability and although there have been no Mt-Saint-Helens- or Pinatubo-style eruptions, there have been some pretty violent events that have altered the landscape. One, in late 1959, wiped out a heavily forested area with 16 explosions and a rain of volcanic ash, lava, and related stuff that you do not want to be standing under.  The result is an area called Devastation Trail, which is, indeed, um, devastated.

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I mentioned in an earlier post that there are several types of lava, the two most common being a’a, which is the rough clinkery stuff, and pahohoe, which is ropy and relatively smooth. During an eruption a’a advances very slowly, at about a walking pace, a very, very hot wall that moves like an advancing glacier. Those glowing rivers that flow down to the sea are pahoehoe, and if the terrain is right then the top layer can cool and start to harden while the stuff underneath continues to flow. In that case you can end up with a hollow channel: a lava tube. The park has a famous one, Thurston Lava Tube, big enough for a crowd of people to walk through, as you can see below. The first image is the fern-lined entrance to the tube.

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Those things hanging down from the ceiling are not stalactites; this is not a limestone caved formed by water laying down mineral deposits. They are tree roots, o’hia lehua trees to be exact. The o’hia lehua trees with their bottle-brush red flowers are one of the first forms of life to reestablish itself after a lava flow scours the land, and as you can see they are more than a little tenacious. As indeed, you would have to be if your ambition is to thrive on lava.

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