Image: Icelandic farmer coping with volcanic ash
RAGNAR AXELSSON  /  AFP - Getty Images
Icelandic farmer Helgi Vilberg Johansson holds a lamb that was stricken with ash spewed from Iceland's Grimsvotn volcano.
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Special to msnbc.com
updated 5/25/2011 2:17:49 PM ET 2011-05-25T18:17:49
essay

So widely hyped was evangelist Harold Camping’s prophecy of imminent rapture that even isolated Iceland, pop. 318,000, was subject to the onslaught of advertisements — and accompanying news stories — of doomsday.

On the morning of Saturday, May 21, Icelandic news site Vísir.is didn’t waste any time posting a story: “The World is Still Here.” The 89-year-old Camping predicted that the world would begin to quake at 6 p.m., but the story cited reports that everything was just fine in New Zealand and Tonga, which would have been among the first of the doomsday victims.

Little did they know that at 6 p.m. in Iceland, the Icelandic Meteorological Office would pick up a surge of seismic activity coming from Grimsvotn, Iceland’s most active volcano, which last erupted in 2004. In a twist to the Camping story, the subglacial volcano began erupting full force, sending a plume of ash 50,000 feet into the air.

Nonetheless, we are of course still here and, because of the volcano’s remote location in Iceland’s uninhabited highlands, nobody was in immediate danger during the four-day eruption, which ceased Wednesday morning . It did, however, produce a tremendous amount of ash that will not disappear so quickly.

In fact, this eruption produced more ash in the first 24 hours than the entire Eyjafjallajokull eruption, which just one year ago paralyzed air traffic around the world and stranded travelers all over Europe.

Iceland’s main road, which goes full circle around the island, was closed from Sunday morning until Tuesday evening between Vik and Freysnes, a 90-mile stretch in southeast Iceland where the ash was at times so thick that it might as well have been the dead of night in the dead of winter.

ICELAND VOLCANO
J. Bell  /  AP
Map locates Grimsvotn volcano in Iceland that has started erupting

Passing through Vik just before authorities closed the road on Sunday morning, I experienced first-hand what was probably as close to a doomsday as Camping had envisioned. I was prepared for the ash, but I was not prepared for the hazy brown surroundings to turn pitch black as the ash blocked out the sun completely.

“It feels like being snow-blind,” the photographer accompanying me said uneasily as she navigated the car into darker territory. We made it within kilometers of the next town to the east, Kirkjuaejarklaustur, before we could no longer see even one road marker ahead of us. Stopped in an ash storm, there was no choice but to call Iceland’s rescue team. 

(Click here to see photos from the trip to the Grimsvotn volcano.)

A French man we had met earlier driving from Kirkjuaejarklaustur back to the capital Reykjavík had strongly advised us against continuing on our trip. He was here scouting the country for a French tourism company, and would be returning home with a negative impression of Iceland as a viable tourist destination. “I can sell snow, I can even sell rain, but I just cannot sell ash,” he said matter of factly. 

The Icelandic government has been understandably worried about the eruption’s impact on the tourism business. Iceland’s president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, was harshly criticized for speaking overdramatically when Eyjafjallajokull erupted last year, and the Icelandic Travel Industry Association sent a press release to the media asking that everyone be careful not to overdramatize this eruption.

The recent eruption is the latest in a series of crises to test the resolve of Icelanders in the past few years. First it was the collapse of the banks and the Icesave dispute with the Brits and the Dutch. Then it was the difficult-to-pronounce-eruption that left thousands of travelers, like the infamous “I Hate Iceland” guy, stranded and Iceland’s hotels empty.

“It’s too much,” said Anna Thorisdottir, who was with a group of hikers descending Vatnajokull glacier when the Grimsvotn volcano began erupting beneath the glacier. “We can explain one eruption, but an eruption year after year? People are just going to stop coming.”

Unable to drive west, Anna and her group of hikers headed east, full circle around the island, to return to Reykjavík two days later. In the northeast, they faced snow and icy roads, which is not your every day summer weather, even in Iceland.

The Smyril Line ferry made its first trip of the summer from Denmark to Seydisfjordur, a fishing and tourist village in the Eastfjords of Iceland, over the weekend. Its 600 passengers found themselves stuck in the small town, pop. 668. Grocery stores there were without milk for two days.

Meanwhile, Iceland’s rescue team could be counted on, and we were guided to a community house where the Red Cross was looking after about a dozen others who became stranded in the ash. They pointed to a stack of mattresses and suggested that we make ourselves comfortable.

Local residents Pall Ragnarsson and his wife, Maria Gudmundsottir, had made a big pot of asparagus soup and an assortment of open-faced sandwiches. The clock read 1:30 in the afternoon, but everything else pointed more to 1:30 in the morning.

“I thought I would have time to knit today,” Maria said pointing to her bag full of unfinished work, “but we’ve had about 50 people, counting nurses and the rescue team, come in and out.”

Then just as we had prepared to spend the night, the wind died down, the hazy brown landscape reappeared and a local policeman informed us that we could drive back to Reykjavik. “But hurry,” he said. 

Ultimately, it’s not travelers or tourists who face the brunt of the eruption but Iceland’s farmers, who have to deal with the ash. To help them with the cleaning efforts, the government has put to work Iceland’s unemployed, which are at 8.3 percent today compared with 1 percent before the economic crisis hit in 2008.

With the exception of southeast Iceland, the country is largely free of ash, and those travelers grounded in Reykjavík have been granted free admission to museums and swimming pools.

Life on this island, which sits on the mid-Atlantic ridge, has been unusually shaky, but an impending doomsday? Not so much. Birds are singing again in Kirkjuaejarklaustur and at the time of writing, flights are slowly resuming to normal.

Anna Andersen is a journalist at The Reykjavík Grapevine. Click here to see photos from her trip to the Grimsvotn volcano.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Volcanic disruption for air travelers

Interactive: Iceland volcano

Photos: Iceland’s Grimsvotn volcano erupts

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  1. In a photo taken on May 24, plumes of ash and steam billow out from the crater of the Grimsvotn volcano. Air traffic disruption triggered by the eruption of Iceland's volcano was reduced to parts of Norway and Sweden Thursday, as the last spits of hot vapour seeped out of the crater. Thousands of passengers had their travel plans ripped up after Saturday's eruption, with hundreds of flights over Scotland and Germany among the worst affected this week, although far short of the scale of disruption caused by another eruption on Iceland just over one year ago. (Bjorn Oddsson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Icelandic farmer Helgi Vilberg Johansson poses with a lamb who was affected by ash spewed into the sky during the eruption of Iceland's Grimsvoetn volcano, on May 25, in Amardrangi Landbroti. Johansson said the air was thick with volcanic ash and he couldn't see out of the windows when he heard the lambs making noise. When he went out to investigate, he found that a few of the lambs had died. (Ragnar Axelsson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A plume smoke is seen rising from the Grimsvotn volcano in Iceland Wednesday May 25. (Agust Gudbjornsson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A worker photographs the volcanic ash from the eruption of the Grimsvotn volcano inside of a fuel dispensing machine in Kirkjubaejarklaustur, Iceland May 26. Iceland's volcano is producing mostly steam rather than ash and should calm down within a few days, national police said on Thursday encouraging hopes there will be no further disruption to flights in northern Europe. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A passenger uses his mobile phone after all flights were cancelled due to volcanic ash in the skies over northern Germany at Tegel airport in Berlin, May 25. (Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A farmer, left, and a rescue worker collect animals near the village of Kirkjubaejarklaustur on May 24. People living next to the glacier where the Grimsvotn volcano burst into life on Saturday were most affected, with ash shutting out the daylight and smothering buildings and vehicles. An ash cloud from a volcano on Iceland shut down flights in northern Britain and elsewhere in north Europe on Tuesday and was heading to Germany, but officials expected no repeat of last year's air chaos. (Ingolfur Juliusson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Passengers wait in the main terminal at Edinburgh Airport, in Scotland on May 24. Ash from an Icelandic volcano forced the cancellation of dozens of flights to and from Scotland on Tuesday but Ireland's Ryanair said it would protest against "unnecessary" restrictions. (David Moir / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. The eruption of the Grimsvotn volcano sends thousands of tons of volcanic ash into the sky on May 23 above Iceland. The cloud has forced the closure of Icelandic airspace and spread fears of a repeat of the global travel chaos that was caused by last year's Icelandic eruption, although authorities inisist that this Grimsvotn poses a lesser threat. (Jon Magnusson / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A combination of pictures shows the growing ash plume from the Grimsvotn volcano, under the Vatnajokull glacier in southeast Iceland, as its eruption begins on Saturday, May 21. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A group of students help a pair of German hitchhikers pack up their camp site just east of Kirkjubæjarklaustur on May 22. (Anna Andersen) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The eruption of the Grimsvotn volcano sends thousands of tons of volcanic ash into the sky on May 23 above Iceland. Airlines began canceling flights to and from Scotland because of volcanic ash, although experts expected no repeat of travel chaos from an eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano a year ago. (Jon Magnusson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A man cleans his ash-smothered car in the village of Kirkjubaejarklaustur, southern Iceland, on May 23. (Vilheldm Gunnarsson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. This satellite image provided by NASA shows the plume of dense ash from the Grimsvotn volcano as it casts a shadow to the west on May 23. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A bird is lit by a vehicle's headlights in the middle of the day, as it sits on the road in an ash cloud, near Kirkjubaearklaustur on May 23. (Brynjar Gauti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A plane is seen against a sunset over Kensington Palace in London, May 23. A dense cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano was being blown toward Scotland, forcing several airlines to cancel their flights. (Alastair Grant / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama board Air Force One at the airport in Dublin on May 23 en route to London. Obama left Ireland ahead of schedule as concerns over an ash cloud sped up his travel plans. (Jewel Samad / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A man walking a street in the village of Kirkjubaejarklaustur, around noon on May 23. (Vilheldm Gunnarsson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (17) Iceland’s Grimsvotn volcano erupts
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    Slideshow (13) Volcano Eruption

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