The Gods Were Right

They punished Prometheus for stealing their fire. Now look what humans have done with it.

The Fagradalsfjall volcano erupting in Iceland on May 18, 2021
Saul Loeb / AP

In Iceland, where I live, we have an eruption now. For the first time in my memory, we here in Reykjavík can see the glow of a volcano from our windows, like a sunrise just across the bay. We are witness to Earth’s most powerful forces at work: the birth of a mountain. But to observe a volcanic eruption is not to see something far greater than ourselves. To visit a volcano is to look in a mirror and consider the force humans have become—the greatest eruption on Earth.

Iceland sits on a crack between tectonic plates, so we have a moderate eruption every five years on average and a massive event at least once a century. The Askja eruption of 1875 was partly responsible for causing almost 20 percent of Icelanders to emigrate to Canada and the United States. The Lakagígar eruption of 1783 was one of the largest in human history; it brought cold summers and crop failure to the Northern Hemisphere, and possibly triggered the French Revolution. The toxic ash that followed killed about 20 percent of the Icelandic population during the “haze hardships.” For some time, the Danish monarchy, which ruled Iceland until 1918, wondered if the island was habitable at all. Volcanoes shape our landscape and our history. The lack of vegetation in Iceland makes thousands of years of eruptions visible everywhere you travel throughout the country. I had not seen a volcanic eruption with my bare eyes until 2010, when the famous Eyjafjallajökull erupted. Seeing it was a childhood dream come true.

The new eruption, from the Geldingadalir volcano, started after a series of earthquakes—about 40,000 in a few weeks, which we followed on the website of our meteorological office. Sometimes one came every minute. The sensation was strange, adding an additional layer of surreality to the pandemic period. The big ones came a few times a day, but the smaller ones, the ones you could not feel kinesthetically, were felt on some subconscious level—who knows what the body picks up on? Maybe it was a truck passing by; maybe it was the Earth itself. Many said they felt nauseated. “Can you be earthsick?” a friend asked me.

The fishing town of Grindavík, 50 kilometers from  Reykjavík, endured lots of shakes and people were afraid, for good reason: In 1973, an eruption in the Westman Islands buried the whole town of Vestmannaeyjar in ash and lava. Scientists kept us on our toes, but geologists are not weather forecasters; they see things on a different time scale. “Yes, the area is waking up after 800 years of sleep,” they said, “and yes, an eruption is likely. It will probably happen sometime in the next 100 years,” they said.

One evening, a geologist declared on the evening news that the earthquakes would probably not cause an eruption after all. The eruption started one hour later—a small flow of lava. This was late on a Friday in March. At first it was almost a miniature eruption—one of the smallest ever recorded.

I made some calls to see if I could visit the site. Early Sunday morning, I was able to hitch a ride with two photographers from Fréttablaðið. Just after 5 a.m. we arrived at a roadblock east of Grindavík and were let through with journalist passes. We took a dirt road into the mountain range, keeping our eyes on a faint red glow behind the hills, as though Mordor itself was just out of view. We parked our Land Rover, put on our headlamps, and climbed the hills in fog and rain, heading for the light. The mist was thick, and finding the way was harder than we’d expected.

My phone’s camera was light-sensitive, so we used it to navigate toward the area on the horizon that had the brightest glow. Slowly the view cleared, and vague red lights appeared on the hill. When we got closer, the fog was bright pink and rivers of lava ran just ahead of us, filling up a small, vegetated valley. Volcanic gases can kill, so low-lying areas should be avoided, but wind conditions were favorable and the fumes were carried away from us. The lava front crept slowly forward, swallowing and burning the grass on the valley floor. Further up the hill I could see the outline of the crater ejecting glowing magma into the air.

We were witnessing our Earth re-creating itself. We got extremely close to the molten lava; I found a small patch bubbling from a lava crust and poked it with my walking stick. I stretched my hand as close as I dared to take a photo—I was worried that my phone might melt.

The lava flowed softly and slowly. The heat was comfortable when we were not too close, but of course close is relative: Six feet from flowing lava is quite close. The soundscape was soothing, whispering to us “Come closer.” We headed up to see the main crater, where a group of early visitors had gathered. You would think we would have felt threatened, but this eruption had no falling ash, no explosions—just this gentle flow of lava, a small river gushing up. The area felt safe, though in one place I saw fumes coming from the ground. I wondered if a new crack might open beneath my feet, or if a sudden explosion might occur, but those feelings were minor compared to the awe I felt.

In the end, the scene had nothing to do with terror, Mordor, or hell. It was destruction and creation happening simultaneously. There was nothing in between. The valley was right as it was. Filled with lava, it was still perfect.

A volcano eruption in Iceland.
Courtesy of @arimagg

When you see a volcano, fire coming from the ground, you feel a connection to forces beyond your normal experience—the planet, the origin of life, the creation of everything, the recycling of materials and continents, the elements that make the planet what it is. You remember that we are standing on just a thin crust of life, a sweet spot between burning magma and a burning sun. You think of all the ancestors who feared these forces and all the folklore and religion that the eruptions inspired. You think of Prometheus and his gift of fire. According to Greek mythology, he was punished, by an eagle that gnawed out his liver, for stealing fire from the gods. They probably knew that humans could not handle the power of fire, and now we have proved that they were absolutely right.

When James Watt invented the steam engine, we started hiding fire. He took the torch of Prometheus and concealed it within a metal cylinder in which water was heated to its boiling point. He managed to harness the resulting steam energy to turn a piston that propelled machines, eventually leading to even bigger machines. With them, man could dig deeper into the earth and stretch railroads across entire continents.

Today, the great fires of civilization are hidden away; when a fire is visible, it is war, an accident, a disaster. But the hidden fires Watt ignited have become a massive, unstoppable inferno, bigger than most forest fires that have ever blazed on Earth. In total, we have burned hundreds of billions of tons of coal, oil, and gas. But none of it has vanished; the coal and oil became carbon dioxide. Scientists today can measure the amount in the atmosphere. In pre-industrial times, the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million; the level has since reached 417 parts per million, the highest in 3 million years.

Volcanic eruptions are nothing compared to this. Earth’s volcanoes—both on land and underwater—are estimated to release, on average, about 200 million tons of carbon dioxide a year; humanity releases almost 37 billion. The fire we burn is almost 200 times greater than that produced by all the volcanic activity on Earth. Yet we go through our day without actually seeing fire or smoke. We see and perceive volcanoes, their ferociousness and their thundering din, but we don’t see that we are Earth’s largest volcano.

People watching a volcano erupt.
People gathering to watch lava flow on March 31, 2021. (Marco Di Marco / AP)

In 2010, Eyjafjallajökull erupted and put a stop to European air traffic for six days. Eyjafjallajökull emitted less carbon dioxide per day than what’s normally emitted by all of Europe’s flights. Thus, in canceling all those flights, the eruption became the first environmentally responsible one in history.

Beneath all we do, a fire is blazing; traffic advances like glowing lava. If we divide the 100 million tons of carbon dioxide that humans emit every single day by the 150,000 tons of carbon dioxide that our volcano emitted, we get the devilish number 666. The emissions of Earth’s inhabitants are like 666 Eyjafjallajökull eruptions, day and night, all year round. If we convert U.S. emissions into volcanic eruptions, nearly 100 volcanos like Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull erupt every day, every night.

The Geldingadalir eruption occurring now is relatively small compared with Eyjafjallajökull. In March, the volcano was emitting about 6,000 tons of carbon dioxide a day, so human emissions are as if we had opened up about 17,000 of these volcanoes—approximately one volcano every other kilometer around the equator.

It is all so well designed, so invisible. If the cars on our highways displayed their fires on the outside, the conflagration we kindle in order to get to work would be evident. If fire were to rise from the bodies of cars, we could see the mighty lava flow that this frenzy of traffic constitutes. We can see forest fires and burning high-rises. On the news, we see tankers burst into flames or oil reserves that have caught fire after an accident. We forget: That oil was meant to burn anyway, just not all in one place, all at one time. We do not perceive our everyday life as a disaster. But the eruption is us—our lives, our daily existence.