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From up close, volcano shows off might and beauty

Wednesday, April 21, 2010 | 4:42 p.m. CDT

ABOVE THE EYJAFJALLAJOKULL VOLCANO — The volcano threw magma chunks the size of cars into the air and rocked our helicopter with a vicious explosion that sent a visible shock-wave through the air, a reminder of its power.

The spectacular show came from a unique vantage point, hovering above the volcano that has dominated world headlines for more than a week. Having written for days from a distance about the volcano with the unpronounceable name, the time had finally come to meet the nemesis, and I had a place on a helicopter-for-hire.

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And to my delight and fear, the volcano put on a tremendous show.

In a black crater in the middle of a glacier, red magma thrashed about, propelling steaming blobs of lava onto the surrounding ice. Every so often charges of gas — which surge from deep inside the mountain through the magma and cause tremors 15 miles (25 kilometers) away — exploded in a firework of molten rock. The air shivered with a constant, menacing growl, like a perpetual clap of thunder that shook our bodies.

Bolts of lightning shot through the fumes and an eerie glow pervaded the pit of fire; in ancient times it could have been taken for a deity's wrath.

The moment was surreal: Here was the ash-belching monster that had ruined travel arrangements for hundreds of thousands of airline passengers around the world, and we were flying right over it, keeping well upwind of the billowing plume of smoke and ash drifting off toward the south.

Just as I began to appreciate its beauty and scale, the volcano gave a warning shot that was as unpredictable as it was frightening: an explosion so powerful it sent a visible shock-wave through the air and which — a very long half-second later — slammed into the side of our helicopter.

The chopper was abruptly shoved away and the sound of the rotor blades — or was it my pulse? — seemed to miss a beat.

Our pilot, a hardened veteran, thought it wise to back off a bit.

Above all, the explosion, a mere hiccup for this eruption but a humbling experience for a human, seemed to come as a reminder — that this volcano is more than just an odd name that has caused trouble for millions of travelers and threatened companies and economies. It is an awesome spectacle in its own right, a show of nature's might and beauty.

As we turned to head back to base, across the 200 yards-thick glacier that this volcano had cracked open like an egg, we saw before us Mount Hekla, another volcano that erupted only 10 years earlier. In ancient times Icelanders believed it to be the gateway to hell. What might they have thought of this one?

 


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