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Volcanoes of Iceland

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Before the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption, which grounded air traffic in Europe for weeks, few people were probably aware that Iceland averages an eruption once every four years. But while the spewing of hot lava is a frequent event, that doesn’t mean it’s a common one. “When we have eruptions, it’s all over the news,” photographer Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson tells TIME. “Most Icelanders try and go and see the eruptions. We are very excited about it.”

The cover of Magma: Icelandic Volcanoes (2012)
© Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson—Arctic Images

Sigurdsson has spent much of his career photographing Iceland’s volcanic eruptions. As he explained to TIME in 2011, within minutes of an eruption, he’s in a plane to photograph the event from above. “If there would be an eruption right now, I would immediately jump into an airplane to get pictures,” he says. “Then I would go take my trusted Jeep and drive up there with my tripod and stay there. I like much better taking pictures on the ground than in the air. They are more powerful and more exciting.”

After years of recording Iceland’s volcanoes up close, Sigurdsson undertook his latest project, to collect and preserve as many photographs of Icelandic volcanoes as he could find. Along with geophysicist Ari Trausti Gudmundsson, his friend for 25 years, Sigurdsson pored over archives, scanning and preserving hundreds of photos of eruptions on the small Nordic island. They are collected in the recently published book Magma: Icelandic Volcanoes.

Many of the photos in the collection are exactly what you think a volcano should look like: searing reds and oranges spewing from the ground; black soot careening into the sky. But the book also includes old black and white photos that are equally powerful, classic depictions of geologic explosions that can pack as much power as an atomic bomb. “I’m quite fond of black and white myself,” Sigurdsson says. “Black and white volcano pictures are, maybe not all the time as powerful as the orange ones. If you have a lot of orange and blue colors, it’s a great contrast, the scenes and strong colors.”

Now that he has preserved the history of Iceland’s volcanoes, Sigurdsson is readying for the next eruption. When photographing a volcano, “you have to make decisions on the fly when you have the scene in front of you,” he says. Do you need slow shutter speed, long exposures, or do you need to freeze the action or all of the above? “You have to try everything and use all your knowledge—the key to success is you’re never done,” he says. “I was done when all of my batteries were dead. And I can’t wait for the next eruption.” Given the frequency of the country’s volcanoes, he might not have to wait long to try it out.

Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson has worked as a photographer since age 16. His work is available through Arctic Images. MAGMA: Icelandic Volcanoes is available directly from the publisher.

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The Grimsvotn volcano began erupting on Saturday, sending clouds of ash high into the air. The amount of ash spewing from the volcano tapered off dramatically on Tuesday, however, said Elin Jonasdottir, a forecaster at Iceland’s meteorological office. She added that because the plume has decreased in height – it’s now at about 5,000 meters (16,000 feet) – the ash won’t travel far and will most likely fall to the ground near its source. (AP)

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In this photo taken on Saturday, May 21, 2011, smoke plumes from the Grimsvotn volcano, which lies under the Vatnajokull glacier, about 120 miles, (200 kilometers) east of the capital, Rejkjavik, which began erupting Saturday for the first time since 2004. Iceland closed its main international airport and canceled domestic flights Sunday as a powerful volcanic eruption sent a plume of ash, smoke and steam 12 miles (20 kilometers) into the air. (AP Photo/Jon Gustafsson) #

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A cloud of smoke and ash is seen over the Grimsvoetn volcano on Iceland on May 21, 2011. The cloud rising up from Grimsvoetn as a result of the eruption was seen first time around 1900 GMT and in less than an hour it had reached an altitude of 11 kilometres (6.8 miles)," according to the Icellandic meterological institute. (STR/AFP/Getty Images) #

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A deserted check-in area is seen at Keflavik airport, Keflavik, Iceland Sunday May 22, 2011 as Iceland closed its main international airport and canceled domestic flights as a powerful volcanic eruption sent a plume of ash, smoke and steam 12 miles (20 kilometers) into the air. The eruption was far larger than one a year ago that caused international travel chaos _ but scientists said it was unlikely to have the same widespread effect. (AP Photo/Brynjar Gauti) #

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Anna Hardadottir, a farmer of Horgsland, leads a horse, through the ash pouring out of the erupting Grimsvoetn volcano on May 22, 2011. Ash deposits were sprinkled over the capital Reykjavik, some 400 kilometres (250 miles) to the west of the volcano, which has spewed an ash cloud about 20 kilometres into the sky. Less than 24 hours after the eruption began late Saturday, experts and authorities in Iceland said the volcanic activity had begun to decline. (Vilhelm Gunnarsson/AFP/Getty Images) #

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Sheep farmers try to round up a flock as they walk through a cloud of ash pouring out of the erupting Grimsvoetn volcano in Mulakot on May 22, 2011. Ash deposits were sprinkled over the capital Reykjavik, some 400 kilometres (250 miles) to the west of the volcano, which has spewed an ash cloud about 20 kilometres into the sky. Less than 24 hours after the eruption began late Saturday, experts and authorities in Iceland said the volcanic activity had begun to decline. (Vilhelm Gunnarsson/AFP/Getty Images) #

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Tourists leave the Islandia Hotel in Nupur as ash continue to pour out of the erupting Grimsvoetn volcano on May 22, 2011. Ash deposits were sprinkled over the capital Reykjavik, some 400 kilometres (250 miles) to the west of the volcano, which has spewed an ash cloud about 20 kilometres into the sky. Less than 24 hours after the eruption began late Saturday, experts and authorities in Iceland said the volcanic activity had begun to decline. (Vilhelm Gunnarsson/AFP/Getty Images) #

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Vehicles are covered in ash near to Kirkjubaearklaustur, approx. 260 km from Reykjavik, Iceland, Monday, May 23, 2011. A dense cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano was being blown toward Scotland Monday, forcing two airlines to cancel their flights, U.S. President Barack Obama to cut short his visit to Ireland and carriers across Europe to fear a repeat of the huge disruptions that stranded millions of passengers a year ago. (AP Photo / Brynjar Gauti) #

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Farmers Thormar Eller and Henny Hrund go to check their livestock as an ash cloud is seen in background, near Kirkjubaearklaustur, approx. 260 km from Reykjavik, Iceland, Monday, May 23, 2011. A dense cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano was being blown toward Scotland Monday, forcing two airlines to cancel their flights, U.S. President Barack Obama to cut short his visit to Ireland and carriers across Europe to fear a repeat of the huge disruptions that stranded millions of passengers a year ago. (AP Photo / Brynjar Gauti) #

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In this photo taken on Saturday, May 21, 2011, smoke plumes from the Grimsvotn volcano, which lies under the Vatnajokull glacier, about 120 miles, (200 kilometers) east of the capital, Rejkjavik, which began erupting Saturday for the first time since 2004. Iceland closed its main international airport and canceled domestic flights Sunday as a powerful volcanic eruption sent a plume of ash, smoke and steam 12 miles (20 kilometers) into the air. (AP Photo, Jon Gustafsson) #

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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 to Kirkjubaearklaustur, approx. 260 km from Reykjavik, Iceland, Monday, May 23, 2011. A dense cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano was being blown toward Scotland Monday, forcing two airlines to cancel their flights, U.S. President Barack Obama to cut short his visit to Ireland and carriers across Europe to fear a repeat of the huge disruptions that stranded millions of passengers a year ago. (AP Photo / Brynjar Gauti) #

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A rescue team is seen near to Kirkjubaearklaustur, approx. 260 km from Reykjavik, Iceland, Monday, May 23, 2011. A dense cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano was being blown toward Scotland Monday, forcing two airlines to cancel their flights, U.S. President Barack Obama to cut short his visit to Ireland and carriers across Europe to fear a repeat of the huge disruptions that stranded millions of passengers a year ago. (AP Photo / Brynjar Gauti) #

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A departures board shows canceled flights as the airport remains open with limited flights at Edinburgh Airport in Edinburgh, Scotland Tuesday, May 24, 2011. A dense ash cloud from an Icelandic volcano blew toward Scotland, causing airlines to cancel Tuesday flights and raising fears of a repeat of last year's huge travel disruptions in Europe that stranded millions of passengers. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell) #

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Farmers drive to check on their animals near Kirkjubaearklaustur 260 km (162 miles) from Reykjavík, Iceland Tuesday May 24 2011 after the Grimsvotn volcano began erupting on Saturday, sending clouds of ash high into the air that have then been carried toward the European continent on the wind. Experts say that particles in the ash could stall jet engines and sandblast planes' windows. The ash cloud forced US President Barack Obama to shorten a visit to Ireland on Monday, and has raised fears of a repeat of huge travel disruptions in Europe last year when emissions from another of Iceland's volcanos, Eyjafjalljokull, stranded millions of passengers.(AP Photo/Brynjar Gauti ) #

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Rescue workers talk to a farmer near Kirkjubaearklaustur 260 km (162 miles) from Reykjavík, Iceland Tuesday May 24 2011 after the Grimsvotn volcano began erupting on Saturday, sending clouds of ash high into the air that have then been carried toward the European continent on the wind. Experts say that particles in the ash could stall jet engines and sandblast planes' windows. The ash cloud forced US President Barack Obama to shorten a visit to Ireland on Monday, and has raised fears of a repeat of huge travel disruptions in Europe last year when emissions from another of Iceland's volcanos, Eyjafjalljokull, stranded millions of passengers.(AP Photo/Brynjar Gauti ) #

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A dead lamb lies covered in ash near Kirkjubaearklaustur 260 km (162 miles) from Reykjavík, Iceland Tuesday May 24 2011 after the Grimsvotn volcano began erupting on Saturday, sending clouds of ash high into the air that have then been carried toward the European continent on the wind. Experts say that particles in the ash could stall jet engines and sandblast planes' windows. The ash cloud forced US President Barack Obama to shorten a visit to Ireland on Monday, and has raised fears of a repeat of huge travel disruptions in Europe last year when emissions from another of Iceland's volcanos, Eyjafjalljokull, stranded millions of passengers. (AP Photo/Brynjar Gauti ) #

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Sheep raise an ash cloud as they run in a field near Kirkjubaearklaustur 260 km (162 miles) from Reykjavík, Iceland Tuesday May 24 2011 after the Grimsvotn volcano began erupting on Saturday, sending clouds of ash high into the air that have then been carried toward the European continent on the wind. Experts say that particles in the ash could stall jet engines and sandblast planes' windows. The ash cloud forced US President Barack Obama to shorten a visit to Ireland on Monday, and has raised fears of a repeat of huge travel disruptions in Europe last year when emissions from another of Iceland's volcanos, Eyjafjalljokull, stranded millions of passengers. (AP Photo/Brynjar Gauti) #

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A cloud of ash decends on the settlement of Vik near the Grimsvoetn volcano on Iceland on May 23, 2011. Activity at Iceland's erupting volcano has slowed significantly and its flight-halting ash plume has dropped to a quarter of its peak of 20 kilometres (12 miles), experts in Iceland said on May 24, 2011. "There is less activity... A lot less of the ash is going into the atmosphere," Petur Matthiasson, a spokesman for Iceland's Civil Protection and Emrgency Management Administration, told AFP. (Vilheldm Gunnarsson/AFP/Getty Images) #

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A man clears the windshield of his car during daylight hours in Kirkjbaejarklaustur, near the Grimsvoetn volcano, on May 23, 2011. Activity at Iceland's erupting volcano has slowed significantly and its flight-halting ash plume has dropped to a quarter of its peak of 20 kilometres (12 miles), experts in Iceland said on May 24, 2011. "There is less activity... A lot less of the ash is going into the atmosphere," Petur Matthiasson, a spokesman for Iceland's Civil Protection and Emrgency Management Administration, told AFP. (Vilheldm Gunnarsson/AFP/Getty Images) #

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In this handout satellite image provided by NASA/GSFC, shows Grimsvotn volcano emmiting ash plume on May 21, 2011 in Grimsvotn, 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. (Photo by NASA/GSFC via Getty Images) #

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A member of a rescue team checks on a farmer near to Kirkjubaearklaustur, approx. 260 km from Reykjavik, Iceland, Monday, May 23, 2011. A dense cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano was being blown toward Scotland Monday, forcing two airlines to cancel their flights, U.S. President Barack Obama to cut short his visit to Ireland and carriers across Europe to fear a repeat of the huge disruptions that stranded millions of passengers a year ago. (AP Photo / Brynjar Gauti) #

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Passengers rest on the floor as their flights have been canceled at Edinburgh Airport in Edinburgh, Scotland Tuesday, May 24, 2011. A dense ash cloud from an Icelandic volcano blew toward Scotland, causing airlines to cancel Tuesday flights and raising fears of a repeat of last year's huge travel disruptions in Europe that stranded millions of passengers. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell) #

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A man walks over a field in the settlement of Vik near the Grimsvoetn volcano on Iceland on May 23, 2011. Activity at Iceland's erupting volcano has slowed significantly and its flight-halting ash plume has dropped to a quarter of its peak of 20 kilometres (12 miles), experts in Iceland said on May 24. "There is less activity... A lot less of the ash is going into the atmosphere," Petur Matthiasson, a spokesman for Iceland's Civil Protection and Emrgency Management Administration, told AFP. (Thorvaldur Kristmundsson/AFP/Getty Images) #

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Passengers wait for information about their flights from Landvetter Airport in Goteborg on May 24, 2011. The ash cloud from the volcano Grimsvotn reached Sweden and hampered air traffic late Monday evening. At 2000 hours 10 flights from Landvetter airport were cancelled. (ADAM IHSE/AFP/Getty Images) #

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Horses are gathered to be taken into the stables at Geirland Farm in Kirkjubaejarklaustur, East Iceland on May 24, 2011, as the ash from the erupting Grimsvoetn volcano fills the sky. The ongoing eruption has shown the most violent start ever registered at Grimsvoetn, at the heart of the Vatnajoekull glacier, and the peak of its plume towered at around twice the height of the column spewed out last year by Eyjafjoell. (AGNES VALDIMARSDOTTIR/AFP/Getty Images) #

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Abandoned vehicles sit in a field covered in volcanic ash from the Grimsvotn volcano in the village of Vik, in Myraldur, Iceland, on Monday, May 23, 2011. British Airways, Air France-KLM Group and a dozen other carriers canceled more than 250 flights and U.S. President Barack Obama curtailed his visit to Ireland after ash from an Icelandic volcano drifted over the northern U.K. Photographer: Ragnar Axelsson/Bloomberg #

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A cloud of volcanic ash from Grimsvotn volcano obscures houses in the village of Vik, in Myraldur, Iceland, on Monday, May 23, 2011. British Airways, Air France-KLM Group and a dozen other carriers canceled more than 250 flights and U.S. President Barack Obama curtailed his visit to Ireland after ash from an Icelandic volcano drifted over the northern U.K. Photographer: Ragnar Axelsson/Bloomberg #

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Barely a year after a similar eruption in Iceland forced the biggest closure of European airspace since World War II, the eruption of the Grimsvotn volcano, under the Vatnajokull glacier in southeast Iceland on May 21, 2011 has caused hundreds of travel delays. The ash cloud forced U.S. President Barack Obama to shorten a visit to Ireland and has raised some fears of a repeat of last year's huge travel disruptions across Europe when emissions from Eyjafjalljokull stranded millions of passengers. Although this disruption is said to be stronger than that of Eyiafjalljokull, it is not expected to have the same impact. Take a look back at two Big Picture posts from the 2010 Icelandic volcano eruption: Iceland's disruptive volcano and More from Eyiafjallajokull. -- Paula Nelson (24 photos total)
A plane flies past a smoke plume resulting from the eruption of the Grimsvotn volcano, under the Vatnajokull glacier in southeast Iceland, May 21, 2011. Airlines began canceling flights to Britain because of the ash cloud from the volcano reaching its airspace, although experts expected no repeat of travel chaos from the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull a year ago. (Olafur Sigurjonsson/Reuters)

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