What do you get when you combine the aurora borealis and an erupting volcano? If you ask Christopher Mathews, he'll tell you that it's a once-in-a-lifetime photo. The former legal professional has been living in Iceland for many years and enjoys photographing the country's incredible landscape. So when news came out that the Geldingadalur volcano was ready to erupt, Mathews went out of his way to put himself in a good position to capture the action.
Things weren't just as simple as waking up and wandering into a good shot. Mathews had been monitoring the situation since early 2020, when magma flowing up toward the Earth was detected by volcano monitoring systems. It was then clear that the Reykjanes volcanic system was slowly awakening after a long period of inactivity. While Iceland has many volcanos—after all, it's called “the land of fire and ice”—the location of the volcano made the event all the more thrilling. The volcano is located on the peninsula that connects the airport with Reykjavik and is close to the Blue Lagoon, which makes it very accessible for curious onlookers. And since the Geldingadalur valley is mostly uninhabited, it was a good place to erupt.
Once March 2021 rolled around and it was clear that the volcano could blow at any moment, Mathews sprang into action. “I began scouting locations for a possible photo shoot on March 12,” Mathews said. “There was some guesswork involved because the eruption hadn’t actually begun; but I wanted to familiarize myself with the area. Although I’ve lived in Iceland for many years, it’s often the case that you know least about the places close to home. In the week before the eruption, I developed a pretty good idea of the best routes into the area, including some back roads that might be useful if the main roads were cut by lava.”
Mathews had correctly guessed that access to the site might be cut off, but it wasn't by lava. Initially, authorities blocked main roads to the location as they went in to assess the damage. All the photographer was able to get on the first night was the glow of the lava in the clouds as the entire highway sat in silence. He then moved to the Blue Lagoon, where he captured the eruption reflecting in its famous waters. However, Mathews was determined to get the photograph he'd hoped for—Geldingadalur with the northern lights in the background. So, he hunkered down in a nearby rented cottage and waited for the perfect weather conditions, which were difficult to come by.
“Although the weather forecasts were good, an unexpected snowstorm moved in, blocking out the sky and the volcano,” he shares. “Discouraged, I went back to my cottage. As I arrived, I saw that the clouds were beginning to break up and so I made a dash for the spot at the edge of the farm. I got there just as the shockwave from the Sun hit our upper atmosphere, triggering bright aurora lights over the volcano. As chance would have it, this happened at midnight on March 24—my birthday. It‘s hard to imagine a greater gift!”
And a gift it truly is. The stunning green hues of the aurora borealis streak the sky as the glowing volcano sits majestically below. As the photograph has gone viral, it's only become a sweeter reward for Mathews' patience. In fact, Mathews hopes that his experience can be a lesson for others. “Luck plays a big part in taking a good photo—but so does planning, and above all persistence.”