Ragnar Guðmundsson had long been a well-known public figure in Iceland. Hardly a week went by that the sharp-featured fellow with frizzy, rust-red hair and a three-day beard didn’t appear on his compatriots’ TV screens wearing a checkered button-down shirt and a grave expression, enumerating all manner of imminent dangers that were facing the nation and the extensive drills that the Civil Protection Agency was, therefore, running. As such, it didn’t come as much of a surprise that he should call a press conference at the CPA’s Reykjavík headquarters, although some found it a little much to have to get there at six o’clock in the morning.
Ragnar sat with a coffee cup between his beefy hands and watched as his colleagues gathered in the narrow press room that a glass wall separated from the sea of computer screens in the agency’s workroom.
Every time someone approached the conference room, he lifted his lazy wolf eyes under his bushy eyebrows and nodded. His manner indicated that this would be a straightforward briefing, unlike today when seven hundred police officers, five thousand search and rescue members, and fifteen hundred and fifty Red Cross volunteers would be deployed at approximately the same time.
Ragnar’s first order of business that morning had been to answer countless messages from bleary-eyed editors, trying to convince them as best he could that they weren’t dealing with a drill or a prank here. Some of them simply didn’t want to believe what the message said: that at that very moment, there was a volcanic eruption beginning not far from the capital area. It must be either a joke or an unusually thorough drill.
This hope was smothered on the spot. This was a genuine state of emergency they were talking about. Svanfríður Lárúsdóttir, a close colleague of Ragnar’s, appeared just a few minutes shy of six o’clock. Ragnar looked up from his smart phone inquiringly, and regarded her—unruffled, in spite of the understandable turmoil, wearing a fleece that was zipped so far up that her button nose was just peeping out from her collar between her light red curls. She was one of the most vulgar women he knew, but even so, had this low, whispering and, yes, mesmerizing, voice.
“Special Forces has closed off the road into Þingvellir,” she announced. “No one’s getting through there.”
“Good,” said Ragnar. “Everything as it should be.”
Svanfríður pulled a chair up to the table, attentive as usual. “As it should be?” she sighed. “There’s precisely nothing normal about this is, Raggi, my friend.”
“When is an eruption normal, Svana?”
She smiled in return and Ragnar looked at the clock on his phone. “Many people out front?”
“Everyone who matters.”
“What did you tell them?”
“No live broadcasting until you’ve gone over the situation. The use of cell phones is prohibited while the briefing is underway,” she reeled off.
“I think they’ll go along with it.”
Ragnar looked out into the entry hall and thundered, “Let them come.”
He’d hardly gotten the words out of his mouth when the door was opened wide for the media, who filled the press room within a minute. All eyes then turned to the CPA’s project manager.
Ragnar Guðmundsson wasn’t a large man, but when he lumbered out of his chair, his presence alone was enough to see to it that all murmurings in the room were smothered. “My friends,” he said. “Thank you for coming here to the Civil Protection Agency’s press conference on such short notice. And for respecting that we can’t broadcast this briefing live.”
Ragnar ignored the mumbling among the attendees and forged ahead. “I know you’re all burning with questions and I’ll get to them in a moment. But first, to get down to brass tacks: the CPA and the Reykjavík Police Force have forty-eight hours to evacuate the country. Fortunately, the plans for this have been in place for some time—we’ve practiced often enough. Both via organized drills and new computer simulators. We’re ready as we’ll ever be and…”
But Ragnar didn’t get to finish his sentence because Jakobína Bjartmarz, a veteran newshound with NewsHour, interrupted him. “Is it Katla?”
Before Ragnar could answer, a young journalist who he didn’t know offhand but assumed was a newbie at some online news outlet, came into the room and declared that every single plane at the Reykjavík Airport had been grounded. A total flight ban was in effect in the capital area, except with the express approval of the authorities. There’d be no aerial footage of any eruption this time—no one, not even the president himself would be permitted to take to the sky.
At this, there was considerable grumbling among the attendees and Ragnar was pelted with questions about the exact location of the eruption. He stretched his beefy mitts across the table to calm the assembly.
“One question at a time, everyone. There’s nothing new about us shutting down all flights within a ten-mile radius if ash fall is expected. Maybe it’s just taken us too long to do this in the past. But now, we’re doing it right. Our allies in NATO will be enforcing a total flight ban over the southwestern corner of the country.”
“But where is this eruption?” called out the young journalist, with others chiming in.
“I’m getting to that right now,” said Ragnar calmly, as though relieved to be able to get everything out in the open. “We’re going say it’s happening around Þingvellir in order to forestall any unnecessary fear among the general public, so that the evacuation process will go better. As it looks now, however, the eruption is going to surface…”
And now, Ragnar fell silent, theatrically pointing straight down at the table with both of his index fingers.
“What in god’s name are you talking about?!”
“Reykjavík is a ticking time bomb,” said Ragnar.
“Are you saying that…?”
“The source will be on the eastern edge of the city, in Árbær, but the whole capital area is in the danger zone. We’re talking about a 50 to 70-kilometer volcanic fissure. A tremendously powerful eruption and considerably great danger of gas poisoning.”
The room was paralyzed for a few seconds while the assembly took this information in. Finally, Jakobína Bjartmarz took the lead. She looked at Ragnar over the rims of her dainty square glasses and fiddled with the silver-gray bun atop her head before asking when they might expect the eruption. Could the instruments measure the seismic activity, or what would it be like?
“I can explain everything,” answered Ragnar in a fatherly voice.
A single giggle echoed in the room.
“This doesn’t make any sense!” someone said.
“So the eruption hasn’t begun yet?”
“So, let me get this straight!” said Jakobína Bjartmarz slowly, emphasizing each word. “A crisis has not yet presented itself, but we’re nevertheless supposed to act as though we’re in the middle of an eruption?”
Ragnar nodded as Jakobína continued. “And this bedtime story about Þingvellir is meant to mislead the public?”
“That’s exactly right.”
“We’re going to lie to people?”
Ragnar sighed heavily. “No, Jakobína. We’re going to save lives! People need to believe that so they’ll flee to the south.”
At this, there was more grumbling around the room, so Ragnar decided to simply raise his voice. “You should all be asking yourselves how come we’re so certain now. I can tell you that. The latest GPA-coordinates show that the community pool in Árbær has risen a full meter every day for the last three days. This is a clear corollary to the constant, low-grade seismic activity of the past few weeks. It’s worth pointing out that this seismic activity has been measured at a great depth, which is why we haven’t felt any of it here on the surface. Experts say that…”
“That doesn’t make sense!” interrupted Jakobína. “All one needs to do is quote the program that was broadcast on RÚV last Thursday. No eruption in the Krýsuvík fissure has reached the surface except for Helgafell and some other one. After that, you have to go a hundred thousand years into the past to get to the Mósfell eruption.
“All right,” said Ragnar, unconsciously gripping the edge of the table. From here on out, he couldn’t lose his temper. “I’ll simply quote the experts at Volcanovision. You all have to…”
“Yes, exactly!” called the online journalist. “Where are they?”
“Do the Volcanovision staff have trouble getting out of bed this early?” added Jakobína sarcastically.
“We didn’t give them enough notice…”
“Now, there’s a lucky coincidence.”
“We’ve worked with Volcanovision for several years now. The data that…”
“C’mon, Raggi!” said Jakobína. “If there’s no smoke, and there’re no tremors, then there’s no eruption!”
Ragnar stared into the cocky eyes gazing back at him through the almost feline pair of glasses. Gray curls were falling over her forehead. How on earth could he get through to this woman?
“They’re well-equipped to predict…” he began as courteously as he could. Jakobína Bjartmarz flung herself back in her seat and cast her eyes up towards the light, as if in surrender.
“We’re all under a great deal of stress!” Ragnar hurried to say. “We’ve already mobilized a team of psychologists on the ground floor here so that…” Ragnar cleared his throat, asking in a composed voice, “Any other questions?”
“Yes,” said Jakobína. “What else can you tell us about this eruption?”
“It will be powerful. Outside of the wall of fire that I mentioned earlier, you could look to Holuhraun eruption in 2014 as a point of comparison. The pollution from that event remained over the permissible limit for days, even weeks. Eleven million tons of sulphur dioxide were carried across the country and over to Europe. Now we’re talking about many times that amount.”
“Many times?” someone asked from the back of the room. “Can you be a little more specific?”
“Ten times. Maybe more.”
The room fell silent and Ragnar continued, uninterrupted. “We’re talking about a hundred and forty to two hundred tons in a few weeks. Sulphur dioxide is dangerous to people’s health if it goes above 350 micrograms per square meter of air in the course of an hour. During Holuhraun, there was an insubstantial increase in occurrences of asthma and bronchitis. Now, we’re talking about…”
Ragnar hesitated, but then continued, with emphasis, “The cost will be substantial.”
“What are you saying?” asked Jakobína Bjartmarz, all evidence of doubt gone from her voice now.
“We’re talking about death,” Ragnar responded. “A lot of people will die.”