Icelandic Coast Guard Carries Out Lava-Field Rescue

Courtesy Icelandic Coast Guard

Published Jan 3, 2022 7:31 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Icelandic Coast Guard has search and rescue responsibilities for a challenging stretch of the North Atlantic, but it also gets called out periodically to help people in distress on a different surface - lava. Iceland is one of the few parts of the world where fresh lava flows are within reach of the general public, and visitors occasionally get into trouble by walking out onto the surface of recently-cooled rock. This is hazardous for several reasons: the rock may be crumbly or unstable, and even solid surfaces may turn out to be hot enough to cause burns. 

On Friday, a mountain search and rescue squad was called out to help a hiker in distress at Fagradasfjall on the Reykjanes Peninsula, where a recent volcanic eruption occurred about 10 miles from the country's main airport. The individual had walked out onto new lava but did not feel safe following the same path back. 

The mountain SAR squad brought advanced thermal cameras and other specialized equipment, and they attempted to find a safe path to reach the individual by foot. After walking a short distance out onto the surface, they determined that it was not safe to continue, and they called for an Icelandic Coast Guard helicopter aircrew to hoist the individual to safety.

The Fagradasfjall lava flow has been a particularly popular draw for visitors, as it is within easy reach of both the airport and the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik. The volcanic eruption began in March 2021 and ended in mid-September, and its light could be seen from the city at night. It was the largest eruption the island has seen in 50 years, and the scenic attraction drew more than 350,000 visitors, according to the Islandic Tourist Board.

Risk management has occasionally been a challenge at the site, with uncautious visitors frequently walking up to the edge of active lava flows. Though the eruption has ended, heavy seismic activity at the site continues, raising the risks for anyone venturing out onto the surface. Given the potential for a renewed eruption, the local chief of police has advised hikers to stay clear of the area.