Lava Centre is a brand new museum and exhibition space, dedicated to volcanoes and other geological wonders. If you're driving along the South Coast with your family, Lava Centre is the perfect place for a pit stop.
A couple of years ago I heard about the plans to open the Lava Centre Volcano and Earthquake exhibition and I thought that it was a great idea. Admittedly, I am fascinated by geology, it is one of the reasons I made my first visit to Iceland long ago. So I was very much looking forward to my recent visit to the Lava Centre on a rainy Sunday.
It is no coincidence that the Lava Centre is located in Hvolsvöllur, this interactive geological "experience" is so close to many of the active volcanic zones on display you could watch them erupt right from the exhibition if you time your visit geologically right.
Photo: Lava Centre
Tagging along with me were my wife and two "active" children, four and six years old. Although the others do not share my enthusiasm for geology, we were looking forward to trying something new. The overcast day and sideways rain prevented us from seeing the nearby volcanoes of Hekla, Katla, and plane-stopping Eyjafjallajökull. Believe me though, they are very close by. The Lava Centre opened its doors in June 2017 and is conveniently right off Iceland's Ring Road. The exhibition is uniquely designed and well laid out - even the wood siding on the building mimics the rolling contours of the land.
We began our tour with the high-resolution movie in the cinema hall close to the entrance before entering the exhibit (thank you Lava Centre for having large bean bags for the kids to sit in!). This non-narrated film is approximately ten minutes and shows impressive footage - especially of some of the more recent eruptions. Seeing footage on the big screen of volcanic eruptions bursting their way up through the glaciers capping them and the resulting "jökulhlaup" or glacier floods is impressive and a powerful reminder of the scale of these events. The big screen provides a new perspective on the "land of fire and ice" that Iceland is so often tagged with.
The Lava Centre is divided up into four halls and a series of interconnecting corridors that break down and explain the reasons for Iceland's unique geology into a visual and sensory experience. This is precisely what I needed. While I understand the basics of geology, many of the processes and timescales of the science are hard for me to imagine.
The displays do a great job of explaining the concepts, without being overwhelming. At 16 million years old, Iceland is a geological infant. A fast-growing infant though with currently 30 active volcanic zones. The entrance corridor is a unique timeline of eruptions that have been studied starting with the current day back to 1897 with displays of the amounts of lava and tephra emitted for each eruption.
The corridor leads to the first hall that explores "The Creation and Growth of Iceland." Here a half-globe with a projection of the moving tectonic plates along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the northern hemisphere can be moved back and forth in time using a clever handrail. Millions of years of tectonic movement can be simulated to witness the interaction between plate boundaries and the magma hotspot that would become, and is Iceland. For those of us who grew up in seismically dull zones, there are these neat earthquake simulation pads you may stand on close to the globe that explains and allows you to feel the different types of earthquakes found on particular faults. Naturally, these were great fun for the 4 to 6 demographic as well.
Moving on through to the "Deformation" corridor is a floor that mimics the feel of an earthquake along with a low-frequency rumbling sound on a bit larger scale than the pads in the previous hall. Not to worry, you will not tumble over, but instead get the uneasy sensation of the ground beneath your feet slipping away. Next up was the "Magma Source" hall. For me, this was the most enlightening presentation of Iceland's unusual geology as it displayed what can never be seen but only seismically measured.
A large-scale representation of the mantle plume, or hot-spot, along the Mid-Atlantic that rises from the Earth's core boundary up through the earth's mantle approximately 3,000 km (1,900 miles) to the surface. These mantle plumes are not exactly rare, but are well mapped around the world. For example, the Azore Islands, the Galapagos, Hawaii, and Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. are all geologic hot spots. While the thin skin of Earth's crust that we live on moves around like giant jigsaw puzzle pieces, the hot spots remain fixed. It is the scale, size, and power of this phenomenon are what boggle my mind and make me want to learn more about geology.
The next hall is the "Introduction to Volcanology" where interactive displays teach about the variety of different volcanoes and geological processes found in Iceland; calderas, fissure eruptions, stratovolcanoes, and eruptions under glaciers. The interactive touch displays had a U shape cut out them so that you could progress millions of years of geology with the slide your finger. The different types of lava found were on glowing red displays. While it looks interesting, it was difficult to see the differences in the dim light. To exit this hall, you walk through the "Ash" corridor. This feature may not have been working during my visit as I do not recall any effects and only read about this after passing through.
The last hall contains a projected panoramic view of the five big volcanic systems close to Hvolsvöllur. Museums have come a long way since I was a kid! Here you place your feet in specific places and your hand points to dots on the screen. Computer wizardry reads your gestures and expands these points into more information and graphics - a personal history of these volcanoes. Periodic ash clouds digitally sweep in and cover all the screens in a swirling mess - much to the delight of the children. I have to give Gagarín, the Icelandic company that designed these interactive exhibits credit; they are fantastic.
Overall, if you have an interest in geology, or more specifically, the astounding earth processes that made Iceland, I highly recommend the Lava Centre. The exhibition is about 100 km (60 miles) from Reykjavík and 45 km (30 miles) from Selfoss. From my perspective, this exhibition fills a niche that is missing in Iceland; more science and natural history exhibits. I am not sure how much my kids learned, but they had a good time exploring. In fact, the exhibition made me realize how little I know, and how much I need to learn!
There is the Katla Restaurant and Café right off the main entrance with a good selection of drinks, frozen treats, and baked goods. The raspberry pistachio cake slice was delicious! There is a full-service restaurant that we did not try and gift store with higher-end Icelandic design goods (that caught the attention of my wife). I wish that there had been some books or guides explaining the geology of the area more in depth as I probably would have spent money on that. The staff was friendly and informative and the facilities were very clean. The Lava Centre is wheelchair accessible and all on one level.
The Strætó / Bus 52 services the southern coast with stops in Reykjavík, Hveragerði, Selfoss, Hella, Hvolsvöllur, and Landeyjahöfn.
Tickets are 3,200 ISK per Adult for the exhibit and cinema show
Family Pass is 5,940 ISK for two Adults and children under 18. You can purchase it here.
For more details see: Lava Centre Volcano & Earthquake Exhibition