The idea of making Þríhnúkagígur volcano accessible came from Árni B. Stefánsson, a doctor in Reykjavík and a lifelong cave enthusiast. He has been studying caves in Iceland since 1954 and it’s easy to argue that nobody in Iceland has explored as many caves as Árni.
Þríhnúkagígur has always been very special to Árni. He was the first to descend down to the ground floor, in 1974, and, like most people that experience it, he was spellbound by its beauty and uniqueness. Ever since he has pleaded the case for protecting and preserving this phenomenon. But how should that be done?
Árni insists that the preservation of caves and volcanic vaults is not about leaving them be. It’s rather about making sure that natural wonders like Þríhnúkagígur are treated with care and respect – and made accessible in the right way. Árni has a very clear vision of what approach should be used in the project:
“In my opinion, a moderate approach – an approach that really demands all our ingenuity, resourcefulness and modesty, is the only way to tackle a grand natural wonder like Þríhnúkagígur. Sensitive nature neither defends nor protects itself. We must treat with care and wisdom what we have been entrusted with. Enlightened humility and modesty is the only way towards a real success. Sustainable development, environmental consciousness, green thinking and modesty are all prerequisites of how to approach the subject.“
Árni has written many articles on Þríhnúkagígur and the preservation of caves in general, as well as presenting his thoughts on the matter on many occasions. Below are some examples of these presentations (follow the links):
Presentation 1 – On the preservation and conservation of sensitive formations in Icelandic lava caves (Presented at the 13th International Symposium on Vulcanospeleology, Jeju Island, Rep. of Korea, Sept. 2008).
Presentation 2 – Skrúðshellir and two other littoral caves in Iceland (Presented at the 13th International Symposium on Vulcanospeleology, Jeju Island, Rep. of Korea, Sept. 2008).
Presentation 3 – The preservation of Þríhnúkagígur and the status of the feasibility studies of its access (Presented at the 13th International Symposium on Vulcanospeleology, Jeju Island, Rep. of Korea, Sept. 2008).
Presentation 4 – The Vatnshellir Project (First presented at the 14th Vulcanospeleological Symposium at Undara, Queensland, Australia, August 2010. Updated and rev. ed. presented at the 18th. ACKMA Conference, Tasmania, May 2011).
The Big Idea
The idea of making Þríhnúkagígur accessible to the public was first formally presented in 2004 by Árni B. Stefánsson. Up until that time, very few people actually knew that a phenomenon like this existed in Iceland – let alone only a 30-minute drive from the capital!
To make a long story short, the idea of public access to Þríhnúkagígur was well received. So well, in fact, that a nonprofit firm (Thrihnukar ehf.) was established in 2005. The firm is supported by various parties from the public and private sectors. The main purpose of the company is to plan, carry out, and eventually evaluate the best ways to make the volcano accessible while upholding a strict benchmark in terms of environmental protection and sustainability.
As of today, there are plans to build a ground tunnel from the surface that will lead into the magma chamber. From the tunnel, visitors will walk to a viewing platform inside the crater, from where the enormous size of the chamber can be enjoyed. An environmental impact assessment is currently being conducted and all license applications are being processed. If all goes according to plan, Þríhnúkagígur could then potentially be open to the public through a ground tunnel, making it one of the most unique tourist attractions in the world.
In order to discover more, it was decided to offer a tour for the general public. The operation started in June 2012 and continued through August. In short, the tour turned out to be a great success and Þríhnúkagígur is now recognized as a tourist attraction in Iceland. Hence, it was decided to offer the tour again in the summer of 2013 and it has been running ever since. Difficult winter conditions make it impossible to operate the tour over the winter months. Therefore the season is from May until October.