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April 14, 2010. It was a beautiful, sunny spring day in Vancouver, the first glimpse of summer, and a refreshing break from the relentless rain. Life was great. Life was going in all the exciting directions that I had been trying to steer it toward. With an offer from a professional Irish dance troupe to tour North America as a dancer and fiddler, a medal from the Irish Dance World Championships, and partway through a degree in kinesiology, I was prepared for a career – or rather, a lifestyle – involving all of my passions. I was also arranging an extended cycling adventure to explore Iceland.
But on my bike ride to pick up some new tires for the summer journey, my entire life changed in an instant. One moment I was joyfully riding through the sunshine. The next moment, metal, flesh and bone were smearing against the pavement in a thunderous crash. Another cyclist, biking recklessly, had cut me off and sent me Supermanning toward the oncoming traffic. In the years that followed, I would be forced not only to rearrange my whole life and learn how to live with chronic pain, but also to redefine my identity.
As if to symbolize the devastation that had hit my life, another disaster on a much larger scale also occurred on April 14, 2010. It cost the airline industry $1.7-billion (U.S.). Ten million travellers were stuck for days. Economies all over the world were disturbed, as their imported and exported goods could not be shipped. This was the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, one of Iceland's many volcanoes.
While the world's air travel was disrupted, so was my own trip to the Emerald Isle: Irish dancing would no longer exist in my life. The same goes for fiddling, outdoor passions, even good sleep and my social circle. You see, the cyclist who hit me – well, I knew him. He was my friend. This meant we had many mutual friends. Finding themselves in the middle of a fiery situation, they fled, and I felt the emptiness of the crater that was left behind.
When Eyjafjallajökull erupted, destruction ensued. However, volcanoes are not all bad. In fact, they are necessary. They are responsible for the birth of new earth, and the gases released were partially responsible for the creation of our atmosphere, setting the stage for life itself.
This eruption released 0.15 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere daily. But the cancellation of 48 per cent of the world's flight travel saved an estimated 2.8 million tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere, temporarily decreasing our carbon footprint.
Debris ejected from a volcano is called tephra. Its addition to the ground makes for incredibly fertile soil. Volcanoes also bring valuable minerals closer to the Earth's surface. Although an eruption can cost the economy, we rely on volcanic and tectonic activity to sustain it.
Although the accident had cost my emotional economy greatly, it was necessary for its future growth and expansion. It allowed me to look closely inside that empty crater and discover things about myself I never would have realized. I became more compassionate, and learned that everyone has a powerful story even if it's not immediately visible. In the midst of being judged for my reactions and decisions on how to move forward, I became less judgmental and also learned how not to judge myself for my new limitations. I built an internal identity, one not based on the activities I did, the job I had, or even the things I loved, but rather on my character traits and personality.
In 1973, another Icelandic volcano, Eldfell, was threatening the country's biggest fishing port. When the lava flow approached, Icelanders decided to bomb it with cold water until it froze and chose a different path. After their scheme worked, they used the geothermal energy for the next 15 years to heat their homes. An Icetastic example of life bringing lemons, and making lemonade! When life brings looming lava flows, make energy! I am by no means an expert in the art of beverage-making. But if competitive athletics gave me anything that I can still carry with me throughout life, it is the awareness that one must move on from mishaps, focusing only on the present moment and being hopeful for the future, to make the most out of any given situation.
Sometimes, volcanoes bring complete surprises. Take for example the colossal eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. Spirit Lake, which had been suffocated in ash, quickly began to flourish with bacteria that cleansed the water. Conditions were favourable for them because of the abundance of organic material to feed them, and warm temperatures from the pyroclastic flows. Algae blooms allowed for rapid plant and animal growth and astonishing self-healing of the land. No one expected this – scientists were stunned.
As for me, my life took a very convoluted road. I ran from April 14, 2010, to every kind of escape. I landed in the wildest of places, eventually ending up right where I started on that earth-shattering day: university. Only this time, it was for a new-found, old-found passion in Earth sciences. Life rarely goes as planned. And though it doesn't make it any easier, sometimes what looks like an empty crater – a volcano that blew its heart out – is really just the space to grow, flourish and fill from scratch with new, beautiful things.
Melanie Hackett lives in Whitehorse.