3. Environment and Geography
- Fire and Ice
Is Old Katla About to Wake?
“Of late, watch has been kept on disturbances in Mýrdalsjökull, with scientists saying that there is clearly an increase in the geothermal activity under the glacier. They believe it is certain to erupt in the near future.”
News of this kind is almost commonplace in the Icelandic media, as nearly all of the country has been formed by volcanic eruption and, during Iceland’s recorded history, eruptions have occurred on an average of once in every five years. Active volcanoes number in the hundreds.
Iceland is amongst the most active volcanic countries of the world. During Iceland’s history, volcanoes have often been responsible for great damage to dwellings and farming lands. Extensive destruction was caused by the 1973 eruption on Heimaey Island (in the Vestmannaeyjar), forcing one quarter of the town to be abandoned and business activities to be halted for almost an entire year.
Of all the volcanoes in the country, Hekla in the Rangárvellir district is the most famous. It is believed that Hekla has erupted about 20 times since Icelandic settlement, the first in 1104 when it laid waste to Þjórsárdalur. During the twentieth-century, the volcano erupted six times. Its eruptions consist of both tephra and lava, and they have caused enormous damage to vegetation over the centuries. During the medieval period, Hekla was feared because it was thought to be the entrance to hell. It last erupted in 2000.
Geysir is an inactive geyser in an area of great geothermal activity in Haukadalur in the Árnessýsla district. It could shoot water up to 70-80 metres high and spurt for up to 10 minutes at a time. The hot springs and area around it are protected.
It is thought that if Geysir’s water level was lowered by half a metre, it might spurt one to two times in every twenty-four cycle. If it were lowered by about two metres, the geyser could spurt at half-hour to one-hour intervals and from eight to ten metres into the air.
Scientists are urging that more research into the geothermal area be undertaken before any decisions about possible interference with the geyser are taken.
Another geyser located nearby, Strokkur, gives a performance every few minutes, shooting a tower of water and steam 30 meters into the air.
The international term, geyser, is derived from Geysir’s name.
Not Just Cold Ice
Ice is an inseparable part of the north, be it at sea or on land. Glaciers cover about the same amount of land as the lava which has erupted since the end of the Ice Age (about 11%). The largest glacier in Iceland, indeed in Europe, is Vatnajökull. It is thought that several large volcanoes lie under it.
Other large glaciers are Hofsjökull and Langjökull, in the Icelandic highlands. Snæfellsjökull is also well-known: its sides are covered with lava which has erupted during the recent epoch.
Through Icelandic eyes these glaciers are not just cold ice but are seen in something of a fantastic light, as is illustrated by the many folk tales which have been spun about them, both before and now. Snæfellsjökull has been a popular subject amongst authors. The novel by the French science-fiction writer Jules Verne, Le voyage au centre de la terre or Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864, and translated into Icelandic in 1944 under the title Leyndardómar Snæfellsjökuls), is well-known. The book is about a fantastic journey into the glacier.
Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss is an Icelandic saga written in a fantastic or exaggerated style. It tells of Bárður, a man descended from “stone dwellers”, who flees Norway and settles under the glacier. In the end, he descends into the glacier and becomes a spirit of the land, or landvættur.
Further, Kristnihald undir jökli (Christianity Under the Glacier), written by the Nobel Laureate Halldór Kiljan Laxness in 1968, has been made into a movie by Guðný Halldórsdóttir. Indeed, film directors have taken glaciers into their service and photographers and advertisers make their way eagerly to glaciers and other pearls of the Icelandic landscape.
It is popular to go on mountain and glacier tours on specially equipped trucks and, in the embrace of the mountains, to enjoy the peace and beauty.
Vatnajökull is on the south-eastern side of Iceland. At its highest point, it is 2010 metres high. The glacier is the largest glacier in the country, indeed Europe, and one of the largest glaciers on earth outside the polar regions. The highest point in Iceland is at Öræfajökull, which moves south out of Vatnajökull: Hvannadalshnúkur, which stands at 2110 metres high.
A very large number of glacier tongues move out from the edge of the glacier and the nature in the area surrounding the glacier is praised for its awesome characteristics and unique kind of beauty.
It is thought that several volcanoes lie under Vatnajökull and great calderas have been found under Bárðarbunga, in Kverkfjall and Grímsvötn. In 1996, an eruption caused an incredible flood which resulted in a great deal of damage to the roads and bridges in the district. In December 1998 was an eruption that lasted 10 days. The volcano’s plume of ash was clearly visible from Reykjavík, which is about 200km distance from the glacier. An eruption in Grímsvötn occurred in May 2011. It lasted only a few days but was powerful and the ash cloud stretched over a large part of the country as well as the North Atlantic and caused enormous disruption to air travel.
The last volcanic activity in Vatnajökull began on the 16th of August 2014 and on August 31st a fissure eruption started at Holuhraun plain north of the glacier. On February 28th 2015 scientists declared an end to the eruption.
Eruptions in Eyjafjallajökull
In March 2010 an eruption began at the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic system. The tephra fall was insignificant but small lava flows occurred near the eruptive site on Fimmvörðuháls, a neck between Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull. A second eruption started on 14 April 2010 that was more powerful and the ash plume rose to nearly 9 kilometers. Thick layer of ash fell on some farms and the thick ash mist made life difficult for the inhabitants of the area. The ash clouds also caused disruption to air travel in Europe. In the end of May the eruption produced no further lava or ash and in October 2010 the eruption was stated officially over.
There have been connection between Katla volcano and Eyjafjallajökull and today volcanologists monitor Katla carefully.