Iceland revisited

by Chris Crivelli

Iceland is wonderful, weird, watery, wild… and very, very different. A few friends got together to take a geo-holiday around the west fjords, the interior and southeast parts of Iceland. Famously sitting over a hot spot and straddling the Mid-Atlantic ridge, Iceland has a population of 285,000, a fishery comprising 75% of the economy, a fascinating history, stunning scenery and a whole load of potential.

Of the total population over half live in the Reykjavik area, 20,000 live in Akureyri, ’the capital of the north’ and the rest live in small towns or villages separated by the rugged, varied landscape. Icelandic people are tough and proud and all between the ages of about 13 and 50 speak fluent English learned from watching television. They are descended from Nordic and Scottish stock and dna analysis indicates that substantially more women than men are of Scottish origins, bringing to mind images of marauding Vikings dragging northern British women back to their newly found mid-Atlantic home. Myths and legends about Iceland abound. Rugged peaks of the mountains are eroded into ugly almost human shapes, which give birth to stories of trolls, creatures of strange, often evil powers to explain the otherwise unexplainable hard times, famine, disease, landslip that ancient Icelanders endured. As we approached isolated villages our guide explained when schoolteachers, doctors and hospitals had first been available to the local population, often only in the last few decades. Whenever Bryndis told us of a fatal incident that had befallen one of these small communities, a fishing boat lost or an avalanche, she always said ‘we lost 20 lives…’ making clear the strong community shared by the whole Icelandic people.

The national fishing fleet comprises a thousand vessels. Iceland has one aluminium smelting plant with more planned and a plywood factory. These exploit the abundant geothermal energy of Iceland, which is now self sufficient in meat and dairy produce and has emerging lamb and salmon export trades.

Reykjavik’s temperature range is between –1 and 10° C although during our visit in July it was closer to 20° - more like summer in England. The west side is warmed by the Gulf Stream; it is cooler in the north and east where wind, often cooled from passing over ice fields is a major factor.

Iceland is geologically young, between 17 Ma and a few months old,; (the last lava flows were in March 2001). It is not possible to miss the geology as it is there to be seen. Even Reykjavik’s mountain, Esja , basalt and tuff layers, dominates the city and changes colour throughout the day, apparently according to her moods.

The west fjords
The west fjords

The west fjords
The west fjords

The Tertiary basalts of the west fjords are some of the oldest rocks in Iceland (being furthest from the spreading centre trending NE-SW through the interior). There are spectacular, towering flow banded cliffs and huge u-shaped valleys. The minimal vegetation on the hills is scarred in places as mudslides from melted snow strip away the scant soil to reveal dark rocks beneath. It will take years to recover. Waterfalls abound. Some are hundreds of metres high and a few metres wide, others are much wider, like Dynjanifoss (Mountain Falls) – sixty metres wide and over 100m high or Godafoss (Fall of the gods) fast flowing and powerful or Aldeyfoss. All bear witness to the wild and watery landscape.

Iceland’s groundwater is pure, cold - very nice to drink and is the source of tap water, -so no need to buy bottled water! Glacial waters are murky and brown from rock flour and not good drinking.

Myvatn in the north means ‘midge lake’ and it certainly lives up to its name, although we did not encounter the biting blackflies that often join the midges. This is the most volcanically active area of Iceland and lava flows from and the Myvatn fires of 1725-29 and Mt. Krafla have sculpted the irregular shape of the lake.

Leirhnjukur
Leirhnjukur

Hverfjall
Hverfjall

The shallow water is home to diatoms, whose rich remains are deposited on the lakebed to be harvested as diatomite earth and also the site of the world’s largest population of breeding ducks. Nearby is the spectacular Hverfjall a cinder cone over a km across and a couple of hundred metres to the rim with graffiti clearly picked out in lighter coloured rocks against the dark tuff background of the secondary crater in the middle. The 1720’s eruptions and the Krafla fires of the 1970’s have left Leirhnjukur crater, a raw, volcanic, primeval landscape with fumaroles and bubbling mud-pools - the earth newly formed, apparently lifeless, mysterious and exciting. We passed Aldeyfoss a beautiful waterfall below which tall basalt columns beam back like a toothy grin.

Godafoss
Godafoss

Aldeyfoss and columnar basalts
Aldeyfoss and columnar basalts

Iceland’s volcanic, black sand desert, the Sprengisandur, forces its way between two icecaps, Vatnajokull, Europe’s largest to the southeast and Hofsjokull to the northwest. We travelled through the wilderness in the July sunshine along the graded track that traverses this lunar landscape and for several hours we marvelled at this strange dark wilderness, the icecaps ever present. As we approached the end of the black gravels scenery changed to the yellow, red and green of ancient rhyolite mountains – we were in Landmannalauger. The acidic rocks of the mountains are between 60,000 and 120,000 years old and their valleys are filled with dark post-glacial basalt flows. The area has hot springs from the volcanic activity in the last 10,000 years and in places the streams and pools are ideal for bathing.

Sprengisandur towards Vatnajökull
Sprengisandur towards Vatnajökull

Landmannalauger
Landmannalauger

Nearby we found Ljotipollur, which means ugly puddle an explosion crater, or maar with haematite stained sides and clear blue, trout-filled water at the bottom. Its beauty belies its name.

On our way back to Reykjavik we stopped at Geysir for a last glimpse at mud-pools and Stukkor, the Great Geysir. A huge dome of water forms about three metres across prior to an eruption of a water column tens of metres high. As one of Iceland’s main tourist spots it was strangely short of visitors in stark contrast to, say, Stonehenge, which was heaving with activity as we drove past it on our return from the airport. Thingvellir is the site of the ancient Icelandic parliament, the Althing, (the oldest in the world) and also of Almannagja, a large normal fault to the west side of the graben resulting from hot spot activity rather than the divergence of the American and Eurasian plates. The two processes act independently as Atlantic spreading started some 200 Ma ago but the Icelandic hot spot basalts first erupted less than 20 Ma ago.

Back in the capital we went to the Reykjavik Art Museum to see ‘Over the Volcano’, a series of over 100 often passionate and sometimes moving paintings and photographs, celebrating the relationship of Icelanders and their geological heritage…a fitting end to a splendid tour.

Ljotipollur, the Ugly Puddle
Ljotipollur, the Ugly Puddle

Almannagja from the west
Almannagja from the west

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