Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 3. Around Iceland – Part 1

On a whim I have decided to go around Iceland, counter-clockwise. It is a big undertaking because it is not a small island, but I simply couldn’t make up my mind about what part not to see. So today the goal is to look at the Vatnajökull Glacier (this is a tautology, since jökull means glacier, but I think it is allowed for the sake of making the meaning clear), which is the largest in Iceland, and probably makes the top 5 in the world.

I started at 6 am from Reykjavik, heading east on Highway 1 (aka The Ring Road). My first stop was at the Hellisheidi geothermal field, where I took a self-guided tour since there were no gates and no one else was awake to tell me otherwise. The cross I have to bear because I am a morning tourist.

From there the road took me through beautiful exposures of basaltic rocks, and I think in at least one instance I was able to recognize a tuya or table mountain, which is a unique volcanic form that develops as an eruption takes place under ice. The lava chills against the ice and forms an enormous pile of pillow lavas, which grow into a mound eating the glacier from within. Eventually a lake forms inside the glacier, and phreatomagmatic eruptions further expand the edifice at the expense of the ice and glacial lake. As the edifice grows the lava gains on the water, and the former lake is filled by a lava lake that forms a cap or table top on the edifice. After the glacier retreats the leftover is a steep sided, squat edifice with a flat top. Maybe I am just seeing what I want to see, but some of these mountains sure look like a short stack of pancakes.

I did have a rare sighting of Mount Hekla, of tephrochronology fame. It looked alluring but it was also far, far away, and covered in snow, so I think this is the closest I am ever going to get to it. Around here is also where the Laki fissure eruption took place in the late 1700’s. It was the largest fissure eruption in recorded history, and the massive amounts of sulfur oxide it belched unto the atmosphere caused that year to be the “year without summer” in the northern hemisphere. Unfortunately the road that gets you there is only open in July and August, and you need a 4-wheel drive vehicle to get there, so, alas, I didn’t get to see it.

At the southernmost portion of the island the road hugs the Myrdalsjökull Glacier, which may not be very big, but has prime examples of valley glaciers and moraines. However, the main thought crossing my mind is that this is a lonely barren land. Beautiful but harsh.

The real shock, however, came a couple of hours later, when the road crossed the largest lahar field I have ever seen. A lahar is a debris flow dominated by volcanic fragments. In Iceland everything is basalt, so the lahars look black, and it is quite the shock to see this vast black plain, 10 or 20 km wide, without a sign of life and formed by black sand and boulders (maybe with the twisted remains of a steel bridge here and there). This lahar field is called Skeidararsandur (or the sand flats), and has been built over time by a number of major debris flows. 33 of these flows have occurred during historic time, and of these only 6 were the direct result of an eruption under the Vatnajökull Glacier. The others are related to torrential rains, or the bursting of an ice dam and delivery of a big slug of water unto pre-existing debris. If I recall correctly a bursting of melt water from a glacier is called a jökullup.

The Vatnajökull Glacier is … wow! Of course one cannot see the snow field itself, which is the core where the snow accumulates, compacts, and eventually becomes glacial ice. Instead what the visitor gets to see are the tongues of glacial ice that flow away from the overflowing snow field. The tongues of ice form valley glaciers, which deliver big hunks of glacial ice to the lagoons formed between the front of the ice and the terminal moraine (a sign that the glacier has been retreating for the last 200 years or so). The lagoons are both beautiful and eerie, with icebergs of deep blue ice forming a labyrinth through which adventurous rafts can weave their way through.

Moving unto the eastern part of the island one enters the fjord fields. A fjord is a glacial valley (long, narrow, and with very steep sides) that has been invaded by the sea, as sea level rose at the end of the last ice age, 18,000 years ago. The problem for the car traveler is that to go around a fjord takes a long time, and according to the map there were at least three fjords between me and my destination for the night. So I took a shortcut. And what a short cut it turned out to be!  It was a dirt track, which took off straight up the mountain, so my poor little car was having a hard time taking on the inclines, but eventually it brought me up to a landscape of angular, snow-clad mountains and valleys that reminded me a lot of my crossing of the Andes between Chile and Argentina. I even had a blizzard hit me as I crossed from the south shore to the east shore!

Eventually I made it to the other side, where the beautiful lake of Lagarfljot extended in a straight line toward Egilstadir. Legend has it that this long and narrow lake is the home to a serpent-like monster, last photographed in 1992 (check it out in YouTube!). I still had one more leg to cover, however, because I had decided I was going to spend the night in Seyoisfjord. What I didn’t know is that to get there I was going to have to brave another mountain pass. This one was a bit more genteel than the previous one, and the sun was shining, so the snow fields reminded me more of the crossing of the Pyrenees, particularly since at the end I arrived to the charming town of Seyoisfjord, where a beer and a nice dish of grilled cod revived my trust in Alpine landscapes.

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