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I can't bear to pay attention to the news just now. And I've also got some pictures to work through from a recent trip to Iceland. Here's the first batch, from an excursion to Skaftafell National Park, recently incorporated into the larger Vatnajokull NP.  Vatnajokull is the biggest of Iceland's glaciers, the world's largest outside Antarctica and the Arctic Circle. (Big Map link)

There's a lot of cool things about Iceland. One is that there's no mosquitoes. Another is the delightfully fresh air and water. To me, an endlessly fascinating thing is that it's a seismic hot zone, straddling the mid-Atlantic rift. There's 18 active volcanoes in a relatively small area (about the same as Kentucky, or Maine+New Hampshire, or half Minnesota or a third New Mexico.) Some of those volcanoes are under glaciers. When those erupt, extreme things can happen.
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There's an amazing alluvial plain, known as a sandar, this prototypical one called Skeiðarársandur, formed by the occasional monumental floods that result when magma meets glacier (#4 on the map, below.)

There's a nifty 3D map of Iceland on the ground floor of Reykjavik City Hall. Four people labored over four years to make it. It affords another view of the sandar and Vatnajokull glacier.
Great Skua, a pelagic seabird. Photograph was released to the public domain by the author.
Great Skua
Needless to say, the raw alluvial sandar isn't stable enough to support human settlement. Before they built lighthouses, ships occasionally failed notice the very flat alluvial plain before they ran aground on it. Some of the sailors from those shipwrecks, attempting to make their way to safety across Skeiðarársandur, were lost in its quicksand.

The Skeiðarársandur is one of the world's primary breeding areas for the Great Skua, which are easily seen just driving along the highway in season. The rest of the year, they are an exclusively pelagic species.

All across the southern coast of Iceland, there's farms tucked into the narrow strip between the ocean and interior highlands. Even at the sandur, there's scattered farms at the sheltered high ground interspersed between where the glacial rivers and floodwaters flow out. It's a challenging place to make a subsistence living. For a thousand years since Vikings first settled the place, Icelanders have been doing just that.

Rural farm along the southern coast of Iceland.
Given the title of this diary, it seems only right to include a few pictures from said walk to the glacier. It's an easy 3+ kilometers round trip from the Visitor Center at Skaftafell:
Redwing, one of the few passerine species common in Iceland
To provide a sense of scale, we can thank this man who ignored the warnings not to go exploring up the glacier without a guide.
Iceland's Highway 1, also called the Ring Road, circumnavigates the country. It's the main commercial route, and one of the primary ways tourists visit the country. The last segment of that road was complete in 1974, across Skeiðarársandur. Several bridges were blown out in a big flood associated with a volcanic eruption under Vatnajokull in the fall of 1996.
Part of one of the bridges blown out on 5 November 1996 is on exhibit at a roadside rest area along the Ring Road.
Part of one of the bridges blown out on 5 November 1996
is on exhibit at a roadside rest area along the Ring Road.
Even though it had been clear early on that a large glacier burst could be expected to follow the eruption, the speed of the flood took everyone by surprise when it finally occurred on 5th November. Only about 15 hours passed from the time it began that morning until it reached its maximum level. This shows the violence of the flood and when the first flood wave was coming down the river Sula it was travelling at over 9 km/h. At first it was expected that the maximum flow rate would be about 20,000 m3/sec, but in fact it was about 50,000 m3/sec. The flood was also quick to recede, and 36 hours after the beginning, the river Skeiðara was back down to the maximum level of the 1996 spring flood, so it can more or less be said that everything was over only two days after it began. (text from the same roadside public info billboard as are  the pictures above & below)
From a public info billboard along the Ring Road, Iceland Highway 1, near Skaftafell.
Before the Ring Road was finished, the farms on the east side of Vatnajokull were remote indeed. One of those was the farm at Hali. It's still a working farm, but now with a guesthouse, restaurant and museum added to the compound. Iceland has a long cultural tradition of storytellers. There are more books published there, per capita, than in any other nation on earth. One of the more prolific authors, Þórbergur Þórðarson (1888 – 1974), is from Hali. The titles of his many books are displayed on the side of their building below. Only one, The Stones Speak, about growing up at Hali, has been translated into English:
Hali farm, in the southeast of Iceland, is where author &nbsp;Þórbergur Þórðarson (1888 – 1974) grew up. The titles of all his books are shown on the side of the restaurant/museum at the site.
Hali farm, in the southeast of Iceland, is where author Þórbergur Þórðarson (1888 – 1974) grew up.
The titles of all his books are shown on the side of the restaurant/museum at the site
Most of the food served at Hali farm's restaurant is raised locally.

The food at the Hali restaurant is mostly produced locally. The Arctic Char (closely related to trout) was cooked to melt-in-your-mouth perfection. Many of Iceland's youth spend some time abroad during their education; our waitress had been an exchange student in Fresno, California. Hali is a lovely, peaceful location. It's also the closest accommodations to Jokulsarlon (iceberg lagoon), which is how we ended up there.

Thing is, like glaciers everywhere in this time of global warming, Iceland's are melting and retreating. A century ago the iceberg lagoon didn't exist. That finger of the Vatnajokull glacier used to extend all the way to the ocean. The lagoon's quadrupled in size since the 1970s, now measuring 18km2 in area.

Eventually, Jokulsarlon will become a fjord and the dynamic of the icebergs calving off the glaciers will change. But for now, it's a fabulous, beautiful place to visit, where you can ride a boat amongst the icebergs. Movie people like it, too - it's been featured in several Hollywood productions: A View to a Kill, Die Another Day, Tomb Raider and Batman Begins. For one of the Bond movies, they blocked off the outlet to the ocean so high tide wouldn't introduce salt to the lagoon. That allowed the ice to freeze thick enough that they could drive cars on it. (Big budget, or what?)

In an earlier time, these amphibious boats were used by the US military in Vietnam
Barnacle Geese
To the west of the sandar is the little historic village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur (a compound word: church-farm-cloister), population 120. In the pre-Reformation times in Iceland, there was a cloister full of nuns there. The massive 1783 Lakagígar eruption affected the global climate for a few years, with harvests so bad they're credited as a catalyst for the French Revolution. For Kirkjubæjarklaustur, it was also a local event.
The Laki eruption of 934 spawned the largest lava flow ever recorded worldwide: 4.7 cubic miles of flood basalt that covered more than 300 square miles; the eruption’s release of 219 million tons of sulfur dioxide was also the largest in history. When Laki blew again in 1783, it threw out 3.4 cubic miles of basalt lava in fountains estimated to reach nearly a mile into the air. Legend has it that a pastor named Jon Steingrimsson, in the tiny southeastern village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, gathered his congregation in the church for a fire-and-brimstone sermon as a lava flow bore down on them. When finally he finished, the people exited the church to find the lava had stopped just beyond the town’s outskirts, at a spot now called “Eldmessutangi,” or “Fire Sermon Point.” They credited their pastor with saving the village.

The 1783 eruption also coughed up 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide that killed more than half the country’s livestock and a quarter of Icelanders. The gas spread a poisonous haze across Western Europe so thick that ships couldn’t leave ports, and killed roughly 23,000 people in Britain and thousands more across the continent. In fact, Laki’s environmental impacts on Europe lasted several years, causing famine and poverty believed to have helped instigate the French Revolution in 1789. Chalk one up for environmental determinism.

There's a cross marking the spot where that famous hellfire and brimstone sermon was delivered.
A cross marks the spot where Jon Steingrimsson delivered his
Kirkjubæjarklaustur is surrounded by one of the largest forests in Iceland. In earlier centuries, the Vikings stripped the place bare of trees for shipbuilding, metal smelting, and household uses. Nowadays, about a million trees are planted annually in a concerted reforestation and soil conservation project. Kirkjubæjarklaustur's major planting efforts, on then privately-owned land, predated the national campaign by several decades.
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Originally posted to National Parks and Wildlife Refuges on Tue Jul 16, 2013 at 02:10 PM PDT.

Also republished by Headwaters and Birds and Birdwatching.

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