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Iceland's Nature

Postcard of Mt. Katla in 1918.

Eruption of Mt. Katla in 1918.

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for more old-fashioned postcards of Iceland.

Glaciers | Volcanoes| Eyjafjallajokul

Iceland is an island of contrasts: glaciers, volcanoes and earthquakes alongside ancient lava fields. When one visits Iceland the initial shock is the color of the landscape, chocolate brown covered with a light green moss, and the overall diversity of the terrain. One can cross the MAR, Mid-Atlantic Ridge, while driving the perimeter of the island. It is this ridge that has been the source of many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions on the island. Yet, Icelanders know how to live among such environmental adversity. They have been coexisting with the environment since 874 A.D.

The island's weather is always dynamic. It may start out raining in the morning and then dissipate into sunshine and fresh ocean breezes and then into stiff gale winds by the evening. Icelanders do have to deal with the lack of sunshine in the winter and face gray days for approximately 5 months. However, when spring finally approaches and there is a day of sunshine and warm temperatures, about 50 degrees F, Icelanders celebrate by taking the day off from work.

The summer is intense and an extremely active vacation time for Icelanders. The "midnight sun" is up almost 24 hours and yet it is not a hot heat. The Icelanders spend their time away from the cities and many like to go camping, hiking, salmon fishing and glacier climbing. Icelanders participate as much with their natural environment as possible during the summer season.

A notable feature about Iceland is the lack of trees and forests. The island was replete with forests when the first Viking settlers came in 874 A.D. There was plenty of wood for houses, shipbuilding and also the production of iron. However, the early Icelanders produced bog iron which needed much fuel in its production. The early Icelanders also did not replant the forests that were used up by past generations.

Therefore, today a major project among the Icelanders is to plant one million trees per year on the island. It is an ambitious task since many trees do not grow well with the Icelandic weather conditions and the Icelanders have had to resort to using trees and seedlings from places like Alaska. Many lupines, large purple cone shaped flowers, indigenous to Alaska are planted throughout the island so that some ground cover is established. Then trees are planted among these areas, notably conifers. The reclamation of the land from spring glacial melt, wind and water erosion is a daunting task but the Icelanders have made a commitment to develop and maintain a balanced ecosystem.

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Mountains of ice and snow atop volcanoes make a dramatic portrait of the Icelandic landscape. Glaciers provide clean water and also a place for inspiration and recreation. However, glaciers can be dangerous in the springtime when there is a thaw and the rushing current of water from the glacial thaw has enough force to move large boulders, cars and trucks and carve out new waterways. It is recommended that one does not drive across any roads that are flooded out in the springtime since the force of the water may be dangerous.

Glaciers are throughout the whole island and majestically monopolize the horizon. One of the largest glaciers is at the southest end of Iceland, Vatnajokull. Once you are at this glacier , you are surrounded by an impressive sized ice-cap. Traveling on glaciers in Iceland is not for the weak at heart since so much physical effort and hiking experience is needed.

Another glacier, suitable for a day trip of hiking is Snaefellesjokull, located on the western side of the island. This is the glacier that inspired Jules Verne, the famous French science fiction writer from the 19th century. Although this glacier does not have the height of similar glaciers, it holds a charm among the Icelanders. Many people claim that there is a mystical quality about the glacier and have moved to the area.


Postcard of Snaefellesjokull.


"Descend into the crater of Yocul of Sneffels,
Which the shade of Scartaris caresses,
Before the kalends of July, audacious traveler,
And you will reach the centre of the earth. I did it."
Arne Saknussemm

The above excerpt was taken from the Jules Verne adventure novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth.

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Overhead map of ICeland.  White spots are glaciers.

Overhead map of Iceland. The whitish gray areas represent glaciers on the island.

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Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and then glacial melt are all part of the rich scenery and natural activity of Iceland. When the volcano erupts or shows signs of near eruption, volcanologists from all the world and those in Iceland prepare. What makes the occurrence so dramatic is that many of the volcanoes have glaciers on top of them and an eruption is a mess of mud, lava and whatever other debris comes cascading down.

The Surtsey eruption in 1963 produced two small islands, Little Surtsey and Christmas Island. Eruptions from Surtsey lasted until 1967.

The Heimaey eruption in 1973 dramatically showed the destruction of a small fishing village from Heimaey in the Westman Islands.

The Vatnajokull Glacier volcano eruption in 1996 was a well-documented spectacular event that showed the overall effects of glacial flooding and volcanic destruction.

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aerial view of Eyjafjallajokul April 2010




Icelandic countryside around Eyjafjallajokull volcano April 2010



    Eyjafjallajokul crater with spewing ash April 2010

Diana T. Mackiewicz January 2001

Last updated February 2012.