Glaciers, Volcanoes & Vikings – Part 2

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During our stay in Iceland, we quickly realized that the answers to just about any question you can think to ask are Glaciers, Volcanoes and Vikings. Continuing:


Our guide tried to teach us to read the landscape. One bit of evidence was what he called the tuff, or scree or rockfalls, that form a skirt at the base of some ridges and mountains. This is evidence of a previous volcanic eruption beneath a glacier. The glacier, if deep and large enough, contains the erupting material, despite the great force of the eruption. The eruption melts part of the glacier from underneath. Meltwater can collect or flow; if it collects, it can release suddenly and cause major flooding. It’s that flow that drags volcanic detritus down the mountainsides, leaving cascades of loose material at the base of the slopes.  

The famous Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010 was this type of sub-glacier eruption.

We visited some impressive and beautiful waterfalls. Iceland is famous for its grand waterfalls. We found one estimate that says there may be as many as 10,000 waterfalls in Iceland. So, why are there so many? The answer is the combination of climate, glaciers (of course!), mountains (volcanoes!), and plate tectonics.

Climate. The North Atlantic is a cold, wet and windy place. That means there’s a lot of rain and snow in Iceland, falling quite consistently throughout the year. All that water needs somewhere to go.

Glaciers. The large amount of rain and snow accumulates and much of it falls on to already-existing glaciers. In Iceland, more than 10 percent of the land mass is covered in glaciers, some dating back thousands of years. These glaciers have been retreating over the past 100 years. Ice melts into rivers that flow towards the sea.


Mountains. Tall mountains in the middle of the country provide the elevation required to get all that melting ice and rainwater moving downwards. Some mountains are conical volcanoes, some are part of a high mountainous lava desert. In the Western Fjords, mountains are more like high plateaus. The elevation plunges dramatically—often at impressive cliffs. This forges a pathway for all that runoff to make its way down to the coast.


Tectonics. Iceland sits atop the intersection of North American and Eurasian plates. The landscape here is ever-changing. Layers of the earth’s crust (much of it solidified lava, or basalt) give way in sudden ridges and cliffs. Water that’s flowing outward drops dramatically over the edge. And there you’ll find a waterfall. (source)


When the first settlers arrived from Scandinavia, they saw something they’d never seen before: geothermal steam rising out of the ground. Among the first settlers was Ingólfur Arnarson; it is believed that he found, settled and named Reykjavik in about 870. Ingólfur Arnarson and his Viking comrades didn’t have a word for steam. So Ingólfur used the word for smoke instead. He combined reykur for smoke and vik for bay to get Reykjavik.

Today’s Icelandic is closer to the language of the first settlers in the 9th century than to modern Norwegian. Iceland’s isolation from Europe, as well as the isolation of its own farms and villages, did not support very much language evolution. Today’s Norwegians, Swedes and Danes can’t undertand Icelanders’ speech. For us, Icelandic sounds like rolling rocks in a stream; we can’t even pick out words. There are gregarious rolling R’s everywhere: Say Rrrrrreykjavik!

Forests. When the first settlers came in the 9th century, they found modest forests of birch. But only birch. 

There’s apparently a tired local joke: If you find yourself lost in an Icelandic forest, what do you do? Answer: Stand up. The trees grow barely 2 m / 6 ft tall. 

Over the centuries after the first settlements, humans reduced the forest coverage from about 30% of the land area to 1% in 1900.

Today, we see a few stands of pine trees here and there. These have all been deliberately planted to try to reverse the deforestation. However, forest coverage is only about 2% today. One reason for the slowness of this reforestation is that Iceland, touching the arctic circle, has a tough environment. Trees and plants in general grow slowly. It’s going to take a very long time for forests like what the first human arrivals found to come back. 

The first Viking settlers brought horses to Iceland. Thanks to the climate, landscape and isolation of Iceland, these horses have evolved into a distinct breed. Icelanders are very attached to “their” horses. We aren’t particularly horse people, but we thought these horses are beautiful!

The first horses were brought to Iceland by the Norse settlers between 860 and 935 AD. There are many theories why particularly this breed was chosen. One of them is that because of the sturdy structure and relatively small size, these animals were easier to fit into boats and endure the long overseas travel…

After that, the breed of Icelandic horses slowly developed into what we see today. It adapted well to its surroundings – for instance, it started growing a thick coat during the cold winters and shedding it during the summer. They also became capable to travel through rough terrain and crossing glacial rivers. These tough horses are neither unbothered by strong winds and other daunting weather conditions.

The Icelandic horse is most famous for its convenient size, strong build, and, of course, its fifth gait/tölt (way of walking). The fifth gait is a way of riding where three of the horse’s legs touch the ground at the same time to create a more stable and even pace. The Icelandic horse is the only breed in the world that can perform five gaits, whereas other breeds can only perform three or four. This results in a comfortable jaunt for the rider, who sits in his saddle without hopping and jumping around in it. (source)

There are currently about 80,000 Icelandic horses in Iceland and another 100,000 abroad. There are Iceland horse show competitions all over the world. But there are no international shows in Iceland itself. Horses from outside are not allowed into the country – to keep the local stock healthy. Similarly, if an owner takes a horse from Iceland to a show abroad, that horse can never come back. 

During our day tour of Snaefellsnes peninsula, we visited a black-sand beach called simply Djúpalónssandur.

Our guide told us stories of the part-time fishermen who used this beach through much of Iceland’s history. The context is important: Through medieval times up even into the 20th century, every man was required to own a farm, or be contracted to one. Only about 20% of the men actually owned any land. The rest effectively served as slaves to the farm owners. All they received for their work was room and board. 

Farmers worked the land and raised livestock simply to live, especially to have enough food to get through the winter. By February or March, they typically had run out of what they’d saved from the previous year. But fortunately, this was the season of good fish runs. The farm owners sent their “staff” to the beaches. They would row out to catch fish. 

But first, they’d have to prove that they were strong enough to row the boats out to sea and pull in the fish. Four stones on the beach determined the fitness of each man. If you could lift the smallest one, sneeringly called “Weakling,” forget your welcome among the fisher ranks. The remaining three were called “Half-Carrier,” “Half-Strong,” and “Full-Strong.” In addition to helping determine what each man was qualified to do, they also set how much of the proceeds of the catch he was entitled to. 

When back on land after each day at sea, the farmers-turned-fishermen would flip their boats upside down to make their only shelter for the night. Weather in Iceland in general and on the coasts is highly variable, usually just a bit above or below freezing, with snow, rain, fierce winds. Imagine working and living for weeks with only your upturned boat as your shelter. 

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