Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Ashes to ashes - a blast from the past

In 1979, I spent part of the summer in the Eyjafjöll district of southern Iceland, on a school expedition. Despite having subsequently lived all around the world, I have always had a soft spot for this quiet, rugged pastoral landscape and the friendly local people.
Within hours of arriving and setting up camp near the village of Skógar on the grassy bank of the river below the majestic Skógafoss waterfall, storm force winds whipping off the Atlantic flattened our tents. The village opened up the community hall for us, where we stayed for a few days until moving on to the Sólheimajökull, a glacier we were to study. Skógar was still the nearest inhabited place and for the durationof our stay, we were back and forth, different groups studying the coastal geomorphology, the glaciers, the local topography, the human geography and - the volcanic heritage of the area.

Skógar, you see, sits in the shadow of one of Europe's most unpredictable and dangerous volcanoes, Katla. And Katla lies grumpy and smouldering in anger below an icecap, Mýrdalsjökull. Three major glaciers stream down from the icecap, one being Sólheimajökull, and all three glaciers have been prone to jökulhlaups - or massive glacial flooding. Until just 40 years ago, it was considered just too dangerous to cross the wide gravelly plains that spread out beyond these glaciers.

With Katla and Mýrdalsjökull to the north-east, locals looked upon the lower, smaller icecap to the north-west as the benign, friendlier, picturesque backdrop to their red-roofed farms and grazing cattle and sheep. This was Eyjafjallajökull, best known for the waterfalls at Seljalandsfoss and Dölufoss and the recently restored Seljavellir swimming pool at the head of the valley. Walking or riding up the Skóga valley, a narrow path leads up to the 1093m high Fimmvörðuháls pass and then down to the Thorsmörk Nature Reserve in the remote but beautiful valleys beyond.

Then, after a swarm of earthquakes under the pass, on March 20th, two volcanic eruptions took place in adjacent gullies, Hrunagil and Hvannárgil, and the world changed for Skógar and the people of the plains below the icecaps. While barely recovering breath from the first eruptions in the pass above their farms, on April 14th, Eyjafjöll woke. The world focused in on the volcano belching out light brown ash, pumping steam and rock out into the atmosphere. The airspace over much of Europe closed down, bringing silence to the skies for the first time in 70 years. Europe slowed down, paralysed, stranded and uncertain. Airliners sat idly at airports, people queued at ports and at railway stations and Europe watched for spectacular sunsets and sunrises. Not content to wait for tourists to come to Iceland, instead Iceland came to Europe.

The people of Skógar are safe for now, with evacuation and contingency plans humming into action quickly, the Icelandic civil defence scurrying around breaching dammed up road embankments, moving people and livestock.

Ash continues to fall locally, burying the bright green mosses and grasses and the black shards and pebbles of earlier eruptions in a cloak of brown-grey powdery ash. A rugged landscape for rugged people becomes a moonscape, waiting for rain to wash the slush away. I worry for the future of the friendly people of this beautiful, quiet little corner.

For now - just for now - Katla sleeps nearby. I hope that Jon Krukkur's predictions in the Krukkspá were right and that Katla now lives in the sea and over the horizon.

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