National Geographic : 2012 May
ey've built Iceland and kept it above the Atlantic waves for at least 16 million years, and every few years now one of them pops o . In 2010, with aviation authorities frantic about the ash billowing from Eyja al- lajökull, Siggi raced his SUV into the dark heart of the cloud. When he got out to collect some ash, expecting to hear it hailing on his helmet, the silence stunned him. "It was just like our," he says. But sharp as glass. ey started coming and going around three million years ago, even before the global ice ages began. ese days they're shrinking fast but still cover the tallest volcanoes. When a a ll erupts under a jökull, it produces a jökulhlaup---a torrent of meltwater and ice that races to the sea, knocking out bridges and ooding farm elds, which soon therea er may be buried in ash. e story goes that the rst settlers arrived from Norway in . . 874---just three years a er a pair of massive volcanic eruptions. Guđrún nds those ash layers in soils all the time, and nearly all human artifacts lie higher up. Before 871 Iceland, which is about the size of Kentucky, was essentially empty. e only land mammals were arctic foxes. Between eruptions it was pretty quiet, except for the wind, the sea, and the screech of seabirds. e Icelanders infused this empty land with meaning---nearly every place seems linked to the ancient sagas somehow---but they also denuded it. Birch forests once lled lowlands and valleys, covering at least a quarter of the coun- try; now it's one percent. Trees were felled for charcoal until the 19th century. Settlers brought cattle and pigs too, but then the climate turned colder for 500 years, and long-haired sheep became the mainstay. In summer hundreds of thousands still graze on open range in the highlands. Being sheep, they eat everything---including birch seedlings. Less than half of Iceland has any vegetation at all, says Guđrún. It used to be two-thirds. As u y volcanic soils were exposed, wind and water carried them o by the megaton. To summarize: Humans and their beasts, struggling to survive in a land of volcanoes and glaciers, have degraded it to an astonishing degree. If you don't know that story, you see the astonishing beauty that remains. On December 21, a er the sun rose around 11, Siggi, Guđrún, and I tried to press east to another volcano, Katla, whose jökulhlaup in 1918 had nearly carried o their grandfather while he was bringing home the sheep. Snow on the coast road forced us back. At Eyja allajökull we passed a waterfall that still owed gray with ash. e wind nearly blew the SUV o the road. en, as we crossed the glacial river we'd forded the day before, a gap formed in the clouds over the ocean to the south. e hills north of the river were su used with so light. Gunnar, the archetypal saga hero, lived in those hills, Siggi said. Minutes later we passed the mound where Gunnar, heading into exile a er one killing too many, was thrown by his horse. Looking homeward, he uttered lines all Icelanders know, and Siggi rendered roughly: "Fair is the hillside, fairer than it has ever seemed. I will go home and not go abroad at all." Iceland still exerts such pull. "Furthermore," note Orsolya and Erlend Haarberg, who came from Norway to take these photos, "there are no trees to block the fantastic views." j Orsolya and Erlend Haarberg roamed Iceland for ten months in their camper. Robert Kunzig learned to say the volcano's name: -ya-fyadd-la- -kuddl.