Living with glaciers

The human settlements in the neighbourhood of Vatnajökull have, over more than a millennium, had to adjust to natural hazards due to changes in the glacier extent, subglacial volcanism, outburst floods and the destruction of farmland by eruptions, glacial rivers and soil erosion. Some of the settlements to the south of the ice cap were barried by glacial rivers and among the most isolated in Iceland until as recently as 1974, when the last river on the ring road (Route 1) was bridged. Before the advent of bridges, ferries were operated on some of the rivers, but as harbor conditions along the coast south of Vatnajökull are difficult, horses were the main means of transport for centuries. Crossing the rivers on horseback demanded skill of both horses and riders, and farmers in the area trained their horses especially for this purpose.

 

The jökulhlaup pathways following the eruption of Öræfajökull in 1362 according to studies of Sigurður Þórarinsson. Source: Guðmundsson et al. (2016).

The jökulhlaup pathways following the eruption of Öræfajökull in 1362 according to studies of Sigurður Þórarinsson. Source: Guðmundsson et al. (2016).

 

The Öræfi district around Öræfajökull glacier/volcano was devastated in the 1362 eruption and further damage was done to the remaining settlements in a second major eruption in 1727, as well as by numerous jökulhlaups in Skeiðará river. The remaining farms at Skaftafell, Svínafell, Hof, Fagurhólsmýri, Hnappafell and Kvísker are now clustered at sheltered locations between the main paths of jökulhlaups in the Skeiðará river and pyroclastic flows down the slopes of Öræfajökull. The current farm locations are a testament to the struggle of the inhabitants with natural hazards through the centuries.

East of Öræfajökull, the Breiðamerkurjökull outlet glacier advanced over settled areas, mainly in the 17th and 18th centuries, including farms settled by the earliest generations of settlers of Iceland and mentioned in the Icelandic Sagas. Some of these formerly settled areas have again become ice-free as a result of glacier retreat since the end of the 19th century and this area now bristles with activity as one of Iceland’s most popular tourist destination.

 

Fording the river Jökulsá á Breiðamerkursandi in 1938. Photo: Helgi Arason.

Fording the river Jökulsá á Breiðamerkursandi in 1938. Photo: Helgi Arason.

 

Skeiðarárjökull outlet glacier seen from Skaftafell ca. 1925-1930. Photo: Ólafur Magnússon.

Skeiðarárjökull outlet glacier seen from Skaftafell ca. 1925-1930. Photo: Ólafur Magnússon.

 

The new bridge over Heinabergsvötn in 1948. Photo: Skarphéðinn Gíslason.

The new bridge over Heinabergsvötn in 1948. Photo: Skarphéðinn Gíslason.

 

Inhabitants in Öræfi district. Photo: Helgi Arason, 1938.

Inhabitants in Öræfi district. Photo: Helgi Arason, 1938.

 

Still farther east, erosion by glacial rivers has greatly affected fields and other vegetated areas, particularly near the rivers Steinavötn, Heinabergsá and Hornafjarðarfljót where jökulhlaups from ice-dammed lakes were an increasing problem for the settlements during the Little Ice Age. In later years, large areas devastated by glacial river erosion for centuries have been successfully revegetated and reforested, the Skógey area by Höfn í Hornafirði being a particularly good example. Others, like Skeiðarársandur, are recovering by natural means.

 

Farms in Öræfi before the eruption 1362. Source: Sigurmundsson et al. (2013).

Farms in Öræfi before the eruption 1362. Source: Sigurmundsson et al. (2013).

 

The painting of Hoffellsjökull by Svavar Guðnason.

The painting of Hoffellsjökull by Svavar Guðnason.