Loving the Force of Nature

Professor Guðrún Gísladóttir has her roots in the most ferocious areas in Iceland, Skaftárhreppur and Mýrdalshreppur
  • Guðrún now a grandmother herself,  visits the Álftaver and surrounding areas at least once a year .  Photo: Örn Stefánsson
    Guðrún now a grandmother herself, visits the Álftaver and surrounding areas at least once a year . Photo: Örn Stefánsson
  • As a professor in Geography, Guðrún is always interested in every detail in the landscape.  Photo: Þórður Kr Jóhannesson
    As a professor in Geography, Guðrún is always interested in every detail in the landscape. Photo: Þórður Kr Jóhannesson
  • Motivated by stories from Katla in 1918? Siblings Guðrún a professor in Geography, Sigurður, a scientist in Geochemistry and Áslaug a college teacher in Geography. Photo Þórður Kr. Jóhannesson
    Motivated by stories from Katla in 1918? Siblings Guðrún a professor in Geography, Sigurður, a scientist in Geochemistry and Áslaug a college teacher in Geography. Photo Þórður Kr. Jóhannesson
Sunday, 6. December 2015

As a professor of Geography at the University of Iceland, Guðrún Gísladóttir is in a unique position to observe the impact the volatile Icelandic nature has on the inhabitants and the environment. Guðrún studied geography at the University of Iceland before commencing on post-graduate studies at the University of Stockholm where she completed her Ph.D. She is a project leader for NCoE NORDRESS, the Nordic Centre of Excellence studying the impacts of natural hazards on all the Nordic countries, from the local to the transboundary level.

April 2014 the Swedish King awarded Guðrún the Gold Wahlberg Medal, on behalf of the Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography, for her "breadth and depth of knowledge within land degradation and desertification, and for her work to establish broad geographic networks, environments and meeting places for researchers in geography."

A powerful impact

Guðrún has her roots firmly embedded in the two most geologically dangerous areas in Iceland, Skaftárhreppur, and Mýrdalshreppur,  where she spent a part of her childhood.

Although born and raised in Reykjavík, Guðrún's father was from Álftaver, an area of unusual (even for Iceland) natural phenomena, her mother was from Mýrdalur where the mighty volcano Katla resides underneath Mýrdalsjökull. Apart from regular visits, Guðrún would spend her summers with her father's family in Álftaver from the age of ten to fifteen. During those years, she got to know her grandfather and his story intimately. It would proof to be the deciding factor in Guðrún's choice of education and life's work.

"Álftaver is a very small community today, with only eleven farms," says Guðrún. "It used to have a much larger population throughout the ages, even when I was growing up. To me, it is one of the most beautiful areas in Iceland. Even as a child I sensed the powerful impact of the people's cohabitation with nature, not least the cohabitation with such an extreme nature. Driving along Iceland's main road, you would never guess it is there. To the north, you'll see the Skaftártungur. The view to the north is breathtaking with majestic mountains, volcanos and glaciers, to the south there seems to be just a whole lot of nothing. Still, it has always been populated, albeit constantly changing ever since the first settlers arrived."

The Rootless Cones

"Shortly after the first settlers arrived, they had to escape the area due to an eruption of Mount Katla. It was an enormous eruption with the fissure vent spanning tens of kilometers. During this eruption, the extraordinary landscape of Álftaver was formed. The lava would flow to the south along Mýrdalssandur towards Álftaver, which was mainly a wetland. When the glowing lava covered the wetland the water would boil underneath resulting in the steam exploding through the lava forming the craters characteristic for Álftaver today. But, they are not volcanic craters, only pseudocraters that we refer to as rootless cones.

When you drive along the beautiful black Mýrdalssandur and look to the south, they are easy to spot. The locals maintain those cones have saved lives across the centuries during glacier bursts from Katla. Katla is the most active volcano in Iceland, along with Hekla, Bárðarbunga, and Grímsvötn. Katla has erupted 21 times during historical time. It is a subglacial volcano, which means that when erupting it doesn't spurt lava but rather a tremendous volume of volcanic ash, as well as, glacier outburst floods."

It is time

"During those 21 eruptions, the majority of the bursts have flooded Mýrdalssandur. The eruption starts subglacially gradually melting the icecap. The first you'll know about what is happening is when you see the volcanic ash rising. The icecap will rise releasing the alarming volume of melted water to burst towards Mýrdalssandur and the ocean. And, it happens extremely fast.

This has happened approximately every 50 years in historic times. The last Katla eruption was in 1918. An interval of nearly 100 years is a very long time, making the Icelanders quite wary of the mountain. And we are not only talking about water. The Katla glacier bursts are not characterized by water, but by mud and sediment and will bring forth rocks and gigantic icebergs the size of apartment blocks. That sediment and the ash give Mýrdalssandur the beautiful, black countenance."

A narrow escape

"My grandfather was a young man in Álftaver when Katla erupted in 1918. It was the season for rounding up the sheep for slaughtering. He was on Mýrdalssandur along with a group of local farmers rounding up the sheep for Áftaver scattered all over the sands, One of the ewes strayed from the herd. My grandfather's friend turned back to fetch it and as he turned he could see this great gray wall coming towards them. He immediately realized this was a glacier burst from Katla. He turned back to his group and quietly informed them: "Katla is coming."

This stoicism is typical for the people living in this area. The simple sentence is quite loaded. It means: "We must whip the horses and get the hell out of here – NOW!"

They could already see the huge floodwall approaching and had to abandon their sheep. They whipped the horses and decided to try to cross the river Skálm and find the surest way home where they could escape to the top of the root cones with their families. Upon reaching river Skálm, they realized the glacier burst was already flowing there as glacial bursts always run in several streams along the sands. Their only option was to run the horses towards the floodwall and take a sharp bend towards the Skálmbæjarhraun, to higher ground in an old solidified lava field. They were running for their lives.

One of the horses was exhausted causing one of the riders to fall behind. He had some way to go as the rest of the horses clambered up the porous lava field. When he finally reached Skálmbæjarhraun, the burst immediately covered the horse's hoofmarks. They spent the night on the lava field with the glacier burst raging all around them.

Not my sheep-heads

"At the farms their families soon realized Katla was coming. My great grandmother had been cooking sheep-heads to feed the men rounding up the sheep upon their return. But, they had to evacuate the houses and run for their lives to the outhouses that were placed on higher grounds, surrounded by the rootless cones. Before leaving my great grandmother took her cooked sheep-heads and put them on the shelf above the kitchen door and said: "Kata will never get my sheep-heads."

One of my grandfather's brothers was disabled and couldn't run as fast as the others to the rootless cones. One of his sisters was charged with getting him to an outhouse in the south part of the area. She later told me: "The darkness was so dense, I couldn't even see my hand when I lifted it to my eyes." While making their way towards the outhouses the raging glacier burst was the only thing they could hear. But, they reached the outhouse where they spent and survived the night. "

Katla the housekeeper

"Glacier bursts are extremely intense but quick to recede. In the morning, this particular glacier burst was over.

The reason for the phrase "Katla is coming" in this area is because to the locals Katla is not just a volcano. It is an integral part of history. It mirrors a story from the time when there was a monastery at Þykkvibær.

The monks had a housekeeper named Katla. She was said to have magical powers. She had a pair of magical trousers. When she put on those trousers, she could run with tremendous speed. But, no one else was allowed to wear them. There was also a farmhand, Barði, at the monastery. He was a bit of a deadbeat. Once, when Katla had to step out in late autumn, and Barði was supposed to fetch the cows, he kept postponing until it was almost too late. He decided to borrow Katla's trousers and gathered the cows in no time at all.

When Katla returned, she realized Barði had worn her trousers. She became so infuriated that she drowned him in the barrel where the monastery's meat was being soured. When spring was approaching Katla realized Barði would soon surface in the barrel. She put on her magic trousers, runs to the top of Mýrdalsjökull and plunges into the Katla crater. So, every time the locals sense Katla's unease, they don't say Katla is going to erupt. No, they say: Katla is coming."

Fate

"In between disturbances the locals never, ever mention Katla. But, they are watching her. As a child, I remember my grandfather waking up each morning to stand by the window and cross himself. I think most of the locals did the same.

Nowadays we have the technology to monitor Katla's every move. We have evacuation plans in hand and can put it in motion the minute we detect changes. But, then again, history is full of coincidences. When Katla erupted in 1918, the sheep-slaughtering season was in full motion in Vík. That very day the sheep from Skaftártunga should have been driven across Mýrdalssandur to the slaughterhouse. But, they slaughterhouse had run out of salt and had to postpone the sheep from Skaftártunga. If not for this hitch in the slaughterhouse operation, nearly all the farmers from Skaftártunga would have perished in the glacial burst at Mýrdalssandur that very day. These bursts happen so fast there is practically nowhere to run or hide. There is no sanctuary on those vast, beautiful black sands.

This proximity to this merciless nature shapes the people living in the area, of course. Just imagine the people living in the area in the late 18th and beginning of the 19th, century. Katla erupted in 1755 accompanied her customary glacier bursts. Then in 1783 we had the Skaftáreldar eruption at Laki that killed a quarter of the nation. Then, in 1823, there was another Katla eruption with all its trimmings. The frequent natural disasters have shaped the inhabitants, generation after generation. The threat is always imminent in their minds. They have just learned to live with it."

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