Another way of living with the elements

By Duncan Liefferink

Iceland is the country of the Four Elements: earth, fire, air and water. Of course we have them here too, the elements, but on Iceland one is confronted with them more directly than practically anywhere else in the world.

duncan_liefferinkOn Iceland one can almost see the earth move. It is the place where the American and the Eurasian tectonic plates meet. This results in frequent earthquakes, volcanic activity and all sorts of smaller, but equally fascinating phenomena such as geysers and smoking holes with boiling sulphuric mud. There is fire on Iceland too. Probably everyone remembers the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010 which kept thousands of people either at home or away from home, dependent on where they were when the mountain erupted.

And there is air. From an objective point of view, there is of course no more air than here, but it is moving faster. You feel the wind everywhere, storms can start suddenly. Just to be sure, people from Iceland are used to park their cars against the wind, otherwise it might catch the door when you open it. The good news is: you will probably be able to find it back in the open, treeless landscape.

And there is water. Lots of it. I have actually never seen as many rivers and waterfalls as on Iceland. Rain and glaciers, melting in Summer, may cause floods which take on dimensions we do not even dare to dream of in the rest of Europe. Normally, this is no problem. The country is quite empty anyway and nobody would consider building in flood beds. Nevertheless, conflicts between human activity and the untamable nature on the island do occur.

When the Eyjafjallajökull erupted it was not the ashes that worried the Icelanders most – the cloud was blown to Europe and hardly affected Iceland itself. Even the airport of Reykjavik remained open for most of the time. More serious was in fact the flood that inevitably followed the sub-glacial eruption.

On a normal Summer day, the river Markarfljót has the appearance of a typical glacier river. I was there in July 2012. We made a stop at the point where Route no. 1 – Iceland’s principal road, going some 1300 kilometers around the island – crosses the river. Close to where it flows out in the Atlantic, it was a few hundred meters wide. The water had a milky, blue-green colour and flew across numerous sandbanks and little stony islands. The snow-capped Eyjafjallajökull rose gently in the distance. Mighty but peaceful. One could hardly imagine the inferno that had taken place here two years earlier.

During the 2010 eruption, the glacier on top of the volcano had started to melt rapidly because of the hot lava welling up from the earth. Markarfljót being the main outlet for the sudden water flow, the river grew to gigantic proportions. On pictures and films of the event we can still see the grey water churning through a big, gaping hole in the road leading to the bridge. The bridge itself, surprisingly, is still there.

On another occasion, I spoke to an Icelandic geologist. He explained to me the course of events during the Eyjafjallajökull eruption and incidentally mentioned that the road had in fact not been destroyed by the river, but that engineers had made the hole before the actual arrival of the flood. “Oh yes”, he said, “we do that more often. We prevent the river from demolishing the bridge by making a hole beside it. Repairing the ascent is much cheaper than rebuilding the entire bridge. In this particular case it was a bit unpractical that it happened to the main road of the island. We had to provision the towns in the east by air for some time, but that is no problem, we can do that”.

What my spokesman told me made sense. One should always prefer the smaller over the bigger evil. I also realize that Iceland is not Western or Central Europe. After all, only a few tens of thousands of people were cut off from the rest of the island for a couple of weeks. What struck me was the matter-of-fact way in which he explained this to me. We have to live with the elements, he seemed to say. Sometimes we, humans, just have to take a step back. In many other parts of the world we seem to have lost this sense of modesty.

Seljalandsfoss, one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland, seen from the bridge built over the river Markarfljót

Seljalandsfoss, one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland, seen from the bridge built over the river Markarfljót