This story appears in the May 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.
It was five days before Christmas, and in the hut on the north flank of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that grounded airplanes all over Europe in 2010, Sigurður Reynir Gíslason was dishing up fish soup and pickled herring. Lunch felt like a gift. The volcano was quiet, its glacier muffled in clouds, but we’d forded icy river channels to get here, and twice Siggi’s SUV had got stuck. Outside the warm hut, gnarly birch trees formed a spiderweb of branches against the white hillside. “This is what it looked like when the Vikings arrived,” said Guðrún, Siggi’s sister. As we arrived, a ptarmigan fluttered out of the snow.
Guðrún is a geographer, Siggi a geochemist at the university in Reykjavík. They were telling me the story of Iceland’s landscape, and if you counted the smoked lamb, all four main actors were present.
Volcanoes They’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 off. In 2010, with aviation authorities frantic about the ash billowing from Eyjafjallajökull, 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 flour,” he says. But sharp as glass.
Glaciers They started coming and going around three million years ago, even before the global ice ages began. These days they’re shrinking fast but still cover the tallest volcanoes. When a fjall erupts under a jökull, it produces a jökulhlaup—a torrent of meltwater and ice that races to the sea, knocking out bridges and flooding farm fields, which soon thereafter may be buried in ash.
People The story goes that the first settlers arrived from Norway in A.D. 874—just three years after a pair of massive volcanic eruptions. Guðrún finds 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. The only land mammals were arctic foxes. Between eruptions it was pretty quiet, except for the wind, the sea, and the screech of seabirds.
The 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 filled lowlands and valleys, covering at least a quarter of the country; now it’s one percent. Trees were felled for charcoal until the 19th century.
Sheep 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 Guðrún. It used to be two-thirds. As fluffy volcanic soils were exposed, wind and water carried them off 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, after the sun rose around 11, Siggi, Guðrún, and I tried to press east to another volcano, Katla, whose jökulhlaup in 1918 had nearly carried off their grandfather while he was bringing home the sheep. Snow on the coast road forced us back. At Eyjafjallajökull we passed a waterfall that still flowed gray with ash. The wind nearly blew the SUV off the road. Then, as we crossed the glacial river we’d forded the day before, a gap formed in the clouds over the ocean to the south. The hills north of the river were suffused with soft light.
Gunnar, the archetypal saga hero, lived in those hills, Siggi said. Minutes later we passed the mound where Gunnar, heading into exile after 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.”