In 2009 I organised a special field trip for a group of Geography pupils at my school that would in many ways change my life. I advertised it to the students as a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ and little did I know the impact that it would have on my life (as well as some of the students).
That trip introduced me to the absolute joy that is Iceland. We visited all of the main sites that you see on a 3 day trip to the country – the Blue Lagoon, Reykjavik, Hellisheidi power station, Geysir, Gulfoss, Thingvellir National Park, the Sejlandafoss and Skogar waterfalls, Reeynishverdi, Vik and Dyrholaey. But, there was one place that stood out and made a big and long lasting impact – the glacier at Solheimajokull.
Solheimajokull is a glacier that happens to be one of the outlets from the Myrdalsjokull icecap in Southern Iceland. It is an 8km long valley glacier that has been gradually retreating since the end of the 19th century. Scientists reckon it has been retreating at a rate of about 100m/year but that has been accelerating slightly recently. The river that eventually flows from the base of the glacier is called the Fulikaekur (or foul-smelling stream) and sometimes can smell of hydrogen sulphide. The source of the glacier begins high up on the Katla volcanic crater.
On first time I visited, in 2009, the bus driver took us ‘off road’ and down the most bumpy and pot-filled excuse for a track. Eventually we came to stop beside a group of pumped up land rovers with massive wheels. We walked up over a bluff to gaze down upon the foot of the glacier.
I was stunned by the scale of the place. Even though my brain knew this was just one tiny sliver of a glacial outflow, I knew that this was one small part of a massive glacial system. We ventured along the snout of the glacier and carefully picked over the shapes of the ice. There was not much a glacial lagoon at this time and we could jump up from the sediment onto the ice but as we did not have all the right gear – we did not go too far.
Just standing in this place brought calm. It was a place that I wanted to stay and explore. I took hundreds of photos – many of which continue to sit up on my bookcases and on my walls. They are reminders of this quiet, settled place that drifts by, yet that also threatens to unleash a mighty torrent of ice and water that could almost instantly overcome any obstacle. That is the thing about Iceland . . . . as you visit and look at the rivers, waterfalls, and glacier icecaps – you are reminded that nature holds sway here. But, you are also reminded about change. Every time I visit – it looks totally different. Some of the surrounding peaks and hills are the only unchanging features in this place.
This is a place for geographers to breathe and dream. It is a place to try and understand the variety of processes that have and continue to shape this landscape. I have promised myself that I will be back every time I come to Iceland . . . . hoping to be there again next year!
(c) T Manson, 2021. All images copyright by the author