Up to index

Skaftárahlaup and Moonbows - Glacial floods and rainbows at night

Pictures are at the bottom...

Jökullhlaup. What a great word. And the correct english geological term for... Jökullhlaup. In longer form, a Jökullhlaup is when a great big pool of water underneath a glacier (normally? always?) decides to PARTY! and bursts out in one big burst. It tends to tear down valley, as a massive massive flash flood, only without the rain.

Short of seeing any burning LAVA! I had wanted to see one of these in action for a while. They happen relatively frequently in Iceland, and not real often anywhere else, so the icelandic word for the phenomonen stuck. On saturday morning, hearing that one had just launched down Skaftá, one of the rivers regularly affected by this sort of behaviour, I thought about the chances of getting down to see it. It's only ~3 hours away or so, and I even thought about going that afternoon, but with short days, and just my little micra to take off road, I ended up going the next day.

Sunday Gudio could come as well, in a freshly repaired jeep, and Iveta joined us for the action. About 11 hours of car time followed, but it was totally worth it. It turned out we got there right around the time it was peaking, which was rad. Even though none of us had ever really been up this valley looking at the river before, it was startlingly apparent just how big it was.

At least, once we got far enough upstream :) The intensity really dies off as you get downstream, both in abruptness of rise, and in thunderingness of the river. Where we left the ring road, there was a side fork that was quite high, but without having seen the river before, we had no real way of knowing how hgigh it was, given that we'd had a pretty rainy two weeks.

Further up, we headed up the back road to Landmannalaugur, the F208, which was a nice drive in itself, as none of us had been there before, and there's a few decent sights along the road, including a particularly vibrant shade of green on a lava field, brighter and different than any other I'd seen. Talking about this after I got back, seems this is a known oddity there. Also, the river Syðriófæra, a big sparkling blue mountain river of it's own.

As we rejoined the Skaftár valley just south of the hut at Hólaskjól though, we bore witness to the full tantrum of Skaftá. What a sight. Crashing through the entire valley, massive standing waves with spray everywhere, flooding all the way across the valley as far as we could see. And smelly! It was like watching a hot spring gush past you, the way they're not really meant to behave. This was a raging torrent of sulfury grey dishwater. Standing on what would normally be just reglar old hraun, and having this torrent only a meter away was quite a sight.

I tried to get a panorama here, but the crashing motion of the waves in the river has made that an impossible task, so hopefully you can get some idea of what it was like from the pictures of various parts of the whole.

I had also been hoping for icebergs in the river, but it seems that you only get icebergs right up near the lip, or in very very very very big breakthroughs, like the big grímsvötn one in 96 that made world news. This was big, but nothing like that.

After a while spent gazing at the river, we headed back down to Skaftárdalur, the end of a road fork that leads to a couple of farms on the other end of a bridge over Skaftá. They have a very rough jeep road leading the long way out the back to Kirkjubæjarklaustur, but they were for all practical purposes cut off until the flow subsided.

Although we couldn't get as close here, or at least, not as low down, the flow was a lot more concentrated here, and you could really see it across the whole valley. Upstream it had been thundering down channels in the lava, but was more braided around highpoints of the lava field. Here it was just one great big heaving mess. Way bigger and more thunderous than Urriðafoss or Gullfoss. (By comparison, the figures I can find say that Gullfoss averages 140m3/sec in summer. My interpolation of the waterflow figures from vatn.is are that we were looking at roughly 800 or so? Hard to say exactly)

A few more pictures, though it was starting to get into dusk by now, so after some coffee brewed up with Guido's briefcase kitchen, we headed off back down the road, homeward bound.

But the day was not over! After some nibblies at Vík, we headed into pouring rain, (the day had definitel had some varied weather) but coming down the western side of the hills again, we burst out into the dry, but with... is that??... a MOOOONBOW! I'd occasionally seen rainbows in waterfalls by moonlight, but never before such a full arc moonbow. To the naked eye, in the dark, it looked more white than rainbow, but the camera picked up extra colour.

What, you were expecting more fantasticness?

Links of note: www.vatn.is and the links from there to vmkerfi.os.is which have the waterflow charting for the whole country. This is where the graph snippets shown below come from. mbl.is has some video, and if you know what you're doing/reading, you can find some more pictures there as well. (but they don't have any moonbow pictures!) The video at that link is from the second location that we took pictures in that day.

page 1 page 2 page 3 page 4 page 5 page 1 page 2 page 3 page 4 page 5