Glacial Outwash of Skeiðarársandur in the Southeast
Most tourists travel only the Southshore to Vik and turn back. If you continue east, one of the most fascinating geographies of the planet greets you in a flat expanse of sand, boulders, and bracken that can survive this cold, wet, shifting landscape. Skeiðarársandur is the largest glacial outwash, sandur, in the world. It’s formed from the massive deposits from the grand Skeiðarárjökull glacier and spreads out across the southern plain meandering to the Atlantic coast. Beneath angry grey clouds we traverse the spectacular geology of sandur encompassing 1300 square kilometers that on a map looks like a massive expanse of spider veins tangling toward the sea. The road rambles along for nearly 50 kilometers of flat, rocky, roiling terrain. Windblown with heavy clouds most of the way, we are glad for the comfort of a car, as bicyclists and a motorcyclist huddle against rock outcrops to shelter from the fierce winds and rain. The guidebook describes this section as “a cyclist’s nightmare.” We stop at the Skeiðará Bridge monument of twisted I-beams from the 1996 eruption of Vatnajokull that erupted and melted with massive flash flooding that rolled 100-2000 ton blocks of ice across the vast glacial tributaries that make up the Skeiðará that flows to the sea. It is estimated that the 100-200 ton ice blocks crumpled the highway like matchsticks. The evidence is in the grotesquely twisted girders forming the monument that waffle and twist like paper strips rather than the most durable construction metal on the planet. Sun breaks out and contrasts the deepening grey edges of arctic clouds rimming Skeiðarárjökull. A lone skua lands and considers us as we read the signs from the displays at the washed out bridge. Reference guides to the sandur describe it in unflattering terms: “tormented, soul-destroying, and barren.” In its own history, after a similar volcanic eruption and flooding in 1362, the region was referred to as Öræfi, or Wasteland. We enjoy the luxury of 21st C sheltered tourists appreciating the glorious geology that humbles human pursuits.
Arctic winds scour the sandur with fierce winds amid isolated farmsteads, calving glaciers, bowed tourists, and ruined bridges.