Snæfellsjökull in Iceland

Iceland - Scott #412 (1970)
Iceland – Scott #412 (1970)

Snæfellsjökull (snow-fell glacier) is a 700,000-year-old glacier-capped stratovolcano in western Iceland. The name of the mountain is actually Snæfell, but it is normally called “Snæfellsjökull” to distinguish it from two other mountains with this name. It is situated on the most western part of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in Iceland. The Snæfellsnes peninsula is situated to the west of Borgarfjörður and has been named Iceland in Miniature, because many national sights can be found in the area, including Snæfellsjökull, regarded as one of the symbols of Iceland. With its height of 4,774 feet (1446 m), it is the highest mountain on the peninsula and has a glacier at its peak (jökull means “glacier” in Icelandic).

The volcano can be seen on clear days from Reykjavík, a distance of about 120 kilometers. The mountain is also known as the setting of the novel Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) by the French author Jules Verne, in which the protagonists find the entrance to a passage leading to the center of the earth on Snæfellsjökull. The area surrounding Snæfellsjökull has been designated one of the four National Parks by the government of Iceland (Þjóðgarðurinn Snæfellsjökull). In August 2012, the summit was ice-free for the first time in recorded history.

Map of Iceland
Map of the Snæfellsnes peninsula

The peninsula is one of the main settings in the Laxdœla saga and it was, according to this saga, the birthplace of the first West Norse member of the Varangian Guard, Bolli Bollasson. Other historical people who lived in the area according to the saga include Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir, Bolli Þorleiksson and Snorri Goði.

The stratovolcano, which is the only large central volcano in its part of Iceland, has many pyroclastic cones on its flanks. Upper-flank craters produced intermediate to felsic materials, while lower-flank craters produced basaltic lava flows. Several holocene eruptions have originated from the summit crater and have produced felsic material. The latest eruption took place 200 AD ± 150 years, and erupted approximately 0.026 cubic miles (0.11 cubic kilometers) of volcanic material. The eruption was explosive and originated from the summit crater, and may have produced lava flows.

Snæfellsjökull in the morning. Photo taken by Axel Kristinsson from Reykjavík, Iceland, on July 16, 2010.
Snæfellsjökull in the morning. Photo taken by Axel Kristinsson from Reykjavík, Iceland, on July 16, 2010.
Snæfellsjökull aerial panorama, taken from its west side on June 23, 2017

Snæfellsjökull National Park is Iceland’s only National Park to extend to the seashore. The park covers an area of 65 square miles (170 km²)). The Park’s southern boundary reaches to Háahraun in the region of Dagverðará while the northern part reaches to Gufuskálar. The coast is varied and alive with birdlife during the breeding season. The coastal plain is mostly covered by lava that flowed from the glacier or nearby craters. The lava is covered with moss but sheltered hollows can be found in many places, filled with a sizable variety of thriving, verdant plants. Snæfellsjökull has trails of lava and signs of volcanic activity clearly visible on its flanks. On its north side the Eysteinsdalur valley cuts a path up from the plain encircled by alluring steep mountains.

The geology of Snæfellsnes Peninsula is diverse with formations from almost every era of Iceland’s past. The more prominent formations in and around the National Park mainly date from geologically “modern” times back to the last ice age. The hills to the north of the glacier, around Bárðarkista, are of volcanic palagonite tuff, formed during eruptions under the glacier or below the surface of the sea. Svalþúfa is most likely the eastern section of a crater that erupted under the sea, while Lóndrangar is a volcanic plug.

Volcanic plugs at the summit of Snæfellsjökull, Iceland. Photo taken on July 22, 2007.
Volcanic plugs at the summit of Snæfellsjökull, Iceland. Photo taken on July 22, 2007.
Snæfellsjökull mountain in the summer. Photo taken on June 21, 2015.

Lava is prominent on the landscape of this National Park with two types present – rough, jagged lava (ʻAʻā) and smooth, ropy lava (Pāhoehoe). Most of the lava emanated from the glacier, from the summit crater or from subsidiary craters on the flanks of the mountain. These lava formations are varied and fascinating, and there is a wealth of caves in the area. Visitors are advised not to enter caves unless accompanied by an experienced guide. Smaller volcanoes — Purkhólar, Hólahólar, Saxhólar and Öndverðarneshólar – are in the Park’s lowlands, surrounded by lava.

The adventurous Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss is the best known of the Icelandic Sagas that take place in this area. There are archaeological remains from the period of Iceland’s settlement around 1100 years ago ∞ examples of which are the Forni-Saxhóll farm, Berutóftir and Írskubúðir. Near Gufuskálar there are a large number of dome-like structures of unknown origin, thought to be between 500 and 700 years old. They are probably the oldest known relics of the fishing industry in Scandinavia. A few people believe that these structures served instead as places of prayer or meditation for Irish monks who may have once lived in the area.

Snæfellsjökull from the sea on a Challenge 72. Photo taken on July 9, 2009.
Church in Hellnar village with Snaefellsjökull volcano, Iceland. Photo taken on August 21, 2009.

Fishing flourished in the 13th century and the human population grew in the areas around the glacier. A church had been built on Ingjaldshóll hill before 1200 AD. The size of the church bears witness to the sizeable population of nearby towns and villages, at least during fishing season. Rich fishing grounds were nearby and the fishing stations were constructed where there was good access to the open sea. Dritvík is one of the best-known examples. It was one of the largest fishing stations in Iceland for a time, with 40–60 boats and 200–600 people employed there. Fishing declined on Snæfellsnes Peninsula during the 19th century because of changes in fishing techniques.

Villages close to the National Park include Hellissandur, Rif and Ólafsvík. They were all fishing and commercial centers. Today, they are still flourishing fishing ports with lively communities.

In summer, the saddle near the summit can be reached easily by walking, although the glacier’s crevasses must be avoided. Several tour companies run regular guided walks during the season. To reach the true summit requires technical ice climbing.

View from Snæfellsjökull on the summer solstice. Photo taken on June 21, 2015.

Snæfellsjökull is featured in the 1960s Blind Birds trilogy by Czech SF writer Ludvík Souček, loosely inspired by Verne’s work. While trying to discern whether Jules Verne actually visited Iceland, a Czechoslovak-Icelandic science party discovers an ancient alien outpost in the cave system under Snæfellsjökull.

It also figures prominently in the novel Under the Glacier (1968) by Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness.

Scott #412 portraying Snæfellsjökull is the lowest denomination (1-krone) in a set of four stamps released by Iceland on January 6, 1070, featuring various landscapes. Printed by photogravure, they are perforated 11½.

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