Hvolsvöllur is a sleepy village in south Iceland, between Hella and Seljalandsfoss. It’s a somewhat forgettable, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it settlement of just a few small hangars and stores, a bank, and a handful houses, all whipped by dust from the steady tourist traffic of Route One.
But today, Hvolsvöllur takes on a new significance. “This is the last village before the floodplain starts,” says Andrés, our guide for the day. “If Katla were to have a major eruption, everything past here could be under threat.”
The onwards drive cuts through swathes of verdant farmland. Houses and churches crown green hillocks, and fat sheep relax in long, wavy grass. In the distance stand two glaciers: Eyjafjallajökull, and the much larger Mýrdalsjökull—the 700m thick ice cap that sits squarely over the Katla caldera, which has been rumbling ominously over the week preceding our visit.
Katla’s last major eruption was in 1918, extending Iceland’s southern coast with 5km of deposited sand, rock and silt in the process. In the intervening years, this land has been necessarily used for roads, power lines, and buildings of various types. Everything from Hvolsvöllur to 40km east of Vík could now sit in the path of eruption flooding.
“If an eruption occurs, it’s been estimated that it would be one hour before the flood water breaks through the surface,” says Andres, “and then four hours before the water reaches the coast. People have just a few hours to evacuate the area.”
Locals have been on their toes since Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010. All three of Eyjaflallajökull’s previous recorded eruptions—in 920, 1612 and 1821—were followed by an eruption of Katla. But all of Iceland’s major volcanoes are monitored for earthquakes and other telltale signs that something might be going on beneath the surface.
“Every year since 2008 the reports have been that Katla is moving,” says Andrés, “so it’s nothing new. But now the earthquakes are big. Katla’s ‘little sister’ Hekla is also overdue—she erupts every ten years or so. Hekla isn’t under ice—her eruptions have a local effect, more or less—powerful, but mainly affecting farmers and aviation over the island. But Katla we know very little about—just that it could be absolutely destructive.”
Soon, we pass the rolling plains of Sólheimasandur. Andres pulls over to deflate the tyres of our monstrous super jeep for the ascent to Mýrdalsjökull. The car—a Ford F-350 Super Duty, modified to take 55” tyres—has proven something of a celebrity throughout the day, with tourists posing for pictures every time we pull over. With good reason: it’s so tall that it comes with a stepladder for passengers to climb in.
Although it at first seems excessive, it soon becomes apparent that there’s a reason such cars exist. We labour up a steep road littered with potholes the depth of ditches, the impacts cushioned by the soft deflated tyres.
As we approach the track’s 1060m terminus, the hills to our left drop away, revealing a breathtaking valley of black, blue and bright white glacier ice far below, cracked in an organic and yet hypnotically regular pattern. We pull over, watching a trickle of water running from some nearby ice and joining with other rivulets until it forms a river.
It leads to the edge of a high cliff, where the water tumbles far below and vanishes under another ice sheet. Even without an eruption, the amount of meltwater is surprising. As we sit in silence taking in Mýrðalsjökull’s regal presence and dizzying scale, it’s a sobering thought to imagine the impact of a full-fledged eruption.
The other side
On the other side of the glacier lies Mýrdalsandur, the most likely flood plain. It’s almost completely desolate—a grey wasteland criss-crossed by the river Múlakvísl. We hike along the riverbank, noticing a strong smell of sulphur.
Andrés seems surprised, and cites reports of another sulphurous-smelling river, Bláfjallakvísl, to the north of the glacier. “Now this one is smelling of sulphur too…” he says, tailing off. “Something’s going on down there, that’s for sure.”
We wind our way inland from the chilly plains, and finish the trip eating freshly picked berries and drinking from the pool of a tucked-away waterfall, surrounded by greenery. It’s a reminder that even after millennia of regular eruptions, life finds a way to flourish. In fact, ultimately, eruptions can throw out minerals that help plant life to thrive in the following years.
“It could be days, years, or decades,” finishes Andrés, as we begin the drive back to Reykjavík. “A lot of people will rush to the volcano if it erupts. But a lot of people will run the other way, too. Nobody remembers a Katla eruption. It could be total destruction. I flew back from a holiday in Spain when Eyjafjallajökull erupted—the eruptions of my lifetime have all been easily reachable. But if Katla goes off… I’ll be excited, but I think I’ll watch it on TV.”
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