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So What’s This Dying River I Keep Hearing About?

So What’s This Dying River I Keep Hearing About?

Published April 10, 2013

A river in the east of Iceland called Lagarfljót has had its ecosystem collapse. The river originates in the Vatnajökull glacier and runs east through a long valley called Fljótsdalur where it forms a lake called Lögurinn. Then it runs past the town Egilsstaðir before entering the bay Héraðsflói. It is also known as the supposed dwelling place of a Loch Ness Monster-like snake dragon thing.
 HOW HORRIBLE THAT AN ECOLOGICAL… WAIT, SNAKE DRAGON THING?
According to folklore the river is the home of Lagarfljótsormurinn, whose name means “The Lagarfljót Worm” (or Wyrm, if you prefer bad fantasy novels to reality). It is an old legend, first written down in the 14th Century. A woman put a small worm in a small casket containing some gold, which was supposed to increase the amount stored within.
 I CAN FEEL AN ALLEGORY COMING
When she next checked inside, however, the gold had not grown, but the worm had. In a panic she threw the creature into the nearby river where it kept growing, causing havoc by attacking people and livestock and spewing venom on the land.
BUT WHAT HAPPENED TO THE RIVER RECENTLY?
As opposed to the myth of the Lagarfljót Wyrm, the story of the ecological destruction of Lagarfljót is thoroughly modern. In the year 2000 it was suggested that a dam could be built near a mountain called Kárahnjúkar to supply power to a wizard school.
 WOW! AWESOME! A REAL WIZ… OH, YOU’RE JOKING.
Sorry, this is such a depressing story that I keep trying to escape into fantasy. It was actually to supply electricity to an aluminium smelting plant in Reyðarfjörður, one of the eastern fjords of Iceland. Construction on the Kárahnjúkar dam was fully complete in 2009 and now four years later the ecology of Lagarfljót has collapsed.
OH NO! IF ONLY THEY COULD’VE KNOWN, THEN THIS WOULD’VE BEEN AVERTED.
The thing is, and this is where things start getting really depressing, it was known all along that this would happen. In 2001, a year after the dam-building was proposed, the Icelandic National Planning Agency, the government institution tasked with making environmental impact assessments for major construction projects, ruled that the damage done to the environment would be too great to allow the project. One of the reasons cited was the deleterious effects of diverting water from another river, Jökulsá á dal, into Lagarfljót.
WAIT, SO THIS RIVER IS POLLUTED BY ANOTHER RIVER?
Pollution is perhaps not the right word, but yes, that is what happened. This increased the amount sediment in Lagarfljót, reducing visibility and thus the amount of sunlight that reaches plants living in the water, which causes fewer plants to grow, leading to a collapse in the population of fish species which subsist on said plants, and therefore also in bird species which eat the fish. Also, I might add, this increase in sediment has turned the once beautifully blue-green water the colour of diluted diarrhoea.
BUT IF THE PLANNING AGENCY RULED AGAINST THE DAM, WHY DID IT HAPPEN?
Because the political parties in power at the time, the right wing Independence Party and the centre-right Progressive Party, were in favour of building the dam. The aim was to ensure the building of the aluminium smelting plant in Reyðarfjörður, as there was a worry that the economy in the Eastern Fjords was in danger of entering a death spiral and the hope was that a big, new workplace could halt the trend. Then Minister for the Environment Siv Friðleifsdóttir from The Progressive Party overturned the decision of the National Planning Agency.
 OH WOW, SHE MUST REALLY FEEL TERRIBLE ABOUT THAT NOW.
No, not really. Here is what she has to say: “We looked at the report and realised the impact very clearly at the time. We decided to allow the project to proceed on the basis of conditions that would mitigate the impact… We didn’t think the impact would be so great that it would overshadow the benefits of the project.” When asked about whether she still thinks today, given what has happened, that it was the correct thing to do, she says: “I believe this was the right decision.”
WELL, AT LEAST WE’VE STILL GOT THE LEGEND OF THE LAGARFLJÓT WYRM TO ENTERTAIN US.
Maybe not. The prevailing scientific explanation for Lagarfljót Wyrm sightings is that rotting plant matter produces methane gas which gets released, making the water roil and giving the appearance of a thrashing beast. It seems logical that if there is a lot less plant matter, less methane will be produced, reducing sightings. We don’t know how Siv Friðleifsdóttir feels about slaying the Lagarfljót Wyrm.



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