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So What Are These Sandstorms I Keep Hearing About?

So What Are These Sandstorms I Keep Hearing About?

Published October 2, 2013

People tend to forget that Iceland is about 25% desert, or more, depending on what you consider the line to be between desert and semi-desert. However, what no one who has spent more than three seconds in Iceland will ever forget is that Iceland is 8000% windy. As the Icelandic idiom has it, Iceland is a “rokrassgat,” an asshole of wind.
As another idiom says, if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.
But if you do like the weather, wait five minutes more. The harshness of Icelandic nature was experienced in full by a number of tourists recently, with many rental cars suffering damage. Most dramatically a French couple had to flee their rental car after flying pebbles broke their side windows, leaving them exposed to the full force of windassholery. In pictures, their car looks like it has been sanded down. When you put a desert in an asshole of wind you end up with a sandstorm in the face.
Damn tourists, always getting themselves into dangerous situations.
While that does sometimes happen, in this case the tourist couple seems not to have been at fault. Ármann Guðmundsson, who is part of the search and rescue squad Kári, which shares a name with the north wind, criticised the lack of signs with information about the weather conditions: “It just said ‘ófært’ on the signs, which I doubt tourists understand.’
Yeah, that’s not so understandable for the 99.99995% of the human race who don’t speak your crazy language.
Tales of the rescue of the stranded couple are pretty dramatic. After the windows broke, they stopped the car, got out and lay prone by the side of the road, holding onto fence posts, because they were afraid that the car would roll over in the wind. According to Ármann the couple did not notice they were being saved until one of the rescuers touched them on the shoulder. In an interview that Fréttablaðið newspaper did with the couple, Marie Storm said…
Hold everything! Marie Storm?! A search and rescue squad named after the north wind?! You’re just making all this stuff up, aren’t you?
No, all these people are real. Marie Storm said: “We thought we were going to die.” After getting caught in the sandstorm, they stopped the car because there was no visibility. Then a flying pebble broke their side window and their ordeal began: “The window exploded over us.” They called the emergency hotline and crawled to the side of the road. They got cuts on their hands and their eyes were still sore days later. But they were saved when the search and rescue team came in their armoured car with bulletproof windows.
Armoured car with bulletproof windows? Isn’t that a bit much for search and rescue?
Not when the weather forecast includes flying rocks. That is not even the worst that Icelandic search and rescue has had to deal with. This is an island stuffed full of volcanoes, after all. In fact, given Icelandic nature’s hostility to all living things, it would not be entirely surprising if search and rescue teams had to deal with an unexpected Godzilla attack. An armoured car is the bare minimum required.
So what is Icelandic nature’s deal? Why is it such an asshole?
To be fair to Icelandic nature, it was just chilling by itself, letting it all hang loose, when humans arrived eleven centuries ago and messed everything up. Historical records and ecological research tell us that the island was largely covered in forest up until humans arrived with axes and seedling-eating livestock. Trees, even shrubs, are tall enough to survive when sand gets blown in from the highlands. They can even survive volcanic ash-fall. Smaller plants suffocate.
That’s all well and good, but a shrub isn’t going to live through the kind of sandstorm which requires travelling in armoured cars.
That is true, but before humans arrived with their apocalypse of sheep, the highland was not the desert it is today. Grazing sheep were too much for the ecosystem and wind blowing loose sand around did the rest. And humans chopped down trees to burn, which did not help the ecosystem one bit.
Okay, I would be an asshole too if people threw sheep and axes at me for eleven centuries, but no need to take it out on tourists, they didn’t do anything.
They are just collateral damage, unfortunately. But tourism officials will be happy to note that not-made-up person Marie Storm told Fréttablaðið: “The vacation has been good, except for this.” This, of course, being the whole huddling by the side of the road fearing for your life. She could be the spokesperson for the a new Icelandic tourism slogan: Visit Iceland, it’s pretty good except for the sandstorm in the face.



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