From Iceland — A Tale Of Ice And Fire (But Mostly Wind... And Not Much Sun)

A Tale Of Ice And Fire (But Mostly Wind… And Not Much Sun)

Published January 22, 2015

A Tale Of Ice And Fire (But Mostly Wind… And Not Much Sun)
Photo by
Sebastien van Malleghem

Icelanders are obsessed with the weather. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s ever been here: the weather is no joke. If you don‘t keep a close eye on forecasts and weather-related news, you might miss out on the few good days of summer, end up stuck somewhere in a snowstorm or—on rare occasions—drive right into the latest eruption’s ash cloud. In that spirit, we present some peaks and ebbs of 2014, as it pertained to our friendly in-house meteorological expert.

Now, it would be a bit extreme to say that this was a good year for Iceland in terms of weather. While temperatures might have been slightly above average, so was precipitation—and we had our first volcanic eruption in over three years…

In the beginning there was…

The year 2014 started with the usual snowstorms, but despite the weather being bad, there were quite a few opportunities for Icelanders to partake in their favourite winter sport: skiing. The Northern Lights were also a common sight, no doubt to the pleasure of our foreign visitors. February is the coldest month of the year here, but temperatures in Reykjavík during the month were above average—a smashing 1.7°C (35°F).

March wasn’t any better. The island suffered heavy snowstorms, particularly in the north, and many roads were shut for days, causing people to finally read that Scandinavian thriller they got three copies of for Christmas.

Easter came with the usual cold spells for that time of year. April 15th is the day by which all cars must have their winter tires replaced with summer tires—however most people ignored that law this year due to a hailstorm and the roads being covered in ice.


Iceland has a lot of public holidays (or, as the locals call them, “red days”), one of which is The First Day of Summer (“Sumardagurinn fyrsti,” the first Thursday after April 18). Somewhat ironically, that day almost always sees snowfall—but not in 2014, where we had temperatures going up to 14°C (!!!). By the way, that’s about the temperature where you start really seeing who’s a local and who’s a tourist (hint: the locals all don shorts and t-shirts while tourists are still decked in full winter regalia).

The weather from there on was surprisingly pleasant. People kept firing up their BBQs, watching the Eurovision Song Contest and being generally cheerful until the month of July, where it rained for pretty much the whole entire month, at least on the south coast. The typical summer weather map of Iceland usually shows rain in the capital and clear skies and sun in the north and east. The most popular summer vacation for Icelanders is thus to drive around the country; that way you might be lucky enough to catch maybe a bit of sun somewhere sometime. Except when I did it last year and accidentally followed the rain the whole way around the country.

A year for goths, vampires and most festivals

2014 was a great year for goths and vampires, though! The total amount of sunlight we had was way below average at 420 hours, which is 180 hours less than average over the last decade.

There was a record amount of festivals this year, with most of them being very successful—all but one. The unlucky guests at the Westfjords’ Rauðasandur festival in July had to be rescued from heavy winds, which were so intense that not only were tents and loose items flying everywhere, but outhouses as well.

It was a big year for the northern end of Vatnajökull National Park. In July, one of the largest recorded rockslides since the settlement of Iceland happened next to lake Askja, causing a tsunami that reached 20-30 meters in height. Fortunately, the rockslide happened late at night, so there were no people in the area at the time and no one got hurt; had it happened earlier in the day, there were people in the area who might not have been able to escape.

Eruption erection

On August 16, an intense seismic swarm started in the Bárðarbunga volcano, where a lava tunnel began to form laterally out in a northeastward direction from the Bárðarbunga caldera. Then, fourteen days later at about ten km north of Vatnajökull, the lava tunnel reached the surface, causing an eruption that is still ongoing, four months later. If there‘s anything Icelandic people love reading about more than the weather, it‘s earthquakes and volcanic activity, so this eruption seized all of our attention during the autumn months.

The unlucky guests at the Westfjords’ Rauðasandur festival in July had to be rescued from heavy winds, which were so intense that not only were tents and loose items flying everywhere, but outhouses as well.

After the 2010 eruption in Eyjafjallajökull and the 2011 eruption in Grímsvötn, both scientists and the general public have been mostly concerned about dangers related to ash. This particular eruption caught everyone off guard because, unlike the previous eruptions, it wasn’t ash that caused a problem, but rather gas pollution. There’s not a lot that can be done when it comes to natural gas emissions such as these, so people just have to follow the news and try not get too exposed to the air outside when the wind blows in their direction. As such, most weather-related news in September and October was related to pollution from the volcano.

Thankfully most people were not affected too badly by the gas, but sales of asthma medication increased quite dramatically as a result. After four months of continuous activity, the eruption’s lava flow has now reached 1.1 km3 in volume, the largest volume of lava produced since Laki in 1783 (which was a slightly more sizeable 14.7 km3). The area is still closed off to everyone but scientists and the press, but it is possible to book observational flights when the weather (and your wallet) allows.

Any way the wind blows

Enough fire for now, it’s time for storms. Usually when hurricanes from the Caribbean move over the colder waters of the North Atlantic they die down and we don’t really see much of them, but at the end of August, Hurricane Cristobal managed to make it all the way to Iceland. There are warnings put out in all news media when storms like this are on the way, so people can secure any loose items they might have lying around outside. This is particularly important near the end of summer, when there is a high chance of stray lawn furniture all over the place. Despite every warning, flying trampolines are a common occurrence in the first big autumn storms.

Winter came late this year. It was a bit windy in October, but we had a mostly warm November, with average temperatures in Reykjavík at 5.5°C (42°F), which is 3.2°C above the ten-year average. Icelandic winters are often characterized by frequent storms, but the stormiest period of the year turned out to be December. Wind speeds of up to 65 m/s (234 km/h, 145 mph) were recorded in Hamarsfjörður before the meter broke, and the wind charts showed colours representing the highest numbers the scale can represent. The meteorologists must have seriously considered adding a new colour to the scale.

Flights were cancelled and people were asked to pick their children up from school, and everything that could blow away did, including rooftops and people. A video of people in Reykjavík struggling to walk across a road went viral, since they were rather blown down a hill into an underground parking lot. Fortunately, the wind eventually died down and most people got to enjoy a picturesque white Christmas (including ice-rink style pavements).

In summary: Mostly windy, a pretty shitty summer, and rain in July. Somebody somewhere owes us our 180 hours of sunlight, but who cares, ELDGOS!

Hildur María is a geophysicist at the Icelandic Met Office.

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