Snowstorms in south and southwest Iceland wreaked havoc on Saturday, leading to road closures, the opening of additional emergency centres, dozens of calls to ICE-SAR to rescue people from cars stranded on roadways, and flight disruptions, RÚV reports.
Roads around south and southwest Iceland—including the pass over Hellisheði and Mosfellsheiði heaths, Þrengsli, and around Kjalarnes peninsula—closed on Saturday, with teams struggling in low visibility and dense snow to clear a path, even as abandoned cars on the roadway slowed the process considerably.
“Yes, there’s been plenty to do,” said ICE-SAR’s information officer Jón Þór Víglundsson. “Not long ago, there were reports of cars on Mosfellsheiði and rescue teams were called out to deal with it. There were as many as 15 cars. Right as they were getting there, we got news of cars on Kjósskárðsvegur that were in trouble. So this is basically the situation in the southwest, from Borgarfjörður to east of Selfoss. People are finding themselves in trouble.”
Indeed, roads in and around Selfoss were impassable after a night and morning of heavy snow and Grétar Einarsson, foreman of the Icelandic Road Administration in Selfoss, also noted that cars that had gotten stuck on roadways were slowing the clearing process significantly—as were vehicles following directly behind the snowplows as the roads were being cleared.
But while he urged people to stay inside until roads had been sufficiently cleared, Grétar remained jolly. “People asked for Christmas snow and their prayers were clearly answered!”
Most rescue call-outs in Grindavík
Rescue teams responded to dozens of calls all over the country, but the most calls came from around the town of Grindavík, located on the southern coast of the Reykjanes peninsula.
“We’ve got snow accumulation, wind, sleet, driving snow, hailstorms, some thunder—it just doesn’t quit,” said Bogi Adolfsson, who leads the Þorbjörn Search and Rescue team in Grindavík. The team’s main challenge on Saturday was helping people were stuck on Rte. 43, also called Grindavíkurvegur, which closed that morning and stranded a number of people, mostly foreign tourists, who were trying to make their way back to the capital. The Red Cross opened an aid station in the afternoon to provide shelter for those who’d been rescued.
Shortly after noon on Saturday, there were a reported 40 cars stuck on Grindavíkurvegur, many of which were driven by tourists hoping to go to the Blue Lagoon. “A number of tourists have plans and there’s a steady stream of people headed toward the Blue Lagoon,” said Gríndavík detective superintendent Ásmundur Rúnar Gylfason. “They’ve just decided that they’ve got to go to the Blue Lagoon.” Many people en route to the popular destination were not aware of the road closure, and so police and rescue teams were stationed at the intersection with Reykjanesbraut to turn them away, but that caused traffic snares as well.
Further east along the southern coast, in Þorlákshöfn, about a dozen people spent much of the day at the emergency centre that had been opened in the primary school. Many of these individuals had had to spend the night there. “These are people who ICE-SAR rescued from their cars and brought here,” said school principal Ólína Þorleifsdóttir, who said they tried to make those who were stranded comfortable with blankets, bread, cookies, and coffee.
Snow accumulation on the runway at Keflavík necessitated the airport closing temporarily for both departures and landings. All flights to Europe were delayed due to weather on Saturday morning, some for upwards of four hours. A flight from Stockholm, Sweden had to land amidst lightning during the latter half of the day.
Both Icelandair flights from Reykjavík to Ísafjörður in the Westfjords had to be cancelled on Saturday, as did the first flight from the capital to Egilsstaðir in East Iceland. Flights from Reykjavík to Akureyri in North Iceland were delayed and one long-delayed flight from Akureyri to Reykjavík took off five hours after it was scheduled, only to be forced to return to Akureyri half-way to the capital due to weather conditions.
As of 7:00 PM, Icelandair had cancelled all flights until the morning, that is, 11 flights to North America, a flight to London Gatwick, and another to Copenhagen. All foreign passengers and those on connecting flights were put up in hotels at the airline’s expense. Icelandair PR representative Ásdís Ýr Pétursdóttir said delays could be expected when flights resumed.
This article was updated.