Spanning across glaciers, whales, and extreme weather, here’s a summary of Iceland’s biggest nature news stories of 2019.
Iceland made international headlines this August when a memorial ceremony was held for Ok glacier, the country’s first glacier lost to climate change. The monument installed at the site of the former glacier is styled as a letter to the future, reading in part “This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”
Early in the year, many Icelanders said they had changed some of their behaviour due to climate change, while Icelandic youth started a weekly climate strike in February. The government hasn’t been inactive on the issue, instituting small changes like a ban on plastic bags and larger ones like a new ISK 140 million ($1.1 million/€1 million) climate fund.
While there was no whaling conducted in Iceland this summer for the first time in 17 years, the gentle giants seem to be facing other threats. A large number of beached whales were found in the country throughout the summer, either as individuals or in groups as large as 50 whales. An international investigation is now looking into whether navy sonar devices could be causing whales (which use sonar to navigate) to become disoriented.
In spring, the first cases of acquired equine polyneuropathy (AEP) were confirmed in Icelandic horses this year. The disease, which affects the animals’ nervous system, first appeared in Scandinavia 25 years ago. AEP is not contagious, and most horses recover fully from the disease, though in Sweden and Norway up to 30% must be put down as a result of it.
A much smaller animal made headlines in the summertime: the sandfly, also known as biting midge. Though the insect is not new to Iceland, it has been accosting locals in South and Southwest Iceland earlier in the year and in greater numbers than usual. Sandflies are tiny and not easily seen, but their bites are said to be more painful than those of mosquitoes (of which Iceland luckily still has none).
While Iceland’s volcanoes remained calm in 2019, earthquakes let themselves be felt, most notably in an earthquake swarm in Northeast Iceland in late March and on the Reykjanes peninsula in Southwest Iceland in December. For a geologically active country these events, just like this year’s glacial flood in South Iceland, are nothing out of the ordinary.
As usual, Iceland had its fair share of notable weather in 2019. While in 2018 most of the country experienced a cold, rainy summer, this year rewarded residents with an unusually warm spring, with temperatures in April and May well above average, as well as more sunny, dry weather than usual in most parts of the country. The spring was a bit too dry, in fact, putting pressure on South Iceland’s water systems and putting farmers’ hay harvest at risk. In July, Iceland felt the effects of the heatwave hitting mainland Europe (admittedly milder than elsewhere), with temperatures of 25.9°C (78.6°F) recorded in North Iceland and 26.9°C (80.4°F) in South Iceland. High temperatures led to a thunderstorm in the same month, a rare occurrence in Iceland’s cool climate.
The year’s weather ended with a bang, bringing the worst winter storm the country has seen in years. Hurricane-force winds, snow, and ice made travel in Iceland virtually impossible between December 9 and 10. The storm also caused widespread power outages in North Iceland, some of which lasted up to a week. One tragic casualty resulted from the weather when a 16-year-old who was helping clear ice from a power station fell into a river and died. Local authorities in the worst-affected regions criticised the government’s failure to update the region’s infrastructure and ensure reserve power.