Lava Caves Closed to Protect Stalagmites and Stalactites

The Environment Agency of Iceland is working to close off access to two caves in the Þeistareykjahraun lava field in North Iceland in order to protect their unique mineral formations, RÚV reports. Geologists have conducted extensive surveys and mapping of the cave system in order to ensure that they don’t miss any point of access to either cave and will be blocking off forty square metres [430 sq ft] in total.

Þeistareykjahraun lava field; RÚV screenshot

There are 15 known caves in the Þeistareykjahraun lava field. One of those that is currently being closed off to public access is 2,500 years old and is filled with one-of-a-kind stalagmites and stalactites. The second cave was discovered only last winter but was plundered of many of its natural treasures shortly after making the news. These two caves are therefore being closed in order to ensure that no more damage is done to their unique mineral formations and that no more of these are removed from the site.

RÚV screenshot

Stalagmites and stalactites are protected natural monuments in Iceland, and have been since 1974. It is illegal to break or damage these formations in any way.

RÚV screenshot

Not everyone who visits the cave has intentions of damaging or removing the mineral formations, of course, but the nature preservation team isn’t going to take any chances. They’ve found ten access points to the caves that they are in the process of blocking off with metal fences and locks. The project is expected to cost ISK 2 – 3 million [$14,365 – $21,548; €12,262 – €18,394].

Geysir Area Protected on Icelandic National Day

geysir friðlýsing

Environment Minister Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson signed a declaration protecting Geysir hot spring and the Geysir area on Iceland’s National Day yesterday. The goal of protecting the area is to conserve its distinctive landscape, hot springs, micro-organisms, and flora, which is unique on a global scale.

“There are few things more appropriate than to declare Geysir and the Geysir area protected on Icelandic National Day itself,” stated Guðmundur Ingi. “As the Geysir area is one of the best-known geyser areas on Earth I consider its protection to be a global event and Icelanders can be proud of making the decision to protect the area for current and future generations, everywhere in the world.”

The Geysir area is named after one of its many geysers – and the word geyser in fact originated from Geysir. One form of silica that is often found around hot springs and geysers is also called geyserite. Eruptions at Geysir can reach 70 metres into the air, but they are infrequent and can stop for years at a time. The nearby Strokkur, however, erupts more regularly, approximately every 6-10 minutes.

The Environment Minister signed the declaration in a ceremony on site, complete with a performance by a local men’s choir and guests from the local area.

Goðafoss Waterfall Receives Protected Status

Goðafoss waterfall

North Iceland’s Goðafoss waterfall was officially given protected status on Thursday. Designating it as a protected natural site will not only allow for increased safeguarding of geological formations around the waterfall, says the Environment Agency of Iceland, but also protection of the waterfall itself and its source river, Skjálfandafljót.

Revered for its beauty, the horseshoe-shaped Goðafoss is also one of Iceland’s largest waterfalls by volume. It’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in North Iceland and is divided into two main falls and several smaller ones. Goðafoss can look considerably different depending on the time of year, water flow, and weather conditions, but, at 9 – 17 meters [30 – 56 ft] high and 30 meters [98 ft] wide, it’s always a stunner.

Photo by Golli

According to legend, Goðafoss—literally meaning ‘fall of the gods’—got its name when Þorgeir Þorkelsson Ljósvetningagoði, a Lawspeaker of Alþingi in 10th century Iceland, threw the statues of the Norse gods into the falls after deciding that Icelanders would convert to Christianity, at least outwardly.

Goðafoss joins a handful of other waterfalls around Iceland that have also been given protected status: Dynjandi in the Westfjords; Hraunfossar and Barnafoss in West Iceland; Skógafoss in South Iceland; and Dettifoss, Selfoss, and Hafragilsfoss in Northern Iceland.

Goðafoss protected status ceremony
Photo by Auðunn Níelsson

Minister for the environment and natural resources Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson signed the official documents at Goðafoss in the company of local government officials, landowners, Environment Agency of Iceland and ministry staff, and locals. Brass quintet Norðangarri played a few songs and coffee was served after the ceremony. On the occasion, the Minister remarked, “Today, we protect one of Iceland’s natural treasures. The protection means that rangers will now take organised care of the area, keep it safe and educate travellers.”


Iceland’s National Parks Prepare to Welcome Local Tourists This Summer

reykjadalur iceland hveragerði

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected international travel, for the time being, and as a result, more Icelanders will spend their summer vacation travelling domestically. Hákon Ásgeirsson of the Environment Agency of Iceland says park wardens are preparing to welcome local tourists this summer with guided educational hikes in protected areas across the country. Less tourist traffic this spring means areas particularly vulnerable during the thawing season are getting a chance to recover from strain in recent years.

Guided hikes for families and groups

“We are preparing ourselves to give Icelanders a warm welcome this summer,” says Hákon. “The Environment Agency is starting an initiative to have more educational programming in protected areas, so that wardens can welcome Icelanders and also offer them educational hikes tailored to families and different groups.”

The programme is currently in the works with more specifics to be announced in mid-May, says Hákon. “There will be regular programming all through the summer in protected areas across the whole country.”

With less traffic, soil and vegetation recover

The Road and Coastal Administration has begun its yearly spring closures of highland roads in order to protect both roadways and budding vegetation. Spring is the most challenging season in vulnerable areas, explains Hákon, as soil is thawing, making it waterlogged and vulnerable to damage from cars and foot traffic. Fjaðrágljúfur canyon in South Iceland is one area where increased traffic has led to closures in recent years. “There is almost no traffic at the moment in Fjaðrárgljúfur, so it will likely not need to be closed. There is so little traffic that it is recovering naturally.”

It’s a recovery that could be seen in many areas across Iceland, if international travel restrictions continue. “There will likely be less pressure on certain areas from tourists.”

Proposal for Expanded Highland Protections Protested

Energy companies and some local municipalities are hotly contesting a new proposal to expand environmental protections within the Icelandic highlands, RÚV reports. Per a proposal put forth by the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources, a new and expanded national park would include Vatnajökull National Park – already the largest national park in Western Europe – as well as 85% of the central highlands.

The boundaries for the new national park were suggested by a bipartisan committee appointed by the ministry in April 2018. The committee, which included MPs from all of the sitting parties in Alþingi as well as representatives from the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities, maintains that expanding the boundaries of the protected area would not negatively impact Vatnajökull National Park’s recent designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The proposal has since been opened for public comment, but will only remain so for the next two weeks, or until August 13.

Although the Association of Local Authorities has been part of the proposal process, however, many municipalities whose boundaries fall within the proposed national park feel that they were not appropriately consulted.

Ásta Stefánsdóttir, head of the district council of Bláskógabyggð in West Iceland says that it was the committee’s job to make proposals about the new national park, not to specifically evaluate the pros and cons of whether this should be done at all. Bláskógabyggð feels that this evaluation has yet to be done and that the current proposal represents an encroachment on the zoning power of local municipalities.

“There are large areas within the highlands that are within Bláskógabyggð and farmers and residents have put a lot of work into reclaiming the land, for instance, in marking riding trails and guiding traffic there, i.e. ensuring that people don’t enter sensitive areas and the like. People are only concerned because if there is some kind of centralised agency, some kind of government agency, which oversees this, that that will somewhat undercut all this volunteer work that people have done.”

Energy companies have also expressed opposition to the proposal. Samorka, the federation of energy and utility companies in Iceland, says that under the new protections, that all new energy generation and transmission would be prohibited in almost half of the country, making current laws about energy protection irrelevant.

For its part, Landsvirkjun, the National Power Company of Iceland, says that it is necessary that all of its power plants remain outside of protected areas and says that the utilisation of energy resources in the highlands have considerable economic significance for the country overall. The renewable energy produced in the highlands, it says, is the foundation of the nation’s economy and overall quality of life today.

Látrabjarg Bird Cliff to Be Protected

The Environment Agency of Iceland has presented a proposal for the protection of the Látrabjarg bird cliffs in the Westfjords. The agency has been working on the proposal since 2011 in collaboration with landowners, local authorities, and other stakeholders and is now seeking comments on it from the public.

One of Europe’s biggest bird cliffs, Látrabjarg is the westernmost point in Iceland. A staggering number of seabirds nest there every year, including the largest population of razorbills in the world, with 160,968 nesting pairs. Guillemots (225,912 pairs), thick-billed murres (118,034), fulmars (99,894 pairs), puffins (50,00 pairs), kittiwakes (32,028 pairs) also nest along Látrabjarg.

The proposed boundaries for the Látrabjarg preserve would enclose an area of 2,340 hectares (around 9 sq mi; 23.4 sq km). In addition to protecting the cliffs themselves, the preserve would extend one kilometre out to sea, with the intention of safeguarding the surrounding marine environment as well.

The proposed boundaries of the Látrabjarg Nature Reserve.

Per the written proposal, the primary goal of designating Látrabjarg a protected area is to “protect the unique and diverse ecosystem of the area and habitat for birds, especially the seabird nesting site. The protected status is simultaneously intended to protect and maintain the natural condition [of the site] as well as the magnificent landscape from sea level all the way up to the highest point of one of the North Atlantic’s largest bird cliffs.”

Granting the cliffs protected status is also intended to protect its cultural heritage, ensure that it continues to be monitored and studied by scientists, and redouble educational outreach related to its rich bird life.

The deadline for submitting comments on the proposal is June 18, 2019. They can be submitted by email at [email protected] or by post to the Environment Agency of Iceland, Suðurlandsbraut 24, 108 Reykjavík.

Calls for Three Popular Natural Sites to be Given Protected Status

The Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources and the director of the Environment Agency of Iceland are calling for three of the country’s most popular nature sites to be designated as protected areas in order to ensure that they receive the funds necessary to ensure their upkeep and maintenance, RÚV reports.

Five oft-visited nature sites are now on the Environment Agency of Iceland’s Red List of areas at considerable risk: Dettifoss, Geysir, Rauðifoss waterfall, the geothermal area in the Kerlingarfjöll mountains, and the Gjáin gorge in Þjórsárdalur valley. The latter three of these have not been officially designated as protected natural areas.

Assessments taken at a hundred and four tourist destinations also resulted in fifteen locations being placed on the Environment Agency’s Orange List, indicating that they are not yet in serious danger, but that action needs to be taken to reverse negative trends in their current status. Landmannalaugar, the Skógaheiði trail above Skógafoss waterfall, the Hveravellir geothermal area, and the Rauðhólar pseudocraters are all on the Orange List.

Despite the fact that the Red List sites are facing considerable need, Minister for the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson is optimistic about the government’s response. “I want to affirm that these issues are being taken very seriously now. They’re on a very good course. There has been increased funding both for infrastructure and land protection. So I think that we’re going to see a lot of success in these areas in the coming years. I’m confident and optimistic about this.”


Seventy-Year-Old Footbridge Collapses in Storm

A nearly 70-year-old footbridge from Illikambur over to the Múlaskáli hut in the Lónsöræfi wilderness area has collapsed, RÚV reports. The guy ropes holding up the bridge appear to have given way during a storm at the beginning of the year.

Few travellers make their way into Lónsöræfi, a remote and expansive nature preserve in Southeast Iceland that is nonetheless known for its majestic nature and one-of-kind hiking trails. The reason for this is that the area is not accessible by regular car. Hikers wishing to stop over at the Múlaskáli hut have, then, needed to pick their way along the Illikambur ridge, holding onto a guide chain for balance, and then walking over the footbridge, which was suspended over the powerful Jökulsá river.

The whole route used to take about an hour, but now that the bridge has collapsed, it’s impassable.

See a picture of the collapsed bridge, on the RÚV website, here.


Reykjadalur May Become Protected Area

Municipal authorities are considering whether to designate Reykjadalur, a geothermal area in South Iceland, protected status, RÚV reports. Famed for its “hot river” in which you can bathe, the area has become a popular tourist destination in recent years, but has had to be closed by the Environment Agency on occasion when the high level of foot traffic has caused significant damage to the area. This is a particular risk in the wet season.

Reykjadalur is located just above the town of Hveragerði, but the land is actually part of the Ölfus municipality. The mayors of both locations met in late September to discuss the possibility of protection status for the area. Following this meeting he Environmental Agency of Iceland sent the mayors a letter asking for them to make their position on this matter known. The Environment Agency also asked that the local governments appoint a representative to join a land conservation consultation team, which they have since done.

Per the minutes of the town council meeting, it appears that the local governments are in favor of the idea of designating Reykjadalur a protected area. It’s clear that foot traffic has increased dramatically in the area in recent years and has had a profound effect on the environment. Just this spring, for instance, the area had to be closed for six weeks.