Winter Weather Wreaks Havoc

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.

See Also: It’s Going to Be a White Christmas

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.

Flight disruptions

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.

Tourist Dies at Reynisfjara, Group Caught by Waves in the Same Spot the Next Day

Reynisfjara black sand beach

A tourist died on Friday after being swept out to sea by a wave at Reynisfjara beach, just outside Vík í Mýrdal in South Iceland. RÚV reports that the man, who was in his eighties, was in the ocean for about an hour before he could be rescued and was dead by the time the Coast Guard helicopter was able to reach him.

The victim was from Canada and part of a larger tour group with his wife, who was also caught by the same wave. The tour guide was able to grab the woman and drag her to safety, but her husband was not so lucky. Rescue teams from South Iceland and the Westman Islands were called to the scene, as well as the Coast Guard. Conditions at sea were quite dangerous, however, with very high winds that prevented the Coast Guard helicopter from reaching the man for an hour.

The Red Cross’ trauma team was called in to provide services for the woman and her travel companions.

Believed they could swim ashore

Only a day later, a group of foreign tourists, including a family from Germany, were swept up in a wave in the same spot where the Canadian couple was caught on Friday. No one was seriously injured, but apparently, the group believed they could swim back to land if they were caught by the waves.

The upsetting incident was witnessed by tour guide Hrafnhildur Faulk.

Hrafnhildur saw six people get swept off their feet. Five managed to pull themselves to safety quickly; the last man lingered. “I was waiting for him to get up and run,” recounted Hrafnhildur, but the man stayed in the surf, looking for his glasses in the sand.

“He seemed pretty unphased, considering,” she continued. “I think I would have been more alarmed.”

Hrafnhildur said that she frequently sees people putting themselves in harm’s way on the shore at Reynisfjara, even running into the waves with small children. “Naturally, you run over and intervene,” she said. “But unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

An all-too common occurrence

There have been many drownings at Reynisfjara over the years when visitors, generally foreign tourists, are swept into the ocean by powerful “sneaker waves.” In May, a Spanish tourist nearly drowned after intentionally wading into the surf to have photos taken, but thankfully, he was able to pull himself to shore. Last November, a young Chinese woman was not so lucky. Between 2007 and 2019, three people drowned at the popular beach.

That year, the government began to conduct a risk assessment and closed part of the beach, although many visitors ignored the closure. Much of the beach remains open, although with prominent warnings and explanations of the very real danger posed by the sneaker waves are posted in several languages.

Preparations Made to Recover Plane Crash Wreckage

missing plane Þingvellir

The wreckage from the plane that crashed in Lake Þingvallavatn in February will be recovered Friday, Vísir reports. Recovering the aircraft is vital to the ongoing investigation into why the plane—which did not have a black box—actually crashed.

The Cessna 172N, piloted by Haraldur Diego, went missing on February 3 after setting off on a two-hour sightseeing tour with three passengers from the US, the Netherlands, and Belgium respectively. What followed was one of the most extensive search and rescue efforts in recent memory, involving 1,000 individuals at its height. The wreck was eventually located and the bodies of the pilot and his three young passengers—John Neuman, 22; Tim Alings, 27; and Nicola Bellavia, 32—were brought up by divers from a depth of 37 metres [121 feet] and deeper. Difficult conditions and freezing temperatures further complicated the process: each diver was only permitted a single attempt per day and a total of 20 minutes in the water. Plans were made to haul out the plane itself as well, but these were postponed once conditions were determined to be too dangerous for the time being. The wreckage has remained on the bottom of the lake, at a depth of 50 metres [164 ft], ever since.

See Also: All Four Bodies Recovered from Lake Pingvallavatn

Work stations were set up by the lake today, with about 60 people set to take part in recovery operations. Although the plane’s been submerged for two months, its condition doesn’t appear to have changed. Rúnar Steingrímsson, an officer with the South Iceland Police, told reporters on Thursday afternoon that the situation is completely different from what it was in February. Conditions are much more temperate and Friday’s forecast is good.

“The barges, or at lest one of them, will probably be put out today [Thursday], and then everything will get started tomorrow,” he said. “People and the rest of the equipment will arrive on Friday morning.”

There will be five divers on hand to help with the recovery process. Besides being at a significant depth, the wreckage is also “some 1,800 metres [1.1 mi] from where we’ll be putting the equipment out,” said Rúnar. “The same place we were in last time. We’re just hoping it all goes well and that this is successful. We’ve been planning this for a long time. We went last week and photographed the plane again and it was in the same condition as when we left it. So everything seems to be good in that respect.”

“There’s a dive to the plane at this depth and then it will be hoisted up under barges and brought closer to land, within some five or six metres [16-20 ft], and then they’ll dive again and take out all the electronic equipment.”

If everything goes to plan, the aircraft will have been brought ashore by Friday evening.

Missing Plane Found

missing plane Þingvellir

Search and Rescue teams have found the sightseeing plane that went missing around midday on Thursday, Vísir reports. The craft was found in Þingvallavatn lake by a remote-controlled submarine at 11:00 pm on Friday night. There were four casualties in the crash: an experienced Icelandic pilot and three foreign tourists who were from Belgium, the Netherlands, and the US, respectively.

Nearly 1,000 people took part in the search, including around 900 Search and Rescue team members, the Coast Guard’s helicopter and special operations squadrons, police officers, members of Civil Protection, the National Police Commissioner’s special squadron, employees of ISAVÍA (the national airport and air service provider of Iceland), as well as private individuals.

In its announcement about the discovery of the plane, the Coast Guard thanked all those who had taken part in the search “for their selfless and dedicated work under demanding conditions. An investigation into the incident and next steps are in the hands of the South Iceland police.”

At time of writing, there was not yet any indication of what caused the accident, and nor was it known if there was a black box on board that could potentially shed light on the circumstances of the crash.

Poor weather conditions will make recovery difficult

As of Saturday night, South Iceland police had advised that poor weather conditions and difficult conditions on Þingvallavatn lake would made it unlikely that they would be able to extract the plane before next week. Assessments had yet to determine if it would be possible to recover the bodies of the victims from the crash site before that. The Cessna 172N was found in the southeastern part of the lake, at a considerable distance from the shoreline and a depth of 48 metres [157 ft]. This is a difficult depth for divers to work at, not to mention that the water temperature ranges between 0-1°C [32-33.8°F].

“It can freeze over very quickly and then you’re diving under ice,” explained Oddur Árnason, chief superintendent of the South Iceland police. This not only makes technical maneuvering difficult, he continued, “it’s downright dangerous for rescuers.”

Rescuers wait for a 48-hour good-weather window

The recovery will be co-managed by a special task force and the Coast Guard. In order to undertake the operation, the team will need a 48-hour window of fair weather.

“The forecast for the coming days isn’t in our favor,” said Oddur. “So we’re going to use this time to get set up and call for the necessary equipment and tools we need.”

“Our priority is to get the deceased to the surface, but how that will be accomplished remains to be seen.”

Foreign Tourist Saved from Highland River

foreign tourist saved from Kaldaklofskvísl 2020

Search and rescue volunteers saved a foreign tourist with hardly a moment to spare this morning after his jeep got stuck during a river crossing. After the jeep began filling with water, the man climbed onto its roof, where he had been for around two hours when rescue crews arrived.

Crews used a modified jeep to drive into Kaldaklofskvísl river and save the unfortunate traveller, and are now working to pull the jeep out as well. The jeep had been sinking into the river when rescue crews arrived, and it’s likely the rescue happened not a moment too soon.

Heavy rain has swollen rivers in the highlands, making many river crossings more difficult and even impossible for unmodified jeeps. Travellers are encouraged to keep up to date on road and weather conditions and respect road closures.

Tourist Injured at Reynisfjara Beach

Powerful waves injured a foreign tourist early yesterday afternoon at South Iceland’s popular Reynisfjara black sand beach, Vísir reports. The man was toppled by a wave, but managed to grope his way back to shore, according to Sigurður Sigurbjörnsson, an officer on duty at Vík í Mýrdal, located by the beach.

Response teams were called out around 3.00pm yesterday to attend to the man, who obtained a shoulder injury and was transported to hospital for examination. Sigurður took a video of the waves on the beach shortly after the man’s departure, which shows other tourists being trapped against cliffs by the waves.

The screenshot above is from a video taken by guide Þórólfur Sævar Sæmundsson shortly before the incident took place.

Reynisfjara has been the site of numerous accidents and a few fatalities over the years. No amount of signage on the popular beach seems to convince tourists to stay a safe distance away from its dangerous and powerful waves.

Visitors Ignoring Reynisfjara Closure, Despite Ongoing Risk

The rockslide that took place at Reynisfjara beach in South Iceland has now been measured at 100 m [328 ft] wide and 50 m [164 ft] in length, running from the base of Reynisfjall mountain and out into the sea. RÚV reports that the largest boulders on the scene were measured at 3 m [9.8 ft] in diameter. The overall volume of the scree has been estimated at 25,000 cubic m [882,867 cubic ft].

The rockslide having been so enormous, it’s considered quite a bit of luck that no one was injured in the event. Close to the village of Vík í Mýrdal, Reynisfjara’s black sand beach is one of the most popular traveller destinations in Iceland and home to the Reynisdrangar sea stacks as well as basalt columns inside a cave on the beach. Strong undercurrents and so-called ‘sneaker waves’ make the beautiful destination a dangerous one, too, however, and despite prominent signage and travel advisories, a number of visitors have come to harm on the beautiful shore. In the most serious instances, an American woman died in May 2007 when caught by a wave, and a Chinese man lost his life when he was swept out to sea in February 2016.

It is, then, unfortunate but not unexpected that police in South Iceland has been forced to monitor the beach and kick out visitors who have chosen to ignore police tape indicating that the area is closed for the time being. Inspector Sigurður Sigurbjörnsson said that he found around thirty tourists in a very dangerous spot on the beach near the rockslide on Wednesday, just a day after the event took place.

Conditions are being monitored at Reynisfjara and it is expected that there will be another rockslide on Reynisfjall mountain in the coming days. Visible fissures on the mountain’s surface are being monitored, but it’s hard to predict precisely when the next rockslide will occur. Iceland’s Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management plans to keep the beach east of Hálsanefshelli cave closed at least until today, Friday, August 23, when a decision will be made about what – possibly permanent – precautions are needed going forward.

Divers Called Out to Search For Missing Belgian Tourist

Þingvallavatn

Three divers from the Coast Guard’s special operations and bomb disposal services were called out on Thursday to continue the search for a Belgian tourist whose kayak and backpack were found in Þingvallvatn lake this week, Vísir reports. The team was joined by additional ICE-SAR divers and will continue today.

Search and rescue teams have been looking for 41-year-old Björn Debecker since last weekend when his backpack and an empty boat were found in the lake. The father of two and engineer from Leuven is known to have camped in Þingvellir last Friday night but has not been seen since. An investigation into the case has led to a smaller search area. Today, the divers are only searching in the south end of the lake. Diving in the lake is difficult, as the water is very cold and some parts of the lake are up to 80 m deep.

Car Rental Company Introduces Driving Safety Test for Tourists

A pilot program at a Reykjavík car rental is asking tourists to take an informational driving test before leaving with their vehicle. RÚV reports that the test is intended to prepare visitors for Icelandic road conditions and thereby increase safety for all drivers. Although the test is not mandatory, people involved with the pilot hope that it may be made so for all tourists renting cars in Iceland as early as this fall.

The driving test is being offered to tourists renting cars from a single Hertz location on Flugvallavegur road in Reykjavík. (Implementing the pilot at the Keflavík airport would have simply been too difficult given the number of tourists renting cars there.) Although it’s intended to be educational, the driving test is designed in such a way as to hopefully be fun for the takers. It’s composed of ten questions related to the biggest dangers that drivers may encounter when driving in Iceland. These are taken from a database of 73 possible questions and can be changed according to the season, when driving conditions change. The wrong answers to each question are notably absurd, making the right answer is more than obvious.

The test is the brainchild of Ingi Heiðar Bergþórsson, Hertz’s Director of Services and Human Resources, and is being administered in collaboration with the Sjóvá insurance company and ICE-SAR, under the aegis of the Safe Travel program. Ingi Heiðar said that although the pilot test isn’t mandatory, 80% of the tourists who rent from the Flugvallavegur location opt to take it and, in many cases, are thankful for the information it provides. He explained that information placards with much of the same information included on the driving test have been placed on the steering wheels in rental cars for years, but many tourists do not take the time to read these before driving. He took inspiration for the test from similar ones that are administered in New Zealand, where tourists are sometimes even offered discounts on their rental or insurance costs if they take an educational driving test before setting out.

Since the test began being administered in May, Ingi Heiðar says that damage to cars rented at the Flugvallvegur location has gone down, although it’s not possible to say if this is a direct result of the test.

Ingi Heiðar hopes that tests like the one he’s designed will be soon made mandatory as part of the regulations on car rentals in Iceland.

Icelandic Climber in South Africa “Luckiest Man Alive”

A 32-year-old Icelandic tourist who survived a 20 m [65 ft] fall on Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa is “the luckiest man alive,” says the head of the local Search and Rescue team. “CapeTalk” reports that the Icelander was climbing the mountain, fell, and landed on a very small outcrop on a cliff ledge “the size of a double bed.” Luckily, his cries for help were heard in the suburb of Camps Bay, which is located at the base of the mountain, and he was rescued that same evening.

Table Mountain is a prominent, flat-topped mountain that towers above Cape Town. It is 1,085 m [3,558 ft] at its highest point and is a popular tourist attraction, as well as a notable destination for hikers.

Roy van Schoor, the incident commander for the Wilderness Search and Rescue team, said in a radio interview that “the whole lot of things that came together to contribute to his being alive today are absolutely incredible.” For one, he landed on a ledge, instead of plummeting a full 80 m [262 ft]. For two, the wind direction was blowing in just the right direction so that his cries for help were actually heard by someone below the mountain. Then there was the fact that the search team, which had to repel 300 m [984 ft] in strong winds to reach the man, were able to complete the rescue at night and also remove the man safely. “He’s literally…uh, the luckiest man alive,” repeated Roy with a laugh.

The Icelander was hiking alone on the mountain and, like many visitors to Cape Town, didn’t “understand the dangers of the mountain” remarked the interviewer. In fact, when discussing the Cape Town incident, Roy echoed the sentiments that are often expressed by Icelandic Search and Rescue teams when talking about rescues on mountains around Iceland.

“The big problem is that tourists, they come into Cape Town, and they might have climbed back home—the Icelander is quite possibly a climber in Iceland—and they see, ‘ah, there’s a beautiful mountain that’s like, right on top of the city, and think, let’s go!’ […] Table Mountain being extremely accessible with many, many access points, they decide to go on their own, and going down is a serious problem and we…we battle, we do battle with that sort of a thing: many, many accidents involving tourists.”

Roy advocated for better informational signage on the mountain that could advise tourists of which routes are easy and which are difficult and also added that “hotels can also help in public safety awareness.”

Although the Icelander was brought down from the mountain safely, there was no further information on his condition at time of writing.

The full radio interview about the rescue can be listened to (in English) here.