Head in the clouds: A Scenic Flight over Northern Iceland
This article was originally published in WOW magazine, Issue 4 2018, PDF
Driving around Iceland is one thing, but nothing compares to seeing its volcanic glory from above. A scenic flight over its northern gems from Lake Mývatn is all the convincing you need.
Less than two hours ago I was crossing the finish line at the Mývatn Marathon and following it up with a relaxing soak in the silica-rich, blue waters of Myvatn Nature Baths. Now I’m squeezing myself into the backseat of a Cessna 206 Stationair. I do this while a howling wind blows across the runway, almost lifting the small plane into the air before the thing’s even been started up. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but just a little, because the wind is definitely raging today. But then again, the weather’s often extreme and erratic in Iceland—it comes with the territory—and something tells me that for Captain Guðrún and her co-pilot Hjalti of Mýflug Air, this is just another day at the office.
As the nose of the single-engine aircraft tilts upwards and we ascend, I know I’ve made the right decision boarding this sightseeing flight from Mývatn Airport in Northern Iceland, despite my nerves. Almost immediately Lake Mývatn’s otherworldly landscape begins revealing itself. Dozens of pseudo craters pockmark the ground below, making it look like the area was at the wrong end of a meteorite shower. These craters were formed by steam explosions when flowing hot lava from a tremendous fissure eruption 2300 years ago reached the lake. And encrusting Mývatn’s turquoise shores are charcoal-grey lava pillars which stand as monuments to its volcanic past. But this is just the beginning of a 90-minute aerial display of Iceland’s volcanic grandeur. Sitting on the western edge of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that slices the country north to south, Lake Mývatn is strategically positioned near some of Iceland’s most impressive scenery—all just a short flight away.
After looping the lake, we fly towards Askja Stratovolcano over the Ódáðahraun Lava Field, a region that bears a closer resemblance to the moon than any place on Earth. Indeed, the US Space Program practiced its lunar landings here in the mid-60s. “We’re flying over the largest lava field in Iceland,” Hjalti tells us through our headsets, “which is the result of many eruptions throughout the centuries.” Ódáðahraun Lava Field is actually a desert as little to nothing grows on it.
On the way, scary-looking rain clouds float outside my window, and occasionally we run into pockets of turbulence that make it feel like we’re in some aerodynamic washing machine tumbling through the sky. But the views outside the window are so captivating, and I’m able to use my camera like a buoy in a stormy Arctic sea, taking pictures to calm myself during these tense moments. Every now and then the sun penetrates through gaps in the clouds, painting the desolate, blackened earth below in a warm orange—like some gilded ghost.
Reaching Askja (1510 m) we bank left and circle over its gigantic caldera—Iceland’s largest. Askja occupies a remote part of the central Highland. The name Askja actually refers to a series of nested calderas that sit within the surrounding Dyngjufjöll Mountains. But it’s the caldera we’re flying over that is the region’s most famous—and spectacular. Carved into the earth on the back of a powerful volcanic eruption in 1875, this earth-shattering explosion belched so much tephra in the air that it completely covered Iceland’s eastern fjords, essentially poisoning the land and killing much of its livestock. The mass eruption also had far-reaching consequences, literally, for not only did it spark a wave of mass emigration from Iceland (mostly to Canada), but it catapulted its tephra as far away as Germany and Poland.
Leaving Askja we fly to Holuhraun, a huge recently formed lava field. “Holuhraun is 85km² and was created by a series of fissure eruptions that began on 29 August 2014 and continued for six months,” Hjalti tells us through our headsets. Outside my window, these fissures, still visible, rip through the land—frown lines on an angry Earth when seen from above. Onwards to the Vatnajökull Glacier, we fly past Mt. Herðubreið, a rare tuya volcano known as the “Queen of Icelandic Mountains.” Standing in the distance on the eastern edge of the Ódáðahraun Desert, this distinctive, flat-topped volcano formed when lava erupted through the glacier that once covered it.
“The Vatnajökull Glacier is around 400 m thick on average, but in some sections, you’d need to drill over 1 km just to clear the ice,” Hjalti explains as we leave the lava encrusted landscape below and begin our aerial incursion over the glacier. Mere seconds pass before we’re completely surrounded in a white so vast I can’t see where the glacier ends and the horizon begins. It’s as if an enormous white curtain has fallen down upon the terrestrial stage under grand celestial lights—as if all the colors in the spectrum packed up and fled for warmer ground, leaving only a brilliant white light. It’s both dazzling and a little disconcerting to fly over such a remote part of the planet that’s so inhospitable to man.
Vatnajökull is Iceland’s largest glacier, an immense 8000 km² ice cap that covers nearly 10 percent of the country. Put in perspective, that’s bigger than Hong Kong, Brunei and Luxembourg combined. Vatnajökull also packs an impressive 3100 km³ in sheer volume, making it Europe’s most voluminous glacier—and second largest in size behind the Austfonna Glacier in Svalbard, Norway. “The glacier was used as a shooting location in the second season of Game of Thrones,” Hjalti tells us as we continue over it. As with many other glaciers in Iceland, several active volcanoes dwell under Vatnajökull. When they erupt—and they often do—they melt large volumes of ice which can burst through the weakened glacial walls and cause catastrophic mass flooding. For example, in 1996 the Grímsvötn Volcano in Vatnajökull’s northwest erupted, releasing up to 50,000 m3/s of glacial water over the course of several days.
On the way back to the airport I spy Hverfjall, an enormous tephra explosion crater on Lake Mývatn’s eastern shores formed in the wake of a huge eruption around 3000 years ago. Two days ago, I had walked along its rim, like so many visitors to the region do. In near-perfect symmetry, it stands 396 m tall and boasts a 1 km wide distinctive black ash cone. “Hverfjall is connected to the extremely active Krafla volcanic system,” Hjalti informs us, “and is easily one of the most beautiful volcanoes in Iceland.” I can’t help but agree.
Just before landing, I see the 10km-wide Krafla caldera and a section of its 90km-long fissure zone outside my window. Krafla sits smack-bang in the middle of the American and Eurasian tectonic plates, an immensely active geothermal region in northern Iceland. “There have been 29 eruptions in this area in recorded history,” explains Hjalti as we fly over the smoky hills. Capitalizing on the high volcanic activity lurking just beneath the ground, the 60MW capacity Krafla geothermal power plant— Iceland’s largest with 33 boreholes—was built in 1977; it’s been supplying the country with about a quarter of its energy ever since.
It’s still windy when I step out of the plane and plant both feet firmly on the ground. As much as I’d like to linger, I have a marathon of a drive ahead of me: a 524km road trip back to Keflavik Airport via Hvammstangi where I’ll spend the night. But I don’t mind the long drive, because in whatever way you view this amazing country—whether up in the sky or down on the ground—Iceland has the special ability to take your breath away.