SNAEFELLSNES, Iceland- Towering above everything, always floating on the distance on the Snaefells peninsula of Iceland is the volcano and glacier which gives this spite of land its name. On a clear day, the Snaefells volcano and glacier can be see 120 km out over the sea from Reykjavik, looking some sort of conical fortress hovering over the sea. Upon further inspection it becomes clear that the volcano is connected to the mainland of Iceland by a 100 km long, 50 km wide land bridge, which has rugged peaks and cliffs rising up from its dorsal surface like spines on a reptile.
This volcano and peninsula have acted as a beacon for settlers and pilgrims to Iceland for a thousand years: Erik the Red, father of Lief Erikson, homesteaded on Snaefellsnes, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth began at the crater of the volcano, and the new age travelers of the 1980s would go on pilgrimage here, feeling that this glacier was one of the energy springs of the planet. Today, tourists come each summer to climb to its summit and Arctic terns come to breed at its base. There is still a yearly celebration in which hundreds of people come to meditate in the lava fields near the glacier. Snaefellsjokull is sometimes called the holiest place in Iceland.
The volcano itself is 700,000 years old, and has been dormant for the past 1800 years. The glacier at the top of the volcano is flanked on all sides by lava fields. Being a stratovolcano, Snaefellsjokull has multiple layers of dried volcanic outpourings from previous eruptions building up its outer surface. One eruption covers the previous one and is then covered by a subsequent eruption. True to form, Snaefellsjokull rose from the earth steeply, preserving monuments the monuments of of geologic time in its towering funnel. But the glacier which runs down from the volcano’s crater is the most visible element of the ensemble.
How glaciers form in volcanoes
The way that glaciers form in volcanoes is, surprisingly, a rather easy phenomenon to understand. The glacier starts out as a season of snow fall that lasts through the year. After the snow makes it through one year without melting it is called a firn. After this, if weather conditions allow, subsequent layers of snow fall upon this initial firn, compacting the lower layers into ice. Over hundreds or thousands of years, the weight of the accumulation of snow compact the lower strata and ice so thoroughly that much of the air is forced out, giving it a blue appearance. Eventually, this body of ice will weight too much to remain static, and will become a river of ice — a glacier — and begin to move with the force of gravity.
Perhaps art is just nature replicated, cropped, and condensed in a way that feeds minds too overactive to palate the complexity and sensual assault of the world around us. People rush out to Snaefellsjokull, photograph it, paint it, and perhaps use these cropped and condensed replications as shields from the overbearing power of the real thing. A huge hulk of a volcano with a glisten white glacier on top of it with the wind blowing hellish around its sides and the sea smashing into the moon-like lava field upon which you stand is not easy to digest in a single gulp. I hide behind my camera and photograph my surroundings, one element at a time. Peace.
There was a reason why people were drawn out to the volcano at the end of this spine of land sticking out the side of Iceland, it is just one of those “end of the road” invitations that call to a person. There is something about the edge of land, the brick wall of mountains, the petering out of the farthest reaching path, the beach, the oasis in the desert, the places where you can go no farther that people have this penchant urge for traveling to. We are skittish explorers, we like to step up to end of the line and peer over the edge, sit down at the end of the road and feel as if we’ve arrived. Likewise, the Snaefells glacier attracts travelers to it like a magnet, sucking us out from the central blob of Iceland and setting us down at the end of a great arm whose volcanic fist sits 100 km out to sea. Look at a map of Iceland, the geographic allure of Snaefellsjokull is obvious.
Perhaps you do too?