The 10th Century Book of Iceland's Conversion to Christianity
Halfway between Greenland and the British Isles in the Northeast Atlantic lies Iceland, the world's largest elevated basalt plateau. Following the break-up of supercontinent Pangaea, seafloor spreading at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and interaction with the Icelandic mantle plume - the commonly held view - gave rise to the volcanic island via effusive and voluminous volcanism. It's a part of the oceanic crust that has risen some 3,000 m above the ocean floor starting around 24 million years ago.
|Lower River Jökulsá á Fjöllum and Waterfall Selfoss of Canyon Jökulsárgljúfur|
|Mighty Dettifoss and its Perpetual Rainbow and Hordes of Tourists|
It's about Iceland's second largest river and formation of its magnificent waterfall-endowed canyon. It's also the fourth of six posts on the "Geologic Evolution of Iceland" and a collaboration with my daughter and travel companion Julia Share.
• In Part I (here), we explored the geology of Iceland's Golden Circle triumvirate - world-renowned Þingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area and iconic waterfall Gullfoss - and southwest peninsula Reykjanes.
• In Part II (here), we investigated volcanic systems Hengill and Hekla in the Southwest Highlands and the South Coast's waterfall-endowed escarpment above vegetated lowlands and glacial outwash plains along the sea.
• In Part III (here), we traveled in and out of East Iceland's fjords in the shadow of long-extinct, glaciated Tertiary-age volcanoes and turning inland, crossed the barren, windswept Northeast Highlands.
Herein, selected definitions are italicized, important names are highlighted in boldface at first mention and global coordinates of various locations are provided for you to visit. All photos were taken by my daughter and me unless otherwise credited.
|Daughter Julia Meditates at Fjord Berufjörður of East Iceland|
Geologists call this an "inverted topographic relief."
Having left East Iceland's fjord region and crossing the Northeast Highlands (post Part III), the landscape underwent a profound change. Turning inland to the west, the bedrock transitioned from topographically high, horizontally stacked lavas of the Tertiary Basalt Formation to more geologically recent lava fields and black sand deserts of the Pliocene and Pleistocene.
An identical "forward-in-time" experience occurs in travelling west to east from the opposite side of the island. It's a clue as to the prevailing tectonics that formed Iceland. With the exception of a few outlier (independent) rift zones, it's the result of Iceland's central rift axes that generate new volcanic crust and tectonically transport it conveyor-belt fashion outward, away from the center of the island (details in posts Part I through III).
|Barren, Windswept and Starkly Beautiful|
Go there: 65°28'51.35"N, 15°57'7.50"W
Heading due west (black arrows), the Ring Road crosses over the 'Glacial River of the Mountains' (dotted red arrows on map). It's Iceland's second longest river that signaled our approach to "canyon and national park country." The river's name refers to its glacio-fluvial classification and source from ice cap Vatnajökull, some 120 km to the south of the bridge.
Not far to the north downriver is Jökulsárgljúfur National Park (official map here), established in 1973. It became incorporated as an independent section of ~13,500 sq km UNESCO World Heritage-listed Vatnajökull National Park in 2008. River Jökulsá á Fjöllum is the geographical connection between the two parks (outlined in purple) that flows across a vast expanse of the Northeast Highlands in between.
As for the park's eponymous 'Glacier of Lakes', at 8,100 sq km it's nearly twice the size of Rhode Island, covers ~13% of the island and is Europe's largest glacier outside the arctic. With ice up to 900 m-thick and about 30 outlet glaciers (radial glacial tongues) and proglacial lakes and outward-flowing rivers, beneath Vatnajökull there lurks a concealed landscape of mountains, valleys, plateaus and active and extinct volcanic centers.
In addition, the ice cap's northwest corner contains the unique juncture of five major geothermal features (all discussed in detail in posts Part I and II):
• the submarine Mid-Atlantic Ridge
• the seismic Mid-Iceland Belt
• the active North and East East Volcanic Zones
• the upwelling Iceland mantle plume (Parts I and II).
Vatnajökull is also the largest glacial remnant of the island-blanketing Icelandic ice sheet that extended beyond the present-day coastline during the Pleistocene. Iceland was first glaciated 3 to 5 mya, but by the early Holocene, around 10,300 years ago, it began to retreat to topographic volcanic highs leaving a few isolated caps, such as Vatnajökull, by 8,700 BP. It's ultimate demise, given the rate of current climate warming, is in 150 to 200 years.
The story of the two-lane bridge across Jökulsá á Fjöllum tells much about the geologic history of Northeast Iceland. Its single-lane, short-span predecessor, the only way across the river, was constantly assaulted by heavy trucks but more importantly not fully equipped to withstand powerful cold-weather ice-surges and jams that frequently occur on the river. An even greater potential hazard to the bridge is from extreme floods generated far upriver from eruptions of stratovolcano Bárðarbunga, one of three active volcanoes beneath Vatnajökull that has five volcanic systems in all.
In this middle reach of the river at the bridge, the channel is broad and relatively shallow, as it meanders across the highland plain from its source, but its character will radically change about 30 km north of the bridge (right in the photo), our day's destination.
ABOUT ICELAND'S GLACIAL RIVERS
They drain Iceland's melting glaciers and are its largest rivers, carrying one-third of its total runoff. They're typically milky-gray from a micro-fine suspension of glacially-eroded, crystalline basaltic rock, generally large and turbulent, and often exploited for their hydroelectric potential. Generally smaller Icelandic rivers are classified as direct-runoff from lakes and streams and slow-flowing spring-fed that are deep and cold.
By the way, naturally occurring Icelandic water is highly potable and regularly monitored. Basaltic bedrock provides excellent filtration, although there are a few caveats. Cloudy water is often from a glacial source and sediment-rich, and hot water from geothermal areas is likely high in iron, sulfur and other chemicals. Giardia (intestinal parasites from animals such as sheep) is rare in Iceland.
Sediment-clogged glacial rivers, such as Jökulsá á Fjöllum, typically cross vast, barren expanses of sandurs, glacial outwash plains composed of volcaniclastic basaltic lavas and sediments. Being largely unvegetated, they lack a release of photosynthetic and decomposition-derived carbon dioxide - a plus in regards to climate warming.
|Weathering Reaction of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide and Basaltic Mineral Constituents|
They react with slightly acidic rainwater and drawdown carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, forming environmentally-friendly alkaline carbonates and bicarbonates in the process. That makes the river (and the basaltic volcanic soils and bedrock across which they flow) a carbon sink, consuming more than it releases into the atmosphere and the seas they flow.
MELTWATER FROM SOURCE TO SEA
The total drainage area of river Jökulsá is ~8,000 sq km, which is roughly equivalent to the size of Vatnajökull Park itself! The river emanates from subglacial ice caves at the termini of two outlet glaciers - Dyngjujökull and Brúarjökull - located on the northern margin of Vatnajökull and from geothermal areas (where superheated water at depth reaches the surface) in nearby Kverkfjöll geothermal mountains from which it acquires tributaries Kverká and Kreppa (map below).
|Vatnajökull Ice Cave on its Northern Margin and a Source of Jökulsá á Fjöllum|
From Greta Hoe Wells thesis 2016
In addition, in modern times active rifting in the North Volcanic Zone continues to exert controls on elevation change, base level lowering, tectonics and subglacial volcanism that affect the geodynamics of the river. More on that later.
Driven north by the gentle seaward-tilt of the highland plateau, river Jökulsá is serpentine in form and braided with a classic floodplain morphology. It initially flows across the desolate post-glacial Holocene-age landscape of sandur Dyngjusandur. It then follows the eastern edge of Upper Pleistocene lava field Ódáðahraun, Iceland's most extensive at 5,000 sq km, passing east of tuya Herðubreið (flat-topped, steep-sided, subglacially-confined volcano).
Rare worldwide but commonplace in Iceland, the table mountain is known as the "wedding cake" "Queen of the Mountains." The highly recognizable landmark rising above the desolate landscape, possesses lower and upper halves that emplaced during and after Ice Age glaciation. It provides geologists with the approximate date of deglaciation following the half-mile thick glacier that dictated its formation.
Halfway to the sea on the highland plains, the middle reach of the river has remained relatively shallow, diffuse, serpentine and braided, but not for long. After one of many sweeping turns, it courses beneath the Ring Road bridge and continues another 30 km before funneling into its magnificent creation, Jökulsárgljúfur.
One of Iceland's most breathtaking canyons ('gorge' is the preferred European geo-term), it contains three iconic waterfalls within 9 km of its canyon-like first third (furthest south) - Selfoss, Dettifoss and Hafragilsfoss - and a fourth - Réttarfoss - about 6 km downstream of the upper canyon.
|Aerial North View of Jökulsárgljúfur and Dettifoss|
Graben Sveinar and crater row-eruptive fissure Rauðuborgir-Randhólar west of the canyon and cone Hljodaklettar on the east rim are linked to the North Volcanic Zone to the west (unseen left). Its emplacement preceded canyon formation 6,000 years ago but may have initiated its genesis. Photo with permission from Icelandic photographer, pilot, author ("Iceland from Above") and guide Bjorn Ruriksson. Visit him here.
After 25 km of turbulent flow, Jökulsá emerges from the canyon-valley complex having lost energy and resumes a diffuse, braided course as it anastomoses another 18 km across and splits into two distrubutaries on an expansive depositional sandur plain. Ultimately, it empties into fjord Öxarfjörður of the Greenland Sea, the southern arm of the Arctic Ocean. From source to sea, it's a nearly two-day, 206 km journey.
The lower course of Jökulsá á Fjöllum and its dramatic canyon are accessible from the Ring Road on either side of the suspension bridge. For our chosen views, we crossed over and headed north along the west bank on partially-paved Dettisforrvegur (Dettifoss Road or Route 862) rather than dirt-road Holsfjallavegur (Route 864) on the east. Turnoffs on both roads lead to the four thundering waterfalls, but the perspective differs.
Typical of glacial rivers, Jökulsá á Fjöllum's volumetric flow is solar-regulated that varies daily, seasonally and climatically as it affects Vatnajökull. Although vacillations in glacial advance and retreat occurred during Pleistocene interglacial intervals and various climatic perturbations in the Holocene, the current melt has been progressing at an unprecedented rate since the Last Glacial Maximum.
Formed where accumulation exceeds ablation, glaciers are persistent bodies of ice on the move under their own weight. They're vast reservoirs of fresh water, the largest on the planet. Iceland's temperate glaciers (warm-based versus polar ones) exist near the melting point and are therefore subject to small changes in temperature and certainly climate. Perched at high elevations, 60% cover active volcanic centers in a potentially volatile situation should the sudden release of vast quantities of meltwater occur.
In addition to temperature, the generation of Jökulsá meltwater is dramatically triggered by the intermittent release of geothermal heat (600 to 5,000 cu m/sec) and violent subglacial volcanic eruptions (10,000 to 300,000) from one or more of Vatnajökull's subglacial volcanic centers (Kverkfjöll, Grimsvötn or Bárðarbunga).
The catastrophic release of voluminous meltwater also occurs from failed or over-topped moraine- or ice-dammed lakes that are precariously poised for escape. As many as six known subglacial lakes lie within the Grimsvötn caldera alone!
GLACIER-RELATED OUTBURST FLOODS
Called débâcles in the European Alps and aluviones in South America, jökulhlaups or "Glacial-Runs' are commonplace in Iceland, again due to the many ice caps that reside in active volcanic zones. Subglacially erupting lava can melt 14 times its volume of glacial ice. These high-magnitude events release tremendous quantities of water over short timeframes of several hours to days with the potential for sudden and catastrophic landscape change and destruction downriver.
If you're desirous of a 'Grand Canyon' experience, 'Glacial River Gorge' won't disappoint. It has enthralled visitors for centuries and is Iceland's largest canyon by length and volume - 25 km-long, 500 m-wide and up to 100 to 120 m-deep. It was not created by erosional and depositional activity of Pleistocene glaciers, as was originally thought but, as mentioned, is the product of Holocene-age Vatnajökull deglaciation and subglacial magmatic activity.
The consensus is that Jökulsárgljúfur formed from three massive, canyon-carving jökulhlaups of glacio-volcanic origin and at least 16 ones of moderate size - the size, magnitude and timing of which remains controversial. The largest was ~2,500 years ago from a subglacial eruption near volcano Bárðarbunga.
With a peak discharge of about 500,000 cu m/sec (2.5 times the average Amazon discharge), a total of 10 cu km carved the bulk of Jökulsárgljúfur and transported it to sandur and sea in addition to two previous mega-ones around 8,500 and 5,000 years ago. All occurred in the last 10,000 years as did Niagara Falls!
Canyon-carving can occur by incision (downcutting) from bedrock abrasion and widening by plucking and collapse as heavily jointed basalt becomes undermined (cavitation). As overhangs at knickpoints (abrupt changes in channel slope) become undermined and collapse, they retreat (advance or migrate) upstream (headward erosion). Knickpoint migration is common in flowing bodies of water over resistant rocks such as basalt. At Jökulsárgljúfur, it may have been as much as 2 km.
For over 100 years, geologists have debated the origin of Jökulsárgljúfur, which was initially thought to possess a glaciogenic origin. Modern cosmogenic dating of freshly exposed surfaces on bedrock and at knickpoints indicates a cluster of ages rather than a progressive aging downstream. It suggests rapid removal by plucking during violent, extreme flooding rather than gradual abrasion, although steady-state background erosion certainly does occur.
Additional canyon-carving factors at Jökulsárgljúfur include:
• a deglaciating climate
• drop in base level (sea level)
• isostatic (post-glacial crustal rebound) and tectonic uplift (rift-related)
• glacial proximity to volcanism at the source
• lithology and stratigraphy that forces Jökulsá to cascade from the top of one resistant flow to the top of the one below.
• tectono-structural controls such as NS-trending fissures and faults of the Krafla Volcanic System, discussed in upcoming post Part V).
GENETIC CLUES ABOUND
Simply stated, erosion occurs where floodwater velocity is high, facilitated by flow constriction, and deposition occurs where it's slow. Widespread and indisputable geomorphologic evidence of multiple jökulhlaups is found not only within and around canyon Jökulsárgljúfur but well upriver in the upper and middle reaches of Jökulsá on its broad floodplain as far as source Vatnajökull.
Like large scars on the landscape, the region is a scabland, an expansive, scoured terrain of soil, traversed by deeply-carved post-glacial paleo-channels into bedrock. Megaflooding is not the only geologic process that's exerted an influence in the region. Past evidence of a compendium of glacial, fluvial, eolian and volcanic processes have acted over time that both compound and complicate interpretations of landscape evolution from Jökulsá's source all the way to the sea.
Downriver at the canyon (labelled Google Earth image), macro-scale erosional features are readily observable such as:
• flood-sculpted, multiple wide paleo-channels in a scabland landscape
• abandoned and concordant (cross-canyon and concurrent) flat river terraces that were elevated routeways (riverbed paths of flood waters) cut into bedrock
• relict, semi-circular amphitheaters, dry horseshoe-shaped cataracts (abandoned waterfalls) and plungepools (a deep depression at the base of a waterfall)
• notched overflow rims and spillways (flood-overspill drainage-saddles)
• imbricated boulders (overlapping in the direction of flow)
• fluvially-plucked lava bedrock
• lemniscate hillocks (hydrodynamically-streamlined and teardrop-shaped)
Large-scale depositional features include:
• boulder erratics (flood transported and ice-rafted) both isolated, clustered or in fields
• silt, sand, gravel and boulder bars
• teardrop-shaped islands
• slackwater (low flow) deposits and silt and sandy dunes at river level.
A large car park is located just off Route 862 that directs throngs of onlookers (and geologists) to Selfoss just upcanyon to the south and Dettifoss to the north ('foss' means waterfall in Icelandic). Not to be confused with the small town in the south (place names can be repetitious in Iceland), the horseshoe-shaped waterfall is 13 meters tall and 387 meters wide, likely the widest in Iceland.
As mentioned, Selfoss formed at the first step or knickpoint in the canyon that is gradually migrating upstream. It's the first of four falls that lie within it and the beginning of the 9 km-long, true-canyon section of Jökulsárgljúfur, although the canyon and channel dramatically narrows below Dettifoss, which is the official beginning of Jökulsárgljúfur National Park,
A short trail leads to the brink of Selfoss. It's safe to say that onlookers are oblivious not only that the platform on which they're hiking traverses across one of the early paleo-terraces that formed at the canyon and that evidence of fluvial-sculpting abounds both macro and micro.
This far north in Northeast Iceland, plants such as the Dwarf Fireweed or Arctic Riverbeauty (Epilobium latifolium or 'Eyrarrós' in Icelandic), a member of the willow family, must be hardy to survive. The relatively warm Irminger Current, a climate-moderating, northward-flowing, hyper-saline branch of the tropical North Atlantic Drift, has a diminished affect on Iceland's north side. Instead, the polar East Greenland Current affects this side of the island.
Historically at Jökulsárgljúfur, distinguishing between glacial and extreme flood-related morphology has been both challenging and controversial, in spite of rather obvious present-day interpretations. The multitude of findings over such a large-scale lndscpe eventually became irrefutable.
Micro-scale erosional evidence of flooding in the direction of paleo-flow is preserved in the bedrock:
• longitudinal flutes (scalloped and open downcurrent), grooves and scours
• roughly circular potholes
• obstacle marks (upstream crescent-shaped scours with depositional feature downstream)
• stoss-and-lee bedrock forms (smooth-abraded downslope and upslope "bumps" versus glacially plucked-upslopes).
Geological mapping and research along river Jökulsá á Fjöllum and Jökulsárgljúfur was initiated in earnest when hydroelectric development was first considered. Analyses indicated that the surrounding basalt bedrock was too porous to retain a reservoir in addition to proximity to the active North Volcanic Zone to the west, our next destination in post Part V.
|Downstream View below Selfoss|
In the walls of the canyon, erosion exposed six lava flows and sedimentary redbeds between flows 3 and 4 and at the base at the canyon beneath two thick flows. The flows emplaced post-glacially some 9,000 years ago with oldest flows progressively exposed with travel downstream but dramatically below each successive knickpoint.
Widely found in the Miocene-Pliocene-age Tertiary Formation, the oldest stratigraphical formation in Iceland on the west and east extremes of the island, in the canyon the rust-colored redbeds are latest Upper Pleistocene and volcanogenic in origin. They consist of iron-oxidized eolian (wind-delivered) tephra (ash), lahars (mudflows), tuffs (cemented ejecta) and breccias (angular fragments in a binding matrix).
The concoction is compacted into a lateric topsoil (Fe and Al-rich formed in warmer climates) that formed on and overun by lava during ice-free interglacial, quiescent volcanic periods. Some redbeds are flora-fossiliferous and good paleo-climate indicators.
The redbeds contribute to canyon formation and knickpoint migration, being erosion-susceptible with springs that emanate from exposed faces. At river level below Selfoss, freshly-toppled, jointed-columns above the lowest redbed litter the banks of the canyon and patiently await removal. Polygonal (5-7 sided) columns separated by vertical joints with evenly-spaced subhorizontal striae (surface-banding) on faces are characteristics of slow-contraction, uniform conductive-cooling of the homogeneous basaltic lava flow.
No entablature forms of lava (irregular, curved columns) are to be found here, that are
thought to form in a cooling-enhanced environment such as flooding or where opposing joint-sets meet that induces complicated internal stress and distortion. These freshly-exposed surfaces are cosmogenically datable, but dates are generally calibrated from more readily accessible bedrock on paleo-terraces and knickpoints.
ENORMOUS 'PHILOSOPHICAL' FLOODWAVES
Today, the scabland surrounding Jökulsá á Fjöllum from its upper to lowest reaches is attributed to the megafloods that ravaged the landscape seems more than apparent, but it wasn't always the case. The concept was rejected in the early 20th century and considered to have been a radical departure from the concept of uniformitarianism, the theory that natural processes worked in the past as they do in the present.
It represented a Dark Ages geological return to catastrophism, the idea that the Earth was formed by cataclysmic events such as a Biblical flood. The extreme flooding concept that was advocated by pioneer USGS geologist J. Harlen Bretz in 1923 was ultimately accepted in the mid-1960s as a result of his decades-long geomorphological analysis of the Channeled Scabland of eastern Washington.
About 1 km downstream from Selfoss is Iceland's most voluminous waterfall and first or second (depending on the source) most powerful in Europe, purportedly after the Rhine Falls in Switzerland. Its ascending mist signals its presence well before arrival, and its persistent, photogenic rainbow in sunny weather has helped make 'The Beast' the main attraction at Jökulsárgljúfur.
The 'Collapsing Waterfall' is the second cascade in the progression and drops 44 meters through the height of three lava flows and is 100 meters wide. As discussed, the canyon floor coincides with the top of a lava flow. Without evidence of any vertical incision into the flows, other than at the knickpoints themselves, abrasion is limited and confirms that toppling of basalt columns is the dominant role of erosion in the canyon.
Looking downstream at the roughly uniform canyon width, canyon-forming erosion must occur at the knickpoint rather than the canyon's walls related to extreme flood discharge. As knickpoints propagate upstream, rock is typically removed over the thickness of a lava flow(s). It exposes the surfaces of pristine rock to cosmic rays that bombard the Earth.
THREE FLUVIAL PALEO-TERRACES
Three concordant (cross-canyon paired) strath terraces (cut into bedrock rather than worn into alluvium) are found at different levels in the canyon that indicate the position of dry paleo-riverbeds and are associated with upstream knickpoint migration. Their presence and orientation suggest that they were abandoned by waterfall retreat. In addition, the gradual decrease in ages of the terraces towards the waterfalls likely precludes formation in a single event such as catastrophic flooding.
Downstream of Hafragilsfoss, the third cascade, the canyon cuts through a volcanic fissure and associated flows dated at ~8,500 years ago without evidence of entering the canyon, hence predating it, helping to constrain its origin and bear no relationship to knickpoint or waterfall generation, which elsewhere is often the case.
|Dettifoss (and Prometheus) from the East Bank|
Like so many other iconic sites in Iceland, Dettifoss is no stranger to the big screen. Here it is in the opening scene of Prometheus. The movie was impressive, but the waterfall stole the show.
As mentioned, the canyon is some 30 km long beginning with Selfoss where it's more canyon-like with high vertical walls in the first 9 km. Further north in the canyon's middle third (photo), canyon Jökulsárgljúfur is a 9 km-long, wide open, scenic valley and then returns to canyon-like in the final 11.5 km-long lower third.
Below waterfall Réttarfoss in the valley section, we're in the region of Forvöð east of the river and Hólmatungur on the west. Fed by numerous springs, lavish low-level vegetation blankets a soil-coated, sloping terrace that leads to the canyon (right to left mid-photo). Persistent runoff has exposed a number of densely cobbled streambeds that display a multi-millennial, Holocene history of flooding. In the distance, the volcanic summits of the lower, largely abandoned Melrakkaslétta peninsula rise to the occasion. Few visitors seem to venture this far downcanyon, once they've seen Dettifoss, the big attraction.
|Open Valley Section of Jökulsárgljúfur facing East|
Temperatures in Iceland in the last 20 or 30 years have increased 3-4x more than the average rise in the Northern Hemisphere. It suggests that Iceland's climate-vulnerable glaciers - 269 of them - will gradually retreat to the highest summits in 150 to 200 years. The most recent to succumb and lose glacial status, since it no longer flows under its own weight, is Okjökull having been repenned Ok in 2014.
Thinning of Iceland's ice cap's - at 40 sq km-loss annually - has significant consequences. Decreased ice pressure will result in isostatic rebound that will exceed the concomitant rise in sea level. It will not only starve Iceland's usable harbors, but as deglaciation progresses, meltwater flow will increase the volume of glacial rivers and impounded glacial lakes. Magma production will increase with subsequent surface volcanism that will generate jökulhlaups. Thus, the future at Jökulsárgljúfur for additional canyon-forming and continued upstream knickpoint migration appears favorable.
POST PART V - MÝVATN LAKE DISTRICT AND KRAFLA VOLCANIC SYSTEM
Unfortunately, our tour of Jökulsárgljúfur ended rather abruptly. Construction delays on 862 prevented us from exploring the lower canyon, scabland and sandur-delta region in a timely manner. It was time to return to the Ring Road and continue our geo-journey to the west into the Mývatn Lake District and the active Krafla Volcanic System of the North Volcanic Zone.
Please visit what we discovered in our upcoming post Part V. Here's a small example of what we saw.
|East View of Lake Mývatn and the Katla Volcanic System|
"Sjáumst bráðlega"...Julia and I will see you soon in Part V!