What happens when you dam a river?
Iceland is a country of many natural wonders. Although some of the best-known and most popular attractions are near the capital, Reykjavík, and in the southern region, there are many other stunning natural wonders around the country, such as waterfalls, canyons, hot springs, craters and magnificent landscapes, often beautifully framed with basalt columns. After the mighty river Jökla (Glacia) was moved from its path to create electricity for an aluminum smelter, a basalt column wonder appeared.
Basalt columns are a geological phenomenon that enhances the landscape and often elevate it to another level. They are an unbelievable sight because when you stand in front of these geometrical rock formations, you can’t help wondering if it is Mother Nature’s creation or something man-made.
There are many fascinating places you can visit to view the basalt columns in Iceland. The Gerðuberg Cliff located on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in the west region is one, and the Kálfshamarsvík Bay at Vatnsnes in the northwestern region is another. Reynisfjara Beach and Svartifoss Waterfall are also popular and well-known basalt column attractions on Iceland’s South Coast.
Basalt columns have always fascinated Icelanders and inspired some of our most prominent architects, artists and designers. For instance, a basalt column was installed in the ceiling of the National Theater in Iceland, when it was built almost a century ago. Also, basalt columns were the inspiration for the design of the famous Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavik.
Among the most interesting basalt columns in Iceland are the ones in Stuðlagil Canyon (Basalt Column Canyon) in the northeastern region of Iceland. This natural wonder is relatively easy to access from the popular Ring Road. Although the Stuðlagil Canyon is one of the most fascinating and spectacular basalt columns in Iceland, and possibly in the world, it hasn’t been around for a long time. Only recently discovered, the story behind its revelation is almost as interesting as the canyon itself.
The Big River
The discovery of Stuðlagil Canyon is connected to one of the largest projects in Iceland’s history. Stuðlagil Canyon, however, was not part of that inspiration and it was discovered only a few years ago when Icelanders built a large hydroelectric power plant and a dam to provide an aluminum smelter in Reyðarfjörður with electricity.
The dam was built at the Hafrahvammagljúfur Canyon, one of the deepest and largest canyons in the country, creating a huge reservoir south of the dam. It is located in an area in the Highland where the second most powerful river in Iceland, Jökulsá á Brú (The Glacial River by the Bridge) originates.
The mighty river’s main source is in the Highland, underneath the ice cap of Vatnajökull Glacier. From there, it runs through the Jökuldalur Valley, finding its way to the shore and into the Atlantic Ocean in the northeastern region, where it completes its 150-kilometer course. Every day, throughout centuries, it moved 120 tons of sand, mud and rocks, scraping and reforming the landscape in its path.
The farmers living in the Jökuldalur Valley and people on either side of the river and all the way to the shore have the greatest respect for its power and enormous flow of water. The river even gained two other nicknames, Jökulsá á Dal (The Glacial River in the Valley) and Jökla (Glacia). It was so overwhelming and intimidating that it divided the valley into two areas, which have had limited communication through centuries.
Terror or Treasure?
Needless to say, the hydroelectric project caused enormous disputes in Iceland during its construction. It was a major interference into nature. Not only did the reservoir drown valuable landscape and natural wonders, as it started to accumulate, but it also changed the second largest river in Iceland. It even swallowed Töfrafoss, a magical waterfall that disappeared into the deep. The argument on the preservationists’ side was that the 57-square-kilometer reservoir had caused an irreversible environmental damage to the landscape, natural wonders and the fauna. But ironically it also revealed a natural wonder, the beautiful and unique basalt columns of Stuðlagil Canyon.
Changing the Course
As the reservoir Hálslón started to consume all the glacial water in the Highland above the dam, it also changed the mighty river Jökla. Like all glacial rivers in Iceland, most of the water source originates under a glacier. But the rivers also have other sources from tens and sometimes hundreds of small spring-fed rivers and creeks along its path to the shore. This is also the case with the Jökla River. The striking difference between a glacial source and a spring-fed source is the purity. Glacial water is always loaded with dirt, ash, mud, rocks and tons of materials, whereas a spring-fed river is pure and clean water. When the glacial water disappeared from Jökla’s path and was moved to another destination in another valley, after flowing from the reservoir through a 60-kilometer man-made tunnel to turn the turbines in the power plant, the change was nothing less than dramatic.
Revealing the Stuðlagil Canyon
When the glacial water source was removed from Jökla’s path, the river shrunk significantly. Consequently, the water level also changed, as did the color of the river and its force. It became a much smaller spring-fed river changing the landscape and surrounding area all the way from the dam to the shore. One of the places that changed radically was the Stuðlagil Canyon.
The lower part of this magnificent basalt column canyon was revealed as the water level lowered. Instead of a large glacial river forcing its way through the canyon, a much smaller and beautiful turquoise-colored stream floated between the basalt column cliffs. Surprisingly, a beautiful, photogenic, and cathedral-like natural wonder was unveiled, a place that will most likely attract many visitors in the years to come.
Finding Your Way to Stuðlagil
If you’ve found cheap flights to Iceland and are interested in visiting Stuðlagil Canyon, you’ll need to go all the way up to the northeast region. Take a turn south to road no. 923 from the Ring Road (no. 1) by the farm Skjöldólfsstaðir. As you enter road 923, drive about 14 kilometers to the farm Klaustursel. There you’ll find a parking lot and a walking bridge over the river Jökla, driving over the narrow bridge is not allowed. After walking over the bridge to the east riverbank, a four-kilometer hike is required to the Stuðlagil Canyon, which is near the farm Grund.
Text and photos: Einar Páll Svavarsson
About the Author
Einar Páll Svavarsson is a political scientist turned photographer and writer with decades of interest and experience traveling in Iceland. Einar is the owner and creator of one of the largest information website about Iceland—Hit Iceland.