Grimsvötn 1919 to 2019
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Grimsvötn 1919 to 2019

One hundred years ago (1st of September 1919) two young Swedes stood on the edge of a large caldera. This is known today as Grimsvötn and is Iceland’s currently most frequently erupting volcano. It was Erik Ygberg and Håkan Wadell who were the first ones to transect the central part of Vatnajökull from west to the east and explore the interior of the glacier. They were the first (since at least the 15th century) who saw the volcano that lay under the glacier. This was not just an adventure expedition for the two geology students from Stockholm. Their main scientific question was: Where did all the water come from that in catastrophic form came out under the outlet glacier Skedarajökull? They were able to explain the source of the water by reporting and describing the existence of a huge volcano situated under the Vatnajökull glacier. Upon their return to Sweden they were first regarded as heroes but this changed, when the established scientists did not believe in their observations. Sadly, the two young students were consequently ignored and forgotten. In 1934, the Grímsvötn volcano erupted and an expedition led by a Danish geographer, Nils Nilsen gave Erik Ygberg and Håkan Wadell recognition they deserved for their discoveries. However, they did not receive any from the Swedish scientists.

The two young men started their journey over Vatnajökull on the 27th of August 1919 from the southwest “corner” of Sidujökull. This was the same approach as the Scottish adventurer Lord Watts took in 1875 when he and his group transected the western side of Vatnajökull from south to north. On the Watts expedition, they found a nunatak, which Watts named Pálsfjall after his Icelandic guide (Fig 1). Erik Ygberg and Håkan Wadell followed the path of Watt passing Pálsfjall and a few kilometers north of it turning towards the east. On the last day of August, they made good progress with their three horses pulling the sledge. Håkan Wadell sat on the sledge with the compass while Erik Ygberg rode the front horse. In the afternoon they were submerged in a thick fog and suddenly the front horse stopped and promptly refused to go any further. Erik Ygberg tried everything but the horse stood firm. Erik left the horse and crawled forward. After a few meters, a sudden wind opened a hole in the fog, and he realized they stood on the edge of a high cliff. They had found the Grimsvötn caldera. As sudden as the fog had opened it closed again. Carefully they retracted and camped at a safe distance. The next day on the 1st of September, the sky was clear and they went down the cliff to explore the volcano.

The Glaciological Society of Iceland (JÖRFI) arranged a journey to Grimsfjöll and the Grimsvötn volcano, with its large caldera (35 km2), during end of August this year. On the 31st of August at approximately the same time and place Erik Ygberg and Håkan Wadell had looked out over the volcano 100 years ago, the JÖRFI group of 22 people celebrated their achievement. The group had coffee and cake (Fig 2), which had the map from Håkan Wadell’s publication 1920 on its top. Later in the day a grill party was held. 

The visit to Grimsfjöll involved some work as well, taking down a GPS station on the Vestri Sviahnukur (Fig 3), setting up a mast down in the caldera, and maintaining the huts. The three huts on Eystri Sviahnukur got a complete paint job. During this journey the possibility of establishing a new GPS site on the western part of the caldera was explored. In this sector of the caldera solid rock has reappeared from the ice with the name Vatnshamar (Fig 4). It was not possible to get to the solid rock this time as it was heavily crevassed. The Vatnshamar rock was probably visible in 1919, as it appears as a black area on photographs from the expedition. Perhaps it will be possible in the future to get safely Vatnshamar. We left Grimsfjall on Sunday the 1st of September, and returned very late in the evening after a fantastic trip.

What happened to Erik Ygberg and Håkan Wadell after they had explored the volcano, which they named Sviagigurinn (the Swedish crater)? The name was not accepted in Iceland and the volcano was re-named Grímsvötn, but in honor of the two Swedes, two peaks on the caldera rim kept the names Vestri and Eystri Sviahnukur. On the 2nd of September 1919, they continued eastward and struggled down Heinabergsjökull and finally reached the farm Eskey in Myrar on the 6th of September 1919.

Wadell, H., 1920: Vatnajökull, same studies and observations from the greatest glacial area in Iceland. Geografiska Annaler, 2, 300-323

Figure 1 by Erik Sturkell

Figure 1. The map presented by Håkan Wadell 1920, in his article. It shows the route of Erik Ygberg and Håkan Wadell in blue, and also the route by Lord Watts in 1875. This map was printed on the top of the cake that was served on the 31st of August.

Photo: Erik Sturkell

Figure 2. On the 31st a cake was presented to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the discovery of Grimsvötn. The topping displayed the map from Wadell (1920). Note the matching porcelain in the background.

Photo: Erik Sturkell

Figure 3. Steini is taking down the GPS station on the Vestri Sviahnukur. Benni installed a permanent steel monument during the spring trip 2019, which will simplify GPS measurements.

Photo: Erik Sturkell

Figure 4. In the western side of the caldera solid rocks has re-appeared from the glacier, called Vatnshamar.