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  • Einar Páll Svavarsson

Hafrahvammagljúfur in the northeast part of the Highland


Hafrahvammagljúfur canyon
Hafrahvammagljúfur canyon

Although sometimes referred to as one canyon, Hafrahvammagljúfur in the northeast part of the Highland is actually two canyons, Hafrahvammagljúfur and Dimmugljúfur. And even though the attraction is a spectacular natural wonder, the history of the canyon, both the geological history and its place in modern Icelandic history, is also fascinating. Hafrahvammagljúfur is about 25 kilometers north of the Vatajökull icecap and stretches north towards the valley Jökuldalur ('Glacier Valley’). The canyon has 200-meter-high walls but is only about 100 to 150 meters in width, making it seem narrow and intimidating as everything is dark and steep. It is believed that the river Jökla dug the canyon over millions of years through the palagonite layer and formed it with some help from other natural forces. The river was the second most powerful river in Iceland for thousands of years. You have to be impressed when you stand in front of a natural wonder of this magnitude and scale and realize that it was made with flowing water.


Map of Highland in Iceland
Map of Highland in Iceland

Just recently, Man stepped in with his engineering know-how

Kárahnjúkar dam at Hafrahvammagljúfur
Kárahnjúkar dam at Hafrahvammagljúfur

Icelanders have been quite clever in building hydroelectric power plants and utilizing their rivers to produce electricity for more than a century, but not without controversy. Many Icelanders and political parties have viewed the rivers as a key to progress for a long time: a place to produce electricity rather than a natural wonder to view and enjoy. Inevitably, many Icelanders looked to the mighty river Jökla as a logical selection for a power plant. It wasn't until the eighties and nineties that this prospect became real, and the power plant Kárahnúkavirkjun took a leap from the drawing board into reality. The decision went hand in hand with the building of the huge aluminum smelter you see right outside the small fishing village Reyðarfjörður. The aluminum smelter was the ‘customer’ who purchased the electricity. It was a massive project that changed the path of the river and the view of the canyons, not to mention the size of the mighty glacial river that became relatively small and spring-fed. A dam was built across the canyon to collect water in a huge reservoir which simultaneously covered beautiful waterfalls, part of the canyon, and other unrecoverable natural wonders. It goes without saying that the project initiated an avalanche of disputes between conservationists and those who wanted to sacrifice the natural wonders for the dam and electricity for the aluminum smelter.


There are pros and cons, but most people might stop and wonder


Mt. Kárahnjúkar and the dam and new reservoir
Mt. Kárahnjúkar and the dam and new reservoir

Although Hafrahvammagljúfur and Dimmugljúfur are two canyons and part of the spectacular landscape of Iceland, the whole project provokes serious questions. Approaching the canyon on an asphalt road deep in the Highland is a bit odd for anyone who loves Icelandic nature. This was a profoundly remote place only a few years ago, and you could not travel from the east side of the mighty river Jökla to the west side, both because of the canyon and the river. Today you cross the canyon on a concrete road over a dam. On the other hand, for many residents in the small, declining fishing villages in the eastern region, it was a welcome boost for the economy of the area and a worthwhile sacrifice for them to have the option of continuing to live where they most prefer. Furthermore, compared to other energy sources around the world, it is clean, renewable, and not threatening the planet like fossil fuels. It is a fascinating subject and one that is appropriate to think about when you visit the canyon and view the dam and the reservoir.


Access is quite simple today


The Kárahjúkar dam
The Kárahjúkar dam

Access to Hafrahvammagljúfur is quite simple. From the town of Egilsstaðir in the Eastern Region, you drive south on Road no. 1, the Ring Road. About seven kilometers south, you take a turn to the east to Road no. 931 all the way over the bridge and take a turn to the south again on Road no. 933. You drive a short distance on 933 and turn onto Road no. 910 and drive all the way to Hálslón, the new reservoir by Kárahnjúkar.




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