I have been writing about the historical Hjörleifshöfði promontory in South Iceland in my last 2 travel-blogs. Now I want to tell you about the dreaded volcano Katla in South Iceland, which Icelanders have been brought up to fear as the Katla eruptions are amongst the biggest cataclysms in Iceland.
South of Hjörleifshöfði promontory you will find Kötlutangi - the Katla spit, which is the southernmost point of the mainland of Iceland, created in the catastrophic Katla eruption in 1918. Previously Dyrhólaey held this record.
Top photo: Mýrdalsjökull glacier and Katla volcano
The view from the top of the Hjörleifshöfði cape
There are several recorded eruptions in Katla from 1625, 1660, 1721, 1755, 1823, 1860 and 1918... we also know of 13 Katla eruptions since the Settlement of Iceland until 1625 (according to the information sign).
You can read about the Sturluhlaup glacial flood, which followed the Katla eruption in 1311, a little bit further on in my travel-blog.
There were several other Katla eruptions in the following centuries so you can see that the notorious Katla has erupted quite a few times since the Settlement of Iceland until 1918 when it last erupted.
The information sign in Katla Geopark
The ice that melts in the Mýrdalsjökull glacier due to the volcanic eruptions in Katla collects in the middle of the glacier, like in a bowl; the caldera is ca 100 sq.km. The volcanic eruption heats up the glacial water until it starts to boil and creates enough pressure for it to burst through the 400-600 metre thick Mýrdalsjökull glacier, which covers the caldera - and a roaring glacial flood rushes at great speed in the direction of the sea.
When Katla volcano erupts there is a massive glacial outburst with immense glacial floods carrying huge icebergs which then end up in the sea south of Hjörleifshöfði, or on the sand.
These floods are so massive that the shoreline can extend for some kilometres! Kötlutangi spit was formed in the Katla eruption in 1918 when the shoreline extended for approximately 3 kilometres!
Kötlutangi spit as seen from Hjörleifshöfði
There was a fjord, Kerlingarfjörður fjord, by Hjörleifshöfði until the 14th century when the glacial floods from Katla extended the shoreline. And the major part of the huge Mýrdalssandur sand plains was created when Katla has erupted.
Just to show you how massive this glacial outburst was then the depth of the sea here, where there is sand now, was 20 fathoms!
When the glacial flood reaches the sea a tsunami-like phenomenon occurs and the sea bounces back and crashes onto the coastline. I always think about this when I visit this area, what extraordinary forces of nature there are at work here. I would not want to be anywhere close when/if this happens again.
Hjörleifshöfði as seen from Kötlutangi spit
But people have been close by and witnessed this massive glacial flood.
Kjartan Leifur Markússon (1895-1964), the father of the current owners of Hjörleifshöfði, lived on the promontory from 1895-1920. He was on top of Hjörleifshöfði on the day Katla erupted on the 12th of October 1918 and witnessed the roaring glacial flood passing Hjörleifshöfði at a great speed.
What an absolutely frightening sight this must have been!
Kjartan said that there were earthquakes for one hour followed by a steam cloud over Mýrdalsjökull glacier and then a massive glacial flood rushed down to the sea carrying with it huge icebergs which then covered the sea with ice. Some of the icebergs which were left ashore, stuck in the sand, were larger than 20 metres!
Kötlutangi spit as seen from Hjörleifshöfði
Kjartan witnessed when the flood and icebergs hit the promontory with great force, creating waves of glacial water and crumbled into smaller pieces with ice flying up high in the air. Just imagine the great racket when these icebergs tumbled in this massive flood and hit the promontory!
Kjartan witnessed this from above standing on top of Hjörleifshöfði. What an impact this must have had on this 23-year-old man to be so close to these great forces of nature!
Those who have witnessed eruptions in the notorious Katla have talked about deafening thunders and lighting and such thick volcanic ash that there was total darkness. I think most of us remember the ash cloud from Eyjafjallajökull volcano back in 2010 - this is much worse!
The warning sign by Kötlutangi spit
It is possible to drive down to Kötlutangi spit, but it is a difficult road as you can see on the sign above - "illfær vegur" in Icelandic means a difficult road, so a 4x4 is needed. Mainly as the sand can get wet and you can get stuck.
My husband drove down to the southernmost part of the mainland of Iceland, while I stayed behind and had a closer look at the pillars of rocks on the sand in front of Hjörleifshöfði promontory. I, later on, visited Kötlutangi on a guided tour after visiting the Katla ice cave for the second time.
It is believed that the sea erodes Kötlutangi spit by some 10 metres every year and thus 100 metres in a decade. Satellite imagery from 2003 shows that back then Kötlutangi was still 500 metres further south than Dyrhólaey.
If the sea erodes Kötlutangi by 100 metres in a decade then Kötlutangi still has the upper hand for more than 4 decades. We will see how far it will reach in the next Katla eruption and the floods that will follow. I.e. if Katla will erupt again.
The Iceland GeoSurvey (Íslenskar orkurannsóknir) survey Kötlutangi regularly by GPS to know the status of the southernmost part of the mainland of Iceland. In 2013 approximately 2.8 km had eroded from Kötlutangi since the eruption in 1918.
I recently (2021) heard that Kötlutangi spit was no longer the southernmost point of Iceland, but couldn't find any sources for this change. So I contacted Katla Geopark and they told me that it was a rumour, but that they would contact Landmælingar Íslands - the National Land Survey of Iceland which I had also done.
Katla Geopark sent me coordinates from 2017 for both Kötlutangi and Dyrhólaey while we were waiting for the answer:
63.394652, -18.720228 (63° 23.679'N, 18° 43.214'W - Kötlutangi
63.398192, -19.127411 (63° 23.891'N, 19° 7.645'W - Dyrhólaey
The following day we got an answer from Guðmundur Þór Valsson at the National Land Survey of Iceland, who told us that according to the latest accurate satellite image of this area from 2019, then Kötlutangi spit is still the southernmost point of the mainland of Iceland. The difference is 350-400 metres which is similar to comparable photos taken in 2008.
Dyrhólaey and Reynisdrangar sea stacks
In the photos above and below you can see Dyrhólaey, which was the southernmost point of the mainland of Iceland from the Settlement of Iceland until the Kötlutangi spit was created in the Katla eruption in 1918. Not that anybody was measuring such things back then.
When standing on Kötlutangi you have a good view of Dyrhólaey.
Dyrhólaey, being as it is, a steady rock and not made of volcanic sand, doesn't change its position like Kötlutangi spit, or at least we hope it won't ;)
Dyrhólaey and Reynisdrangar as seen from Kötlutangi
It is believed that the lava sand plains, the volcanic glacial outwash, now surrounding Hjörleifshöfði had, before the glacial floods in 1721 in Katla, been covered by grass, but that these massive glacial floods destroyed the meadows.
According to Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar - the Collection of Folklore of Jón Árnason, which I often refer to in my travel-blogs, as I love folklore, the Katla volcano got its name from a sorceress called Katla. She was the cook at Þykkvabæjarklaustur monastery, which was built in 1169.
Inside Kötlujökull - the Katla glacier!
This folklore explains to us why this notorious volcano is called Katla. I translated this folklore into English and added it to my travel-blog about the Katla Ice Cave as it explains how Katla is to blame for the glacier bursts.
Driving by Hjörleifshöfði cape
There are several accounts of people being in grave danger when Katla erupted through the centuries. This account can be found in Markús Loftsson's Eldrit, but Markús lived on Hjörleifshöfði and I have told you about him in my travel-blog:
One of the glacial floods has been called Sturluhlaup or the Glacial flood of Sturla. This flood happened in 1311 when one of the most catastrophic and virulent volcanic eruptions in Katla took place. At that time the farmer Sturla Arngrímsson lived at Láguey.
In 1311 Mýrdalssandur sand plains had many farms, but all of them got destroyed in this glacial flood.
Driving towards Katla
On the first Sunday after Christmas in the year 1311, Katla erupted and a massive glacial flood followed. On this particular day, Sturla went out of the farm and up to the wall around the farm. From there he noticed the water torrent rushing down this area heading for the farm.
Sturla ran into the farm and grabbed his newborn baby from the arms of his wife, who was lying in bed. He asked God to help the other people inside the farm. As soon as he got out of the farm the glacial flood reached the farm and destroyed it.
Inside the Katla ice cave
The glacial flood carried with it a massive iceberg and Sturla managed to get on top of the iceberg with the baby. They were carried out to sea on the iceberg and on shore again at Meðallandsfjörur 5 weeks later!
As Sturla had no provisions on the iceberg and had to keep his baby alive - he cut his nipples and had the baby suck blood from them, thus his baby survived. Sturla was a strong and healthy man and this ordeal didn't seem to have harmed him much.
The Katla ice cave back in 2018
A farm by the name of Lambey in this area got totally destroyed in the Sturluhlaup glacial flood along with the other farms in this area. The destruction was total and there were no signs left that people had ever lived in this area, everything was covered in sand and pumice.
The next spring some men were riding through the sand where Lambey had stood before the flood.
One of the horses stuck its foot in the sand leaving a big hole in the sand. They heard a dog barking from the hole underneath their feet. They started digging and found a storehouse where fish and butter had been stored in Lambey.
The massive glacier
They found a girl in the storehouse and a dog. She had been sent to the storehouse to get fish and butter for the household and the dog had accompanied her. She was carrying a light with her as it had been dark outside.
She had been inside the storehouse when the glacial flood rushed down and had been stuck inside the storehouse ever since. She and the dog had kept themselves alive by eating the fish and the butter, but these provisions had almost run out.
Inside Katla ice cave in 2021 in a new location
Fortunately, she was carrying the light and had been able to keep the light alive by using the butter and her torn up clothes. She was fully alert and knew exactly what day it was. She said that the companionship she got from the dog had kept her from going insane.
This glacial flood, Sturluhlaup, happened so quickly that the daughter of a minister was found dead by Dýralækur with her comb in her head, but she had been combing her hair at the time of the glacial flood reaching the rectory.
There is one account from the Katla eruption in 1721 which destroyed the farm by Hjörleifshöfði promontory. At the time of the glacial flood the farmer at Hjörleifshöfði, Ólafur Ólafsson, was at the church in Höfðabrekka (close by), but his wife, Sigríður Jónsdóttir, was at home with their baby and the shepherd, who was in his teens.
The shepherd had walked out of the farm and seen the roaring glacial flood heading for the farm. He immediately went into the farm and quickly warned the lady of the house.
Katla ice cave in 2021
She told the shepherd to take the baby in the crib and she herself grabbed butter and fish and some linen and hurried outside.
They managed to escape into a cave called Kálfaból. After this flood, the farm, which had stood at Bæjarstæði, where Hjörleifur had built his farm, was moved up onto Hjörleifshöfði.
This account is found in Eldrit from 1880, written by Markús Loftsson.
Blossoming lupines and Hafursey
When I was younger and until maybe a decade ago there were huge black sand plains on the south coast, but it looks totally different now after the State Soil Conservation Service and the Icelandic Road Administration joined hands and started planting lupine to prevent sandstorms in this area.
Now we have stretches of violet lupine in places where there was only black lava sand. I love this change as I was always afraid while driving through the vast sand plains. The lupine then turns green and it looks so thick, like a beautiful thick blanket covering the black sand beneath.
Lupines instead of black sand
These black sands plains, which are glacial outwash, were, and still are in some places, a great hindrance and in heavy wind one could expect dreadful sandstorms in this area.
These sandstorms would be so thick, as it were, that you could not pass through them and had to stop the car in the middle of ring-road 1 if you were caught in a sandstorm in this area.
Several times ring road 1 was impassable because of these sandstorms.
I was once caught in a sandstorm in this area at Sólheimasandur and it was really scary. It ruins the paint on the car and that is why special car insurance is offered when you drive through the sand plains in South Iceland.
Lupines and angelica where earlier on there was just black sand
I was travelling with my girlfriend at the time and all traffic stopped, but fortunately, we could seek shelter next to a big bus. But I can tell you that we were very scared. And the paint on her car got badly damaged. This was back in 1990 and since then the sand plains in this area have been revegetated with lupine to stop these sandstorms.
The only places where I have seen sandstorms now are further south by the sea.
Now we are waiting for Katla to erupt again as it hasn't erupted since 1918. I hope the glacial floods won't totally ruin the revegetation in this area, but that is to be expected.
Map from the National Land Survey
Kötlutangi is on the coast of South Iceland, on Mýrdalssandur beach, just east of the village of Vík. From Vík, drive along ring-road 1, then turn onto the road marked Hjörleifshöfði.
Here is the location of Kötlutangi on the map. And on the map above you will see how far the glacial floods travel from the Kötlujökull glacier.
This is a very popular route with lots of beautiful attractions nearby f.ex. glaciers and beautiful waterfalls:
Have a lovely time in South Iceland, but be on the lookout for Katla!