Sólheimasandur is a vast area of sand and gravel along the South Coast of Iceland, between the cliffs of the interior and the modern shoreline. It was built up by immense glacier bursts sweeping from the mountains to the shore.
Sólheimasandur is a glacial outwash plain, meaning when that when eruptions happen under the nearby glacier, Mýrdalsjökull, the floodwater rushes across this land for the sea.
A glacial flood, otherwise called Jökulhlaup (one of two words taken from Icelandic in the English language, the other being geyser) is perhaps the most dangerous immediate element of an Icelandic eruption. While individuals have been killed by lava flows and bombs, many more have lost their lives to the water.
For this reason, Sólheimasandur has no significant settlements, all the way from the village of Vík í Mýrdal to Kirkjubæjarklaustur. The whole area is vulnerable to glacial floods, which are still notoriously unpredictable to modern science.
This is especially the case considering that the volcano beneath Mýrdalsjökull, Katla, is Iceland’s most active volcano, which carries a reputation for violently erupting, seemingly at random.
Even if these eruptions do not break the surface of the ice, they can still cause devastating floods. In fact, these can even be more dangerous, as these eruptions are often not detected..
If Katla is showing signs of waking, then the Ring Road going south across Sólheimasandur is often closed.
In spite of its dark reputation, Sólheimasandur is a place of ethereal and haunting beauty. Entirely flat, composed of black sands, it is often compared to a lunar landscape, or else some kind fantastical desert. The views of Mýrdalsjökull, Vatnajökull, the Highlands and the South Coast are also magnificent in clear weather.
Sólheimasandur is easy to reach, laying on the Ring Road that encircles the country.
Wikimedia, Creative Commons, Photo Credit: Sekeri
One of the most impressive sights on Sólheimasandur is the DC-3 plane wreckage. Lying abandoned in the sand, a deteriorating skeleton, with nothing but endless black sand surrounding it, it makes an eerie destination even more ominous.
It is a US Navy plane, that was flying across the area in 1973; until recently the US had a NATO base at Keflavík, as Iceland has no armed forces of its own. It seemed to run out of fuel - although it was later discovered that the pilot had, in fact, switched to the wrong fuel tank - and had to make an emergency landing.
Thankfully, no one was killed or injured, although the plane was far too damaged to be repaired.
Because there were no deaths or injuries, there is nothing tasteless about taking photos with the plane. In fact, it a popular addition to many South Coast tours. Because the wreckage is not expected to remain there for long - considering the regular glacial floods that rush through the area - it is fine to touch it. It is not recommended that you climb on it, however, for safety reasons.
To reach the plane requires a short walk across Sólheimasandur.