The Environmental History of Skeiðarársandur Outwash Plain, Iceland

Thóra Ellen Thórhallsdóttir*, Kristín Svavarsdóttir

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We sketch the Holocene history of Skeiðarársandur outwash plain, southeast Iceland, but concentrate on postlandnam changes. The dramatic human history of the Öræfi farming community is well known, but for the first time, medieval cartularia and late 16th to early 20th century sources are combined to reconstruct the plain's environmental history. We identify trends and agents that have allowed recent ecosystem recovery and decribe the zonation and characteristics of the present major ecosystems. Skeiðarársandur's history represents a state shift in an extreme disturbance regime, but it is also set to become a rare example of subsequent recovery through natural processes, albeit indirectly caused by global warming. The plain's eastern flank at least carried extensive birch forests and riparian meadows in the first centuries after settlement. The first documented catastrope was the A.D. 1362 Öræfajökull eruption, and from then on, increasingly desctructive glacial floods swept across Skeiðarársandur, some covering almost the entire 1000 km2plain. At least 11 farms were abandoned by 1500, and by the 18thcentury, the farming community west of Öræfajökull had been reduced from ≥20 to four farmsteads. By the late Little Ice Age, Skeiðarársandur was an exceptionally barren wasteland. Over the past 80 years, fewer and less destructive outburst floods, warming climate, and enhanced seed rain with greater species diversity have facilitated plant establishment and rapid vegetation succession in parts of the plain. In the absence of major disturbances, one of the largest natural birch forest in Iceland may develop on Skeiðarársandur.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-21
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of the North Atlantic
Issue number43
Publication statusPublished - 13 Jun 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We gratefully acknowledge support for our research on Skeiðarársandur from the following funding agencies: The Icelandic Research Fund (grants 040263031, 090255021 and 173688-051), Vinir Vatnajökull, Náttúruverndarsjóður Pálma Jónssonar, and Kvískerjasjóður. We thank Helgi Björnsson for discussions and for allowing us to use unpublished data, Kolbeinn Árnason at the National Land Survey of Iceland, and Finnur Pálsson and Joaquin Maria Munoz Cobo Belart at the Institute of Earth Sciences, University of Iceland for assistance in finding and processing aerial images. Ashley Sparrow took part in the initial fieldwork. We thank Árný Erla Sveinbjörnsdóttir and Hreggviður Norðdahl, both at the Earth Science Institute University of Iceland, for assistance with radiocarbon date conversions and glaciation history respectively. We are indebted to Anna María Ragnarsdóttir, the landowner of much of Skeiðarár-sandur, for her cooperation and interest in the project and to the park managers of southern Vatnajökull National Park. Finally, we wish to acknowledge the many students that have contributed to plant ecological knowledge on Skeiðarársandur, notably Bryndís Marteinsdóttir, Jamie Ann Martin, Jasmin Geissler, Magdalena Milli Hiedl, Ólöf Birna Magnúsdóttir, Oliver Bechberger, Birgitta Steingrímsdóttir, Dagný Rúnarsdóttir, Jón Ásgeir Jónsson, Rannveig Ólaf-sdóttir, Sigrún Huld Halldórsdóttir, Þorfinnur Hannesson, Hlynur Steinsson, Benedikt Traustason, Guðrún Óskarsdót-tir, Hulda Margrét Birkisdóttir, Jóhannes Bjarki Urbancic Tómasson and Vigdís Helmutsdóttir.

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