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“We know when we build a bridge it will not last.” – representative from the Icelandic Road Administration, May 5, 2012
We’ve just returned from Iceland, where we took part in the Landscape Journeys project sponsored by the Oslo School of Architecture’s Institute of Urbanism and Landscape and the Norwegian Research Council. The project’s mandate was to take up travel as methodological form and acknowledging the importance of developing research projects in response to landscapes—while actually moving through them. Fellow journeyers included Janike Larsen, Mason White, Luis Callejas, Peter Hemmersam, Alessandra Ponte, and Giambattista Zaccariotto. Our international contingent had an array of interests, including glaciers, geothermal energy, landscapes and the literary imagination, and “extreme” landscapes. FOP’s particular focus was on what we have come to call “streaming” landscapes of Iceland, and how the Icelandic landscape can be seen as a concatenation of events occurring along various speeds, intensities, and temporal trajectories.
image courtesy the Icelandic Road Administration
Before leaving Reykjavík, we had the opportunity to meet with a representative from the Icelandic Road Administration. He shared information with our group about the effects of glacial floods on the highway system in southern Iceland, with a focus on Iceland’s highway 1, also known as the ring road. This 832-mile stretch of two lane roads and one lane bridges opened in 1974. It is the life-line for inhabitants outside of the capital. He shared with us the map shown above, illustrating particular stretches of roadway in Iceland that are at risk of being washed away when volcanic eruptions occur and set the jökulhlaups, or glacial outburst floods, into motion. At one point in our conversation he stated that “there’s nothing you can do” in the face of some eruptions, and that “we wouldn’t design [the bridges] without considering all that can happen in nature.” For us, his words were a powerful demonstration of the design limits that must be accepted routinely and worked with in Iceland.
We learned that glacial outburst floods can arrive within hours, days, or even months after an eruption. After a series of strong earthquakes in 2000, bridge designs were upgraded to meet the force of 8.0 earthquakes. “Weak points” are designed into Icelandic roads that allow them to be washed away in small sections. This relieves the pressure on the remaining road and and bridges, often saving the bridges from being torn away by the massive floods. And, our representative told us, the Road Administration keeps a cache of 100-300 meters of “stock” bridge material on hand at all times, just in case.
After a day and a half in Reykjavík, we began our journey.
In many ways, it’s still the Pleistocene, or perhaps it’s more like the Cambrian, in Iceland. At 66° north, Iceland is in a northern latitude where the land should be covered with ice. But this island is in a state of constant thaw. One-third of Iceland’s 40,000 square miles is volcanically active. Massive glaciers, including one that is surpassed in size only by the polar icecaps, loom in the mountains, and daily life along the southern edge of the country is directly shaped by glacial materials washing, flooding, eroding, and falling from the sides of volcanos.
Icelandic outwash, FOP 2012
We were prepared to experience Icelandic roadways that are designed to be “responsive” to their surrounding forces. But we were surprised by the turbulence of the landscapes we encountered. Day after day we passed infrastructural and geological detritus from a jumble of previous glacial/volcanic events still playing out. At farm after farm, we saw workers driving large front-loaders, dredging outwash that sometimes stretched to the horizon. We quickly realized that volcanoes and glaciers directly inflect life here, even when no active, large-scale “event” is currently underway. From the viewpoint of road infrastructure, the last landscape event is still happening and the next is always approaching (on average, an eruption occurs in Iceland every 5 years).
About an hour outside of Reykjavík we stopped at Markarfljot. In July, 2010, a massive flood of glacier waters occurred here, melted by the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. As thousands of Europeans found themselves immobilized by air traffic disruptions, some people in Iceland were dealing with the extraordinary outpouring of thick ash and water discharged by the volcano. According to the Roads Administration representative, as the Eyjafjallajökull eruption began, the Administration estimated it would take 90 minutes for the flood to reach the ring road in the Markarfljot area. A brave, local roads worker had been willing, and able, to activate his machinery and break a hole through the highway. This channelled the water towards the sea and away from cultivated fields, and took pressure off the bridge.. The bridge was spared, and despite the raging waters, only a small section of roadway had to be replaced.
The last two days we were in Iceland, we were based out of Vík í Mýrdal. Vík is very special place, the southernmost village in Iceland with beautiful black basalt beaches. Vik is also notable for its proximity to Katla. Katla is the volcano that the president of Iceland has warned could “unleashed devastating consequences world-wide.” In Vík and the farm communities nearby, people practice periodic evacuation drills. By some forecasts, when Katla erupts again, Vík might no longer exist.
While we were in Vík, no eruptions appeared imminent, but it was hard to deny the visceral sense of instability that accompanied our stay there. Looming near, Katla’s material presence ensures that one doesn’t easily forget its proximity—nor the reality that it is capable of massively rearranging Vík’s landscape at a scale we can barely imagine.
In 2004, a group of researchers spent time in Vík and in the nearby farming community of Álftaver. Citizens of these two communities were interviewed to determine their perception of risk and their preparedness for future eruptions. The findings were published in the journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences in 2010. Residents’ responses and senses of safety varied greatly, but several farmers commented that more is at risk today than during the last major eruption (1918) because of their dependence upon critical modern infrastructures such as electricity, utilities, and transportation:
“Our life is based on our land and I sometimes wonder what I will do if an eruption takes place and everything is taken away from me! Will it all be over?” Another farmer said, “what if the roads are blocked, no electricity, no phone connections, petrol and so on.”
The sense of precariousness that we experienced in Vík echoed those we had felt previously in Tokyo, where, according to some scientists, there is a 70% risk of a major earthquake before 2016. Both locations, and many others around the world, are in the midst of realizing the contemporary consequences of the ancient fact that when geologic streams collide with infrastructures, sometimes the human and the built will be massively out-scaled. A passage from Yasunari Kawabata’s 1954 novel, Sound of the Mountain, suggests that the medium for such realizations can be the streaming landscape itself:
“It was a windless night. The moon was near full … Shingo wondered if he might have heard the sound of the sea. But no—it was the mountain. It was like the wind, far away, but with a depth like a rumbling of the earth … The sound stopped, and he was suddenly afraid. A chill passed over him, as if he had been notified that death was approaching. He wanted to question himself, calmly and deliberately, to ask whether it had been the sound of the wind, the sound of the sea, or a sound in his ears. But he had heard no such sound, he was sure. He had heard the mountain.”
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