It was early May when I visited Lake Mývatn but even at this time the lake was mostly frozen with a covering of snow. With some patches of clear water at the edge of the lake made for some nice reflections of the blue sky and clouds.
Mývatn is a shallow eutrophic lake situated in an area of active volcanism in the north of Iceland, not far from Krafla volcano. The lake and its surrounding wetlands have an exceptionally rich fauna of waterbirds, especially ducks.
The lake was created by a large basaltic lava eruption 2300 years ago, and the surrounding landscape is dominated by volcanic landforms, including lava pillars and rootless vents (pseudocraters). The effluent river Laxá is known for its rich fishing for brown trout and Atlantic salmon.
The name of the lake (Icelandic mý (“midge”) and vatn (“lake”); the lake of midges) comes from the huge numbers of midges to be found there in the summer. The name Mývatn is sometimes used not only for the lake but the whole surrounding inhabited area. The River Laxá, Lake Mývatn and the surrounding wetlands are protected as a nature reserve (the Mývatn-Laxá Nature Conservation Area, which occupies 440,000 ha).
Since the year 2000, a marathon around the lake takes place in summer.
The lake is fed by nutrient-rich springwater and has a high abundance of aquatic insects (Chironomidae) and Cladocera that form an attractive food supply for ducks. Thirteen species of ducks nest here. The duck species composition is unique in the mixture of Eurasian and North American elements and of boreal and arctic species. Most of the ducks are migratory, arriving in late April – early May from north-western Europe. The most abundant is the tufted duck, which immigrated to Iceland at the end of the 19th century. The greater scaup is the second most common duck species.
Other common species include the Barrow’s goldeneye, red-breasted merganser, wigeon, gadwall, mallard, common scoter, long-tailed duck and Eurasian teal. The outflowing Laxá river has a dense colony of harlequin ducks and there is a large colony of eiders at the river mouth some 50 km away from Lake Mývatn. The Barrow’s goldeneye is special in being the only nearctic duck in the area (and Iceland as a whole). Its population of about 2000 birds relies entirely on the habitat provided by the Mývatn-Laxá water system and its surrounding lava fields. Most of the Barrow’s goldeneyes overwinter there, using ice-free areas kept open by emerging spring water (both warm and cold) and in the strong river current. This species is a hole-nester, in North America using tree-holes, but at Mývatn the birds use cavities in the lava for nesting. The other duck species nest abundantly in the numerous islands of the lake and the surrounding marshlands.
Other common waterbirds include the Slavonian grebe, red-necked phalarope, great northern diver, red-throated diver and whooper swan.
Lake Mývatn is one of the few places in the world that grows Marimo, also known as Cladophora ball, Lake ball, or Moss Balls in English, a species of filamentous green algae (Chlorophyta).
Lake Mývatn was created about 2300 years ago by a large fissure eruption pouring out basaltic lava. The lava flowed down Laxárdalur Valley to the lowland plain of Aðaldalur where it entered the Arctic Ocean about 50 km away from Mývatn. The crater row that was formed on top of the eruptive fissure is called Þrengslaborgir (or Lúdentarborgir) and has often been used as a textbook example of this type of volcanic activity. There was a large lake in the area at the time, a precursor of the present-day Mývatn. When the glowing lava encountered the lake some of the water-logged lake sediment was trapped underneath it. The ensuing steam explosions tore the lava into small pieces which were thrown up into the air, together with some of the lake.
By repeated explosions in a number of locations, groups of craters built up and now dominate the landscape on the shore of Lake Mývatn and also form some of the islands in the lake. This type of lava formation is known as pseudocraters or rootless vents. A group of such craters at Skútustaðir on the south shore of the lake is protected as a natural monument and is frequented by tourists. Other pseudocrater groups in this lava field are in the Laxárdalur Valley and Aðaldalur. The formation of pseudocraters halted the advance of the lava in some places creating temporary lava lakes. The lava eventually drained from the lakes, leaving behind a forest of rock pillars. The biggest of these formations is named Dimmuborgir. At another place, Höfði, the pillars stand in the lake water. The lava created by the Þrengslaborgir eruption is known as the Younger Laxá Lava.
A classic locality for pseudocraters is at Skútustaðir in the Lake Myvatn area of northern Iceland that was formed 2,300 years ago by basaltic lava eruption. The lava flowed down the Laxárdalur Valley to the lowland plain of Aðaldalur where it entered the Arctic Ocean about 50 km away from Mývatn. There was a large lake in the area at the time, a precursor of the present-day Mývatn. When the glowing lava encountered the lake some of the water-logged lake sediment was trapped underneath it. The ensuing steam explosions tore the lava into small pieces which were thrown up into the air, together with some of the lake.
A pseudocrater looks like a true volcanic crater, but is not. These distinctive landforms are created when flowing hot lava crosses over a wet surface, such as a swamp, a lake, or a pond causing an explosion of steam through the lava. The explosive gases break through the lava surface in a manner similar to a phreatic eruption, and flying debris builds up crater-like feature which can appear very similar to real volcanic craters. Pseudocraters are also known as rootless cones, since they are characterized by the absence of any magma conduit which connects below the surface of the earth.
By repeated explosions in a number of locations, groups of craters built up and now dominate the landscape on the shore of Lake Mývatn and also form some of the islands in the lake. The Myvatn pseudocraters occur in several groups around the lake and as islands within the lake. A group of such craters at Skútustaðir on the south shore of the lake is protected as a natural monument and is frequented by tourists. Other pseudocrater groups in this lava field are in the Laxárdalur Valley and Alftaver district. Pseudocraters have also been discovered in the Athabasca Valles region of Mars, where lava flows superheated groundwater in the underlying rocks.
Dimmuborgir (dimmu “dark”, borgir “cities” or “forts”, “castles”); is a large area of unusually shaped lava fields east of Mývatn in Iceland. The Dimmuborgir area is composed of various volcanic caves and rock formations, reminiscent of an ancient collapsed citadel (hence the name). The dramatic structures are one of Iceland’s most popular natural tourist attractions.
The Dimmuborgir area consist of a massive, collapsed lava tube formed by a lava lake flowing in from a large eruption in the Þrengslaborgir and Lúdentsborgir crater row to the East, about 2300 years ago. At Dimmuborgir, the lava pooled over a small lake. As the lava flowed across the wet sod, the water of the marsh started to boil, the vapour rising through the lava forming lava pillars from drainpipe size up to several meters in diameter. As the lava continued flowing towards lower ground in the Mývatn area, the top crust collapsed, but the hollow pillars of solidified lava remained. The lava lake must have been at least 10 meters deep, as estimated by the tallest structures still standing.
The lava flow surface remains partly intact around the Dimmuborgir area, so that the Dimmuborgir itself sits below the surrounding surface area. The area is characterised by large hollow cell- or chamber-like structures formed around bubbles of vapour, and some dramatically standing lava pillars. Several of the chambers and pillar bases are large enough to house humans, giving rise to the term “castles” (borgir).
In Icelandic folklore, Dimmuborgir is said to connect earth with the infernal regions. In Nordic Christian lore, it is also said that Dimmuborgir is the place where Satan landed when he was cast from the heavens and created the apparent “Helvetes katakomber” which is Norwegian for “The Catacombs of Hell”.
The Norwegian symphonic black metal band Dimmu Borgir is named after the Dimmuborgir region.
Hverfjall (also known as Hverfell) is a tephra cone or tuff ring volcano in northern Iceland, to the east of Mývatn and just next to Dimmuborgir. It erupted in 2500 BP in the southern part of the Krafla fissure swarm. The crater is approximately 1 km in diameter. The rim of the crater is only accessible by two paths, from the northwest and south. It is strictly forbidden to use other routes in ascent or descent.
Tephra has been carried from Hverfjall all over the Lake Myvatn area. A landslide apparently occurred in the south part of the crater during the eruption, which accounts for the disruption to the round shape of the mountain. During the Age of Settlement, lava flowed from Svortuborgir, at the southern end of Namafjall, around Hverfjall, which was nearly engulfed by the lava. At the same time an eruption occurred in the slopes above the valley of Hlidardalur.
Höfði is a beautiful peninsula in the Mývatn area. You can enter a gate at the small parking lot and follow some lovely paths through the wooded area. If you walk to the top of the small hill at Höfði you will experience a stunning panoramic view of Lake Mývatn and the surrounding areas.
The Höfði peninsula used to be barren until the proprietor of the peninsula and his wife started planting thousands of trees and plants during their summer holidays. They carried out this work for decades. After the husband died the wife donated Höfði to the county. Thanks to these hard working people Höfði is now open to public and we get to visit this beautiful green peninsula with a lot of vegetation, flowers, bird life and wonderful views.
There are paths all around the peninsula and from the furthest point of Höfði you will see the most beautiful lava pillars in Mývatn – the lava pillars of Kálfastrandavogar.
During my visit to the Mývatn area I stayed at Vogafjós Guesthouse which is located on the east side of the lake. This was a unique place to stay with two loghouses with 10 comfortable rooms each and a main restaurant which was in the cowshed of the farm.
The place is an operational farm with dairy cows and you can view the cows being milked as you sit in the restaurant having your breakfast. It’s kind of strange pouring fresh mil onto your breakfast cereal as the cows are watching you through the glass.
Dinner here was also great with the lambshanks and burgers not to be missed. There is also a range of homemade local produce such as smoked trout, mozzarella and salad cheese made from our own milk. The Geysir bread is freshly baked here using the geothermal heat from the ground.
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