Last month, I wrote of the balmy and sandy environs that made the backdrop to the wedding of the daughter of friends – on Australia’s North Stradbroke Island. Then, later last year, there was another wedding: the daughter of Californian friends was married to her Icelandic fiancé – in, of course, Iceland. Sands once again contributed significantly to the landscape, but the contrast is dramatic. White sands versus black sands, the tropics versus the active volcanoes of the North Atlantic.
Being good friends of your humble correspondent, the entire family devoted some of their time to collecting sand and other geological bits and pieces for me. Above is Vik beach on the south coast, towering black basalt cliffs surrounding – and providing some of ingredients for - the stretch of black sand. The grains are largely volcanic glass or very fine-grained basalt – in the image on the right you can see, in the large grain, the broken-open tiny bubbles that contained volcanic gas (technically referred to as vesicles). The sand grains on this beach are quite young, geologically speaking, but their sharp edges have been knocked off and smoothed by the pounding of the North Atlantic waves.
It’s not just the cliffs that provide the sand for this beach. This part of the coast receives the cargoes of sand, gravel, and, quite frequently, much larger chunks of debris carried by the rivers pouring off the mountains and glaciers of the massif built by the volcano of Katla, one of the largest in Iceland. And when a volcano such as this one erupts beneath its thick blanket of ice, sedimentary transport chaos ensues: gigantic, uncontrollable floods of melt water and debris surge out of the mountains. This kind of flood is known as a jökulhlaup, and the results can be dramatic – when I referred larger chunks, I meant things like the boulder at right, below, carried by a jökulhlaup in 1981 (image credits below).
And, just to the east of the Katla massif is the notorious (and notoriously unpronounceable) volcano of Eyjafjallajökull, responsible last year for stranding large numbers of aspiring air travellers, myself included. The catastrophic processes of sub-glacial eruptions are, inevitably, seen there too, the flood plains below the mountain covered with the geological rubbish carried by everyday high-energy rivers and repeated jökulhlaups:
My friends kindly collected some sand from these flood plains. An unassuming dark brown-grey to the naked eye, under the microscope they reveal glittering shards of volcanic glass, some of the youngest sand grains on the planet:
The mother of the bride describes the ceremony as having been a “no-fuss wedding,” but it was followed by something of a feast. However, this being Iceland, I can’t help but wonder if the menu included one of the country’s most famous (and infamous) delicacies, the recipe for which critically involves sand. Take one Greenland or basking shark, gut it, bury it in sand for months until it putrifies, then disinter, hang up to dry, and eat it. This is hákarl, widely reputed (except among the Icelanders) to rank as one of the most repulsive gastronomic experiences in the world – vomiting is apparently the common response. Recipes warn that you must know what you’re doing (it strikes me that fermented rhymes appropriately with demented), but, if you insist, you can find the instructions here (although gravel burial is described, I would thoroughly recommend sand).
Whether hákarl was on the menu for the matrimonial feast, I don’t know – but I do know that the happy couple are planning to move to Paris….
[Vik beach photo reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, courtesy of Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons; flood plains of Eyjafjallajökull image from the SwissEduc Teaching and Learning website; jökulhlaup photo by Matthew J. Roberts at http://en.vedur.is/ and boulder photo from http://notendur.hi.is/oi/iceland_excursion.htm]