Icelanders had just soaked up the last rays of summer sun and prepared for a cool and still autumn with the usual chaotic sheep roundups and berry picking in multicolor heather when the season’s first low struck.
Snow in North Iceland in early September is not unheard of but snowfall of two to three meters overnight at this time of year—when the sheep are still in highland pastures—is highly unusual.
Coupled with blackouts across the region, from Blönduós in the west to Þórshöfn in the east, due to icing of power lines and we’re looking at an unprecedented situation.
Snowbound commuters is serious but thousands of sheep buried alive in snowdrifts is nothing short of disastrous.
Farmers in North Iceland, who may be looking at losing their entire livestock, aided by search and rescue workers and other volunteers, have trekked the mountains in difficult conditions day after day to rescue the trapped sheep.
Armed with long sticks as used to look for people buried in avalanches, they have succeeded in finding hundreds of sheep. Although not all have survived, most of these amazingly hardy creatures were alive after days in icy graves.
The search continues but hope grows fainter by the minute. In areas where the lambs had been separated from the ewes, the search parties will now focus on the ewes as they are more likely to have sought shelter under ridges where air pockets may have been created.
Farmers say they have never experienced anything like this in their lifetime and hope they never will again.
These current weather conditions go to show how flimsy the weather gods can be when it comes to Iceland. There is no clear distinction between seasons; winters are usually mild and the summers cool.
Yet there are days in summer when conditions are almost tropical and winter days with raging blizzards and Arctic winds.
Meters of snow might fall one day to be washed away in sudden thaw the next. Snow might fall in every month of the year and the middle of winter may feel like spring, the weather tricking trees into starting to bud and flowers to sprout.
Some want to link the unpredictability of the weather in Iceland with climate change but it is nothing new.
In a memorable scene from Halldór Laxness’ Independent People, the family at the remote farm Sumarhús are relieved at summer having arrived early one year, a dandelion in the turf farm’s wall blooming as early as Easter.
However, Bjartur, the protagonist, remains skeptical, and sure enough, the illusion of early summer is brutally ended with winter’s return, forcing Bjartur to keep his livestock indoors, slaughtering the farm’s only cow and then one sheep after another as he eventually runs out of hay.
In Jón Kalman’s Harmur englanna (2009), the second book in his Heaven and Hell trilogy, the inhabitants of the West Fjords are amazed at the snow that keeps falling, covering the landscape in a white blanket from the shore to the mountaintop, just as nature was supposed to be awaking to the glorious spring.
The unnamed boy on whose fate the trilogy centers, follows the postman on his arduous journey across mountain passes—at a time when travelers had to rely on their own two feet, or horses if they were lucky—wading through snowdrifts and fighting the relentless storm, fighting for his life.
Foreigners coming to Iceland often ask me what the weather will be like at the time of the arrival and I always say: “I don’t know.” Some weather patterns may be more probable than others, but there’s really no way of making any certain predictions.
Perhaps this is why Icelanders are so reluctant to make plans far ahead—the weather forces us to be spontaneous and always have a Plan B.
We must respect nature and not stubbornly stick with our travel plans despite storm warnings and road closures. Otherwise, we might forever be silenced, like the lambs.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir – [email protected]