Old Askja Case Solved? (ESA)

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Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir's picture

On July 10, 1907, two German scientists mysteriously disappeared while studying Öskjuvatn, the lake in Askja caldera in the northeastern Icelandic highlands.

A party of three, geology student Hans Spethmann was studying the mountains to the northeast of the lake, while geologist Walther von Knebel and painter Max Rudloff, sailed out on it in a small boat, as recited in Morgunblaðið newspaper on the tragedy’s 100th anniversary.

When Spethmann returned, his expedition partners and their boat were gone. It was assumed that they had drowned in the lake but their bodies have never been found.

Further theories included that Spethmann had murdered von Knebel and Rudloff, or that a landslide or an earthquake had caused their death. Some reported to have seen them alive two weeks after the disappearance, while others claimed their ghosts have since haunted Askja.

Von Knebel’s fiancé Ina von Grumbkow couldn’t accept their mysterious disappearance and traveled to Askja the following year in an attempt to discover what had happened or at least reclaim their bodies.

Von Grumbkow’s efforts were fruitless but before leaving, she and her traveling companions built a memorial for von Knebel and Rudloff, which still stands just northwest of the crater Víti.

Eventually, von Gumbkow came to accept that her lover would forever be lost in Öskjuvatn, writing in her diary upon her departure:

“Few mortal men are consigned to such a majestic grave as the two who rest in this stately, bright mountain lake. Only kings need to dwell perpetually in their graves, where they are laid to earthly rest. Do those who rest in the golden sarcophagi of the Escarole Palace or the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs enjoy, in the human understanding, more serenity? Here, a peace of the greatest solemnity prevails on bright summer days and in the dark hours of winter – century after century.”

Askja, as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Vatnajökull National Park, has remained an attraction to this day. Its unique landscape prompted NASA to train its astronauts there before the moon landing in the 1960s.

Askja is a caldera (sunken crater) in a central volcano in the Dyngjufjöll mountains and the centre of a volcano system with many fissures, including the Sveingjár crater row, as can be read on the national park’s website.

Öskjuvatn is the second-deepest lake in Iceland at a depth of 220 meters (720 feet). It was formed in 1875 when a powerful eruption occurred in the south of the caldera.

Askja contains a number of volcanoes, including Víti, a maar (explosive volcanic crater) formed at the end of the 1875 eruption. Water, approximately eight meters deep at the center, has accumulated in the crater. It has the average temperature of 30°C (86°F) and is popular for bathing.

Askja has erupted several times in recorded history and had a significant effect on emigration from East Iceland to North America after the 1875 eruption. The most recent eruption in Askja was in 1961.

The national park’s website reads: “Askja is still active, and its base is still gradually sinking. This unique natural phenomenon is certainly alive and kicking, and it will continue to remind people from time to time that Iceland is still in a state of formation.”

That is very true.

On July 21, a roughly one-kilometer (0.6-mile) wide piece of land fell into Öskjuvatn from one of the surrounding mountain slopes during the night, causing several up to 30-meter (98-feet) tidal waves to crash on the rocks around the lake, spilling into Víti, across the high ridge that separates it from Öskjuvatn.

Researcher Ármann Höskuldsson was in the area with a group of students when the incident occurred and said it was lucky that it happened around midnight when no one was down by the lake.

According to estimates, up to 50 million cubic meters (1,766 cubic feet) of land fell down the mountain, which is the largest rockslide in historical times in Iceland, as concluded by the Icelandic Met Office.

Studies indicate that the ground had started to destabilize long before the rockslide occurred but warm weather in the area in the days preceding the event, caused ice around the lake to melt quickly and likely sped up the process.

The layers of rock in the slopes around Öskjuvatn are younger than other parts of the caldera, which makes them less stable. There are signs of previous rockslides and further rockslides are likely to occur in future years, decades or centuries.

The restrictions on walking paths around Öskjuvatn have now been lifted but being down by the lake involves a certain risk and people who go there should be aware that in the case of a rockslide falling into the lake, it only takes a tidal wave one or two minutes to cross it, while the sound of a rockslide takes ten seconds to be carried the same distance.

Journalist and environmentalist Ómar Ragnarsson connected the dots in his blog on July 24, putting the mysterious disappearance in 1907 into context with the recent events in Askja.

Ómar wrote that geologist Jón Jónsson had shortly before his death in 2005 suggested that a landslide causing a tidal wave in Öskjuvatn could easily have toppled the German scientists’ feeble and leaky sailboat, drowning them in the process.

A likely theory perhaps, although the old mystery will probably never be solved. Let it serve as a reminder for us who enjoy visiting this “stately, bright mountain lake” that “this unique natural phenomenon is certainly alive and kicking.”

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir – eyglo@icelandreview.com

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.