Skaftá River is one of the large glacial rivers present in the region. It is particularly voluminous and long. Its length from source to estuary is about 115 kilometres. Skaftá is a mixed glacial and spring-fed river. The main sources of the glacial meltwater are in Skaftárjökull at Vatnajökull Glacier and spring water from Lake Langasjór is rapidly added into the meltwater. In summer, Skaftá River’s colour is coloured by mud from glacial meltwater, whereas in winter it is most often crystal clear. The uppermost farmstead by Skaftá River is called Skaftárdalur; where the nearby river basin is about 1400 km² with and an average flow of about um 115 m³/s. Above Skaftárdalur a number of rivers and streams run into the Skaftá River, with the most prominent being Grjótá, Hellisá, and Southern and Northern Ófæra, all of which are spring creeks. Below Skaftárdalur, the Skaftá River expands and diverges into two main branches. To the west, there is the Eldvatn River (also called Ása-Eldvatn) which runs west along the Skaftártunga area and over into the Kúðafljót River. To the east, the Skaftá River itself runs, which bends east along the Síða hillside, by the town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur and finally into the ocean around the estuary Veiðiós. A portion of the Eldvatn and Skaftá rivers branches around grooved lava are called Ásakvíslar on the one hand and Árkvíslar on the other; They have, however, changed a bit the last years due to road construction. A portion of the water that runs into the lava disppears into it and emerges as spring water at the southern edge of Skaftáreldahraun Lava Field, at Eldvatn in Meðalland among other places.
Glacial outburst floods (Icelandic: jökulhlaup) are common in the Skaftá River and as a general rule it floods every two years. The floods result in much water running all over around lowland areas, with tremendous deposition. The size of Skaftá River floods is variable, but the flow can get up to 1500 m³/s by Skaftárdalur during the largest floods. For comparison, the largest floods in Iceland’s history have been during Katla’s eruptions with their maximum flow rate estimated to reach up to 300,000 m³/s. Floods in the Skaftá River originate at Skaftárkatlar (Skaftá Depressions) which are beneath Vatnajökull Glacier, northwest of Grímsvötn Volcano. The floodwater is meltwater from geothermal energy which builds up in the depressions and emerges when the depressions fill up; the glacier then rises up and the water forges a path for itself under the ice.
Transportation then and now
The Skaftá River and Skaftá-Fires Lava Field were thought to pose significant problems for transportations here in previous years. Transportation in the region changed little from the settlement of Iceland up to the third decade of the last century when the horse was the only land vehicle. While there were no bridges over the rivers, one had to trust the horse and vatnamenn’s (waders’) competence. A vatnamaður was given that title if he or she was skilful at finding favourable locations to wade in moving water. This tested both the shrewdness and boldness of individuals as well as the horse’s foot-sureness and reliability.
Before the bridges, there were ferries at four locations: over the Skaftá River at Skaftárdalur and at Kirkjubæjarklaustur,at Ása-Eldvatn by Svínadalur and at Eldvatn by Fljót in Meðalland. In 1903, the first bridge over the Skaftá River was put in place at Kirkjubæjarklaustur and few years later over Ása-Eldvatn. Around the same time, or in 1910, a path had begun to be cleared for a road over the Skaftá-Fires Lava Field. The age of the automobile arrived right about 1930 here in West Skaftafellssýsla County and accordingly it was then necessary to think about road improvements and bridge-building in a different way than before. After various difficulties in bridge construction, it was decided to feed the Ásakvíslar River back into Eldvatn with a lot of leveeing. It went so badly the bridge’s foundation, along with the bridge itself, washed away in river swelling. In the aftermath, the rich runoff from the glacial meltwater of the Ásakvíslar River dwindled. The land dried up and soil erosion set in.
Interplay of humans and nature
It is safe to say that it is difficult to harness the elements and this is perhaps proved best here in this region where glacial meltwater, sandstorms, lava flows and drifting ash are constantly shaping the land. Ever since people began to settle in Iceland, it is likely that no inhabited areas in the country have experienced anything like the desertification as counties of Skaftafellsýsla. The diversity of terrain and vegetation is so great, from glacier to sea and fertile oases and eroded emptiness are often together side by side. Generous fertile land has vanished in glacial meltwater torrents or under lava and ash, so that inhabited areas have disappeared. But everything eventually clears up sooner or later. There have thus been periods of good and bad in the region’s history. The power of destruction has even sometimes increased the prosperity of those who managed to stick out the tough times