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11 January 2018

Tour director Dr Harriet Allen discusses how Iceland's unique geography produces a magical palette of colours in the landscape.


Iceland – the very name suggests a land of white, but you could take a pantone colour chart to Iceland and be more or less guaranteed to find every shade somewhere in its landscapes and wildlife. 

Iceland’s volcanic landscapes and rocks are not just dull browns, greys and blacks but vivid hues of ochre, burnt umber, sienna red and tan from rhyolitic rocks.

These formed when very viscous, silica-rich eruptions of magma cooled rapidly at the surface creating colours according to the different chemical compositions of the lavas. Iceland’s rhyolites are tens of thousands of years old.

Much older still, from 12 million years ago, are thick basaltic lavas, deep grey and black.

Photo: Ian Wilson

In many places these have columnar jointing, just like Fingal’s Cave and the Giant’s Causeway, and in the cracks in the joints tenacious plants shelter from the wind and the rain, giving a splash of white, pink and pale green.

In active geothermal areas, charcoal grey mud bubbles and boils, and sulphurous steam belches forth leaving behind white and almost-chrome yellow fragile veneers, often stained by iron streaks of rich rust-red.

The mists that swirl when the cloud is low, or when it’s raining, add to the drama as colours temporarily fade, giving the place an ethereal beauty.

In winter Iceland can be white, with snow and glaciers indistinguishable from each other.

But in summer, ice often isn’t white at all.

Get up close to icebergs, as at Jökulsárlón (meaning glacier + river + lagoon), and there is every shade of blue from almost white to turquoise shot through with veins of black from fine volcanic ashes blown onto glaciers and successively buried by fresh snow crystallising to ice.

Photo: Ian Wilson

Many of Iceland’s volcanoes are subglacial and when they erupt they may not break through the ice caps spewing ash and pouring out lava.

Instead we know eruptions have occurred because they melt the deepest ice and sub-glacial water  floods across the landscape; in some places along the ring road in southern Iceland it takes half an hour or more to drive across these apparently lifeless, vast areas of black sands.

But look closely and there’ll be spots of pink as the first plants, mostly thyme and thrift, start to colonise bare ground.

Where the soils have had the chance to build up and vegetation grows, bright green grass swards may be interrupted by the white heads of cotton grasses blowing in the wind, a sure sign that this is boggy ground.

Photo: Ian Wilson

On the lava fields the first vegetation is often an olive green moss and as the soils form and deepen, small shrubs root themselves into cracks and gaps between the blocky lava boulders.

As summer turns to autumn pink and red flowers of bearberry and bilberry turn burgundy-red and the blackest of purples.

In most of the country there are very few trees, though before the time of Settlement (870AD onwards) there was a wooded landscape of birch. Subsequent clearance of vegetation has exposed soils to erosion and, in an attempt to halt this, Alaskan lupins were introduced in the early twentieth century.

They thrive in poor, often disturbed soils and fix nitrogen into the soil from the air thereby fertilising the soils for other plants.

Whole landscapes are purple in the summer where they have been deliberately planted to stabilise soils, but they have also escaped from cultivated areas and invaded open areas, forming colourful hillsides.

Lava fields are breeding areas for golden plovers and chestnut-breasted black-tailed godwits.

Photo: Ian Wilson

Walking through these areas they scream at you if you get too close to their nests, and you are also in danger of being dive-bombed by arctic terns, with their grey/white bodies, black heads and red legs and bills.

On cliff tops, following millennia of weathering from winds and rains vivid green vegetation grows on top of basalts, and burrowed into the soils are the nests of puffins with their bright orange bills.

Colour is also in the human landscapes: orange on the roofs on farms and in lighthouses, pink plastic covered bales of hay (for breast cancer awareness) and yellow fire hydrants. Iceland truly is a land of many colours.

Photographs kindly contributed by Dr Ian Wilson