Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Runaway Bridge – sponsored by Extra Gum

Not all volcanic eruptions disrupt traffic – air traffic that is. This past weekend we had yet another eruption that left the skies be, instead causing flooding that ripped a bridge off its foundations at Múlakvísl and set it off on its way to sea. It occurred underneath a glacier (Mýrdalsjökull) which is why there was water involved, fire + ice = water. The eruption is loosely classified as a mini-eruption, or if you will: eruption light.

Now in some countries one bridge would not be all that of a big deal but here we don‘t have all that many roads to spare, in particular outside of the greater Reykjavík area. There is only one highway in Iceland, aptly named Highway 1, and this highway runs around the country, connecting the various towns and villages scattered along the coast - see the  red line on the map above. There is no alternative route. "Highway" is actually not the first thing that comes to mind while driving along it and I am sure people from LA would think they made a wrong turn and were not on the highway at all. Some of the highway intersections there look like a bowl of spaghetti seen from above, while our highway looks like the strand that stuck to the pot. But although lacking in appearances, width and complex junctions, to us it is a highway. More importantly to the story, for the most part of the highway‘s length (about 1400 km - 870 miles) there are no other roads lying parallel so without it you might as well park your car and rent a horse. And the runaway bridge was located on this highway.

July is high season for the tourist industry and most of the people that visit Iceland during the summertime come here to see the country and its landscape. To do so they have to take Highway 1 and when it was severed something of a chaos ensued as we had people stuck on each side of the swollen river, eager to be on their way. Those stranded were not only tourist but also locals as a little way past the bridge is a popular camping ground, where people go for the weekend. Usually they do not plan on having to make a full circle of the country to get back home. An approximately 1300 km / 800 mile detour.

Some were lucky enough to be driving hoisted 4x4 trucks which are common here and these people were able to drive into the highlands on pretty awful trails that are by no standard passable for regular cars. This of course did not stop Icelanders trying – we are known for our disrespect of any sort of sign, having a tendency to consider them erected for polite guidance, i.e. that you are to make up your own mind whether to obey or not. So a lot of cars got stuck in the middle of nowhere in addition to those stuck on each side of the river. Please note that the multiple lines you see on the map on the Múlakvísl road sign above are for most part not roads but rivers. This is why a Yaris for example would stand a small chance of driving off road. Scratch that, a Yaris would stand no chance of driving off road.

As it takes weeks to get a temporary bridge (safe enough to convey cars) up and running another solution was required for the meantime. The Icelandic road administration was quick to act and rented an old army bus that was used to get people across and the car rental companies pitched in and engaged trailers to get the vehicles over.

This system worked just fine until the bus capsized mid-river. None of the 17 tourists on board were hurt and everyone was rescued. See photo below. I have also pasted in a piece from the news where tourists are interviewed about the missing bridge. I apologize for the gum commercial at the beginning, I can’t get rid of it. It is the reason for the title of this entry. The second video probably originates from PBS as it has no ad attached.


The tourist industry went into panic mode when the bridge sailed away. Understandably when you take into account the three or four eruptions we have had the past 12 months that did not exactly entice people to run out and buy a ticket to Iceland. I apologize for the vague numbering - I can’t for the life of me remember how many eruptions there are in total. Air traffic controllers have also gone on strike this past year, as have pilots, so those making a living off tourist have multiple reasons to be rather antsy. But the funny thing is that most of the tourists liked having the bridge missing and having to be put through the wringer.

I guess it beats hanging around in a traffic jam in LA on a proper two-digit highway.

Yrsa – Wednesday


  1. First, I must say that it is embarrassing to hear people in the "man on the street" interviews in Iceland speaking English better than would be heard if an American was stopped in Chicago by someone with a microphone.

    My husband doesn't read road signs. I think he would love to travel on a highway that goes in a circle. Our highways are labeled with odd and even numbers, indicating north/south and east/west. I think that is a "suggestion" rather than a rule.

    It takes weeks to get a bridge up and running??!! Here, it would take years. Politicians would have to get in on it, contractors would submit bids, a bid would be accepted, the media would find out the winning bidder was the uncle of the brother-in-law of one of the politicians, there would be hearings, and then the process would start all over. I have seen on-ramps to highways that have been closed for ten years.

    As to the tourists, having a bridge sail away is an interesting story to go along with the pictures. The tourists are relaxed about the situation because they are tourists. They know that they won't be getting a phone call telling them to come and fix the mess.

  2. You're so funny. Even in the face of disaster. But beyond the humor, Icelandic news coverage beats Greek hands (and paving stones) down.


  3. It took only one week in the end to get a new temporarary bridge up and running. That's not a bad record at all. But then again, all bridges I've seen in Iceland were of the 'temporary' kind. makes sense really, functional and not too expensive and in the face of disaster likely to just swim away instead of becoming a serious obstacle.

    And for a tourist, getting stuck in some or other exotic location is always a joy. For us it meant the opprotunity to go on a sudden unplanned excursion, and the excitement of whether or not 'it's going to blow'. Which it didn't. We were blissfully unaware that press at home had already reported that Iceland was about to explode, or melt, or burn to pieces. None of that frantic newscoverage in Kirkjubaejarklauster! Haha!

  4. Every time I read you I make a note to check on flights and prices. You're the best possible advertisement for the country: civilized, civil, amused, intelligent. Are there any more at home like you?