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Vatnajökull National Park

Date of Submission: 07/02/2011
Criteria: (vii)(viii)(ix)
Category: Natural
Submitted by:
Ministry for the Environment
Coordinates: N64 02 W17 00
Ref.: 5590
Word File Word File

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Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland, is situated in the eastern part of the country and stretches coast to coast from south to north. It is the largest national park in Europe, covering a total area of 12,850 km2 or almost 13% of Iceland. Key features are Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap by volume in Europe, and several highly active volcanic systems within and outside of the ice cap. The volcanism is connected both to a tectonic rift zone that traverses the park from southwest to northeast and the Iceland mantle plume (geological hot spot), which is located directly beneath it. The interplay of ice and fire has created in one place a huge range of volcanic-, geothermal- and geomorphological features, unparalleled in any other place in the world. Within the park boundaries are also numerous cultural heritage sites. The National Park was established and protected by regulation no. 608/2008 based on the Vatnajökull National Park Act no. 60/2007. It entails two older national parks, Skaftafell National Park and Jökulsárgljúfur National Park. Its cultural heritage is protected by the National Heritage Act no. 107/2001.

For management purposes, the Vatnajökull National Park is divided into four regions, which will be briefly described:

Northern region: The glacial rivers Skjálfandafljót and Jökulsá á Fjöllum with their numerous waterfalls are the principal features in the glacier-free parts of the northern part. Both rivers carry run-off from Dyngjujökull, an outlet glacier which generates jökulhlaup, or glacial bursts, at intervals spanning decades. Jökulsá á Fjöllum is the country's second longest river and the one with the greatest catchment area. The river's most magnificent waterfall is Dettifoss. With a height of 45 m and a width of 100 m, it is considered to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Jökulsárgljúfur is among the country's largest river canyon, about 25 km long, up to 500 m wide and 120 m deep. It was carved out by catastrophic jökulhlaup (glacial bursts) in the late glacial period. Within the canyon there are excellent hiking trails and many beautiful sites of lush vegetation, cold springs, crater plugs and pillars of basaltic rock, such as in Hljóðaklettar (whispering rocks).

Most of the highlands are covered by the vast Ódáðahraun lava fields, which exude a powerful and daunting atmosphere. Dyngjufjöll is a large central volcano with a threefold caldera and a long history of eruptions. Typical shield volcanoes, such as Trölladyngja and Kollóttadyngja, and hyaloclastite ridges and tuyas, such as Herðubreiðatögl and Herðubreið, are quite common in the area. A powerful volcanic eruption in 1875 caused the formation of the caldera Askja in Dyngjufjölll, which contains the country's deepest lake. The same year a nearby volcanic crater Víti also erupted. Since then small eruptions have occurred in Askja, the latest one in 1961.

Eastern region: Kverkfjöll mountains are the most prominent feature in the northeast part of Vatnajökull. They are among Iceland's highest mountain peaks, a majestic central volcano with two calderas, split by an outlet glacier and containing a unique, in the valley of Hveradalur at the edge of the ice cap. Hvannalindir is a well-known oasis of vegetation at an elevation of 640 m. It features both the ruins of an outlaws' camp and vegetated areas hardly touched by grazing sheep. Over 30 species of birds have been recorded there. Further east sprawls Brúarjökull, a large outlet glacier with noteworthy, partly fertile, glacial moraine and other glacial formations.

From the Vesturöræfi highlands, home of pink-footed geese and reindeer, rises the colourful Snæfell, a central volcano and the country's highest mountain outside the boundaries of the Vatnajökull ice cap. East of the mountain lies the Eyjabakkar wetland area, one of the world's most important single moulting area for pink-footed geese.

Southern region: Farthest to the east, the Lónsöræfi mountain area features majestic, colourful mountain peaks between glacial tongues, with snow banks, deep valleys and narrow ravines holding pockets of luxuriant vegetation. It is one of the country's most popular hiking areas. Further west, outlet glaciers tumble down onto the lowlands, while sharp peaks and bulky mountains mark the highlands in between. Skálafellsjökull glacier provides easy access for travel on the Vatnajökull ice sheet. Nunataks - isolated rocky peaks within an ice sheet or glacier - rise up from the Breiðamerkurjökull outlet glacier; Esjufjöll and Mávabyggðir are typical examples.

Öræfajökull towers over the rest of Vatnajökull. It is a central volcano, with a glacier-filled caldera and many steep outlet glaciers forming a magnificent alpine landscape. The Öræfajökull volcano has erupted twice since the settlement in the late 9th century, in 1362 and 1727. The eruption in 1362 destroyed settlements and vegetation on an enormous scale. Rising above the caldera's edge, Hvannadalshnjúkur is the highest mountain summit in Iceland (2110 m). Underneath the summit, the Skaftafell area features beautiful woodland, luxuriant heaths, the old turf farmhouse Sel (part of the National Museum's Historic Buildings Collection), and Svartifoss, a waterfall encircled by basalt columns. Morsárdalur, a wide valley blanketed with woodland known as Bæjarstaðaskógur, contains multicoloured rhyolite formations at Kjós and the outlet glacier Morsárjökull with its creaking icefalls.

Skeiðarárjökull marks the regions western border. Powerful jökulhlaup gush down the river Skeiðará, inundating the area with water that has rushed more than 50 km from the Grímsvötn volcano. The most voluminous glacial flash floods are by-products of volcanic eruptions, as happened in 1996, when floodwaters of around 45,000 tonnes per second gushed across Skeiðarársandur, one of the most expansive sands formed by glacial flooding in the world.

Western region: The western part of Vatnajökull is characterised by sub-glacial volcanoes, volcanic fissures, hyaloclastite (brown rock) ridges, glacial rivers and vast sand- and pumice deserts. Grímsvötn is Iceland's most active central volcano. A geothermal area within its caldera causes melt water to accumulate under the ice which overflows every few years, triggering a jökulhlaup in the river Skeiðará. Bárðarbunga is a huge sub-glacial caldera and one of the country's largest volcanoes. Jökulhlaup in the river Skaftá originate from the sub-glacial geothermal lakes, Skaftárkatlar.

Heljargjá, Eldgjá and other eruptive fissures characterise land outside the glacier, all trending northeast-southwest. The Lakagígar eruption 1783-1784 was a devastating natural catastrophe killing some 70% of the livestock and 22% of the country's population. Its effects were also badly felt in Europe and throughout the northern hemisphere. The 25 km fissure eruption from some 135 craters produced the second largest basaltic flood lava in historical time, Skaftáreldahraun (565 km2), which is now covered by a thick carpet of moss. Also characteristic are unique hyaloclastite ridges formed by sub-glacial fissure eruptions during the last glaciation. The hyaloclastite ridges are many and of different age and size, up to 50 km long, but all with the same northeast-southwest direction.

Historical sites are e.g. Tómasarhagi at the base of Tungnafellsjökull ice cap and Jökulheimar, where scientists studying glaciers and geology have had a base since the mid-20th century. A colourful geothermal area can be found within the Vonarskarð central volcano in the eastern slope of Tungnafellsjökull.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Vatnajökull National Park contains the entire Vatnajökull ice cap and diverse volcanic systems, including some 10 active central volcanoes and several fissure swarms. The high volcanic activity is connected to the tectonic rift zone running partly through the park and the Iceland mantle plume (geological hot spot) located directly underneath it. This makes Vatnajökull National Park an exceptional example of both the interplay of ice and fire and of the separation of earth's tectonic plates on land. The resulting diversity of volcanic, geothermal, geological and geomorphic features is higher here than anywhere else in the world. The volcanic fissure eruptions in Eldgjá 935 and Lakagígar 1783-1784 produced the two largest known lava flows on earth in historical times. The Lakagígar eruption affected the climate on global scale, causing famine in Iceland and reduction of crop yield and hunger throughout Europe. Hyaloclastite (brown rock) ridges, such as those found within the park, have not been described anywhere else in the world.

Criterion (vii): Vatnajökull National Park is of outstanding aesthetic value as a whole and in part. The contrast is striking between the white glacier, the green vegetation, blue mountain lakes, the multi-coloured geothermal areas and black sands. There is further great aesthetic value in the different type of volcanoes, lava fields and formations, glacial rivers and canyons and wind erosion features of the brown rock. The old farm houses are very picturesque in the setting and highlight the proximity of human habitation to the forces of nature, present within the park.

Criterion (viii): Vatnajökull National Park contains the complete glacial landscape including the Vatnajökull ice cap itself, diverse outlet glaciers, moraines, glacial rivers, and alluvial deposits. The area further contains entire and diverse volcanic systems. The ongoing interplay of volcanism, frost and ice, wind and water is constantly recreating and shaping the land, producing a unique diversity of landforms and landscapes.

Criterion (ix): The Vatnajökull National Park offers fascinating opportunities for the study of colonisation of life and succession of biological communities on different substrates, such as alluvial flood plains, lava fields, glacial morains and Nunataks. Unique plant communities and habitat types, with moss- and lichen species dominating in the vegetation cover, are found on the extensive Holocene lava fields and pumice substrates in the western and northern regions of the park.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Within Vatnajökull National Park there are vast areas of uninhabited, pristine land. The park covers lowland as well as highland areas, the highest peak in Iceland and complete systems of features created by volcanic activity, glacial activity or the interaction between the two, such as long hyaloclastite ridges and single mountains, extensive lava fields, geothermal areas, glacial rivers, canyons, and sandur (large sandy sediment areas of glacial rivers). The Vatnajökull ice cap, which covers roughly two thirds of the National Park, is completely intact and large areas surrounding the glacier have been protected by national legislation for over 35 years. All infrastructure and development within the park has been kept to a minimum and management plan for the national park for the period 2010-2020 respects that policy.

Comparison with other similar properties

There is no comparable area to Vatnajökull National Park inscribed on the World Heritage List. There are however a few areas in the world where some similar geological or geomorphic features can be seen, but none have a variety or density similar to Vatnajökull National Park. Some of the same features can be found in Northern Canada, in Alaska and Aleutian Islands, on Kamchatka peninsula, on the volcanic mountains in North America, in the Andes, Jan Mayen, on New Zealand and Antarctica. The whole range of phenomena related to on-going continental drift, a geological hot spot and high volcanic activity in connection with a current ice cap and former extensive glaciations can only be found in Iceland. The various hyaloclastite or brown rock formations found within the park are quite common in Iceland but rare elsewhere in the world. Long hyaloclastite ridges such as those found in the West Region have not been described anywhere else.