The Highland Wetlands of Northeast Iceland

In and Around Lake Mývatn

Lea Rekow

Mývatn is a shallow lake in northern Iceland, 30 miles / 48 kilometers from Akureyri. It is nearly 6 miles / 9.5 km long and 4 miles / 6.5 km wide, and covers an area of 14 miles2 / 37 km2. It is drained by the Laxá River into the Greenland Sea. Mývatn is the fourth largest lake in Iceland. It is dotted with volcanic islands and numerous craters, hot springs and a variety of lava formations. Char, salmon, and trout are common here. The lake bottom is mined and processed for diatomaceous earth.

Its unique geology is caused by an extremely active geothermal area. It is close to sites such as Krafla caldera and the infamous Víti volcano (the name of which translates to ‘hell’). Additionally, this is where the Krafla geothermal power plant is located. Steam explosions formed many of the lake’s pseudocraters as magma rose beneath pockets of water. As a result of rapid cooling after eruptions, several of these appear as unusual basalt columns rising vertically from the surface.

A scene from one of the islands in Lake Myvatn in 1821. The birds include great northern diver “Gavia immer“, horned grebe !Podiceps auritus“, red-breasted merganser “Mergus serrator“, Barrow’s goldeneye “Bucephala islandica“, scaup “Aythya marila“, long-tailed duck “Clangula hyemalis“, red-necked phalarope “Phalaropus lobatus“, redshank “Tringa totanus“, whimbrel “Numenius phaeopus“, Arctic skua “Stercorarius parasiticus” and Arctic tern “Sterna paradisaea“. A pseudocrater in the background. Note the chironomid swarm on the right-hand side. A colored engraving from Thienemann,1827. Image via Lake Myvatn and the River Laxá: an introduction by Árni Einarsson.

Mývatn offers some of the best birdwatching in Iceland, and it is home to more duck species than anywhere else in the world, with thirteen nesting species and many other visiting populations, including the harlequin duck, also known as the white-eyed diver because of its distinctive white markings. Mývatn’s abundant vegetation makes it the perfect habitation for voles, mice, and rats which provide food for Iceland’s only native land mammal, the Arctic Fox. The most fascinating plant life at Mývatn lies just beneath the surface of its shallow water, where a rare sphere of fluffy green algae, known as marimo algae, is found.

The Dimmuborgir lava field nearby illustrates the dramatic consequences of volcanism in this area. According to folklore, the region is home to the Yule Lads, the thirteen ‘Santas’ of Iceland. The Skútustaðagígar pseudocraters and the Víti crater are also located in this area, along with several geothermal hot spots and natural hot pools around Krafla and the Námaskarð Pass.
Lake Mývatn sits along the country’s Ring Road. Located to the west is the port town of Akureyri. Considered the ‘Capital of the North’, it is the most populous town outside of Rekjavik. To the east is Dettifoss, the largest waterfall in Iceland, and the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Also here is the incredible horseshoe-shaped canyon, Ásbyrgi, a feature, which according to folklore, was said to have formed by the stomping of one of the feet of Oðinn’s eight-legged horse as it leaped through the sky.

Lake Mývatn is an incredibly fragile ecosystem, with unique geology located in a remote wetland environment. Furthermore, the district has a long settlement history, as one of Iceland’s first inhabited areas following the Viking expansion westward in the late ninth century.


R. Sigurðardottir,A.E.J. Ogilvie, Á. Júíusson, V. Hreinsson,and M. Hicks, Water and Sustainability in the Lake Mývatn Region of Iceland: Historical Perspectives and Current Concerns

Árni Einarsson, Lake Myvatn and the River Laxá: an introduction

Árni Einarsson, et al. The ecology of Lake Myvatn and the River Laxá: variation in space and time