By Norma J. Longo and Orrin H. Pilkey, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina;
Iceland is a land of black beaches, usually with a large gravel component. But one Icelandic beach near Reykjavík is different. Its sand is fine and without gravel, perfect for strolling barefoot or lounging, and its color is a golden yellow. Most unusual of all it came from around 4,000 km (2,500 miles) away! And, hot water plays an important role at this beach.
According to the Iceland government offices, almost all of the country’s heating and electricity generation are provided by renewables – hydro and geothermal energy. Reykjavík Energy, a public utility company, harnesses hot water from geothermal fields in Reykjavík and operates geothermal plants where electricity and hot water are generated. Many local Icelanders swim or at least take a dip in the cold ocean in Iceland any time of year, and locals and tourists alike enjoy the therapeutic benefits of the numerous natural thermal pools found throughout the island, such as the famous Blue Lagoon. For the past two decades, Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach, near the city airport on the east side of Reykjavík, has been
making use of geothermally heated water and can be used year-round.
When we visited this popular man-made beach in June, most of the people were in a hot tub at the back of the beach, although sometimes the beach is crowded like many U.S. beaches in California, North Carolina, or Florida. Before Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach was created, people from the city swam there in a warm stream of water that flowed into the bay of Fossvogur from hot water reservoir tanks situated atop the hill Öskjuhlíð (Oskjuhlid) nearby. The area became polluted and was closed in the 1980s. About a decade later, the city cleaned up the pollution and invested in large rock walls to enclose a lagoon, creating a cove on the coast. A nice beach and other amenities were added.
“Iceland is a land of black beaches, usually with a large gravel component. But one Icelandic beach near Reykjavík is different… ”
—Norma Longo & Orrin Pilkey
The walls protect the swimming area from waves and help keep the special beach sand from washing away. Excess hot water from the water tanks of Reykjavík Energy is piped to the man-made lagoon to produce a special environment for beach activities and swimming enjoyment. The opening between the two rock walls allows the cold seawater to enter and mix with the hot water, creating a temperate bathing area.
On the seaward edge of the beach is a round concrete hot tub, sometimes called the “hot pot,” which is heated by the piped-in warm water. The water in this tub mixes with seawater as the tides come and go. Part of the planned recreational use of the beach, the hot pot is good for sitting, floating, or getting warm. At high tides, the pot is partially submerged, bringing the temperatures a bit lower. At the back of the beach is a shallow, good-sized,rectangular hot tub with a higher temperature, making a comfortable place where families can soak, relax, and commune. The temperature of the water in the lagoon itself ranges from about 18-20°C and in the large hot tub and smaller hot pot from 30-35°C, the latter varying depending on the tides.
Iceland beaches typically consist of volcanic black sand and gravel, but this beach is totally different from Reynisfjara, for instance, which is one of the most famous black sand beaches. The fine-grained beach sand at Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach is a beautiful golden color and was transported here from Morocco, nearly 4,000 km to the south. In Morocco, mining of beach and dune sands has been occurring for decades and is devastating many of their tourist beaches. Most beach sand mining is done for the construction industry, for use in making concrete, but regardless of the planned use, beach mining destroys the beauty of beaches and creates numerous problems globally. Beach sand mining is well publicized and the process is serious because sand is the basis of tourist industries all over the world.
Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach opened in 2000 and has earned the coveted Blue Flag status, which indicates it meets strict hygiene, water quality, facility, information, and safety standards. The site has a service center, added in 2001, with changing facilities, showers, steam room, and a cafe, plus a sailing club and walking paths are nearby. The recreational opportunities are plentiful.
In April 2018, Reykjavík city council announced plans to build two more geothermal beaches, to be located in east Reykjavík at Gufunes and Skarfaklettur. Will the sand for those also originate in Morocco? Time will tell.