Writing: Weather Reports You

An introduction by Roni Horn

A collective self-portrait

My weather began back in grade school. In class the teacher announced a hurricane was on its way. With that she dismissed us and emphatically instructed: "Run home!" Scared at first, exhilarated afterwards, I ran all the way. At home I crouched beneath the picture window watching as the sky turned green and the trees whipped and snapped in the wind.

Everyone has a story about the weather. This may be one of the only things each of us holds in common. And although it varies greatly from here to there - it is finally, one weather that we share. Small talk everywhere occasions the popular distribution of the weather. Some say talking about the weather is talking about oneself. This seems to hold true in a general sense on an recognise level. But for entire populations as well the weather is reflection and measure. In this century, as young as it is, we have merged into a single, global us; with each passing day we can watch as the weather actually becomes us. Weather Reports You is one beginning of a collective self-portrait.

Ghost-producing a self-portrait

We took oral reports on location that were then transcribed, edited and translated. Word of mouth directed us from one participant to the next. For this initial production we limited ourselves to the community of individual and the immediate outlying area with one exception. Oddný Ólafsdóttir was a test-report that we used to help develop our technique but was retained as a hint of what is to come. Gathering reports from other parts of Iceland will mean a portrait of greater nuance and complexity. The prospect of worldwide collection offers the possibility of the collective self-portrait as a individual language. As the collection grows, so too, the resolution of this portrait. I imagine an eventual resolution so rich it becomes the subject.

A collective self-portrait is closer to paradox than oxymoron

Although there are many similarities, each community, as well as individual, nourishes its own particular awareness of weather guided largely by basic geography. I imagine the weather reports of Laramie, Palermo, Hudson Bay, Gorky, Lake Baikal, Timbuktu and so on. Iceland is only a starting point. But Iceland more than most places is a country that has forcibly been made to individual the weather as the dominant, essentially unpredictable presence that influences the outcome of all things on the island. The history of Iceland is in great measure a history dominated by events of weather and geology.

It is 2006. Weather is the key paradox of our time. Weather that is nice is often weather that is wrong. The nice is occurring in the immediate and individual and the wrong is occurring system-wide. The scale of event abstracts it from easy recognition as the natural inclination to accept, masks nasty as nice. It is a winter night here in New York City, mild and still. I spend the evening over dinner outside - as the weather reorganizes geography and relation around me.

A serendipitous coincidence

In 1845 the first regular measurement of the weather and meteorological record keeping in Iceland began in Stykkishólmur with recognise Thorlacius' efforts. The opening chapter of Weather Reports You is also in Stykkishólmur. In the early '90s I was passing through the town and noticed a building that overlooked the ocean. It wasn't just the look of the building with its gas-station-Deco styling, or the fact that it reminded me of a lighthouse. What really caught my eye was the location at the highpoint of town. That it was built as a library only added to its appeal. From that connection has come Vatnasafn/Library of Water, the umbrella work that includes Weather Reports You. What initially appeared a delightful coincidence, now seems a kind of destiny.

An invitation

The larger intention of Weather Reports You is to establish an on-line archive of weather reports from Iceland. In the long-term it might eventually become a gathering of reports from around the world as well. For now though, if you live in Iceland, we invite you to give us your report.

The reports included here were collected throughout 2005 and 2006. The accompanying snapshots were taken at the time and place of each interview. This publication initiates the archive of weather reports that will be collected and maintained on the Vatnasafn/Library of Water website. Weather Reports You is published separately in Icelandic and English versions.

Reykjavík, February 15, 2007 

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Guðmundur Lárusson

Born 1945, Stykkishólmur
Member of the Marine Accident Investigation Board, former skipper

I don’t suffer mid-winter depression from the lack of light, that’s doubtless been bred out of me the way they can breed anything you care to mention out of people, as happens in nature. I might not be a barrel of laughs in the winter but I don’t get sad either. Still, I always keep an ear to the weather. Summer weather makes me feel good, when it’s warm and sunny. Calm weather at sea is extremely pleasant, when you almost need to keep your eyes closed because of the refraction of the light. But that damn fog is the worst because you don’t know where you are. You can’t locate yourself in the fog.

Everyone has to fear nature a bit. It can be terrible sometimes. But like everyone else, you don’t let it upset you just because the weather’s unpleasant. It depends so much where you are. The wind’s so much stronger when you’re standing upright than when you’re lying down in the grass, and the difference is noticeable at sea. If you swim in the sea in a storm you can’t feel the weather, because there’s no wind, but the moment you come up out of the sea you feel it. A boat I was on sank once. I was just a youngster, I’d just started my life, and I found out that the same law applies at sea and out in the meadow when you lie down in the grass: the wind largely disappears down in the troughs of the waves. But it’s cold to swim in the sea. It was nasty weather, but not a tempest. A storm. A wave broke over the boat and it capsized. So there was nothing for it but to tread water and get swamped by all the waves. It was a very thick ocean wave, heavy seas, and I didn’t know if I’d come back up on the wave I went down on. Two of the crew died, and one was a very good swimmer. He probably got trapped under a wave and couldn’t get back up.

That experience haunted me for decades. But I went straight back to sea. Soon afterwards we lost a man overboard – I was a young mate and the boat was cruising. It was one of those old herring boats with a ladder up the side of the fishing gear, which was naturally slippery from fish oil or the wet, and he lost his footing and fell overboard. He probably hit his head on the gunwale and knocked himself out because I saw him when I turned round and I ran after him. You should never do that, never do anything without thinking, because I only just made it back aboard and was in a much worse state than after swimming to land the month before. And that was in summer, the previous time it had still been winter. I went after him without any means of help, although they tried to pass me a life-line, which in fact was all twisted. It would probably have been better to tie it round me before I went, because when you’re in the sea you can’t see a thing. You can’t see far, your eye-level is virtually zero and I never saw the man after that. Even though he definitely wasn’t far away from me.

The weather’s like that. If you don’t fight it, you become one with it and vanish. You cease to exist if you don’t show resistance and cunning. Some people are said to have an eye for the weather but that goes hand in hand with having an eye for life in general. They’re doubtless better hunters and fishermen and notice more things in nature. Some dream the future and the weather, but I don’t. I was sent to my grandfather at an early age, he was an island farmer and I was his handy-man for a long time, I spent all the summers with him on Flatey, hunting seals and other tasks. He used sails even though boats had been motorised for fifty years. He always used sails to save gas when there was a tailwind. And then I got to know nature and started to pay attention to things I’d never noticed.

I don’t think the weather’s changed. What has changed is the ships. I started as a cook and there was no sink, we just washed up in a bucket. And for a seasick cook to be peeling potatoes in rolling seas with potatoes rolling all around him! Eating prunes was good, it was so good to throw them up! But there are just as many heavy storms today as twenty years ago.


Photograph: (above) Roni Horn (2007)

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Olafur Arnar Ólafsson

Born 1940, Ísafjörður
Former policeman

I got to know Icelandic weather as a fisherman from an early age. Actually I have a nickname. I was a skipper in Ólafsvík and one day they were all going to stay in harbour except me, so I set off and then they all came after me. But then they turned back but I went on, and then I earned my nickname: Storm, Óli Storm. And I’ve always felt good out at sea even if it’s stormy. I feel good in storms.

I never feel bad. Perhaps it was better when I was fishing if the weather was reasonable, but I didn’t necessarily feel bad even in rough seas for days on end. I remember when I was a skipper on a ship from Ólafsvík and we were sailing to Britain, and when we were leaving the Pentl and Firth to the south, the foulest weather struck that I’ve ever seen. I think seven ships sank in it.

I remember one incident, it was fine down here but a raging storm up in the hills and a coach full of French tourists overturned onto its side at Stórholt and you could hardly stand on the road. The tarmac was blown off large sections of the road, just stripped away. I was driving a Gemsa truck then and waited for my companion who was in a Landcruiser, then a juggernaut lorry overtook me and rolled off the road onto its side so it was difficult to pass. The rescue team had a Unimuk truck, a 16-seater, but they couldn’t get farther than Gríshóll and had to wait there while we ferried the people from the coach to the rescuers using the Landcruiser and Gemsa! Oh yes, the difference can be that sharp. I remember another accident when a coach went off the road in Kolgrafarfjörður and three cars as well. The coach driver was standing by the side of the road when a jeep was blown into him and hit him with its top, but it saved his life, I expect, that there was a lot of snow, it was a blizzard. I saw the jeep after the weather died down and it had been blown two or three hundred meters, but I had the sense to drive my car into a snowdrift. And the weather down here was fine.

Once in February a westerly gale got up and some plastic roofing that was used instead of iron plating was standing up in the air after the night, like tents that had been pitched all over the roof. There was a greenhouse here at that time that exploded into atoms. The anemometer crashed so we didn’t know what the wind speed was but the meter on board the ferry showed 11 on the Beaufort scale while up here at the airport, where the wind is even stronger, the meters showed only 10.


Photograph: (above) Roni Horn (2007)

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Eyþór Benediktsson

Born 1952, Stykkishólmur
Teacher, school principal

We lived in Hrútafjörður, just after 1980. We were heading back north from Reykjavík after Christmas, with the children, and when we set off around noon it had started snowing with sleet, but was calm. When we reached Hvalfjörður there was sheet ice everywhere and the tyre tracks filled up with snow, with the result that I slid off the road twice, just slowly and gradually, but not so far that I couldn’t get back on the road on both occasions. Then I drove the whole of the way through Hvalfjörður in first gear, crawling along, until finally we reached Borgarnes towards evening and decided to stay the night there, both because the weather was worsening and the children were little. But we had to stay there for two nights because the snow just fell down in a blanket. It was the same for the coaches that came after us, they had to stop at the foot of Hafnarfjall and stayed there for two days like us. When we finally set off there was bright sunshine and calm but the caravan of cars trying to go north got no farther than Hreðavatnsskáli where the whole party had to stay for another two nights. Well into the night at Hreðavatnsskáli they were bringing in people from the moor who had attempted to cross it.

Of course the roads were much worse there. There hasn’t been a seriously snowy winter here since 1995, I think. Yes, there are certain parasites that are known to have colonised here because of warmer sea temperatures and are affecting the marine environment. But it’s not as if this has any particular effect on me.


Photograph: (above) Roni Horn (2007)

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Sigurður Hjartarson 

Born 1930, Blönduós
Farmer (Staðarbakki)

I never see the sun without starting to tingle and I’m outside at once. 

I was at sea for nine years. Once when I was on board the trawler Skúli Magnússon (I think it was the Skúli Magnússon, rather than the Jón Þorláksson), I was out on the Halinn grounds and we ran into strong, nasty weather, hauled in the trawl and headed for land. But it was snowing, there was a raging storm and heavy frost, and that was when I felt in most danger at sea. And then there was the icing, you know. I was so tired of smashing the ice off all the ropes and as soon as I turned around everything was covered again.

In the old days sheep were grazed for the whole winter and in spring they started to get frisky when the grass started to sprout alongside the brooks in gullies, started to grow. Sometimes when a sheep went missing and you saw a snowdrift somewhere, well into the spring, if there was a little grass sprouting alongside the snowdrift, you could always be sure the sheep was there. The sheep never left those gullies the whole winter and it was warm. I remember that because I was a kid on the farm and I was like the family dog, they sent me out to fetch the sheep from the snowdrifts.


Photograph: (above) Roni Horn (2007)