The Icelandic dalalæða is an elusive natural phenomenon of fog waterfalls. When a dalalæða crawls along a valley and bumps into obstructions, it causes waterfalls of fog flowing over rocks and tumbling down the mountain tops. In this story you can see what that looks like!
What is a dalalæða?
Fog and clouds are the eclipse chaser’s and aurora hunter’s biggest enemy. But sometimes, if the conditions are right, they can also create something truly spectacular.
A magical phenomenon that literally produces waterfalls of fog.
I was incredibly lucky to run into this by chance on Heimaey (Vestmannaeyjar), a beautiful island just off the south coast of Iceland. A dalalæða suddenly unfolded and wrapped itself around the island, while I was standing on a mountain top right in the middle of it.
Midnight moonrise over Helgafell, just before an epic dalalæða comes flowing in…
Midnight sun and midnight moon
The setting sun can create quite some stunning special effects. It’s always captivating to see it plunging down into the sea, and light up the sky in brilliant colours. It had been a blissfully warm & sunny day (yes, that can actually happen in Iceland… 😉 ) and there would be a full moon that evening.
So I went for a midnight scramble on the cliffs around Herjólfsdalur, to watch the sun set and the moon rise in radiant glowing skies. On a full moon night, this happens at the same time, on opposite sides of the horizon.
Herjólfsdalur, the natural amphitheatre of Heimaey is a spectacular sight at any time. When it’s basking in the glow of the midnight sunset it’s even more enchanting.
Midnight sunset on Herjólfsdalur.
Distant sea fog rolling in.
Then suddenly a distant fog came rolling in from the sea, slowly engulfing the entire island. It was lying low on the horizon, just off the south-east coast of Heimaey, as the full moon came rising up above the Helgafell volcano. That was a stunning sight already, and actually what I came to see on my midnight walkabout.
But the magnificent display of fog that was about to ensue completely stole the show.
Dalalæða flowing into Heimaey.
Sea fog rolling over Bjarnarey, covering the island like a blanket.
Dalalæða crawling in from the sea between Eyjafjallajökull and Klif.
Waves of fog pouring in
The mysterious fog rolled over the outlying islands of Bjarnarey and Elliðaey, covering them like a blanket. It gushed into Heimaey harbour and flowed across the town below, wrapping itself around the nearby kletturs and volcanoes one by one. Then it slowly crawled up around Eldfell, like mysterious fingers of fog.
It looked like steam was coming off the crater itself.
Fog waterfalls gushing into Heimaey harbour.
Dalalæða steaming off the Eldfell volcano.
Heimaklettur surrounded by the rising fog.
Engulfed by waterfalls of fog
The fog kept rising up around the harbour cliffs, covering the sea around them. Then it came pouring over the edges of the ridge where I was standing. Suddenly there were waterfalls of fog flowing over the rocks all around me.
I’ve never seen anything like it. It was incredibly beautiful. I just stood there for well over an hour, utterly mesmerized, as I watched it all unfold from my clear and lofty viewpoint above.
Until it was finally swallowed up by the fog as well.
Spectacular waterfalls of fog pouring over the cliffs.
Viral video potential
I wish I had taken a video of these amazing fog waterfalls too! It may well have become viral, like this famous example. What I witnessed that night was definitely on the same scale of spectacular stuff.
Unfortunately I didn’t think of filming it at the time. I was just too excited, as I jumped around from one ridge to another, focussed on capturing this otherworldly beauty in pictures…
Dalalæða flowing over the ridge into Herjólfsdalur.
Klif being swallowed by giant waterfalls of fog.
As the fog washed over the island, I had to find my way off the mountain through the thick of it. But I know the Herjólfsdalur track very well, so I didn’t mind. And it was still light enough in the middle of the night.
I was so exhilerated to have witnessed such a magical sight. I couldn’t believe my luck; that I was standing just in the right place at the right moment when this incredible dalalæða accidently happened. Now I have got to see another one! & get a video next time. So yes, there’s yet another thing I need to hunt – besides northern lights, solar eclipses and volcanic eruptions… 😉
Misty harbour lights at the bottom of the track.
Dalalæða fog – the valley crawler
When I saw the spectacular waterfalls of fog, I didn’t know there was actually a name for this phenomenon. A few days later I found out it’s called a dalalæða in Icelandic. It’s an untranslatable word for a low-lying fog that flows into a valley and sneaks up the surrounding hillsides, rocks and mountains.
Dalalæðas can occur on calm and clear nights after a warm & sunny day. They can be generated when warm air rises up from the ground, and quickly cools off when it collides with colder air circulating above. The lower air layer becomes saturated and drops down into foggy fingers, crawling along the surface and flowing upwards when it bumps into obstructions, such as mountains and islands.
Læða is also the Icelandic word for a female cat.
A puffin on the cliffs of Herjólfsdalur. They are feeling comfortable & cozy in the fog.
Where is Vestmannaeyjar?
Vestmannaeyjar is a volcanic chain of islands just off the south coast of Iceland, directly across from Eyjafjallajökull. They are also known as the Westman Islands. The main island of Heimaey may look tiny on the map, but there’s a lot of spectacular scenery densely compressed into its 13,4 square kilometres. The ferry to Heimaey departs from Landeyjahöfn harbour and takes 35 minutes. You’ll see the turn-off to Landeyjahöfn near the Seljalandsfoss waterfall on the Ring Road.
Hiking routes on Heimaey
Do you want to see more of this beautiful island? In this article you can explore the numerous Vestmannaeyjar walking tracks. I watched the dalalæða flowing in from the HáHá plateau, on the eastern side of the walking track around Herjólfsdalur.
This is one of the top-5 blog posts of 2017.
Earth Science Picture of the Day
Two of my dalalæða pictures were published as Earth Science Picture of the Day on 28 August 2017. I am honoured to be featured on this renowned science site, that showcases the beauty of nature and offers explanations about a wide range of fascinating phenomena occurring all around the world. The article shows the pictures of the dalalæða fog flowing into town, and pouring like a waterfall over the edges of the cliffs.
(c) Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High
Have you seen a dalalæða or a similar natural phenomenon? Let me know in the comment box at the bottom of this page. Your input can also be valuable for other readers. Thank you for sharing. 💚
Last update: 3 June 2023
First published: 18 July 2017
Sea fog and midnight sunset.
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