Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Sand Tour

The most adventurous of my Thanksgiving week adventures with Michelle was going on the “sand tour” to see northern Denmark’s sandiest attractions. To most people out there (although maybe not the geologists), sand does not initially seem so exciting…but since this northern tip of the country is full of large, rapidly migrating sand dunes, there are a lot of nifty places where you can see how the sand has moved over recent human history. As a geologist, I’m used to thinking about the earth and landforms changing drastically over time, but it’s not often you can see so plainly how much the land has changed on a human time scale. Apparently IFM used to take visitors on this regional “sand tour” to see some of the most interesting sights in the area, and Doug (one of the researchers here) offered to take Michelle and I on this tour.

We started south of Hirtshals at the Mårup Church, which is notable because erosion on the western coast of Denmark including near this church is slowly bring the church close to falling into the North Sea. It didn’t seem too much in danger of falling in while we were there, but there is already a little chunk that has been reclaimed by the sea.

Since there are a lot of churches in Denmark (each little town has its own), it makes sense that there would be lots of churches succumbing to the sand movements in the changing landscape. At the end of the day, after we drove north to Skagen, we saw another church that is literally half buried in a sand dune – the part you can see sticking up above the sand used to be the tower above the main portion of the church that also extended further back and is now completely covered. (Although I must admit, you couldn’t really tell that the exposed part wasn’t the whole church, and we joked that it would be a pretty good prank to build part of a church, bring in some sand, and then say it had been buried by a sand dune so you could call it a tourist attraction.)

Doug told us that the Danes have actually spent many years debating what to do about these churches and other landmarks threatened by the moving sand dunes. Options include everything from trying to prevent erosion a la Jersey shore (not an attractive idea) to moving the building to a safer location either close nearby or in a collection of historic buildings to just letting it fall into the ocean as the erosion continues. Denmark has in the past managed some rather impressive changes to combat the problems of sand erosion, mostly after deforestation left the soil vulnerable and massive labor forces had to be generated to plant new trees and try to revitalize the soil (they plowed almost all of Denmark’s soil with lime to increase the pH)…but it seems as if in the case of the Mårup Church it’s mostly talk and they’ll probably still be talking until the church falls into the North Sea.

Sand burial, however, has made some cool places for exploring. The best by far was the Rubjerg Knude Fyr, a lighthouse near Lønstrup (slightly south of Hirtshals) built in 1900 that was taken out of operation in 1968 due to the sand drift. They’ve stopped trying to fight the sand and predict that the lighthouse will be entirely buried within a few years, but for right now, it’s still sticking out of the top of the dune. It’s a big dune – big enough that sand sledding has become fairly popular on the side of the dune here.

It was a really foggy day, which was unfortunate for the view (which is apparently spectacular), but made for quite a surreal sight when we finished scrambling to the top of the dune.

And – even cooler – although technically the lighthouse is closed to visitors, there’s a window that hasn’t been boarded up at the current ground level where you can crawl in. So, of course, we did.*

First we went into what must have once been a side building attached to the main lighthouse tower, now just a small space between the tower and the dune outside.

And then crawled through into the main lighthouse itself.

And then climbed up. Despite the lighthouse being significantly filled in with sand, it was still a long way up.

After a few flights of stairs, we got to the light itself…but still not the top. That was another flight of stair still, to the lookout area.

It was too cloudy to see all the way along the coastline the way I hear you can on a clear day, but it was still neat to stand at the very top of a lighthouse in a sand dune looking out at the North Sea.

Our next stop was not sand-related, but Doug told us that it was important that we see a “typical Danish menagerie.” I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I definitely wasn’t expecting this in Denmark.

A local artist made all of these concrete-wire-industrial parts sculptures, and though everyone thought he was kind of nuts while he was alive, the town discovered that they were curious enough pieces to make a sculpture garden that attracts tourists, so now northern Denmark advertises this odd menagerie as a place you should see when traveling in the area.

The last stop on the sand tour combined sand and wildlife. All the sand that’s been eroding off the west coast of Jutland has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is to the very tip of the country at Skagen, which has been gradually extending over the years as the sand accumulates. This was vividly illustrated as we drove past a succession of four lighthouses that have marked the tip of Denmark over the years: the first we passed was a reconstruction of a 17th century wooden crane-looking apparatus which held a fire in a bucket (you can see a picture and a better description here), which was followed by three other progressively more recent lighthouses we passed as we drove north. Even the one currently in use is a decent ways back from the current tip of the land – this is the view of the lighthouse just after dusk looking south from the current end of the sand.

Which means…I’ve actually been to the very end of Denmark – walked out along the sandy spit called Grenen at the tip of the country that divides the Kattegat and the Skagerrak and marks the entrance to the Baltic Sea from the Atlantic. Michelle walked out to the end, which does not look as momentous as it seems it should be.

More momentous, however, was the wildlife. The graffiti on the concrete building near the parking area advertised an impressive array of birds.

We didn’t spot any more exciting birds than gulls…but we did find a baby seal lying on the shore.

I like to think that its mother came back for it later, but chances are it was abandoned – although the abandoned seals usually cry, and this one wasn’t making any noise. There are apparently too many seals in the North Sea for them to be rescued by aquaria when they’re found stranded (the North Sea Museum says that if you find a baby seal you can call them and they’ll “put it away”), so there wasn’t really anything to do for it. But I felt pretty bad for this little seal out on the shore on a cold, foggy day with lots of people coming along and to take pictures of it…moral of the story: if you’re a seal mother and going to abandon your baby, at least find somewhere not full of tourists.

*For my worrying relatives, this was not a terribly risky move. Despite the lighthouse technically being closed to the public, there was a steady stream of people crawling in and climbing up. I suspect it’s technically closed because there’s nobody officially in charge of maintenance, but if they actually thought it was dangerous they’d probably close up the entrance.

No comments: