That Icelanders are obsessed with volcanoes is perfectly understandable because their land has so many of them. They were mentioned over and over by our guide. It is telling that in the recent, very good novel, Miss Iceland, by Auour Ava Olafsdóttir, each time the main character (named Hekla after a volcano) talks to her father, he discusses volcanoes and the likelihood of another eruption that he can watch.
Iceland has given the world many things: fish, meat, and wool; music, literature, and mystery series; movies and television shows; a famous chess match and an important summit. But perhaps its most infamous contribution has been volcanic schmutz. A volcano erupted in 2010 spewing ash into the atmosphere which spread over parts of Europe causing the shutdown of airplane traffic. The big one, however, was in 1783, when a volcano erupted for eight months pouring lava out of 135 fissures and craters that covered about 1,000 square miles. The eruption spewed a huge amount of ash into the air, ash that contained fluorine, poisoning animals, fields, and the ocean. A resulting famine killed a fifth of the Icelandic population.
The ash got into the upper atmosphere, absorbing sunlight and moisture, and changed the world’s climate. For the next several years, the Northern Hemisphere experienced ruinous droughts, exceptionally cold winters, and disastrous floods. The winter average temperatures in the eastern United States were seven degrees Fahrenheit colder than the subsequent two-century averages. Food shortages were widespread, including in France, perhaps promoting the French Revolution a half decade later.
I did not see an active volcano, but the results of past eruptions are omnipresent—lava flows, lava rocks, and basalt can be seen on just about any drive.
Hikes to and around volcanic craters were part of our trip as was a famous black sand beach of pulverized lava. At the black sand beach, we were repeatedly warned not to get close to the water for periodically a sudden large wave was possible, and similar ones have washed people out to sea. Signs at the beach reiterated the guide’s words saying that the beach had “sneaker waves.” The beach’s fame extends beyond Iceland. A photo shoot was going on there with people dressed in fantastical costumes that maybe were period pieces, but of no period I could identify. I asked one of the people involved in the activity what was going on and was told that they were Germans shooting a travel documentary. I still couldn’t make sense of it, and it seems highly unlikely that I will ever see the finished product.
Iceland also has geysers that I assume are somehow connected to the volcanic activity (I’ve already admitted to my limited geological expertise). One puts to shame Yellowstone’s Old Faithful where I had to wait an hour for the spouting. The Icelandic one shoots up once–even twice–every two to four minutes. Quite a sight, but it made me a little sad as I was reminded of my earlier sex life.
Almost everywhere on the island are rock formations where, with a little imagination, you can see giant faces and little hideaways. It makes it easy to understand why Icelandic myth is filled with stories about trolls who turn to stone if they are caught out in daylight.
The geology that produces volcanoes also produces geothermal pools and other sources of natural hot water. We visited a geothermal plant where that water is used to drive turbines to generate electricity. The plant employees were proud of a pioneering effort to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, pump it down to the geothermal pools where it turns into calcite. In short, they’re turning CO2 into stone!
The geothermal hot water is also used to heat homes some 60+ miles away in Reykjavik. Then the still-warm water drains under streets and sidewalks to melt snow and ice. Iceland’s abundant streams and waterfalls are also used to generate electricity; not surprisingly, then, electricity is inexpensive. This has led to an incongruous industry: Even though it does not have bauxite and does not have much industry depending on the metal, Iceland is a leader in aluminum smelting, which requires a significant amount of electricity and abundant water. It was done in a narrow, non-descript building hundreds of yards long outside Reykjavik.
Not all Icelanders are pleased with the power lines and the industrial uses of the electricity. At least that is what is indicated by the excellent Icelandic movie, Woman at War (made in conjunction with Ukraine), in which a 49-year-old choir director with expert command of bow and arrow, sabotages power lines, including ones to that self-same aluminum smelting plant.
(to be continued)