Independent People on an Iceland Journey (continued)

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.

The countryside

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.

Black sand beach
Photo shoot at the black sand beach

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.

See any trolls or hideaways?

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)

Independent People on an Iceland Journey

          Iceland is that island on my map that is a little to the right of Greenland, a bit further to the left of Norway, and on a northwest diagonal from the Faroe Islands. (Until recently, I was not sure whether Iceland was east or west of Greenland, and I was unaware of the Faroes.) Two facts I heard over and over on my trip to Iceland is that it is located in the North Atlantic and that it is small, both physically and in population.

          Apparently because Americans (I am in this group) cannot readily understand land mass numbers—Iceland comprises 102,775 square kilometers, that is, 39,682 square miles—small countries are often compared to the size of some U.S. state. When I was in Israel, the comparison was to New Jersey, which surely was the foundation for a joke. The analogy I heard for Iceland was Ohio, which comprises 116,096 square kilometers.

          Americans also seem to want the physical size of a place given in driving terms. Iceland’s Route 1, known as the Ring Road, mostly circles the island, and it is 821 miles in length. The Ring Road was finished only in 1974; before that many parts of the country were effectively isolated from each other. It is now paved and in good shape. Considering how hard the winters and springs are supposed to be, I was surprised to see no potholes. Except in some cities where it is wider and for some one-lane bridges and tunnels, it has two lanes, and the speed limit is the equivalent of 55 mph. You can do the arithmetic to figure out how long it would take to drive the whole thing.

          The population of places in my experience is just given as a number without any American comparison. Iceland has about 370,000 inhabitants, but let’s give some U.S. numbers. Ohio has nearly 12 million people, and the greater Columbus area has over 2 million residents. Wyoming has the smallest population of the American states, and it has 576,000 residents (and it still gets two Senators.)

          Just the name Iceland implies a harsh climate, and that topic seems to play a role in every one of the eight or nine books I have read set in or about the country. While Iceland does have prominent glaciers, the climate’s harshness, on the one hand, is overstated. For example, in Reykjavik, which is in the southwest corner of the Island, the average high and low temperatures in January are 35 and 27 degrees Fahrenheit. In Akureyri, the largest town in the north, they are 34 and 22 degrees. Much of the northern tier of the United States is colder. Where I grew up the average temperatures in January are 30 and 15 degrees, and Sheboygan is hardly the coldest place in the continental United States Iceland’s snowfall is also not spectacularly high compared to many places in the United States. Reykjavik averages 20 inches of snow in January, while Buffalo, New York, averages 27 inches. Even so, stories about towns isolated by snows are a common feature of Icelandic books. Snowblind, the first book in an excellent mystery story series by Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates) is an example. I am guessing the isolation caused by snow results partly from the climate’s harshness but also from the sparsely settled landscape. Plowing the 800 miles of the Ring Road must take a bit of time.

          On the other hand, Iceland does not get very warm during the summer with average highs and lows in Reykjavik of 58 and 48 degrees in July. And on the third hand, Iceland, I am assured, feels colder than other places because of regular high winds. Icelanders seldom carry umbrellas because, I was told, the rain comes sideways, not vertically

          Iceland’s geology is another dominant topic. As I have confessed before, I have a block when it comes to learning geology, but I think I am doing better, partly because I went to a good Icelandic museum on volcanoes with outstanding interactive displays.

If I got this right, the distinctive geology has to do with tableware displays. Iceland is at the conjunction of two things I think are called textile dishes, although the one on the European side might be called the Teutonic plate. For some reason I don’t fully grasp, the table is slowly drifting apart, a centimeter or two each year. Perhaps it is because of the frequent earthquakes (100 a year). Or perhaps the earthquakes are caused by the drifting plates. Whatever. It must be for the same reason that the pictures on my wall regularly go out of skew.

You might think that the moving dishes and plates would cause them to fall off the table and smash into pieces, as no doubt—don’t pretend otherwise—has happened in your home. But no, the drifting allows stuff to come up from below, as if it were a dog in the cellar that darts through the opening when the door is opened. Apparently this dog comes up from the center of the earth, which only superheroes, Jules Verne, and trolls (there are many trolls in Iceland) have ever seen. That stuff I think is Magnum Bars, which I learned about on a trip to Turkey. A good treat, but then again, it may not be Magnum Bars since the stuff that’s oozing to the surface because of jiggling plates (perhaps they are spinning on rods like those frantic entertainers on the Ed Sullivan Show) is hot, not just warm, but hot, hot, hot, seriously hot. And when this hot stuff escapes to Iceland’s surface all sorts of things happen—most dramatically and significantly, volcanoes.

Volcanic eruptions are not one in a hundred-year events in Iceland. A volcano erupted without warning on an island just off the “mainland” in 1973. Luckily, the fishing fleet was in the harbor and safely evacuated 5,300 people. Seawater was sprayed onto the advancing lava flow to stop it from destroying the harbor. Another volcano did its thing in 2011, and yet another one erupted in 2014 for 180 days, which spewed large amounts of sulphur dioxide into the air, making it hard for many Icelanders to breathe. In 2021, a volcano near Reykjavik erupted attracting hundreds of thousands who hiked to watch it. In short, these eruptions happen with disturbing regularity.

(to be continued)