Are you ready to live through winter-like conditions next summer? Then you might want to watch a tiny island country for the foreseeable future. It’s Iceland, a special place for many reasons, and well worth your time getting to know it better.
Why should you be concerned with a small volcano on a tiny island nation so far away? Because sometime in the future it could affect your quality of life. Volcanic activity has always been a precursor to large eruptions under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in southern Iceland. In 1783 an eruption killed a fifth of the population by famine, and created severe climate disruptions across Europe. Even today, a large ash-producing eruption could cause rapid, if temporary, climate changes in the northern hemisphere. Geologic evidence points to many past events in human history.
My wife Claire and I rode mountain bikes across the center of Iceland one spring. We found ourselves surrounded by a stunning landscape of green meadows dotted with sheep and horses, sod covered homesteads, snow-capped mountains against cobalt blue skies, an omnipresent northern ocean, crystal rivers and thundering white waterfalls. In fact, the island nation is so full of extremes, we found the landscape slightly unsettling. Everywhere we saw evidence of the violence that created Iceland. Gray volcanic rock, collapsed lava tubes, and active steam vents cuddle up against villages of brightly painted homes.
Iceland is a magical place for more than just its landscape. Possibly because of the harshly beautiful landscape, Icelanders believe a variety of wee beings share their magic island: elves, fairies, dwarfs, mountain spirits, hidden people, gnomes, and lovelings. Most modern Icelanders scoff at the beliefs, and yet many still believe in these beings. In recent years, local authorities relocated at least one road because of unnatural events ultimately blamed on the wee people.
Iceland is part of the Mid Atlantic Ridge, an area where Earth’s crust rises above sea level, continually ripping apart as the tectonic plates slide on the molten mantle. In one photo we took, Claire is straddling the North American plate and the Euro-Asian plate. (See photo below)Iceland is splitting apart slowly and consistently – and yet the people thrive. From its small population of less than 300,000, Iceland has produced many internationally acclaimed writers, painters and musicians. Could the belief in wee people have something to do with their creativity? Go ask a gnome. After all, Iceland is a place of magic.
All this volcanic activity so close to the surface has been a blessing and curse to Icelanders since its earliest settlements. Steam from vents warms homes, produces electricity, and draws tourists during the short summer. Where there is steam, there is fire and water. With lots of precipitation and a location barely kissing the Arctic Circle, Iceland is a unique land with its unusual combination of fire, ice, and rumbling rivers.
Iceland has the third, fourth, and fifth largest ice sheets on Earth – quite a distinction for such a small island nation. Rivers are harnessed for electricity to smelt aluminum as thundering waterfalls carry the rain and glacier melt to the sea. Aluminum ore arrives from all over the world, coming to this small island because of access to cheap hydro-electric power. In recent years, the aluminum smelting industry has been a major contributor to Iceland’s economy, overtaking commercial fishing, an industry in trouble because of increasing competition in the North Atlantic fishery.
The harnessing of rivers has become a contentious issue with Icelanders. While they like the economic benefits, they aren’t so sure about the environmental consequences. They’re also afraid of the consequences to the unmatched purity of their gene pool due to an influx of foreign smelter workers into their island country.
We met a young Icelander, a ranger assigned to a national park in the far north. She is pure Icelandic, lovely and pleasant. She studies opera in Europe, and works summers to pay for her education. We asked about her lineage, and how she could trace her heredity to early settlements of Iceland by the Norse. For years, scientists have used Iceland as a place to study the genetic makeup of humans because the line goes back to the 9th century. These isolated genes were halfway between continents and located far into the inhospitable north. There was little to gain for others in conquering this small island, so Icelanders were left to fight among themselves, and then write epic stories about the battles.
With new gene sequencing methods, it won’t matter much to science if the Icelandic pool loses its purity, but it’s still important to the people of Iceland. I wouldn’t call it racism in this case, but more akin to their cultural pride. There might be a change in attitude if pure Icelanders begin to intermarry with foreign workers brought in to do the backbreaking and isolated work at the smelters. The social contract within Icelandic culture has many subtleties not easily assimilated or even understood by outsiders. That, of course, is part of the charm of Iceland and its people.
For the well-prepared visitor who arrives properly clothed for wind, rain and snow, bringing along a reasonable amount of cash, Iceland will be a very special treat. Travelers looking for just a bit of adventure, exciting landscapes, and a rather different culture, will find what they are looking for. What they find certainly won’t disappoint them.
In the meantime, let’s hope that Iceland’s fire stays beneath its ice.