jfriedman July 17th, 2009
(Mareike 7.16.09): We arrived at Skaftafell National Park around 3 p.m. Since this is the European holiday season, there were many tourists and campers at the park. We headed out on a moderately steep trail to Svartifoss waterfall. Along the way we passed a smaller waterfall, at the head of which we found what we thought was a troll hut. Upon investigation, Bill and Tom found that the building actually contained a restored a restored turbine that was used to generate electricity for a local farm in the early 20th-century. We continued on to Svartifoss (“black falls”), a high falls that tumbles over a wall of basalt columns that appear from a distance to be massive wooden planks. From Svartifoss we traversed a high meadow Sjornarnipa, a point that overlooks the massive glacier, Skaftafelljökull. From this point we could see the broad, curved sweep of the glacier , which terminates in a series of small lakes and braided streams that run across the massive black plain to the sea.
ttierney July 17th, 2009
(Melissa and Joan 7.16.09): In 1932 a tongue of the Vatnajökull glacier, the largest in Europe, began to melt, creating a flow of water into the ocean. As the flow increased it formed a lagoon into which chunks of ice now float as they break loose from the glacier. This is the Jökullsarlon glacial lagoon, an ice fairyland. The lagoon is an astonishing 284 meters deep, making it the deepest lake or lagoon in Iceland. We rode in on an amphibious craft originally built for the US military in Stamford, CT, and cruised around, gaping at ice floes melting into fantastic forms and hoping to see some of the seals that live in the lagoon. (The guide said they were mostly at sea now, but Dale claims he saw one.)
The guide retrieved a chunk of clear ice from the lagoon about the size of a salmon from the Pike Street Market
and informed us that it was between 1000-1500 years old. She then broke off pieces with a hammer and gave us pieces to taste; it was absolutely clean and fresh-tasting. She explained that climate change is responsible for the melting, but here the glacier is melting at an accelerated rate because of the salt water that flows into the lagoon from the ocean. (Salt speeds melting by decreasing the freezing point, as we all know from our driveways in winter.) The lagoon is actually half salt water, and at this rate, the estimate is that it will disappear by the end of the century because this entire piece of the glacier will have melted. The ice, as you can see from the photos, looks blue in places. This is because water absorbs all other colors of the rainbow but reflects blue. However, the eye doesn’t notice the blue in small quantities of water or ice. (Lakes and oceans are blue, but a glass of water taken from them is clear.) The guide also told us that the ice we saw was only 10% of each little iceberg, with the other 90% underwater; at that point we checked to make sure that the amphibious craft’s name was not Titanic.
jfriedman July 17th, 2009
Since the short stop became a major excursion and late lunch (still only about 50 km outside of Reyk.), we arrived at our destination (Skaftafell National Park right on the edge of the Vatnajökull glacier – the largest one in Europe) at 9 P.M. , with still plenty of daylight, but unable to do any more hiking. So we picked up some trail maps and continued on to the town of Höfn, where we had hotel reservations (another 2 hours drive, which seemed longer because of frequent stops for unruly, free-ranging sheep). After a restful night in two very crammed rooms and a plentiful breakfast (pickled herring was enjoyed by two of us), we drove back towards the park and stopped on the way at the amazing glacial lagoon (Jökulsarlon), where we took a guided boat ride and learned about the ice and movements of the glaciers.
jfriedman July 17th, 2009
After visiting the geo-thermal plant, we continued toward Skaftafell National Park, but took what was supposed to be a short stop to satisfy European Mareike’s obsession with outdoor bathing (with suit). Our short detour turned into a 3-hour, fly-infested hike to sulfurous Shangri-la. We were headed for bathing pools that were heated by geo-thermal vents, recommended by Meagen Pollock. The fata morgana that drew us into this adventure into the wild was the steaming fumeroles that appeared after every turn or hill on the trail. We stopped numerous times to question the sanity of our quest, but each time concluded that the pools were just around the bend. With some minor casualties along the way – Dale got excessively wet fording one stream – we reached the confluence of two streams, one extremely hot and the other extremely cold, which created warm bathing pools. Mareike was able to soak for a few minutes in the deep pools, and the rest of us soaked our feet, upstream from Mareike. On the way to and from these pools, we crossed the mid-Atlantic rift , saw several wild sheep, numerous bubbling pools of black, smelly stuff that Mark Wilson can help identify.
jfriedman July 17th, 2009
After our breakfast with Sigridur we were supposed to meet with a representative of the Renewal Energy School of the university up in Akureyri (largest town on Iceland’s north coast) to tour a geo-thermal facility. Due to a scheduling conflict he was unable to meet with us, so we headed out early toward Skaftafell National Park on the Ring Road. On the way we stopped at the Hellisheidarvirkjun geothermal facility, and viewed some very informative video presentations on the natural history and geology of the area, and the workings of the geo-thermal facility. One of the video installations simulated some of the more recent earthquakes in Iceland, which occur every four years on average. When Bill and Mareike first activated the earthquake video, they both jumped in fright in response to the extremely loud boom. We all left the facility with a much clearer understanding of the way in which Iceland has been able to provide ample heat and electricity for their population of 300,000 through geothermal energy. It was easy to understand how Icelanders could become complacent with their environmental practices, given the sustainability of their geothermal system, which stands in stark contrast to the hydroelectric projects for providing energy for aluminum smelters. As Arni Finsson put it the night before at dinner, the hydroelectrically energized aluminum smelters amount to an energy exportation system, through which Iceland’s energy is exported in the form of aluminum cubes that are shipped to other countries for finished processing.
(Joan): I’ll leave it to Melissa to write the more detailed and correct explanation of the processes of the geo-thermal plant, but this is apparently a super-efficient plant. It sits on a site where there is volcanic magma underground, heating underground water. It uses the hot water pumped up from the earth to create steam to drive a turbine to produce electricity, and then uses the residual steam from that process to heat clean water to be piped to Reykjavik and elsewhere for hot water use. The system then returns the unfiltered water back into the ground to be reheated by the magma. This allows the system to be reused indefinitely — a completely renewable source of energy.
Here is the diagram of the system that is part of the self-guided tour there:
jfriedman July 16th, 2009
(Joan, 1:57 AM GMT, Friday, 17 July) I’ve been ordered by more senior faculty not to blog tonight, but as long as I’m waiting for the shower I thought I’d at least let you know that there won’t be anything new until tomorrow. We’ve been out in the boonies of Iceland where functioning internet connections are few and far between — lots to talk about and lots of great pictures, but it will have to wait until tomorrow. We’re all exhausted from two days of hiking and lots of driving, and we’ve got to be out of here at 6:00 am to get our flight to Denmark.
ttierney July 15th, 2009
We woke to beautiful blue skies on our second day in Reykjavik, and had a very informative breakfast (see photo) with Rev. Dr. Sigridur Gudmarsdottir, a Lutheran minister and passionate environmental activist. Sigridur explained to us that although it was not possible to stop the Karahnjukar hydroelectric, the next major environmental struggle in Iceland involves another hydroelectric project slated for Thjorsa river, in southeastern Iceland. The Thjorsa river is the longest in Iceland, running from the Myrdaljokull glacier to the sea, through a region that has numerous environmental and cultural treasures. A spectacular waterfall that is close to the mouth of the river, Urithafoss, is threatened by this project, as are the historical seat of the regional parliament and as-yet unexcavated sites from Iceland’s early settlements. This project is not required for a new smelting facility, but rather is part of the plan to expand an existing metal production facility near Keflavik, many kilometers from the river. This means that the locals who support it as a job-creating engine will not even be the ones to reap those benefits. Sigridur was somewhat optimistic that the lessons learned from the frustrating experience with the Karahnjukar project may lead to greater success in stopping the hydroelectric project planned for the Thjorsa.
In our conversation, Sigridur explained how the combination of the Karahnjukar experience and the recent collapse of the Icelandic banking system has led to a change in attitude — she called it “a conversion” — toward the environment among many Icelanders. Icelanders have long felt that they were environmentally conscious and careful, due to their extensive geo-thermal power-generating and water-heating system, but the flooding of a vast pristine area for the Karahnjukar hydroelectric dam shattered that self-image. That combined with the international damage caused by the banking catastrophe are making them aware that they need to reflect much more carefully about the impact of their choices. She was visibly excited that the normally staid Icelandic population rose up in anger at the governmental leadership, and removed them from power this past year. Even more surprising to her was a demonstration that culminated in the crowd burning the national Christmas tree, an annual gift to Iceland from Norway. From the impression given by Sigridur, Iceland is about to enter a more reflective stage of environmentalism, where the myth of Icelandic environmental specialness gives way to a more sober assessment of the trade offs between the economy and the environment.
The Lutheran Church of Iceland is the state church, to which about 85% of the population belongs, at least nominally, so we asked about the church’s role in the environmental debate. Sigridur’s response was that it has done nothing, and to date has shown very little interest in the issue, for several reasons. First, since it is a state-supported institution, the leadership is reluctant to rock the boat – or jeopardize its position – by criticizing the government. Second, the Icelandic Lutheran church (unlike the ELCA, the largest US Lutheran grouping) still adheres to a traditional theology emphasizing human sinfulness and the need for divine grace, and this can foster a certain apathy toward problems in the world, including environmental issues. Third, the rethinking that both Arni and Sigridur pointed to is still largely a product of the educated urban class; pastors of churches out in the rural areas tend to agree more with the perspective of their parishioners, who still look to energy development – realistically or not – to provide jobs. An exception to this, Sigridur mentioned, is a friend of hers who serves a church near the site of the proposed dam mentioned above. He is strenuously opposed to it, but speaking out publicly, she said, is for him “a matter of life and death.” Fourth, in such a small country (pop. 300,000), everyone is either related to or knows practically everyone else, so people are reluctant to criticize, even when criticism is deserved. Finally, there is a widespread view among members of the church (as in many religious institutions in the US) that when they come to a service they want to hear a sermon on “religion, not politics.”
Here’s a telling coincidence: We just stopped (Thursday morning) at a roadside memorial to Jon Eiricksson, a native Icelander born out here on a farm near Hofn, whose intellectual brilliance led him to a distinguished academic career in Denmark, where he became a central figure of the Enlightenment. He returned to Iceland with great plans for progressive reforms, but as he grew older he fell into depression because of the Icelanders’ resistance to all his ideas. It seems that today’s attitudes have deep roots.
Dale: 7/16/09 I also was struck with Sigridur’s passion for the environment and by her comment about the importance of place and history in the Icelandic sense of identity. Unfortunately, she fears that in their current economic crisis, many Icelanders have either forgotten this or consider it insignificant. The proposed hydro project that Tom mentioned above would not only destroy or alter wildlife habitat, but would flood out important historical areas from the Viking era and land traditionally used by farmers for generations.
ttierney July 14th, 2009
Joan and Melissa 7/14/09: Reykjavik is a city of disconcerting contrast. The downtown has some broad streets, but mostly the streets are narrow enough for only one car, or barely two. Most of the older buildings downtown are small, no more than three stories, and obviously used to be homes before they were divided into apartments, stores, restaurants, and an amazing number of coffeehouses. We have noticed that a good number of the buildings have painted, corrugated galvanized steel. If you are a cat person, Reykjavik is your city. There are a large number of cats (with collars) roaming the streets. As long as you keep your eye on the city streets, it just seems that you are in a small, very windy but otherwise unremarkable city – and then you look down one of the narrow streets that end at the harbor, and suddenly your entire perspective shifts. Across the slate grey harbor and its whitecaps rises Snaefells, an imposing mountain, grey and barren, with traces of snow on it, dwarfing the city and making you realize that you are one of a very small number of people (300,000) on an island the size of Kentucky in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean.
We arrived from the airport, dropped our suitcases at the guesthouse – which is in a gentrifying part of downtown, rather close to the red light district – and wandered off in search of breakfast around 8:00 am. The streets were empty and most restaurants were not open; we began to wonder if this was some sort of holiday. So we were quite pleased to find a place that offered good food, very good coffee, and free wi-fi. We parked ourselves there for close to 3 hours, during which time we realized that in this city nothing starts before 9:00 am. Very civilized.
The film Dreamland was showing here this spring and broke all records for attendance, but it’s left the theaters and hasn’t been released yet on DVD, so that was off the day’s options list. We walked through the downtown to the Tjörnin, a large pond where people come to feed the ducks, geese, and gulls. City Hall was built on pillars in a corner of the Tjörnin; we went in and found a huge relief map of Iceland. From there we walked down to the National Museum, where we spent some hours browsing through an extensive and excellent exhibit on the history of Iceland. We were hoping to visit the Culture House as well, just to see the manuscripts of the sagas, but we were too tired. On our way back to the guesthouse we met up with Meagen Pollock and her three geology students and had a little Wooster reunion back at the Tjörnin with the water fowl. One of her students informed the group of the differences between basalt and rhyolite, two common igneous rocks, that are commonly found in Iceland.
Mareike 7/14/09: Met with Arni Finsson today, had a lovely dinner (during which jetlag caught up with Melissa a few times, and the rest of us acted as if we didn’t notice). I admit I was the only one who did not have fish, instead I went for the delicious roasted lamb. We had interesting discussions about Iceland and its independent streak, which he compared to the Alaskan spirit of the frontier and the stubborn attitudes people have in light of their resource extraction economy. This leads to conflicts between people’s love of nature and their unwillingness to compromise regional development (i.e., aluminum smelters in Iceland, pipelines in Alaska). Finsson explained that, within its own culture, Iceland tends not to be rebellious, except in issues of nationalism or independence. This leads them to be stubborn against others, whom they perceive to be intruding or telling them what to do (the EU, Denmark, …). I am thinking of Halldor Laxness’s novel Independent People (1955), which describes just this kind of stubborn will to be independent in a farmer who worked for 18 years for others to finally get his own piece of land in the early 20th century, and he is not going to swerve from this goal, even if it means his demise and that of his wife. Finsson mentioned an interesting piece by Laxness entitled “War Against the Land”. It’s published in “Overshadowed Places” – and the only thing I can find online is an interesting article about it. See here: http://www.doubledialogues.com/archive/issue_seven/rawlings.html It contains an interesting parallel (and then distinction) between Iceland and Australia.
Bill 7.14.09 After a morning regaining our strength in a local coffee shop, we trekked over to the National Museum of Iceland <http://www.natmus.is>. The museum showcases the early history of Iceland, and was an excellent introduction for putting our visit in a larger, historical context.
In the evening, we dined with Arni Finnson at a small restaurant across from the Althing (parliament) Building. Finnson is an environmental activist from Iceland <http://www.natturan.is/frettir/1679/>, who studied in Copenhagen.
Since returning to Iceland nearly a decade ago, Finnson has worked relentlessly on environmental issues in Iceland <add link>. During dinner with our group, Finnson noted that the Iceland environmental movement has achieve both successes and disappointments in championing environmental protection. Interestingly, much of the success has been thanks to external institutions, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) <http://www.worldwildlife.org/>.
Eventually our conversation turned to Iceland’s recent economic collapse. Finsson recounted speaking with an Icelandic business colleague several years ago who commented that Iceland’s banking practices were inherently unstable and that this financial bubble would ultimately burst. A year before the collapse, even Iceland’s politicians should have know that the banking system was increasingly insolvent and stemmed the losses before they ballooned further. However, rather than acknowledge and deal with an unpopular mess while it might still be manageable, they remained silent until collapse of the Icelandic banking system finally resulted.
Just before our departure, I finished reading Limits to Growth (2004) <http://www.amazon.com/Limits-Growth-Donella-H-Meadows/dp/193149858X>, a 30-year update to the original report that questioned whether continual economic growth was sustainable. Based on modeling analysis and increasing physical evidence, they argue that continued growth is unsustainable and will lead to societal collapse. While they argue that time is running out and that further delay reduces our flexibility to respond, they urge world leaders to recognize and respond to the approaching crisis. If it’s politically unfeasible for government leaders to acknowledge a potentially devastating situation that imperils a national economic institution, can we genuninely expect our governmental leaders to initiate change to rescue us from impending global challenges, such as climate change? Or is it inherently the fate of human societies to ignore the warning signs of potential danger until it’s too late?
ttierney July 14th, 2009
(Tom) We arrived in Reykjavik around 6:30 a.m., safe and sound. The only glitch was a delay in our leg from Philadelphia to Boston, due to thunder storms. We barely made our flight to Reykjavik from Boston, and were worried that our bags wouldn’t make it, but they did.
(Mareike) Now we’re waking up thanks to some strong Icelandic coffee (Kattifár) and – finally – some food. Hanging out with the locals – it’s a happening place. The ride from the airport gave us a great impression of this island – lots of different rocks (help us Mark and Meagen!), moss, grassy uninhabited fields, fishing villages on the coastline. Have to find out what’s up with all the cairns – piled up stones, is there any more to them than just markers?
(Joan) Dashing through Logan Airport to make our flight to Reykjavik was not the ideal way to begin the trip; five more minutes of delay in Philadelphia and we would have lost the first day of our trip. But we made it. Flying into Keflavik looks like landing on the surface of the moon — bare brown rock, very rough and uneven. All along the ride from the airport to the city all I could think was how bleak it is. The places where trees and grass have been planted are an enormous contrast.
(Dale)–I love the bright colors on the roof tops, a must to cheer folks up on those winter days. It really does look like the moon in places, maybe like a cross between the moon and Alaska without trees. The air is clean and crips and I really want to get out and hike throught the country.
(Melissa) — The architecture is very interesting. It is as if Ikea designs houses:) So far the food has been very vegetarian friendly, and we have not encountered any trolls.
(Bill’s post later)