Iceland: Landscapes of Fire and Ice

Iceland’s physical geography can be summarized in three words: fire, ice, and sea. The island country rose from the sea as molten volcanic material. Today, approximately one-eighth of Iceland remains buried under glacial ice or permanent snow cover, but volcanic activity continues to be an omnipresent threat to the island’s people and property. As in the past, the population still depends heavily on the sea for things as far ranging as the relatively mild climate and the variety of marine resources to support the economy.

On first glance, it would seem that few countries have less to offer its residents than does Iceland. Yet in few other lands have people better adapted to their natural environment, or taken greater advantage of what nature has to offer. Located near the Arctic Circle and relatively small in area (about the size of Virginia), Iceland has very limited productive land.About 79 percent of the island is classified as wasteland, covered by glaciers, snowfields, desert, lava flows, mountains, or urban settlement. Approximately 20 percent of its area is pastureland, which supports Iceland’s thriving livestock grazing industry. Only about 1 percent of the country is suitable for the growing of such hearty crops as hay, potatoes, and turnips. In this chapter, you will learn about Iceland’s physical conditions and how they have proven to be both hazard and blessing.

THE MID-ATLANTIC RIDGE

Iceland is home to and has been shaped by the primary forces that have molded the entire earth: volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and erosion. Some scientists believe that these forces are more active on Iceland than in any other country in the world. In fact, Iceland’s more than 200 volcanoes have unleashed an estimated one-third of Earth’s total output of lava during the past five centuries. On average, one eruption occurs every five years; fortunately, however, such events rarely happen where anyone lives.

The island of Iceland is located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a huge rupture zone on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. This underwater mountain range is part of a continuous 37,000-mile-long (60,000 kilometers) backbone of Earth that extends from the Arctic Ocean to beyond the southern tip of Africa, and continues on through both the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The ridge marks the “zone of divergence” that comprises the points from which the ocean floors spread. (Most movement of the earth’s surface occurs along narrow zones, or boundaries, between the earth’s plates. Divergent boundaries are those where new crust is produced as the earth’s plates pull away from each other; perhaps the best known of the divergent boundaries is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.)

The spreading movement in the ocean floor is referred to as sea floor spreading and is a part of the plate tectonic process popularly called “continental drift,” in which the positions of landmasses on Earth’s surface slowly (about one inch [2.5 centimeters] a year) but constantly change in relation to other landmasses. For example, the North American continent is moving westward from Europe. Africa is moving northward toward Europe. India is moving northward, essentially “crashing” into Asia and in the process creating the towering Himalayas. Sea floor spreading over the past 100 to 200 million years has caused the Atlantic Ocean to grow from a tiny inlet of water between the continents of Europe, Africa, and North and South America into the vast ocean we know today.

From its position straddling the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the volcanic island of Iceland offers scientists a wonderful natural laboratory for studying on land those processes occurring along the submerged parts of the ridge. Iceland is a product of the continual splitting along the spreading center of the ridge located between the North American and Eurasian Plates. The resulting volcanic eruptions over the past 20 million years or so allowed enough magma to well up and accumulate to form the island country. This makes Iceland a very young country, geologically. It will continue to change, and to experience both volcanic and seismic (earthquake) activity as the plates continue to move very slowly apart.

GLACIERS

As mentioned earlier, Iceland is not really a land buried under vast expanses of ice, as its name suggests. The island’s glaciers are not remnants of the Ice Age; rather, they have developed during the past few thousand years. There are five major glaciers, the largest of which is Vatnajokull (jokull means “glacier”). This 3,180-square-mile (8,236 square kilometers) ice mass, located in the southeast, covers an area greater than the island’s other four glaciers combined. Its ice reaches a thickness of 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) and sits atop an active “hot spot” that creates many volcanoes. The result of this collision of fire and ice is discussed later in this chapter. Of the other four glaciers, Hofsjokull and Langjokull are located in the central part of the island. The much smaller Myrdalsjokull and Eyjafjallajokull are located near the coast in the far south.

SURFACE PHYSICAL FEATURES

The surface physical features of Iceland all have one thing in common—they are of volcanic origin. However, the various regions of Iceland exhibit different types of surface origins. In some areas, land built by volcanic action is most evident. Elsewhere, the results of rock weathering (disintegration) and erosion dominate the landscape.

In southern Iceland, sprawling and contrasting stretches of farmland and wild heaths, lava fields and sands, and mountains and geothermal fields dominate the landscape. Inland rugged highlands tower in sharp contrast to the island’s coastal zone and constantly churning sea. Grassy plains, heather-clad moors, and moss-covered lava fields are found on the coastward portion, grading into the mountainous interior. Geysers and other hot springs are found scattered about much of the region.

Eastern Iceland, too, is a land of vast contrasts. A portion of this region is covered by the world’s largest lava field, the 1,740-square-mile (4,500 square kilometers) Odadahraun. The Odadahraun bears the closest resemblance of any place on Earth to the surface of the moon. It is desolate, rugged, and was chosen by the U.S. space program as its training ground for the first lunar landings. This bleak and barren area borders, in sharp contrast, plains that not only are important agriculturally, but also contain the largest woodlands in Iceland.Mountains found in this section contain a large number of waterfalls. Herds of reindeer can often be seen roaming across the grassy heaths.

In northern Iceland, contrasting forces of fire and ice have combined to shape the landscape. This area contains some of the world’s largest lava fields. Some of the region is covered with plants and mosses, but much of the surface here is barren of plant life. A number of volcanoes and erupting fissures are still very active here, and recently formed craters can be seen in many places.

Western Iceland, like the country’s other physical regions, offers an endless variety of contrasting landscapes. There are dark and imposing mountains and tree-clad valleys; fertile agricultural pastures and moss and heather-covered moors; gentle brooks, impressive waterfalls, and rushing rivers. Marshlands and geothermal fields with steaming hot springs and bubbling mud pots are also a part of the landscape of the west.

The final region, the Southwest Peninsula, is the island’s most important. It is home to the majority of the population, including the capital and largest city, Reykjavik. Much of the area is lava-covered, testifying to violent past eruptions.While such lava can appear in a variety of forms—some ropy in form and quite smooth, others so sharp and jagged that it is virtually impossible to walk across them without cutting one’s shoes to shreds—in this area of Iceland, large areas of the lava fields are covered with moss, since no eruption has taken place here for several hundred years.

The Blue Lagoon, located at Svartsengi in southwestern Iceland, is perhaps the world’s largest hot tub. Located in the middle of a huge lava field, the large pool was formed by the runoff from a power plant that uses geothermal heat to produce electricity and fresh hot water from seawater. The lagoon measures several hundred feet in length and several hundred feet wide.Water running into the pool from the power plant is rich in silica and other elements. The silica selectively absorbs incoming solar radiation, reflecting the blue of the sky and resulting in the pool’s dark blue color. The silica mud also has covered the rough lava at the bottom of the pool, giving it a very lumpy but smooth surface. The water is believed to have powers for healing skin and other ailments and is used by many people for health reasons. Of course, most people simply enjoy a soak in a very unique setting.

Volcanic action has created a variety of other features. Cinder cones, for example, dot the landscape in many areas. These conical hills are built up as eruptions hurl volcanic ash, cinders, and other solid objects into the air. As they fall back to earth, the materials accumulate in a classic cone-shaped heap, with a characteristic crater at the top. Another unique feature associated with some lava flows is the columnar jointing that occurs as the molten rock cools, contracts, and solidifies. This results in the formation of basalt columns that are often exposed at the surface through erosion.

Much of Iceland’s coast is rugged. In some places, vertical cliffs plunge directly into the sea. Numerous sea arches, sea caves, and sea stacks (chimney-like rocks sticking out of the water) add to the coastal region’s spectacular scenery. Waterfalls are found virtually all over the island. They are formed as snow and glacial meltwaters cascade down Iceland’s many cliff faces, which were created by lava flows or, in some cases, by geologic faulting.

EARTHQUAKES

Earthquakes frequently occur along fault lines. In fact, seismic activity (earth tremors) and volcanic activity often are located in the same area, since both owe their existence to plate tectonics. Since Iceland lies astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the island experiences both environmental hazards. In fact, it one of Earth’s most seismically active spots. Hundreds of quakes occur each year, but few are damaging. Of the several hundred “major” quakes to strike Iceland during recent centuries, few were greater than 5.0 in magnitude. The fact that they occur on a regular basis keeps stress from building up in the moving rock. The tremors, therefore, occur in many gentle earth movements rather than in fewer but much sharper and damaging jolts of movement.

MAJOR VOLCANIC ERUPTIONS

Iceland experiences repeated volcanic eruptions, an average of one every five years. Several, however, stand out as major events: the Mount Laki eruption of 1783–1784, the formation of Surtsey Island in 1963–1967, and the eruption beneath Vatnajokull in 1996.

The Laki Eruptions, 1783–1784

In the spring of 1783, lava began to flow from a huge fissure located just to the west of Vatnajokull. This volcanic event, known as the Laki eruptions (named after a volcano in the area), proved to be devastating—the most destructive natural disaster in the island’s history. For nearly a year, explosion after explosion occurred from the 140 craters located along the 20-mile (32 meters) crack in the earth’s crust. Lava flow buried an area of nearly 220 square miles (570 square kilometers), making it the world’s largest lava field resulting from a single series of eruptions. As a result of the eruptions, the area offers some of Iceland’s most spectacular scenery.

The event was described by a witness, the Reverend Jon Stingrimsson, in his book, Fires of the Earth:

[The eruptions] began with the earth heaving upwards with a great screaming noise of wind from its depths, then splitting asunder, ripping and tearing, as if a crazed animal [was] tearing something apart. Flames . . . soon stretched upwards from each [volcanic crater]. Great slabs of rock . . . were cast up indescribably high into the air, backwards and forwards, with great crashes, flares of fire and spouts of sand, smoke, and fumes. Oh, how fearsome it was to look [upon this awesome event].

It is estimated that one-fourth of the population at the time, some 10,000 people, died as a result of inhaling poisonous gases emitted during the eruptions, or from starvation. Three-fourths of the island’s livestock also died, directly or indirectly, as a result of the eruptions, and an atmospheric blanket of haze spread around the Northern Hemisphere, cooling temperatures. In the eastern United States, the winter temperature was nearly 15°F (5°C) colder than the 225-year average.

Birth of an Island, 1963–1967

From 1963 to 1967, Iceland and much of the world watched as new land—the island of Surtsey—was born and rose from the sea. This 1-square-mile, 555-foot-high (2.6 square kilometers, 169 meters) volcanic island is centered at 63°18′ north latitude and 20°36′ west longitude, or about 25 miles (40 kilometers) off the southwest coast of Iceland. It was named Surtsey for Surtur, the fire-possessing giant of Norse mythology. The relatively recent creation of this new island reminds us that volcanic activity and land building is still taking place on and around Iceland. Since Surtsey stopped growing in 1967, powerful ocean waves and howling winds have eroded a third of its mass away. The island is of great scientific value. Biologists have been given a wonderful opportunity to study not only the method of its formation but also how a new, sterile environment is colonized by plant and animal life.

Volcanic Eruption Beneath Vatnajokull, 1996 In November 1996, the eruption of a volcano under Vatnajokull caused great quantities of ice to melt on the underside of the ice cap. This huge pool of water finally broke free from the south end of the glacier, causing a catastrophic flood.Maximum flood rates reached 1.6 million cubic feet (45,310 cubic meters) per second (about 12 million gallons, or 45 million liters). This torrential type of flood, called a jokulhlaup by Icelanders, is now also known by this name by the rest of the world. When the rising waters issued from the edge of the glacier, lumps of ice 30 feet (10 meters) high and weighing a thousand tons were carried along. This water poured across a stretch of glacially deposited sand and ultimately into the sea. Fortunately, this area is not permanently inhabited, so no loss of life occurred.

However, the rushing floodwater washed out several miles of highway, electrical power transmission cables, and a several mile long bridge. The bridge was built to handle the normal periodic flooding, but the volume of water in November 1996 was too great. Thus, the flood effectively cut links between the eastern and western part of Iceland, isolating the regions from one another. The two areas are connected with a road that follows the northern coast, but this route is much longer and is difficult to travel in the winter.

WEATHER AND CLIMATE

Iceland enjoys a much milder climate than its name and location close to the Arctic Circle would imply. The overall air temperatures are at least 9°F (4°C) warmer than would be expected at this latitude. The reason: a branch of the Gulf Stream—also known as the North Atlantic Drift, a broad current or “river” of warm water from the equatorial region—flows along the island’s southern and western coast. This greatly moderates the climate and explains why Iceland is so much warmer than Greenland, which does not lie in the path of a warm current. In some respects, however, the current is a mixed blessing. When the mild Atlantic air comes in contact with colder Arctic air, the result is frequent changes in weather and many storms. This is particularly true during the winter months, when differences in temperature between the two air masses are greatest.

The clash of air masses contributes to higher levels of precipitation in the southern and western parts of the island than in the north. Frequent high winds are also a normal condition, resulting from the contrast in air and water temperatures. The average temperature in the lowlands near the southern coast is about 54°F (12°C) in July and a relatively balmy 30°F (-1°C) in January.Although Iceland lies at the same latitude as Fairbanks, Alaska, its winter temperatures are comparable to those of Kansas or Massachusetts. Nonetheless, the winter season is one of long nights and severe winter storms. Snow is common from around the beginning of November until the middle of April, particularly in the northern region.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the Icelandic winter for many people to become accustomed to is its very short periods of daylight and long periods of darkness, a condition that reflects Iceland’s high latitude. (Just the opposite conditions—long days and short nights—are experienced during the summer). In late December, the sun barely peeks above the southern horizon, and within an hour it is gone.

Summer in Iceland lasts from late May to early September. During the first half of this season, the sun appears above the horizon for almost 24 hours a day, while the period of darkness is very short or, in the north, nonexistent. However, even during the middle of summer when the daylight period is longer, the sky is frequently cloudy or overcast and the sunshine does not warm the air much. Thus, during the daytime, the air is usually cool and nighttime temperatures are often quite cold.

Throughout the year, the air in Iceland is damp, thereby intensifying the cold. Moist air moving onto land from the Atlantic Ocean brings about this humid condition, which makes both summer and winter climates less comfortable than temperature alone would indicate.

On the high lava plateau regions of the interior and the north, winter conditions can be encountered any time of the year. Here, blizzards are not uncommon during the summer season, and certainly occur frequently during the long winter season. Along the highways of the northern interior, bright orange-colored survival huts are frequently seen. About 10 by 12 feet (3 to 3.7 meters) in size, these buildings are equipped with bunks, emergency food supplies, first-aid kits, and radios. They are not locked and are to be used by travelers who are stranded by year-round stormy conditions.

PLANT AND ANIMAL LIFE

About 540 different species of plants can be found growing wild in Iceland. Large areas of vegetated ground are marshy, or are covered by various species of moss. In the north, a tundra ecosystem dominates, with its various species of mosses, lichens, and sedges.Vegetation includes some 500 species of low-growing shrubs. Bearberry, crowberry, dwarf birch, heather, and willow are the most common species.

Mosses and lichen cover the surface of many of the lower elevation lava fields. Greenhouses, heated with geothermal water, are used extensively for growing many kinds of vegetables, flowers, and other plants in a protected environment. In fact, much of Iceland’s produce, including peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers, are grown under these conditions.

Today, Iceland is essentially treeless. Several thousand years ago, however, most of the island was covered with lush forest. Ancient Icelandic writings from the twelfth century tell how, three centuries earlier (in the 800s), the first settlers found a country that was covered with trees from mountain to shore. Over the centuries, the once dense woodlands were chopped down for timber and firewood. Grazing sheep also took their toll, as did harsh winters and areas of volcanic ash that prevented trees from taking root. Extensive reforestation work began in the early twentieth century. Although there is only one true forest in the country, Iceland plants more trees per person than any other nation in the world (16 trees for every man, woman, and child!).

Driftwood is a blessing in an almost treeless country, and Iceland’s shoreline has an abundance of this resource. In the past, much of the driftwood was used for building. Today it is used primarily for fence posts. Along many of the coastlines and beaches, it is a common sight to see large tree trunks that have drifted with ocean currents primarily from Europe and North America.

There are some 75 nesting species of birds in the country, many in very large numbers. Huge colonies of puffins, guillemots, gannets, and many different species of other waterfowl make Iceland a bird-watcher’s paradise. The king of Icelandic birds is the magnificent sea eagle, while the common eider duck provides a valuable product—eiderdown—to supplement farmers’ incomes. This soft down is collected from the female ducks’ nests after the babies have hatched and grown up. The Icelanders use it to make down-filled comforters, vests, and other clothing items. The majority of the eiderdown collected is exported.

Several species of gulls, ravens, shovelers, snow buntings, starlings, and wrens are residents of Iceland, along with the common house sparrow, redwing, and swallow. Many of these are summertime residents, migrating to warmer portions of the world during the winter season.

Iceland has only a single native land mammal, the Arctic fox. Four other species of land animals currently found in the country are the mouse, rat, mink, and reindeer (imported from Norway in the eighteenth century). The mink are descendents of animals that escaped from fur farms in the 1930s. The mouse and rat found their way onto Iceland from ships docked in the various ports.

Contrary to expectation, there are no polar bears or walruses in Iceland. On rare occasion, a polar bear will float on an ice floe from Greenland to Iceland, but it does not remain a permanent resident.

Fish of many kinds are abundant both in freshwater streams and lakes and in Iceland’s coastal waters. Some 40,000–60,000 seals breed along the coastline, and there are tens of thousands of whales within Iceland’s territorial waters. For decades a limited number of whales were caught each year, for both domestic use and export. Today, Iceland no longer hunts whales. In recent years, the number of whales has been decreasing to the point that some species are endangered and threatened with extinction.

THE SEA

Although volcanoes and glaciers dominate its landforms, Iceland has always focused on the sea. The island’s weather and climate is more influenced by Atlantic waters than by latitudinal location. Temperatures are strongly moderated by the warm waters of the North Atlantic Drift, which also cause Iceland to receive considerably more precipitation than most other locations at the same latitude.Water evaporated from the relatively warm sea falls over land in the form of rain or snow, and the sea is the source of fog that frequently blankets the island’s coastal regions.

The sea brought Iceland’s early explorers and settlers, primarily from Europe’s shores, and, until recent decades, it also provided most of the island’s food and income. Even today, 12 percent of the population is engaged in fishing and fish processing. Fish and fish products continue to account for about 70 percent of the country’s exports. Nearly all imports and exports also travel by water to or from the island. Isolation and the resulting need to ship commodities over long distances add to a cost of living that is one of the world’s highest.

The sea has been and continues to be the most important geographical element to Iceland’s people.Nearly 95 percent of the country’s people live within 5 miles (8 kilometers) of the coast.

NATURAL RESOURCES

Iceland, because of its relative youth as a landmass (only about 20 million years old), has limited natural resources. No oil, coal, or metals are found here. Iceland does, however, have a wealth of geothermal resources—geothermal heat and hydroelectric power—that, along with its fishing industry, form the basis of her economy. Soils are poor and, combined with the short growing season, make productive agriculture very difficult. To the extent that growing is possible, pastureland and hay meadows are the primary agricultural resource.

Hot Springs and Geothermal Energy

Fire and water—the sources of hot springs and geothermal energy—go hand in hand with volcanic activity. Geothermal areas are divided into high-temperature fields and low-temperature fields. High-temperature fields are those in which water is hotter than 302°F (150°C) at a depth of 0.62 mile (1 kilometer). The magma chamber is the main heat source for these high-temperature areas. Low-temperature fields are those with water temperatures less than 302°F (150°C) at a depth of 0.62 mile (1 kilometer). Inactive magma chambers or lava flows are the main source of heat for these waters. Usually there are alkaline water springs and geysers with dissolved minerals such as silica associated with these low-temperature fields.

The low-temperature areas that produce hot-water springs are found at some 250 localities in Iceland, making it Earth’s major geothermal country. Such geothermal areas are formed when surface water, such as cold rainwater, slowly filters down into the earth’s porous bedrock through fissures, crevices, or volcanic crust. Here it is heated in a magma chamber or fissure and then ascends to the surface as it gets hotter.

The high-temperature geothermal areas are within the volcanic zone closely related to the central volcanoes at some 29 localities. Such areas are characterized by steam vents, boiling mud pots, and sometimes by geysers.

In Iceland, about 80 percent of the homes are heated with hot water or steam, but—unlike homes in North America, which are heated by furnaces that burn coal, wood, oil, or gas—this is done without the need for a furnace. The hot water and steam occur naturally, as a part of the geothermal energy available beneath the surface.Wells are drilled into the earth and the steam and hot water from the wells is piped to individual homes and other buildings. In some cases, the steam heats the water and the hot water is then piped to the homes and other buildings.

In the Hverageroi geothermal area, located in the center of the town of Hverageroi approximately 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of the capital city of Reykjavik, several wells have been drilled to provide necessary heat. One well is 1,020 feet (311 meters) deep with a water temperature of 352°F (178°C), well above the temperature (212°F [100°C]) at which water boils at sea level and standard atmospheric pressure. This well produces 4 gallons (15 liters) per second. Another well, 833 feet (254 meters) deep, has a water temperature of 363°F (184°C) and produces up to 21 gallons (80 liters) per second.

At present, approximately 1,500 megawatts (MW, a million watts) of geothermal energy have been harnessed in Iceland. The main energy supplies (except imported oil and gasoline for various types of engines) are derived from hydroelectric power plants, which include an overall system of 14 large dams. Electrical generation from steam (geothermal) driven turbines also contributes greatly to the total electricity produced.

Hot-spring and geyser locations can change, disappear, or be created due to tectonic and volcanic activity. The fissures extending upward from the underground magma chambers can be closed or opened. Hot springs also change their appearance depending on the amount of precipitation that occurs over time.

Iceland has no minerals worth extracting, no economic coal deposits, and no known gas or oil fields. Its subsurface is rich in low-grade iron and titanium, but these metals are not worth mining. However, Iceland’s volcanoes have been generous in providing important natural resources for Iceland’s population. Scoria, a porous lava rock, is used for road building and foundations; pumice is used in making lightweight concrete or plates; and rock wool is made from remelted basalt. Iceland is self-sufficient in the production of cement for concrete. Salt is produced from geothermal brine. Even freshwater shells are used; they are turned into silica powder by oven-drying, the heat for which comes from geothermal energy.

Iceland’s natural environment and its resultant landscapes—molded by fire and ice and surrounded by the sea—play an essential role in nearly every aspect of Icelanders’ lives. From its fish come food and oil, from geothermal energy comes heat, and from the country’s rapidly flowing streams comes more than 95 percent of its electricity. Natural hazards—such as frequent earthquakes, violent volcanic eruptions, blinding blizzards, and torrential floods—serve as reminders that Icelanders are never far-removed from nature. In the following chapters, you too will often be reminded of their importance as you learn more about the country’s history, its people, and their varied activities.