Posts Tagged ‘iceland’

Fire and Ice in Iceland

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

Jim ZimbelmanDr. Jim Zimbelman is a planetary geologist at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum where he has served as the chairman of the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies. 

This summer, Jim led a group of Smithsonian Journeys travelers on an Adventure in Iceland.


Iceland has been called “the land of fire and ice,” a rather accurate short description of this unique country.  Iceland is only slightly smaller in surface area than the US state of Kentucky, yet it is one of the youngest (geologically speaking) nations in the world (the oldest exposed rocks are only about 16 million years old), and portions of the island are growing even as you read this. The historically significant Althing (the oldest and longest running parliament in the world) was first held at Thingvellir, within a linear depression that is the still-growing boundary between the North American (to the west) and Eurasian (to the east) plates. The two plates are separating at the stately pace of 2 to 3 centimeters (about an inch) per year, roughly the same rate as the growth of human fingernails; while not observable to the watching eye, evidence of the accumulated separation is apparent on a human timescale, where appropriately fixed markers were established on the two sides of a spreading rift.  It is this motion of the planetary plates, coupled with Iceland’s location above a deep-seated hot spot, that generates the “fire” component of the country.

The Snaefellsjökull volcano from Hellnar. (Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons.)

We visited several locations throughout Iceland that typify the “born of fire” aspect of its natural history. One day we circumnavigated the huge Snaefellsjokull volcano, site of the beginning for Jules Verne’s classic “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” while learning what the rocks can teach us from world-renowned Icelandic volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson. No day passed without seeing countless moss-covered lava flows and massive cliff faces composed entirely of volcanic rocks. Near the Krafla volcano, we walked on a trail through the boiling pools and still-steaming rocks at the vent for the 1984 eruption, the last of a decade-long series of eruptions. Throughout the country, hot rocks at depth heat groundwater that boils up out of the ground, as in the sudden bursts of the geyser Strokkur (adjacent to “Geysir,” the namesake of all geysers); geothermally heated water supplies the hot water needs of virtually the entire nation. In southern Iceland we stopped at a farm next to the base of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, which suddenly reawakened in 2010 (to the great consternation of air travelers throughout Europe); the farmer feared that a prolonged eruption would destroy his farm and livelihood, so with typical Icelandic foresight, he hired a videographer to document what was happening to the farm, resulting in one of the most personal and poignant  films I have seen (he is doing a reasonable business showing the film to tourists in a remodeled blacksmith shop next to the Ring Road highway). Icelanders have learned to live with nature’s uncertainties, roll with the punches, and turn what could have been a disaster into a useful (and even profitable) enterprise.

Looking down from Solheimajokull glacier. (Photo courtesy of flickr user ian mcbride.)

On top of the volcanic bedrock of Iceland are several large ice caps (including the largest ice cap in Europe), plus numerous smaller ice accumulations on individual mountains. These thick ice deposits feed dozens of glaciers that have carved the bedrock into U-shaped valleys. Our group walked up onto the very snout of the Solheimajokull glacier, where the ablating ice leaves a coating of dark rocks brought down the valley by the moving ice. The place where we reached the glacier terminus is easily a kilometer (more than half a mile) further up the valley than when I visited this same glacier in 2000; Icelanders have a ‘ring-side seat’ to the drastic reduction in glaciers currently underway across the planet. How many years will it be before Iceland no longer has a surface accumulation of ice, which is part of its very name? The remarkable sights and sounds of this beautiful but complex country tend to make one become reflective, and perhaps this may be a partial explanation for why the exploits of Vikings were recorded in the Icelandic sagas, among the oldest examples of European literature.  Come and find out for yourself what this country will teach you.


Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Adventure in Iceland trip here.

Update on Eyjafjallajökull

Monday, April 26th, 2010
Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, Iceland by NASA Goddard Photo and Video.

Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, Iceland. Photo: NASA/Goddard

Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program has been following the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull. Elizabeth Cottrell, a geologist at the National Museum of Natural History, spoke with Smithsonian about the nature of the volcano and the possible consequences of its eruption.

Read more:

Q&A With Jim Zimbelman: Iceland

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

Dr. Jim Zimbelman is a planetary geologist at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. He’s also study leader for our Exploring Iceland tour. Here, we quiz him about what Iceland’s unique geology can teach us about other worlds, as well as our own.

Iceland’s Namaskard geothermal area

Smithsonian Journeys: Of all the terrestrial and extra-terrestrial imaging and mapping that you’ve done, how does Iceland’s landscape compare in beauty, drama, violence?

Jim Zimbelman: Iceland is unique in my experience, either for sites of other fieldwork here on Earth or areas that I have examined using spacecraft data. No other place on Earth provides such good access to a mid-ocean ridge; tens of thousands of miles of the global ridge system are beneath the surface of the ocean, but an active oceanic ridge is only above water in Iceland. The geology of Iceland is therefore very helpful for those of us trying to understand volcanic terrains on other planets. With regard to the dramatic, no volcanic location I have visited has the combination of lava flows, glaciers, rivers with large waterfalls, and polar desert vegetation that can be found everywhere in Iceland. Fortunately, Iceland is not violent; even major eruptions can be safely viewed from fairly close distances, much like eruptions in Hawaii.

SJ: The huge volume of water that surges over the Dettifoss and Iceland’s other waterfalls and powers down the glacial rivers – where does it come from? Is it “young” water from recent precipitation? Is it ancient water from glacial melt? What “pumps” it to the surface with such force? Is it the volcanoes under the glaciers and lakes?

JZ:The water in the rivers of Iceland is both young and old.  Every winter the country is blanketed in new snow that in the spring then feeds large runoffs. However, the glaciers are also melting, releasing water that fell as snow tens of thousands of years ago. Both water sources mix together to make the dramatic rivers of Iceland.  The ‘force’ comes from the sheer volume of snow and ice available to feed the rivers; the volcanic bedrock does not need to add additional force (although, when an eruption occurs directly beneath a glacier, the resulting enormous flood when the melt water finally bursts out from beneath the glacier has an Icelandic name – jokullaupe).

SJ:  When and how did scientists realize that Iceland straddles two tectonic plates?

JZ: For centuries scientists realized Iceland had a very strong volcanic component to its history. The realization of how Earth’s crust moves in different plates is a fairly recent development. Individual scientists speculated about it early in the twentieth century, but the globe-encircling concept of plate tectonics was only accepted by the worldwide geologic community beginning in the 1960s. Iceland played an important role in this realization, since it allowed scientists to visit (and measure) the separation of two active plates.

SJ: Given the turbulent geologic history of Iceland, how much has the island changed (size, shape, elevation, climate, etc.) since the earliest Norse/Celtic settlements (est. 7th century?)?

JZ: Iceland has not changed all that much since the time of the Vikings. The glaciers are smaller than they were a thousand years ago, but not all that much else has changed since the conditions as described in the Viking sagas.

SJ: Iceland’s fjords seem to be limited to the north and west coasts. Why?

JZ: The fjords are the result of erosion by past glaciers, and the north and west coasts had the steepest topography down which these ancient glaciers could move. Precipitation is usually heaviest on the NW side of the island since storm systems in the northern hemisphere tend to move from west to east.

SJ: How many times in geologic history has the crust of Iceland been recycled? And how old is Iceland?

JZ: I don’t know the age of the very oldest rocks in Iceland, but I have heard discussions of some rocks that are millions of years old.  Over 99% of the rocks in Iceland are volcanic in origin, and the rocks at the surface are typically tens to hundreds of thousands of years old.  Few of the rocks on the island have been ‘recycled’ in that Iceland does not experience subduction (where the moving plates get shoved into each other), which leads to classic steep-sided volcanoes like Mt. Fuji in Japan or the large volcanic cones along the west coast of the U.S.

SJ:Would you please elaborate on the Icelandic plume, which seems to persist through geologic time, yet wander (or is it the “subaerial” surfaces such as Iceland and Greenland which have wandered?).

JZ: Iceland does indeed sit atop a particularly strong ‘plume’ of magma rising up from the interior of the Earth.  The coincidence of this plume with the mid-Atlantic ridge system is, we think, just that, a geologic coincidence.  Greenland does ‘wander’ in the sense that it is entirely on the North American plate and it moves along with that plate.  Iceland is literally growing as it is pulled apart along the ridge system that runs across the middle of the country.  Each year roughly 2 centimeters of new ‘Iceland’ is formed as the two plates spread apart  along that ridge.

Cool Facts About Iceland

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010
Iceland's Blue Lagoon contains hot water created by the harnessing of geothermal energy.

Iceland’s Blue Lagoon contains hot water created by the harnessing of geothermal energy.

Iceland was first permanently settled by the Vikings in the 9th century, though Celtic monks and hermits had been living there previously. Click here for more from Smithsonian on the Viking voyage from Europe to North America.

Krisuvik, Grensdalur, and Hveravellir aren’t new lamps from your favorite retailer, they’re volcanoes. Learn more from Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program.

Iceland is well on its way to energy independence, with more than 70% of its energy coming from Iceland’s own renewable sources. Most of the country’s energy is geothermal—from the heat generated underground thanks to all those volcanoes. Iceland is also testing a small fleet of hydrogen-powered vehicles for the Ford Motor Company.

Thingvellir National Park, located in southwestern Iceland, is the original location of the Iceland’s open-air parliament, first established in 930 A.D. The park also features impressive geological formations, including a rift valley and the largest natural lake in Iceland. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

Now is a great time to go to Iceland—click here for more information on our 2010 Wonders of Iceland tour.

Ever been to Iceland? Why would you recommend it to a friend?

World Heritage: Iceland

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

Gulfoss Waterfalls, Iceland

Thingvellir National Park, located in southwestern Iceland, is the original location of the Iceland’s open-air parliament, first established by settlers from Scandinavia and the British Isles in 930 A.D. The park also features impressive geological formations, including a rift valley and the largest natural lake in Iceland. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

Iceland’s first formal assembly, the Alþing, was the country’s supreme legislative and judicial authority from its establishment in 930 until 1271. During assemblies, any member in attendance could present his case from atop the “Law Rock,” or Lögberg. From this rock, the Lawspeaker (an official elected for three years at a time) presided over the assembly and declared the laws of the land, confirmed the calendar, brought about legal action and made announcements that concerned the entire nation. Before a law could be written down, however, the Lawspeaker was expected to recite the law from memory from atop the Lögberg for three consecutive summers in a row. A Law Council was a closed group of select chieftains who served as both a parliament and a supreme court. Although the Icelandic Commonwealth ended in 1271 with the onset of Norwegian rule, Iceland’s parliament continued to meet at this site until 1798.

Thingvellir served not only as the political center, but also the social center of Icelandic culture. Each year when the assembly was in session, people journeyed from all over the country to sell goods and services, take part in games and feasts, and exchange news with people from different parts of the country. During these assemblies, the foundations of Icelandic literature and language were laid and a national identity started to emerge.

In addition to the historical importance of the location, travelers visit Thingvellir National Park to witness the stunning landscape of the countryside which includes the thundering Gulfoss waterfall and the geysers of Haukadalur. Thingvellir National Park is an especially important site for the Icelandic people because it preserves the beautiful landscape for which the country is famous as well as the site on which the current political, and eventually cultural, identity first developed.

See it for yourself! Click for travel to Iceland with us.

What do you like about Iceland? Share below.