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Iceland Series

Though discovered before the end of the 8th century by Irish monks, and surveyed to varying degrees by a number of Scandinavian explorers over the following century, the origin of Iceland’s name owes itself to the 9th century Viking explorer Floki Vilgerdarson, who, sailing from Norway to discover new lands, called the island Iceland after seeing the fjord of  Ísafjörður filled with drift ice.

Despite being closer to New York City than that city is to San Francisco, Iceland has remained largely unknown to Americans, with fewer than 250,000 visits annually as late as 2015 (that figure has since increased to 576,000 in 2017), as compared to the 3.5 million for each of France and Great Britain, or 10.5 million US visitors to Mexico.

Iceland is unique in its use of renewable sourcesgeothermal and hydropower—which provide effectively all of Iceland's electricity, and around 85% of the nation's total primary energy consumption.  Iceland expects to be energy-independent by 2050. 

Iceland can be described poetically as a land of fire and ice; two elements that have had, and continue to have a lasting effect on the island’s evolution and history.  Perched atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland occupies a unique niche in the Earth’s geography.  Its presence above the surface of the ocean results from sitting atop a sub-surface hotspot or mantle plume – an upsurge of abnormally hot rock in the Earth’s mantle, and it is one of only two places on Earth where the effects of two major tectonic plates (Eurasian Plate and North American Plate) moving apart can be easily observed above sea level. (The other is in Africa.)  These two plates are moving apart by almost one inch per year.

From a geological standpoint, Iceland is a very young country, still playing an active part in its own creation. Shaped by the forces of nature, the barren landscapes are the canvas upon which nature applies the creative process in the most dramatic of ways.   Active volcanoes, lush valleys and glacier-cut fjords, black sand beaches and lava fields, hot springs and boiling geysers, massive glaciers and thunderous rivers are the most distinctive features of the Icelandic landscape.

With just under 40,000 square miles, Iceland boasts 269 named glaciers, accounting for 11% of its total land area.   75% of that total is contained within just one glacier, Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest.  Iceland is also home to between 150 to 200 volcanos, active and dormant, many of which are sub-glacial.  Scientists have estimated that one third of all lava that has erupted from the Earth’s interior in the last 500 years has done so in Iceland.

Because these two geologic features exist in such close proximity to each other, Iceland frequently experiences a landscape-shaping phenomenon known as the jökulhlaup (literally in Icelandic “glacier run”).  When a sub-glacial volcano erupts, it melts an enormous volume of ice which, after being pent up underneath the glacier, will suddenly burst forth in a vast outpouring of water and sediment.

The Skaftafell plain, on the southern coast of Iceland and at the foot of Vatnajökull glacier has seen many of these outflows.  In 1996, a sub-glacial eruption caused a jökulhlaup wave of water 13 feet high and nearly four tenths of a mile wide.  The flood lasted for two days and carried individual icebergs weighing up to 1,000 tons.  In addition to carrying and redepositing 100 million pounds of sediment and volcanic material over 200 square miles, this massive outflow also destroyed a six-mile segment of the Iceland Ring Road.

 

Though containing awesome powers for potential destruction, both of these geologic wonders are an integral part of Iceland’s identity.  Volcanic activity is not likely to change much even over the course of millennia, but Iceland’s glaciers have entered a period of significant decline due to climate change, and the island is now one of the fastest-warming places on the planet – as much as four times the Northern Hemisphere average, resulting in the loss of an average of 11 billion tons of ice per year.

Some of the country's glaciers have already vanished, several others will be gone within a decade or two, and with the melt rate speeding up as climate change effects intensify and reinforce each other, Iceland could lose 30 percent of its glacial mass by 2050.  If temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the next century – the maximum acceptable increase set by nations at the United Nations climate talks, Iceland's glaciers will be no more than small "ice museums" atop the highest peaks as early as the mid-2100s.