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Dr. Dirt
June 2018

Landscapes of Other Worlds

Dr. Dirt Trips Out in Iceland

Since I slipped the shackles of w*rk three years ago, I’ve been fortunate to have had the time and funds for some travel. Most of my gadding about has been to visit friends and family across the US, but every now and then I take myself to someplace more exotic. Last September I made my third tour of Iceland, a lump of volcanic basalt in the North Atlantic. The island runs roughly from latitudes 63 to 68 degrees north (New Hampshire is the in 42- to 45-degree belt). Barely south of the Arctic Circle, it nonetheless has an average high temperature through the year in the mid-forties, and average cold temperature in the mid-thirties. (For comparison, in Concord, NH, the average high is in the high-fifties, the average low in the mid-thirties.) The Gulf Stream brings the warmth of Florida up to Iceland, dropping off some of its heat on us New Englanders along the way. It actually tends to get colder in New Hampshire in an average winter. One difference is that the daily weather in Iceland is totally erratic: Sunshine at 8 am, snow at 9 am, rain at 10 am, sunshine again at 11 am, sleet at noon, and so on through the day. The winds can be brutal; they’re measured in Gale Force rather than in miles per hour. It’s all cruising in at full tilt from the Atlantic, or coming over from ice-covered Greenland. So pack your woolens and your seersucker, your mukluks and your canvas sneakers, your parka and your lightweight jacket. If you think New England’s weather is changeable, try Iceland.

With a total population of only 330,000 tall blond people speaking Old Low Norse, Iceland is the least densely populated country in Europe. Two-thirds of the people now live in Reykjavik, a bustling, sophisticated, European capital of fine restaurants, many coffee-houses and bistros, museums and concert halls, hot-springs and swimming pools, gardens and parks, and that most highly revered American entertainment, shopping. But when you leave the city, the towns are small and scattered. The 800-mile Ring Road (Route 1), mostly two-lane asphalt in good repair, circles the entire island. This sparsely-populated highway will take you through vast expanses of varied and often monumental landscapes, with endless miles of mountains, dunes, beaches, fjords, lava fields, craters, waterfalls, glacial rivers, geysers, hot springs. On better soils, livestock farms are common, typically focused on Icelandic horses, Icelandic sheep, and cattle.

The landscape is simply astonishing. Marketed as “The Land of Fire and Ice,” the country sits astride two crustal plates (the Eurasian and the North American plates) which are slowly pulling apart. In places you can see dramatic long deep fissures in the surface of the landscape, echoing the fracturing of the plates beneath. One result of this tearing apart of the crustal plates is volcanic activity. There are hundreds of volcanoes on the island, some rising from the plains, some beneath glaciers, and some building new islands off-shore. You may recall an eruption that closed European airports for a week or more in 2015. That was a mild event.

Also sprinkled across the landscape are hot springs, geysers, and boiling mud pits. In fact, the bulk of energy used on the island is geothermal. Heat on the island is essentially free. The famous Blue Lagoon, a large hot springs tourist attraction near the main airport, is an offshoot of a massive geothermal power station that supplies the capital Reykjavik with electricity. The second main source of electricity is hydropower, derived from the country’s many glacial rivers and waterfalls. In part as a result of clean energy production, Iceland is rated very high in terms of world sustainability.

A few words describe Iceland’s landscape: Dramatic, awe-inspiring, strange and, without question, beautiful. At one time, the island was 25% forested; today, 1%, due to lumbering, firewood and sheep. Erosion from grazing and from deforestation has left the landscape with thin and infertile topsoil. Over 60% of the land is classified as tundra, over 20% is grassland, and the rest is covered by lakes and glaciers. Biologically and ecologically, I’d describe Iceland as thin. Biodiversity is low, due to its isolation, its climatic extremes, its human disturbance over the centuries, and periodic volcanic obliteration of large areas of the landscape. The only unique mammal is a fox species. The country does have reindeer, seals, whales, puffins, and an occasional polar bear. And on a hugely positive note, there are no mosquitoes or black flies.

The whole of the island is volcanic in origin. Lava fields cover a majority of the land, but appear in many different guises based on age and type of lava flow. Some are more recent and fairly smooth in appearance, consisting of bare black basalt with parsimoniously scattered mosses and grasses, covering hundreds of acres. Older lava fields are covered in vast lumpy green carpets of thick mosses, as far as the eye can see. Acres of 50-foot conical mounds occur in several areas. Other areas are collections of surreal jagged pillars and grottoes. Still other large areas are covered in eroded sandy loess, creating huge dunes and deserts, some strewn with large rocks and boulders from volcanic explosions. Steep craters (dormant volcanoes) fall into placid blue pools. Some glaciers terminate in small pristine lakes, and some of these sport icebergs which have broken off the glacier. Waterfalls are everywhere, some high and thin, some wide and massive. In places, waterfalls seep horizontally for hundreds of yards between layers of rock walls above rivers. Fjords, gorged out by glaciation, rim the 3,000 miles of coastline. The interior of the country, the Highlands, is buried beneath hundreds of square miles of glaciers and is uninhabitable.

Iceland’s landscape is truly otherworldly and unique. Astronauts were brought here to experience the lunar landscape before landing on the moon, and this is where they tested the lunar and Mars rovers. It’s easy to see why sixty percent of the population even today believes in “little people” –there’s a whole classification system defining and describing fairies, elves, gnomes, and a dozen other wee ones. Highways have been moved to accommodate their homes and escape their wrath.

Culturally, Iceland ranks very high. They formed the first functioning democratic legislative body in the world in 930 CE. Today, over 80 percent of the eligible voters actually vote, compared with around 30 percent in the US. They rank in the top ten countries in the world in various rankings of happiness, democracy, sustainability, and health. They are rated the ninth most developed country in the world, and rank number one on the Global Peace Index (whatever that is). They have no standing army, and spend the least for defense. In terms of women’s rights, they were the first country to form a political party created and led by women, and in 1980 they elected the first female head of state in the world. As of 2016, 48% of the parliament was female. In 2017 women were granted equal pay for equal work by legislative action, and they elected as new Prime Minister a 30-year-old woman.

My favorite Iceland cultural anecdote is that, following the global financial crisis of 2008, they not only fired the bankers who were illegally speculating, but they took over their banks and actually put the bankers in jail. The Prime Minister and other top officials resigned. I can’t help but smile when the bad people lose and the good people win.

Visit soon. Iceland now hosts over two million visitors per year. It has become a serious Destination. The country has found that they can’t support the current tourism demand with their tiny population and small-scale infrastructure, and they don’t want to let tourism overtake and subsume their heritage and natural resources. They are considering limiting entry to the country. Beyond that, a primary reason that Icelanders can exist near the Arctic Circle is the Gulf Stream; in some predictive scenarios, climate change will cause the Gulf Stream to stop circulating, leading to a significantly colder Iceland. I guess we’re lucky to live in America where climate change isn’t happening. In Pogo’s words, “Oog!” – or more to the point, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Dr. Dirt enjoys his travels with John Hart, dba Environments LLC, Durham NH.





Dr. Dirt, a.k.a. John Hart