Out of this World - Iceland

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I have used clichés like “out of this world” or “like being on the moon” to describe places I have seen. But there truly is nowhere else truer than Iceland. So entranced and spellbound was I on my first expedition that I headed back two months later. Well, if home is London, New York or Norway, I can just hop on a plane for a couple of hour’s flight to the island. But just for the pleasure of being stuff up in an aircraft for at least 25 hours or more, I live in Sydney, right on the other side of the planet, requiring at least three international airport transits to get to Reykjavik, the capital city of the country. I may as well be flying to the moon!  I am not the only one who thinks so; in the mid-sixties, NASA trained their astronaut’s moon landing missions in the barren, volcanic landscape of Iceland. 

Iceland is a mammoth geological phenomenon. Formed by the coincidence of the spreading boundary of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates and a mantle plume – an upsurge of abnormally hot rock in the Earth´s mantle, Iceland is part an underwater mountain ridge which extends about 16,000 kilometres along the north-south axis of the Atlantic Ocean. As the plates moved, excessive eruptions of lava constructed volcanoes and filled rift valleys. Subsequent movement shifted these lava fields, creating long, linear valleys bound by parallel faults. The divergence of the ridge started in the north about 150 million years ago, and 90 million years ago in the south.

The movements continue today, accompanied by earthquakes, recurrence of old volcanoes, and the creation of new. Iceland is the largest island on the ridge caused by additional volcanic hotspots under the country. The island is the only place in the world where a mid-ocean ridge can be seen on the surface, a place where you can jump between the crack and touch the American continent with one hand, and your other hand the European continent! If you do plan to do this, do it soon, as the continents are drifting apart; molten lava from beneath the Earth´s crust, constantly wells up widening the gap between the continents. 

Iceland is volatile and on fire.  Indonesia, the world's longest archipelago, has more than 17,000 or so islands with 130 volcanoes spanning over 5,000 kilometeres. Iceland too has 130 volcanoes, except, with the main island and just 30 islets, these volcanoes span across a mere 380 kilometres. Thirty-five of these volcanoes have erupted in recent history, and while the other volcanos have not erupted in the past thousand years, they are just dormant, not extinct. It is not just a matter will they erupt; it is just a matter of when.

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On 21 March 2010, a volcano in Eyjafjallajökull, the south of the island erupted for the first time since 1821. The ensuing cloud of volcanic ash brought major disruption to air travel across Europe for nearly a month! Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes follow each other. Parts of Iceland are frequently shaken by tremors. Catastrophic earthquakes occur at longer intervals than the volcanic eruptions. On average, Iceland experiences a major volcanic event once every 5 years, but almost every minute of the day, there is an earthquake somewhere in the island. In fact, since the Middle Ages, a third of all the lava covering the earth's surface erupted in Iceland! Iceland is the most active volcanic region on Earth

Several times in the history of Iceland, volcanos have brought apocalyptic disasters. The largest recorded lava flow in world history occurred in the summer of 1783. A 25-kilometre crater row, Lakagigar, southwest of Vatnajökull dispensed 14 cubic kilometres of lava - the greatest lava flow witnessed on Earth in the last millennium. The ash released was so intense, that the sun was obscured for some time. Hundreds of thousands of sheep and cattle perished from the poisonous gases.  Famine ensued, leading to the death of 20% of the island population. The lava-field created by the eruption covered 580 km². 

The geological activity created by the volcanoes provides an endless supply of geothermal energy. Over 90% of household in Iceland is heated by natural geothermal heat – the cheapest and cleanest forms of energy in existence. Hot springs can be found almost everywhere, and the melt water created by sub-glacial volcanoes provides the country with a natural source of hydroelectric power. Geothermal steam is also used directly for a number of industrial processing applications. Iceland is among the cleanest countries in the world.

There is nowhere else in the world where one can venture into the heart of a volcano, the magma chamber. Though there are a few other accessible volcanoes – notably Furna do Enxofre in the Azores, but none other is deeper and more immense as the Thrihnukagigur in Iceland - a dormant volcano, last erupted over 4,000 years ago. To put it in perspective, the ground space in the chamber is equivalent to three full-sized basketball courts and the height can easily accommodate the Statue of Liberty. It is the mother of all magma chambers. I was curious and so made a trek to descend into the once-fiery abyss.

First penetrated by Arni Stefánsson in 1974, it was his idea to open the passage into the mountain for the average tourist. Progress has been very slow; it took him nearly 38 years juggling a tricky balance between opening up the underworld and protecting the single most important volcanic cave in the world accessible to the public. To reach Thrihnukagigur or Three Peaks, one could trek for three kilometres over uneven volcanic fields comprising gas tunnels, fissures and small volcanic cones, or take a 15-minute helicopter flight. It was a no–brainer. I opted for the latter.

When Stefánsson made his descent into the chamber in his mid-twenties, he was alone, on a rope, spinning in the dark, and wearing a motorbike helmet for protection. For the modern day explorer, a guide buckled me up to a swinging platform elevator like those used by commercial window cleaners and lowered me down 120 metres into the throat of the volcano. As we descended, day light disappeared and the amount of water seeping through the permeable rock increased.  When the dark tunnel opens up into the magma chamber, I felt like being transported into the world of Otto Lidenbrock and his guide Hans Bjelke of the Jules Verne’s 1864 classic  ‘A Journey to the Centre of the Earth’.  Perhaps Stefánsson was inspired by the novel of which the characters in the book descended into the chamber of the Icelandic Snæfellsjökull volcano, encountering many escapades, including prehistoric animals and natural hazards, before eventually resurfacing from the Stromboli volcano in southern Italy. I held my breath.

I stood at the base of the chamber, awestruck by the awesomeness of the subterranean amphitheatre. I see a heaven (or was it a hell) of colossal structures of ludicrous colours. The rock dome has been burnt, ruptured and torn; the gasses, pressures and extreme temperatures have stained it with a mishmash of orange, mustard, indigo, green, brown, red and black. There could not possibly be anything quite like it anywhere else in the world. For a while, I was dazed by a sense of bewilderment. I felt very small, amazed by this very rarely seen natural wonder. It was an experience beyond words. Everyone should come here to be humbled by this awesomeness.

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Iceland is cold and wet. Very wet.  The country lies between latitudes 63° and 68° N, and longitudes 25° and 13° W, with the main island just south of the Arctic Circle.  The north Atlantic climate produces frequent rain, snow and its near-Arctic location produces large glaciers, whose summer melts feed many rivers. As a result, Iceland is home to numerous large and powerful waterfalls.  One cannot count the number of waterfalls; there are literally thousands of them of varied shapes, sizes and form.

Whilst you cannot count the waterfalls, you can count the glaciers. There are 269 named glaciers varying from ice caps, outlet glaciers, mountain glaciers, alpine, piedmont and cirque, ice streams, covering about 11% of the island. The largest is Vatnajokull with an expanse of 8,300 sq. Km, equating in size to all the glaciers on the European mainland combined.

However, my interest is not of the biggest but of the second biggest and for good reason. Situated in the west of the Icelandic interior, Langjökull (Icelandic for "long glacier") is the second largest ice cap in Iceland (953 km2), after Vatnajökull. Unless you are a polar ‘popsicle’, there are not many places in the world where one can venture inside a glacier. Plausibly inspired by Arni Stefánsson who pioneered into the heart of volcano experience, in 2010, Baldvin Einarsson and Hallgrimur Örn Arngrímsson embarked on an altruistic vision, to take people inside the heart of an active, remote Langjökull ice cap to see the magnificent “blue ice” buried deep beneath the surface.

Until then, what lies under the surface of the Langjokull, has been a secret, known only by a small group of scientists and glaciologists. With this ambitious idea, engineers and renowned geophysicist Ari Trausti Guðmundsson engaged in researching, modelling and constructing this very bold undertaking.   As always, what began as a dream, possibly concocted with a good scotch, rapidly became a reality. Driven by passion, energy, enthusiasm and drive, combined with science, engineering, financial and political support, the first and biggest man-made glacier ice cave was created. The tunnel opened early June 2015 and will only last for 10 years!

Riding on an eight-wheel monstrous truck up the mountain, I can feel the grandiose of the glacier beneath me. Though the tunnel is manufactured, it is astounding to see the marvel of the bowel an ancient ice river from deep within the kilometre long tunnel. If you plan to make the journey, do it soon. Langjokull is shrinking fast, and concerns have been raised about the glacier due to the effects of global warming. Researchers fear that if climate change continues at its current rate, the entire glacier may be gone in about 150 years.

I am not a glaciologist, volcanologist or a geologist. My real interest in Iceland is mostly underwater. An old friend and associate Mathieu Meur, was the first to motivate me about the underwater geological wonders of Iceland with compelling pictures of the clearest water on our planet. He hooked me up with Davíð Sigurþórsson of Dive Iceland, and my adventure began.

Unless you are a deep ocean explorer, like Emory Kristof or Richard Lutz (see page xx) there are simply no possibilities to explore any underwater hydrothermal vents. Well, unless you are Elon Musk, you can maybe use your own space rocket to explore those on Mars or the moon of Jupiter.  On our planet, hydrothermal vents are found beneath the sea, scattered throughout the deep ocean usually along continental rift zones, deep ocean basin of several thousand metres deep.  These sea vents are biologically productive, often hosting complex communities fuelled by the chemicals dissolved in the vent fluids supporting diverse organisms such as giant tube worms, clams, limpets and shrimp.

But in Iceland, hydrothermal vents were recently discovered in the shallow water.  In 1997, in the Eyjafjordur Fjord, Erlendur Bogason and Árni Halldósson made an amazing discovery of hydrothermal vents in the dark waters off the shores of Hjalteyri, a small fishing village located near the town of Akureyri. The site was then named Strýtan, a towering chimney-like geological formation rise from the ocean floor to nearly 15 metres below surface.  A white smoker, the Strýtan is a set of chimneys that continually emit very hot water 75˚C at an estimated rate of 100 litres per second. The formations are formed by smectite, a white clay material that have mixed with other crustal elements and minerals as it circulates through the oceanic crust at very high pressure and temperature. When this material mixes with the cold ocean water after emerging from the ground, it coagulates, hardens and forms the chimney. Strýtan started forming at the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago. Nowhere else in the world, but in Iceland, can scuba divers explore an active hydrothermal vent.

Davíð was my guide for the Strýtan. On descending to end of the mooring; we were greeted by Stephanie, the overzealous Atlantic wolfish (Anarhichas lupus) eager for a handout of clams. I soon became aware of the fuzzy, “out of focus” water—the illuminating sign of hot fresh water mixing with cold salt water. These haloclines and thermoclines were easy to spot. They are the obvious indication of the gushing geothermal water flowing into the fjord. Geologists studying this phenomenon estimate that the water emerging from the cone to be about 1,100 years old. Strýtan is the first protected marine protected area in Iceland, gaining the status in 2001.

Whilst the towering formations were extraordinary, it is the life around the chimneys that surprises me. The site resembles a mash of luscious reef of Raja Ampat and Lembeh Strait with amazing diversity of soft corals, sponges, oversized multi-coloured plumose anemone, sea fans, crabs, lumpsucker fish, blennies, cods, skeleton shrimps and nudibranch. Everything seems to be on steroids! I later told David, I could stay here and dive five times a day to photograph the site non-stop for a month!  On second thoughts, maybe just twice per day as the water was a teeth-chattering 1˚C. But then where else in the world, you can take a thermos on a dive, fill it with hot, geothermal water, and drink hot chocolate with 1,100-year-old water before returning to the jetty?

Located two hours outside of Reykjavik is Thingvallavatn Lake, home to a ruptured landscape torn apart by geological forces. In and around the lake are fissures and tectonic cracks, many of them filled with glacial melt water from the Langjokull. Here lies the Slifra rift where you do not need a clear day to see to forever. This iconic site is renowned for crystal clear water, awesome geological formations, and the only place in the world where it is possible to touch both the American and Eurasia tectonic plate underwater with outstretched hands. 

Stepping off the platform into the narrow crack is akin to taking off into an ethereal dimension of infinite blue. David expertly led me through the four sections of the fissure comprising of the Big Crack, Hall, Cathedral, and the main Lagoon. The sweet glacial melt water, filtered through 56 kilometres of lava stone over 50 years, emerges in this fissure pure and clear, and visibility seems infinite. The Silfra water is as pristine as water can get.

The marine flora in Silfra comprises mostly of fluoro green “troll hair” and different types of algae that provide a phantasmagoria unlike anything else familiar in the world we know. Literally, it is an otherworldly experience. The Thingvellir National Park has been declared a UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE both for its cultural and historical significance as well as the natural and geological distinctiveness.

Essay & Photographs by Michael AW ( OG 35)

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