Snowy Sagas

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere”

Carl Sagan

Science and imagination are an interesting mix. I’m sure it’s spurred on some fascinating scienific discoveries in history. It’s also a great way to explain science as I was to find out on my travels to Iceland.

It was March 2015, and a fleeting visit to Iceland was planned. Peering from the aircraft window, my first glimpse of Iceland appeared extraterrestrial – a land of rock and ice. I had arrived at the end of the winter season, but the terrain was still covered with a serious amount of snow. Geysers, glaciers and volcanic lava flows had sculptured a landscape masterpiece. It was also a place enriched with folklore and storytelling, thanks to those gnarly looking rocks and the mysterious energy from the northern lights above, or geothermal heat below. These stories were full of personalities and were far from frozen.

John, our tour guide had a love of telling folklore stories and dramas on our bus tour. The Icelandic people would refer to this as a ‘saga’.  A story. Their folklore was full of them. A scientific explanation could suddenly be superimposed by numerous superstitions. I learnt about elves, and how they were kind, and about the trolls and their ugly faces in rocks.  We also had one spare seat unoccupied for traditional reasons, to pick up the famous hitchhiker, often known as the ghost. Icelanders embrace an imaginative culture, captivated by a unique sense of humour. Stories were given great emphasis and in many respects it seemed spiritual.  Any touch of mystery seems spiritual in its own way. 

I loved the raw energy of this place with temperatures barely inching above zero degrees Celsius and snowflakes gently gracing the landscape. Located just under the Arctic circle Iceland is considered only 20% habitable and the thought of people colonising this land is not for the fainthearted. Even trees struggled to survive here with little forest coverage, their short and stunted appearances indicative of harsh climatic conditions. The robust volcanic history has evolved an island that had sprinkled dark volcanic ash across the landscape. Soil formation and plant diversity has not boldly entered the geological time scale. To date, approximately 470 vascular plants and 300 mosses and lichens have made Iceland their playground. It wasn’t surprising that during my visit I did not hear any folklore stories which involved ‘green stuff’.

Reykjavik

Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland and is claimed to be the most northern capital in the world at 64 degrees north of the equator. The capital’s name is often mistaken to translate to ‘Smoky Bay’. In fact it translates to ‘Steamy Bay’ largely due to the number of geothermal vents, which are still evident today. Iceland takes advantage of its geothermal energy, and rightly so. It produces approximately 26% of the nation’s electricity, along with providing substantial heating and hot water requirements for Reykjavik. Hydropower is also well utilised and provides the majority of the electricity for the country.

Katla Geopark

We have arrived in Katla Geopark, an area covering approximately nine percent of Iceland and has logged over 150 volcanic eruptions since the 9th century. Geologists can only theorise as to how Mount Katla will erupt and when. This giant volcano, which lies underneath the Myrdalsjokull glacier is overdue to erupt; it’s not a matter of if, but when. Children in the town of Kik, undergo regular evacuation technique drills on a weekly basis, implying Mother Nature clearly dominates here. This is one serious story that has the potential to be very impactful.

Snow scuds whisked through but soon pass. There is a saying in Iceland ‘If you don’t like the weather, then just wait five minutes’. It is quite true, and ultimately depictive of weather systems on an island.  We were introduced to some of the history of the glaciers and the erosional capability of these frozen, slow moving rivers. I tasted the 700 year-old ice to feel revitalised. Solheimajokull glacier was retreating, and at quite a fast pace. This is also a serious story, and one related to climate change.

Hiking on Solheimajokull Glacier

Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is a popular day trip for tourists from Reykjavik, which loops through waterfalls, geysers and a National Park. The Gullfoss waterfalls are otherwise known as the Golden Waterfalls, as sunrays slice through the water and rainbows dance. It wasn’t a sunny day when I saw the Gullfoss falls; in fact it was snowing. I heard the roar before I saw it, the turbulent waterfall carving its way down a staircase of sedimentary and basaltic rock.

Geothermal action was taking place in the southern Haukadlur region. It was geothermal show time as sporadic steam and various gases were released from within the Earth. Most impressionable was the Strokkur geyser, known as the Butter churn as it spouts every six to eight minutes.  A slow swelling begins to bulge at the surface, before spontaneously bursting into a plume 15 – 30 metres high.  The snowy landscape was full of geysers, hot springs and bubbling mud pools. It was snowing, steamy and sensational all at once – now that’s a story.

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