First Days in Iceland

The southern island of Heimaey in Iceland.
The southern island of Heimaey in Iceland.
Nora Grenfell '12 is providing updates from Iceland, where Upson Chair for Public Discourse and Professor of Geosciences Barbara Tewksbury is leading eight Hamilton students and nine students from SUNY Oneonta in a 15-day field study.

Our trip began with a 9 p.m. flight from Boston’s Logan international airport, and ended with us arriving four time zones ahead of New York in Iceland at 6:30 a.m. We hit the ground running, driving from Keflavik airport to Reykjavik across the Reykjanes ridge. As we drove, we observed the oldest rocks in Iceland. Since the island has been built up by magma rising from the mid-Atlantic ridge, the oldest rocks are at the edges of Iceland while the youngest land lies in the center on the volcanically active zone. So far we have been able to observe both the older zones in Iceland and areas where there has been volcanic activity as recently as 30 years ago.

The city of Reykjavik is deceptively American looking, and within this foreign language there are some useful cognates (kaffi is Icelandic for coffee, one of the first words I learned here). Small hints, however, betray that it is an entirely different culture. I still am yet to become accustomed to the smell of the hot water. The Icelandic groundwater is highly sulfuric, and Icelanders missed the sulfur smell when the city began pumping filtered water--so much so that the government added sulfur back in!

While in Reykjavik, we visited the famous geothermal pool named "the blue lagoon," as well as the National Gallery of Iceland, a museum of a Viking ruin that dates approximately around the 9th century. The city is incredibly pedestrian-friendly, which gave us all ample time to explore the majority of the city. Of course, our tour of the country has also offered the chance to view attractions far off the beaten path. we visited boiling mud pots, pleistocene lava flows, and are spending ample time taking notes in the field.

On our third day here, we took a four-hour ferry ride to the southern island of Heimaey. Like all land on Iceland, Heimaey is a land mass formed by recently erupted material. In the mid 60s, an eruption south of Heimaey caused an entirely new land mass to burst forth from the ocean and created an island called Surtsey, which is now being preserved as an ecological experiment. Biologists and ecologists are observing the beginnings of an entire ecosystem from scratch.

Heimaey itself was the site of an eruption in 1973. A volcano called Eldfell let loose a tremendous lava flow that buried a third of the town under ash. Our group actually got to visit the crater of the volcano and hike up to the top. the views of the island were amazing, not to mention the fact that some of the rock on the summit is still too hot to touch for more than a few seconds.

There is really no anticipating what we’ll find next, culturally or geologically, on this trip. On our ferry ride back from Heimaey, we were able to see the summit of recently erupted Eyjafjatajokull in the distance, ash still surrounding the glacier. Tomorrow we are going to try to get as close as we can to the recent lava flow. And I thought a 30-year old volcano was young...

Nora Grenfell '12, a graduate of New York City Lab School, will be providing updates from Iceland. Please check back to read more about the group's expedition.

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