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  The Republic of Iceland is a Nordic island country between the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean. It has a population of 332,529 and an area of 39,769 sq miles making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe. The capital and largest city is Reykjavik. Iceland is volcanically and geologically active. The interior consists of a plateau characterized by sand and lava fields, mountains and glaciers, while many glacial rivers flow to the sea through the lowlands. Iceland is warmed by the Gulf Stream and has a temperate climate, despite a high latitude just outside the Arctic Circle.  

Our Trip to Iceland


Iceland is stunning, fascinating, and amazing.  A lot of adjectives for a 10-day trip!  Here are my highlights of our trip from August 18-28, 2016.




  Travel companion: I went with Ruth Deike, a geologist friend from my USGS life in Reston, VA.  She needed to collect rocks for her small business, The Rock Detective, which mails rocks and fascinating worksheet-based Earth science mysteries to teachers.  We read the Customs website—no food, no soil, no plants or animals—but rocks were fine.  No hassle about our rocks, although TSA and Iceland’s equivalent confiscated our peanut butter and yogurt (gels) and her juice boxes.  Poopy on them.  Talking about airports, I learned you don’t have to take off your shoes after you turn 75.  




  Travel details: Online, Ruth found the “Nordic Visitor” travel agency which was absolutely perfect.  She told our travel facilitator there in Reykjavik where we wanted to go, and the facilitator set up rental car at the airport, laid out an itinerary to take us where we said, booked the guest houses, gave us a map with the best routes and things to see along the route, and had us picked up at the hotel on the last day to take us to the airport.  Talk about spoiled women!  

Clothes: I almost packed my heavy down coat, which would have been stupid.  I read online that one day was going to be 65 degrees and I rethought what to pack.  Tee shirts under a heavy hoody were perfect, along with my light-weight gloves for late afternoons.  For the one day with cold windy rain at Black Sand Beach near Vik, my rain coat was perfect.








The Blue Lagoon, my highlight: The Blue Lagoon, right near Keflavik International Airport, blew me away with its color, geochemistry, and microbiology.  I read that it is created by geothermal water from a geothermal power plant that mixes naturally with nearby seawater.  The Blue Lagoon facility is a hot-water swimming pool, spa, and restaurant.  The blue color is from silica that precipitates in the water as a gel.  You have to wash before you put on your bathing suit (to keep human bacteria out of the water), and put conditioner on your hair (to keep the silica in the water from turning your hair rigid). 

After swimming, we rinsed off, along with our bathing suits.  But our bathing suits didn’t dry in two days.  I rinsed them off 10 times after that—watching the silica (hydrosilicic acid?) swirl off until I saw no more.  Thanks goodness I put conditioner on my hair!  Of course I forgot about my hearing aids, but I was never submerged in the water and I didn’t wash my hair, just rinsed off the conditioner.  As I was drying off I remembered them and used the facilities’ hair dryer to blow on them; no damage, whew…

I loved seeing the chert/silica precipitating on the rocks, along with the colonizing cyanobacteria.  Ruth and I were so curious about the geochemistry that we swam/jumped over to the commercial spa and asked one of the attendants to look up on her iPad the geochemistry of silica precipitation—we couldn’t find the answer when we asked her to search “silica Eh-pH diagram.”  It made no sense to us that the pH was only 7 (neutral); Ruth had published on silica dissolution of the diatoms (siliceous algae) in Lake Abert, an alkaline (pH 9) lake in Oregon. 

At home I searched some more and discovered the chemical reaction at the Blue Lagoon is governed by temperature—silica is soluble in hot water and drops out as the water cools.  Of course I collected a sample and analyzed it at home.  I was expecting diatoms and found none, so I contacted the microbiologist who published on the silica-precipitating bacteria and cyanobacteria there.  I wanted to learn some more and I shared my analysis with him; he only saw dead diatoms that probably blew in, just like I saw pollen grains that blew in.





  Ruth’s highlight: Her highlight was meeting and talking to people.  We barely met anyone from Iceland—we were there at peak tourist time, so we talked to people from Ukraine, Czech Republic, Israel, Germany, and Denmark.  Only one receptionist at the seven guest houses and hotels we stayed at was from Iceland.  The languages we heard were from all over the earth, and of course, English was the lingua franca.  The first person we talked to at depth on our first bleary-eyed morning in Keflavik at the B&B Guesthouse was from the Ukraine but living in Baltimore.  Her parents had flown in from Russia, and her brother from Ukraine.  Of course!  





  Volcano stories: Good gravy, Iceland gets a volcanic eruption every 3-5 years.  That’s like earthquakes and fires here at home in California.  During breakfast at our guest house near Selfoss in the south, I ate looking out at Hekla, which erupts/explodes the most frequently (1980, 1991, 2000).  The guest house at Hestheimar horse Farm in the south was tucked under the shadow of Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano that blew in 2010 and disrupted travel in Europe for days.  The proprietor there said the wind was blowing away from their farm so they weren’t in danger; but we stopped at the Eyjafjallajokull Visitor Center to watch the video from 2010—people with farms in the lowlands were wiped out from flooding caused by the volcano blowing up through glacial ice.  We also went to the Volcano Museum in Reykjavik and saw that eruption again, along with two other ones.  As we drove the countryside I kept looking for some ash to collect, but I never found any.  Maybe we weren’t in the right places, or maybe the vegetation incorporates this nutrient really fast.  





  Another volcano story with puffins: We took the ferry to the Vestmann Islands at the southern tip of Iceland.  In our Mazda SUV, we got to drive around the large island, and we visited the Volcano Museum there.  The video affected us greatly, because it was in surround sound and the volcano Eldfell that blew in 1973 took out the city of Heimaey.  Townspeople who returned to clean out the ash/sinter/basalt blocks were the narrators and their tales were harrowing because the eruption lasted 7 months.  Two almost-destroyed houses were reconstructed in the museum, and the black sinter was about 3 feet thick.  Of course I collected sinter outside the museum.  We drove to the south of the island to a place called the windiest place on earth.  I wanted a photo of the volcano Surtsey, which was created in a 1963 eruption.  I kept trying to find it, but it was blocked by another island.  Finally, from the windiest place on earth, I spotted it and got my photo.  We next drove to the west of the island to see puffins.  No puffins along the water where we were looking.  We stopped to get gas and the gas-station guy said you have to look up to see where they nest.  And sure enough, one flew out of its nest and across the sky.    





Yarrow growing everywhere:  One of my crazy hypotheses is that as people traveled the earth starting in Africa 50,000 years ago, the healers carried with them medicinal plants which they planted.  One of the most interesting medicinal plants is yarrow (Achillea millefolium).  The Native American Ethnobotany database shows it can be used to cure just about every ailment in the human body.  I found it growing all over western and southern Iceland, just like I find it in San Diego and all over the US. 





  Northern Lights: I really wanted to see the Aurora Borealis.  We heard that it would be visible over a two-day period when we were at Stora Mark Farm.  At that guest house, we met two guys from Israel, one a neuroscientist and the other a teacher of disabled students.  They wanted to see the northern lights also.  We hatched up a scheme by dividing the night; the guys planned to stay up until 12.  Then one took the 1 AM watch, another took the 2 AM watch, and I volunteered for the 3 AM watch.  Whoever saw them would wake everyone else up.  The 1 AM person saw them, and we stood outside in our pj’s, wrapped in our duvets, watching the swirls of green and purple.  Then we all went back to bed.  But my bed looked out a north side window, and I spent the rest of the night not quite sleeping, waking myself periodically to look through the window—no more lights.  We met the two young men again at the airport when we all were leaving—big hugging reunion!  They had driven the Circle Road around the entire country.  They found the eastern side of Iceland to be boring—miles and miles of driving with only waterfalls to look at.   




  Cows, ash, and crashed airplane from World War II:  The most interesting place we stayed was at Stora Mark Farm tucked into the west side of the volcano Eyjafjallajokull.  Ruth had been raised on a farm, so she wanted to visit a working farm in Iceland.  We went to the cow barn and got taken on a tour of milk production.  We learned that the cows milked themselves; when they wanted to be milked, they walked themselves over to the machine, leaned against something that spray cleaned their teats, and then the little milk cups attached to their teats.  I had no idea if this was true, but I read it online after I got home.  We told the farmer that we were geologists and he said he had something to show us.  He took us behind the barn to see the most amazing cut into the hillside—by cutting into the hillside, he had exposed 7,000 years of volcanic ash falls.  If I understand correctly, this has become a famous exposure for geology field trips.  As we left there, I saw a recent cut in the field below—a geology professor and his/her students had been digging to see if they could find ash layers older than the ones exposed at Stora Mark Farm.  Lastly, the farmer took us to another place which had smashed pieces of an airplane.  It was a B-17 that had crashed into Eyjafjallajokull; the military had removed it and the farmer talked them into depositing it on his farm.  




  The black sand beach at Vik: For one of her geological mysteries, Ruth needed black sand from the Black Sand Beach at Vik in the far south of Iceland.  This is where it rained on us, but we filled 6 gallon-size bags with black sand.  Ruth found some nice guys to help carry the bags back to the vehicle.  She also had another three bags of basalt from another site.  We decided to mail the samples at the Hvolsvollur post office.  Ruth paid $355 to mail those samples.  When I got home with my little baggy of black sand, I realized that some of the weight was seawater.  We should have rinsed and dried the samples.  After I did this at home, I pulled out my new magnet with the photo of Eyjafjallajokull and discovered that a large part of the sand is the mineral magnetite.  I thought most of the sand would be sand-sized basalt.   





  Driving stories: I love driving, so I did most of it.  We were in a Mazda SUV.  I like to drive on cruise control and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure it out how to turn it on.  I flipped through the instruction manual looking for any word or diagram that looked like cruise control.  No luck.  So at one of the guest houses I asked if there was anyone around who spoke Icelandic.  The geologist boyfriend of the receptionist, both of whom are from Czech Republic, took me over to one of the workmen.  He looked at the book and said it was in Danish, which he couldn’t read.  The geologist said that one of the riding instructors was from Denmark, and we finally found her in the barn.  She translated cruise control for me—success.  That’s my first vehicle story.  The next one is about the lowlight of our trip.  Along our northern route, we decided to take a short cut rather than follow the route laid out for us.  The short cut turned out to be a gravel road.  A truck was coming toward us and his wheel threw a big rock into our windshield, creating a splay of cracks that kept growing.  All the glass pieces stayed intact though.  I called the car rental place (on the phone given to us by the travel agency) and they said as long as the glass stayed intact, keep vacationing.  I was worried though, because the crack was centered near Ruth.  As soon as we got to a store, I bought scotch tape and we (over)taped both inside and outside.  The rain, which happened most nights, didn’t ever come inside, so we had done a good job.  We had bought the insurance that had a $240 deductible, so that wasn’t too awful.  





  Thingvellir, where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge comes onto the continent:  The one place that both Ruth and I were dying to see was Thingvellir, where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge comes right onto the continent.  There is a hot spot under Iceland that directs/creates the Ridge and Iceland itself.  There in the National Park is a fissure, a long linear break in the volcanic basalt.  This is where the Vikings held their annual gathering (the Althing), from A.D. 930 to 1881.  Ruth and I sat inside the fissure and decided we should organize a female Althing; none of the women walking by us wanted to join us, they not understanding what we were doing.  I read that Icelanders get pissed off when tourists come with no knowledge about their country.  That doesn’t define me; I got the Viking Sagas out of the library and read all about who killed whom, when, who married whom, killed someone else, went somewhere and killed someone else—the Viking Sagas are really really bloody.  But I did understand the significance of being inside that fissure, sitting next to protected Law Rock, where the Viking kings decided for almost a thousand years who lives and who dies.   





  The Bridge between Continents: The second amazing geological tourist activity is at the extreme west of Iceland.  This is the spreading center that moves the North American plate away from the Eurasian plate.  There was a sign to show us tourists where to stand and how to hold up our hands to make it look like we were holding up the bridge.  We did that too!  





  Viking stories: Of course we were in the land of the Vikings, so we had to visit Viking Museums.  In my research for this trip, I learned that there were no indigenous people on Iceland.  Irish monks were first to settle, and then came the Norsemen who became the Vikings.  Then Eskimos arrived and later left.  The first museum we visited, the Settlement Center, was in the city of Borgarnes.  It was primarily about Egil, who was the spoiled or abused child that created beserking—he destroyed places and killed people to get his way from childhood through adulthood.  Oh yeah, he was also a poet.  There was a painting of Snorri, who was the chronicler who wrote most of the Viking Sagas; I love his name, Snorri.  The second museum, the Settlement Exhibition, was in Reykjavik, and it is an excavation of an A.D. 871 farm.  We got into that museum free because we were senior citizens.  Yes!  







Hot springs: My next story is about the two areas of hot springs we visited in southwest Iceland, Geysir and Seltun.  At Geysir, we watched the geyser erupt about every 8 minutes.  To capture a photo of it is really hard because it erupts for about 5 seconds.  By the time you hit the button on the camera, it has dissipated.  But I did get two great shots.  I was in Seventh Heaven wandering these two hot spring areas—looking at the chemical/biological deposits of iron, silica, calcium carbonate, and sulfur.  I even saw the sulfur-oxidizing bacterium Thiothrix that I have been working on in San Diego.


  The water distribution system: Now that I am so attuned to water distribution, I asked a bunch of questions about the water there.  The plumbing fixtures were weird, but it turns out that there are two water lines—cold water from glacial meltwater runoff and hot water from geothermal sources.  The cold water isn’t treated—we were drinking glacial meltwater.  The hot water smells like hydrogen sulfide.  Of course no one explained this all to us, so I filled my bottle with the knob turned to the middle—which meant I mixed the hot and cold water and I was drinking water with sulfate in it.  Of course, I drink the Colorado River water here in San Diego, and it is a high sulfate water, so I’m fine.  

  Greenland: Flying back home on our WOW Airline flight, we flew right over southern Greenland.  This blew me away, flying first over the volcanic rocks at the east of Greenland and then the metamorphic rocks that I have published on at the west side.   

Perfect trip. 

Love, Norrie