Recently my wife, Nancy, and I had the good fortune to spend two weeks in Iceland, the incredible “Land of Fire and Ice”. In stark contrast to the drought stricken western United States, where we live, Iceland almost appears to have more water than they can handle. We should all have such problems!
In Reykjavik, the world’s northernmost capital, we joined a fabulous tour that took in the glaciers, waterfalls, hot springs, and off-shore icebergs. We also visited farms, black beaches, and puffin preserves that exist side by side with the more than 200 volcanoes in Iceland’s active zone, 30 of which have erupted since the country was settled by seafaring Vikings around 900 A.D.
Over time, the foot-deep layer of accumulated lava and ash from those eruptions has turned to rich, fertile soil that supports incredibly productive farms along the southern coast and vast areas of lush, vibrant moss. Often, the fine ash is transported great distances on the prevailing winds, as happened in 2010 when Mount Eyjafjallajokull erupted for three weeks carrying ash throughout Europe and disrupting international air travel.
Located in the north Atlantic, Iceland represents the largest exposed portion of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a submarine fault line that forms the earth’s largest mountain chain and the source of the region’s unusually frequent volcanic activity. We went to one of the few places on earth where you can stand on the exposed fault a hundred feet below the edges of two tectonic plates and see the actively spreading ridge. It was truly an OMG moment.
Across the interior of the country, the steam that pours from the geothermal vents dotting the mountainsides and the fresh water from glacial melt is used to raise sheep, cattle, pigs, and grow crops. The availability of these natural resources is what makes seasonal commercial outdoor agriculture both possible and profitable for Iceland’s farmers. Everywhere we went, fields of hay were being baled for use as livestock feed during the long winter months. Geothermal steam is often used to disinfect the soil and warm water employed to irrigate crops in the spring while the weather is still quite cool. This is Iceland, after all.
In addition to outdoor farming, greenhouses and high tunnels—heated and powered by geothermal energy—insure a year round supply of vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers, as well as flowers and other potted plants. Indoors, it is common to use inert growing media (volcanic scoria, a dark colored igneous rock or rhyolite, volcanic rock containing silica) on concrete floors with individual plants watered using drip irrigation.
Geothermal water is also used to heat 90 percent of Iceland’s households, providing very inexpensive hot water and electricity for its citizens. Many of the geothermal power plants we saw not only send power to the cities but enable greenhouses to extend their growing season with electric lighting. After heating homes and commercial buildings, the returning geothermal waste water is used to heat streets, sidewalks, and parking areas. Very progressive indeed.
Despite its cool climate and short growing season Iceland’s northern latitude has certain advantages for agriculture, allowing a variety of food crops such as potatoes, turnips, carrots, cabbage, kale, and cauliflower to grow. The lack of insect pests meant that the use of agrochemicals, including insecticides and herbicides, is very low and the long hours of daylight in the cool summer allow feed grasses to grow exceptionally well. Low pollution levels due to the country’s sparse population, has also been capitalized upon by a growing organic farming sector.
Besides farming, fishing provides Iceland with one of the most competitive, modern and environmentally sound industries in the world, where catches are effectively monitored and limits are enforced. Cod is the most valuable fish stock, accounting for a third of the total catch and hot air generated by geothermal power is used to dry the cod for export. Seaweed harvesting is another major Icelandic industry the ocean offers. Seaweed manufacturer Thorverk uses geothermal heat in its production of kombu, dulse, and wakame seaweed. This certified organic product is harvested, chopped, and dried using air heated to 85° Celsius. Without geothermal power, this industry would not exist in Iceland.
Iceland boasts a progressive political leadership too. During the 2008 economic meltdown, the government put the guilty bankers in jail and barred banks from allowing currency assets to leave the country. No slap on the wrist and no bailout with taxpayers’ money. “Where everyone else bailed out the bankers and made the public pay the price, Iceland let the banks go bust and actually expanded its social “safety net”, noted NY Times financial columnist Paul Krugman, admiringly. As a result Iceland’s economy has recovered quite well. Close monitoring of the remaining current banks has remained in effect, leading to a wave of voter confidence in their bold 40 year old prime minister, Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson. Added up, Icelanders are fast on their way to becoming one of the richest nations in the world, just seven years after experiencing one of the most dramatic financial meltdowns in global history.
This tale wouldn’t be complete without telling of one of the highlights of our visit; Iceland’s many hot springs. We always tried to remember to bring a towel and a bathing suit when driving around. Even their capital city, Reykjavik, has a dozen Olympic size warm swimming pools with multiple hot tubs with temperatures ranging from tepid to sizzling surrounding the large pool.
The huge glaciers covering much of this land mass are also sights to behold. Awestruck is the only way to describe standing atop one of these wind-carved white masses. After ascending the world’s third largest glacier and playing around a bit in the snow, we drove back down the mountain in our four-wheel-drive vehicle (outfitted with huge tires) and found an encampment of tents and a large hot spring. Our tour group of seven friends and family spent a wonderful time immersed in a long soak provided by the hot water springing from one of the seven volcanic mountains located beneath the Vatnajokull glacier. Pellucid light, breathtaking beauty and a sense of serenity are words inadequate to relaying the feelings the sight of this mass of snow and ice produces.
Iceland is a land where friendly people live, play, and eat quite well and one that definitely should be on your list. Get there soon. It’s a treasure to be shared.