Iceland 2 – A festival of geology

Posted by on Apr 9, 2016 in In search of, Nature
Iceland 2 – A festival of geology

Sparsely-populated, this North Atlantic island is one of the most volcanically active regions in the world. And if this weren’t enough, volcanism in Iceland is unusually diverse for an oceanic island. Nearly all volcano types and eruption styles known on Earth can be found here. The place is a festival of geology with a free entrance. Waterfalls, geysers, hot springs, glaciers, valleys and streams: Iceland has it all. Of course it comes with a bit of rain and wind too, especially inlands the climate is subject to sudden changes.


Geology in Iceland shows as a stream flowing through a ridge with mountains as background setting

Standing on the crust of the earth in Iceland. Image Olivier Overberg.


The Mid-Atlantic Ridge


Understanding Earth: it begins here. Iceland formed 16 to 20 million years ago, when the Eurasian and American continental plates pulled apart. In Deep Time, Iceland is the youngest geological country in the world. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a divergent plate boundary, rises above sea level here, allowing geologists to study the processes of plate separation and the spreading of the seafloor in real time. Cracklike rift valleys occur where plates are being pulled apart, a phenomenon that attracts geologists and tourists alike.


Atlantic Ocean floor map and plate tectonics

For centuries cartographers mapped the surface of our planet. Hidden for our eyes, there’s more. Most fascinating is the map showing the Atlantic Ocean floor. We can see the Mid -Atlantic Ridge, the globe-encircling undersea mountain chain, complete with earthquakes, volcanism and rifting. The largest volcanic eruptions occur here; these fissure eruptions produce large, vertical cracks in the surface of the Earth. The map shows that Iceland is a part of this Mid Atlantic Ridge, and it explains visually why the island is a hotspot.


Atlantic Ocean Floor Map showing underwater ridges and mountains

Atlantic Ocean Floor Map – Columbia University Earth Institute. Underwater ridges and mountains are shown. Iceland ‘sits’ on the Mid Atlantic Rif, which explains the presence of volcanoes.


Geologist and oceanic cartographer Marie Tharp created this first scientific map of the ocean floor, in partnership with geologist Bruce Heezen. From that day, the late fifties of the 20th century, although reluctantly at first, the theories of plate tectonics and continental drifting were generally accepted. The World Ocean Floor Map, published 1977 shows a complete and equally fascinating underwater world of mountains, canyons and ocean ridges. Just like the surface above sea level.

Eruptive volcanoes

Iceland counts quite a few active volcanoes and every now and then nature comes on strong. A famous example with far spreading consequences was the Laki eruption in 1783 when a more then 30 km long fissure opened. Not only basalt surfaced but also megatons of sulfur dioxide. Crops failed, lifestock died and so did twenty percent of the Icelandic population. In addition, prevailing winds spreaded the toxic aerosols across Europe.

Another illustration of such a chain reaction is fresh in our memory. The Eyjafjällajökull eruption of 2010 began in January with the onset of clusters of small earthquakes, in March fountains of lava began exciting and in April new fissures gave way to lava, mud, ice and meltwater. On April 17, 2010 NASA’s Aqua satellite aquired an image of the thick ash that poured from the volcano.


Plume of ash after eruption of Eyjafjällajökull in Iceland on April 17, 2010.

Eruption of Eyjafjällajökull in Iceland, April 17, 2010. NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, Modis Rapid Response Team. Caption by Holli Riebeek.


Iceland today

A room with a view. That’s the study where Halldór Laxness set his pen to paper and created the stories in which the landscape of Iceland and her inhabitants have a dominant role. Laxness is a marvellous storyteller, bringing the island to your armchair.

He continued on, on to the glacier, towards the dawn, from ridge to ridge, in deep, new-fallen snow, paying no heed to the storms that might pursue him. (Halldór Laxness – Under the Glacier)


A rough country breeds tough people. While some descendants of the first settlers went away in times too harsh to survive, others remained and tried to make a living. They succeeded and turned Iceland into the state it is today. Reykjavik, the world’s northernmost capital city is now a buzzing place that has a lot to offer. This small city with its Viking roots provides the 120.000 inhabitants with geothermal energy, a variety of research institutes, museums, art galleries, a lot of design and last but not least good restaurants.

The close vicinity of the sea also involves the scent of fish, hanged outside to dry, giving the place that pleasant feel of healthy combined present and past. In art and architecture, in fashion and design the Icelandic touch is obvious – influenced by the natural environment as well as the historical background. The harsh climate calls for a practical and equally creative approach – when it’s really cold you can protect your head with a cap or something alike but what if your beard freezes off? Wear the Beardcap! Inspired by the ‘lamb-shed hood’ that protected the Icelandic farmers in older times.

four men seated wearing a beardcap from vik prjónsdóttir

Try a Beardcap and have a smile. Image credits: Vik Prjónsdóttir, Gulli Mar.


The Arctic challenge

And there’s more, like the official residences of foreign states. Iceland has come in the picture as one of the important and attractive countries for other states with regard to new shipping routes.  The Arctic region – more specifically the hidden treasures under the slowly melting ice – is a tempting territory where crucial economic interests are at stake. Now that climate change in the Arctic has caused the sea ice to melt more rapidly than ever before, countries are keen to protect their interest in this area while other states therefore want to come as close as possible to the decision making process at this level. Therefore it is interesting to take a look at the activities of The Arctic Council, a high level intergovernmental forum that addresses issues faced by the Arctic governments and the indigenous people of the Arctic. Formally installed in 1996 with the Ottawa Declaration, sustainable development and environmental protection of the area are the major goals to be addressed. The eight members of The Arctic Council are the states with territory in the Arctic: Canada, The United States of America, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, The Russian Federation and Iceland. The indigenous peoples of the arctic area, about 500.000 on a total of 4 million inhabitants, are granted the formal status of Permanent Participant, thus having full consultation rights in connection with the Council’s  negotiations and decisions.

Resources trigger new friendships, like they always have.


References and more reading



Featured image: courtesy Olivier Overberg


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