Saturday, September 19, 2009

Lava formation on Icelandic beach

Lava formation on the beach in northwest Iceland.

Photograph by: Mike Grenby , For the Calgary Herald

This really is the land of fire and ice.

While three major glaciers cover 15 per cent of the country, you can also get up close and personal with thermal vents as they roar their superheated sulphurous steam out through cracks in the ground.

“It’s hot!” exclaimed one visitor as he quickly pulled back the hand he had thrust toward one fumarole alongside Highway 1, just past Lake Myvatn here in northern Iceland.

The geothermal activity provides the country with much of its hot water and heating plus about one-quarter of its electricity.

While nearby Greenland is mostly ice, Iceland, which hangs just below the Arctic Circle, is mostly green — at least in the summer. And Canadian “green” goes twice as far as it used to, thanks to Iceland’s economic problems, which cut the currency value in half.

Iceland attractions revolve mainly around nature. The vast treeless landscapes are truly spectacular.

Lava fields in various stages of disintegration dominate large parts of the country. Mountains, including volcanoes, rise steeply from the valleys. The ocean is never far away and along with the many lakes, attracts abundant birdlife.

Because of the fire below, you can bathe in large outdoor spa pools like the Blue Lagoon and the five-year-old Myvatn Nature Baths whose opening is sometimes delayed while the super-heated water is cooled to a tolerable 40 C.

The volcanic nature of Iceland is very evident. Eruptions are so prevalent (30 volcanoes have erupted over the past two centuries) the phonebook’s “how to cope with natural disasters” section includes detailed instructions on the best way to survive a volcanic eruption.

Recent major eruptions

occurred in 2000 and 1996.

The worldwide economic crisis forced overextended Iceland into bankruptcy. The exchange rate doubled in favour of foreign currencies. Some prices have risen because Iceland has to import so many items, but prices for foreign visitors generally have fallen to half of their former very expensive levels.

Although Europeans can catch a car ferry for the three-day trip to Iceland — Norway and then Denmark ruled Iceland until it became independent in 1944 — most international visitors arrive either at

Keflavik airport or via a one-day cruise stopover. (Icelandair flies directly to Keflavik from Seattle,

Toronto and Halifax with fares starting from under $1,000 return.)

Keflavik sits on Iceland’s southwest tip, the Reykjanes peninsula, which offers a taste in miniature of many of the country’s attractions: golfing, deep sea fishing, the lava fields including the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are moving apart at 2.5 centimetres a year, a replica of the Viking ship Islendingur (Vikings first settled in Iceland in 874) and the Blue Lagoon; see

Reykjavik, the world’s most northerly capital city, is a 45-minute drive north on a mostly four-lane highway.

Keep an eye out for the irreverent but informative Reykjavik Grapevine, which recently published The Best of Reykjavik 2009, including “Best place to cheer up (the petting zoo),” “Best biking tour,” “Best place to shop for touristy stuff (Handprjonasambandio)” and “Best place to hook up (Vegamot, Hresso, Dubliners)” — as well as restaurants and bars; check

You wouldn’t suspect the locals were experiencing financial problems, judging by the shopping and bar action and the number of Range Rovers and BMWs, although one person said:

“People took out loans based on foreign currencies. So since the value of our money dropped in half, many people have trouble making double their former payments and worry about losing their car or home.”

Also, more Icelanders are holidaying at home, so booking accommodation ahead is important.

A paved ring road runs about 1,400 kilometres around Iceland, past picturesque waterfalls and rivers, as well as farmhouses and churches set along the shore or up into the mountains.

By the middle of the short summer — similar to that of Canada’s North — large rolled hay bales, covered in white plastic, start showing up in the fields, along with sheep and cows and the sturdy, short (1.3-metre high) and mild mannered Icelandic horses, whose special running walk is so smooth the rider hardly notices the motion (they are also raised for their meat).

Here are just a few highlights:

* The easy, one-day Golden Circle tour just to the east of Reykjavik includes Geysir (and its Strokkur geyser which shoots water and steam 30 metres into the air every few minutes), the Gullfoss waterfall and Thingvellir National Park with moonlike landscapes and another section of the ever-widening Mid-Atlantic Ridge. For delicious, fresh, local food and the most amazing chocolate mousse with raspberry puree and watermelon pieces, plan a lunch or dinner stop at Lindin restaurant, in Laugarvatn.

* Drive north to Borgarnes where the Settlement Centre provides a fascinating history of how and where the Vikings settled in Iceland starting in the 10th century.

* Hvammstangi features the Icelandic Seal Centre, an Icelandic wool-knitting factory and shop, and nearby Gauksmyri Lodge, with horseback riding, hiking, birdwatching, yoga and Bowen therapy.

* Lake Myvatn is surrounded by lava fields, craters, bubbling mud pots, steaming fumaroles and otherworldly landscapes as well tranquil countryside for hiking, cycling and climbing.

* Credit cards are widely accepted; service is included so you don’t need to tip. Hotel room rates often include breakfast. Camping offers an inexpensive alternative. Most people speak English.

* Long daylight hours in summer allow you to make the most of your visit.

Former contributing Herald money columnist and now travel writer Mike Grenby teaches journalism at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast:

Is global warming linked to volcanic eruptions?

A team of geologists is trying to gather data in an attempt to understand how global warming will increase the explosiveness of volcanic eruptions.

As increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels warm the planet, the problems associated with melting ice won’t just raise sea-levels; they will also uncap volcanoes.

But just when and how these unstable magmatic beasts will blow in a warmer world is hard to predict.

“The fact is we are causing future contemporary climate change. Geological hazards are another portfolio of things we haven’t thought of,” Bill McGuire from the Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre at University College London told Nature News.

He organized a meeting of volcanologists and oceanographers at the university on September 15-17 to draw attention to the problem.

A priority is to develop global models of how changes in the climate bring about changes in geological activity, and how those processes feed back into the system.

At present, such models just don’t exist, according to David Pyle, a volcano expert from the University of Oxford, UK, who spoke at the meeting.

“As thick ice is getting thinner, there may be an increase in the explosivity of eruptions,” he said.

The problem is complex, exacerbated by the difficulty of separating forcing by the climate from the effects of a volcanic eruption - aerosols emitted by an eruption will have consequences for atmospheric chemistry, which in turn affect the climate.

“The complex consequences of volcanic activity for the atmospheric biosphere remain poorly understood,” Pyle said.

But there is definitely some evidence that less ice means more dramatic eruptions.

“As thick ice is getting thinner, there may be an increase in the explosivity of eruptions,” said Hugh Tuffen from Lancaster University, UK.

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