Debatable Ground

by wjw on June 24, 2019

IMG_3347So here we are atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, on the neutral ground between the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian plate.  Because the land here is very new, there’s not much in the way of bedrock to support it, and in places it’s sort of collapsed— though not here, where this lake can be found in newly-formed highlands.  The sources of this lake are rainwater and springs, and there’s no exit, but trout have found their way into the lake, so at least there’s fishing.

You also see black volcanic sand and precious little plant life.  In Iceland you can drive for miles through lava flows, where the only vegetation is “gray moss,” a spongy plant that over many centuries erodes the lava just enough so that it can be replaced by . . . green moss!  Which continues the erosion process until some scrub can finally take root.

There are some impressive lava fields near Reykjavik, but the lava fields of the south are simply vast, and produce hours of the most boring driving imaginable, with nothing but gray moss and distant mountains to look at.  This was all laid down in the eruption of Laki in 1783, in which a 25-kilometer gash opened up in the earth, and poured out lava for five months, and intermittently for the next 11 years.  Most of Iceland was covered by ash and cinders contaminated by fluorine, which killed most crops and maybe half the livestock.  Though few lives were lost in the actual eruption, nearly a quarter of the population died of starvation— and this a few years after a smallpox epidemic that killed 33%.  The Danish government contemplated evacuating the entire island, and sent a ship to Reykjavik to evacuate whoever wanted to leave— though when the people were told they were intended to colonize the barren sand dunes of Jutland, they responded “We can starve to death here just fine, thank you.”

The eruption was so vast that it had enormous geopolitical consequences.  A sulphur dioxide fog settled over much of Europe, so thick that ships could not leave port.  As people are not equipped to breathe sulphuric acid, thousands died.  The freezing winter of 1784 caused widespread famine, notably in France, where it probably contributed to the French Revolution.

In America, the Chesapeake froze over.  In Asia the monsoon cycle was disrupted, and the Nile failed to flood, resulting in the starvation deaths of a sixth of the population of Egypt.

Active geology can be pretty damned scary.

Another feature of southeastern Iceland is the way the houses are clustered on high points.  Many active volcanoes are covered by glaciers, so when there’s an eruption a lot of ice gets melted in a very short amount of time.  This stuff finds its way to lower levels, and the results can be mass flooding.  The floods not only carry water, but also cinders, big rocks, and whole icebergs.  Past experience has shown which areas flood and to what depths, and so farmhouses are clustered above the high-water line.  Since churches tend to be built on high points, the area is full of stories of churches being saved from catastrophe by divine intervention, while the actual cause seems to have been topology.

These floods can build very rapidly.  We visited one town— it may have been Vik, but I don’t remember— where the inhabitants are expected to evacuate on 40 minutes’ notice.  Good luck with that, say I.  (We lodged well above the flood line.)

Vulcanologists are now very good at predicting eruptions, but this is usually with volcanoes they can see.  A volcano buried under two kilometers of ice is a very different problem.  They listen for micro-quakes and send helicopters over the glaciers to visually look for changes.

But still— 40 minutes’ warning.  My advice is not to silence your phones at night.


Glacier Had a Baby

by wjw on June 18, 2019


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by wjw on June 17, 2019

IMG_3868Here we are, just a few days from Midsummer, and the temperature is 7º Celsius (44 Fahrenheit), with a wicked cold wind.  That’s southeast Iceland for you.

This photograph was taken near the pleasant fishing town of Höfn (“Haven,” or “Port” if you like), which is currently suffering from a weird tertiary effect of global warming that I’m guessing no one ever predicted.

Behind the great big mountain in the photo is Vatnajökull, the world’s third-largest glacier after Antarctica and Greenland.  Like all glaciers Vatnajökull is melting as rapidly as it possibly can, and in the last few decades Icelandic glaciers have lost on average 50 meters of depth.

Something as large and heavy as Vatnajökull presses down on the country around it, and when the weight is removed the land springs upward.  (Finland, for example, is still rising after being squashed during the last Ice Age.)  As Vatnajökull melts, the land around it is rising, including the port of Höfn.  Which means the seas around it are falling, including in the tricky harbor entrance, which requires two right-angle turns to negotiate.

What with land appearing where it wasn’t before, it’s now very easy to run aground in the channel.  If the land gets much higher, there won’t be a channel at all.  (And the land hereabouts is rising at up to 1.4 inches per year.)

You’d think that the ocean rise would mitigate the effect, but the ocean isn’t rising fast enough, and with all respects to Höfn I hope it doesn’t.

I was surprised at how massive the rising area was, since Höfn isn’t next to the glacier or anything.

With such an extreme climate as Iceland, you might expect climate change to be more obvious here, and you’d be right.  Temperatures are rising faster than the IPCC model predicts.  For the first time ever, Iceland is now home to ticks.  (It’s still too cold for mosquitoes.)  Farmers are experimenting with new crops, including apples, which couldn’t have been grown here as little as fifteen years ago.

Iceland won’t turn into a tropical paradise anytime soon, but it’s becoming an involuntary lab for climate change, like most far northern latitudes.

At least they’ll have ticks.

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by wjw on June 16, 2019

IMG_3522I should make the point that my Iceland posts aren’t made in any particular order, but dictated by what I feel like writing about and how much time I have available.

So if you’re familiar with Icelandic geography, you may suspect that I’m teleporting randomly about the landscape.  Whereas to those of you who don’t know Iceland, it won’t matter.

What we have here is a turf-roofed house similar to those inhabited by most Icelanders throughout history, a style used well into the 20th century— except the this one is nicer than most, belonging to a family that was well-off.  Most families probably lived in one or two rooms, but this had seven or eight.

Yes, this is a single building, comprised of rooms branching left and right off a single corridor.  Each room is walled with turf laid out in a herringbone pattern, and turf also provides the roof.  The floor is dirt.  There are internal walls and doors made from sawn driftwood.

There is no fireplace or chimney.  Most people would have lived without a kitchen, because apparently these houses burn down very easily.  There was no indoor heat except for that provided by human bodies.

Remember, this is a home for well-off people.

The family would have spent its day outdoors, working.  At the end of the day, they’d gather in a single room and continue to work, making rope or weaving or whatever.  The husband and wife had box beds in a kind of alcove, behind a door for privacy.  Everyone else slept in box beds, usually two or three to a bed in order to keep warm.

They might have had some poor people living with them.  Poor and homeless people were auctioned off every year to wealthier people.  The low bidder won, because the low figure was paid by the county to the bidder for the poor folks’ upkeep.  If there was a kitchen, the poor people would sleep there, and would be the first to burn to death in case of accident. Poor people tended not to live very long.

IMG_3536This is a turf church of a type once common in the countryside.  Many churches were built on private land, not because the owners were particularly pious, but because they could make money.  Church revenues were divided with one-quarter going each to the householder, the priest, the bishop, and (supposedly) the poor.  The householder was also supposed to donate his stipend to the poor, but because he was in it for the money, this rarely happened.

Inside the church, seating was based on a class system.  The householder and his family sat in the choir, nearest the altar.  The poor folk sat farthest away, the men on one side, the women on the other.  Single women of marriageable age sat in the middle, in box pews walled off by screens, so the men wouldn’t spend the service staring at them.  Nevertheless the church became the center of social life, with everyone sitting and chatting after the service.  It was the only time you saw your neighbors.

The iron fence near the door is a grave, a married man who got involved with a lot of the local ladies. When he died his wife buried him, built a fence, locked the fence, and threw away the key.  It’s been locked for all the generations since.  Grudges are long held in the Land of the Midnight Sun.

Iceland remained the poorest European country until the Second World War, when they were occupied by the British and then the Americans.  (The US actually occupied Iceland before we were at war with anybody.)  Once Iceland threw off the last of its ties to the King of Denmark, they could start earning money for themselves instead of the crown, and have been doing well ever since, with the occasional setback like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and the financial crisis of 2007, which resulted in banks going bankrupt and bankers going to jail, a progressive policy I’d like to recommend elsewhere.

The 2007 crisis may have spelled the end for the Icelandic people, because so many emigrated, mostly to Norway, where enlightened economic policies have made them the most stable economy in the world.  Immigrants now hold key roles in the Icelandic economy, particularly the service economy.  The hotel staff, airport staff, and often restaurant staff are from outside the country, and most don’t speak Icelandic.  When our friend Arni calls a hotel, he asks “May I speak Icelandic?”, and the answer is often no.

Arni has been recommending sagas to me.  I get to tell him I’ve already read them.  It’s one of the few advantages given me by my Minnesota upbringing, where Burnt Njal was available in my junior high school library.  I wonder if it’s still there?



by wjw on June 15, 2019

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Tölt and Snæfellsjökul

June 13, 2019

Behold the stratovolcano Snæfellsjökull, used by Jules Verne to send Professor Lidenbrock & Company toward (but not to) the Center of the Earth. Unfortunately M Verne never actually went to Iceland, else he might have learned that Snæfellsjökull’s crater is completely sealed by ice. (Do your research! I tell my students.) Here we see one of […]

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The Harp

June 12, 2019

This is a photo of the Harpa (Harp), Reykjavik’s astounding concert hall.  The irregular glass panels are each colored differently, or are designed to reflect different colors in a changing environment, or both.  At any rate the colors shift and change and move with the environment, and in full daylight (which we don’t see here) […]

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June 9, 2019

I am off to an Undisclosed Location for ten days or so, so within this harmless karaoke video I have inserted a few clues as to my destination. And no, I have no plans to kiss any sheep while I’m there. Bæ!

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It All Comes Down to Luck

June 9, 2019

So after forty years earning a living in the creative arts, I have one primary insight to offer: It all comes down to luck. Luck matters more than talent.  I know any number of extremely gifted writers who just had shitty luck, and whose careers failed on takeoff or blew up in midair.  Likewise I […]

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It’s Huge!

June 8, 2019

My biggest book— both in terms of length and in terms of ebook sales— is now a very, very long audio book! Just in time for filling all those long hours during your summer vacation!

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