It’s impressive that Iceland generates 100% of its electricity using renewable energy. 75% is derived by hydro power, and 25% is geothermal. The latter capacity grew to 951 megawatts last year from 65 megawatts in 2000, (according to data compiled by Bloomberg news). It also provides 87% of it’s demands for hot water and heating using geothermal energy. It’s dynamic, this belching landscape steaming with fumeroles venting sulpherous gas. While hot springs are dotted all over and evil-smelling mud pools hubble and bubble.
It’s fascinating to discover that in geological terms Iceland as a landmass is considered young – a mere 20 million years in the making. But, sitting on a geologic hot spot on the mid-Atlantic ridge where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are gradually drifting apart, has catastrophic effect. The tear through the crust is allowing magma to well upwards towards the surface, perculating, waiting for an opportunity to vent. One can’t help but feel that Iceland is at the mercy of some violent tempestous beast, a fiery dragon living beneath a white counterpane of ice.
For the population, (320,000) the threat of living with such natural disaster must be quite unnerving. Yet after the economic collapse of 2008 and the Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption in 2010, there appears to be a wry stocism judging from this slogan ” Don’t mess with us, we may not have the cash, but we have the ash”.
The effect on the land is evident in the form of lava fields, basaltic rock, rhyolite or hyaloclastite formations of extraordinarily odd shapes. A whole different ecosystem exists specific to the lava, and hotsprings. The green algae, Cyanidum cadarium grows at a scalding temperature between 40 – 50°C and creates bright green streaks in steam vents. The ancient bacteria, Archaea is apparently the most common, and is considered to be one of five of the earth’s oldest organisms. Nature rules with an upper hand in this land.
Iceland has some three hundred recorded bird species. It’s extraordinary – some areas teem with birds – thousands of them. Whenever we stopped the car, the rush of bird calls were indicative of the high activity, the haste in getting through the breeding season. As we travelled the ring road we noticed the varying stages of nesting, and chick rearing. The seabird colonies were the most impressive, guillemots, fulls, fulmars, puffins, arctic terns.
Here are some of the stars of the show:
Greylag geese have large clutches of chicks.
The eider ducks are an iconic species.
The golden plover is a common heathland bird, a migrant whose mournful piping is eagerly awaited as the harbinger of summer.
Long legged red shank are identified by their long beaks.
The plump ptarmigans are a popular culinary bird traditionally eaten over Christmas instead of turkey.
The graceful whimbrel in flight.
Broods of eider duck are a common sight.
A whooper swan.
The honking swans pay great fanfare to greetings and hierachy displays.
The barnacle geese have the cutest of chicks.
Barnacle chicks test the water.
The Arctic terns are known for their aerial bombing, strafing interlopers in their breeding territories.
Millions of puffins come to breed in Iceland. A most endearing creature.
An extraordinary landscape of ice and snow dominates the southeastern coast as Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier comes into view. It’s full immensity is striking, glaring ice sheets with grey needle-sharp mountain peaks and tongues of ice exiting onto the gravel plains. It covers eight thousand square kilometers, is almost 150km broad and up to a kilometre thick.
Glacial geology and geomorphology has a descriptive language all of it’s own. Ice sculpts and rearranges mountains and valleys, and the terminology is as arresting as it’s relentless effect: cirques and aretes, jagged ridges, glacial flutes, drumlins, eskers, hummocky moraines, rock flour. A highlight of the trip was a boat ride on the Fjallsárlón glacial lagoon, 10 kilometers west of Jökulsárlon. The lagoon was formed after the glacier began shrinking rapidly in the 1940’s and forms a pool between the Breiðamerkurjökull and the sea. We chose a tour company using zodiac dinghies as the boats are more manoeuvrable and able to get close-up to the icebergs. The brochure describes the experience as “stepping into a dreamlike world”. It certainly was otherworldly, with the growl of the retreating ice, and the boat guide fearful of getting too close to the wall of the glacier. It is receding far faster now than as any other time and is logged at 500m over the past decade. Our young guide expressed his concern over the effect of global warming and recommended watching the documentary “Chasing Ice”. Here’s a link to the trailer – it’s a pretty sobering look at the effects of climate change.
For a nature photographer Iceland is a place of wonder. The landscape is filled with contrasting elements and a dynamic geomorphology still in the making. Forged by active volcanoes and honed by ice, the magic for me was in its raw elemental beauty and brooding primordial power.
“The land is still waking…. ” said Fannar, our guide as we drove past a barren and short cropped stretch near Lake Mývatn. We’d chosen to travel in early June and there was a thrum, a tangible sense of energy as if the mountains were eager to cast off their winter cloaks in haste to catch the warmth of the sun. Summer is short in this northern land and nature surges through an intense season, while the inhabitants seize the day and pack in as much as they can. I found it all quite heady – the buzz, the extraordinary scenes and the richness of colour. Wild flowers were already showing their blooms and the many migratory birds had arrived and were thriving in breeding colonies.
A random selection of scenes follows in this first gallery : Chromatic