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Before our plane had even touched down in Reykjavik we could tell we were arriving somewhere “different”—really different. Through the fast moving fog we caught glimpses of extraordinary colors and forms below. At times we saw what appeared to be huge cracks cutting through the earth. This landscape appeared fundamentally distinct from than anything we’d ever encountered before.
Our time in Iceland was brief, a mere 25 hours. Most of these hours were spent awake, on a bus, that carried us through an incredibly strange and otherworldly scene. During these hours, the weather fluctuated between rain and snow. Stormy clouds cast a dim low light across the basalt-filled landscape.
Iceland is one of the most tectonically active places in the world. On this island of hundreds of volcanoes and hot springs it is routine for the earth to eject steam, erupt, send waterfalls plummeting hundreds of feet and explosively melt massive expanses of ice from below. A mere 320,000 people populate the country, mostly at the island’s edges to afford as much distance as possible from the multitude of geologic events that are imminently possible in the interior. This small population has a still palpable connection to Viking history (politics, language, literature, even horses) and exudes both a sense of community and vital individualism in the face of the land’s unpredictable forces.
During our tour we were told that Icelandic roads are actually designed to be easily swept away by geologic events. This allows less damage to be incurred when something monumental occurs, such as the subglacial flooding that results when a volcanic eruption melts a glacier and releases epic flows of water.
Throughout much of the tour we experienced a jet-lagged state of awe. We could barely imagine living in such close proximity to Iceland’s continuously throbbing and steaming dynamic earth forces. We felt as though we had arrived in an exquisitely unique place, one that actually allowed, and encouraged us, to imagine what the planet looks and feels like when left to its own purely geologic devices. We could also sense that what we were seeing was just a small segment of what existed beyond the mountains and valleys we drove past, into far stretches of land where roads don’t and can’t exist.
With all this geologic action, it’s no surprise that over 90% of Iceland’s energy comes from renewable sources, such as hydrological and geo-thermal power. The raw geologic landscape affords clean air and water while precluding the possibility of widespread agriculture and in turn limiting the number of inhabitants—human, animal and insect alike (we were told no mosquitos or cockroaches exist in Iceland).
The highlight of our journey became the last stop on our tour, Þingvellir National Park. Þingvellir is home of Iceland’s ancient Viking parliament and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here, we took a walk to “the geological wonder of the mid-Atlantic ridge.”
It seems too incredible to be true, but at Þingvellir it is possible to walk between the tectonic plates of two continents. This walk was a monumental event for FOP. As we were casually told that, “the Eurasian Plate is on your left and North American Plate is on your right,” we were filled with wonder. We were at the only place on the planet where the mid-Atlantic ridge surfaces above sea level. At our feet, Iceland was being pulled apart at a rate of 2.5 cm per year.
As we passed through the gap between the two plates, we attempted to project our imaginations into the reality that New York City and all of North America was literally riding upon what we were seeing on our right, starting 3,000 miles to the west of where we now stood. The stone of the plate was dark and stacked like a rocky spinal cord.
As a result of our walk, we couldn’t help but think that a new world map needs to be drawn, one that reassigns borders not to countries and continents, but to tectonic plates. Indeed, it has always been, for all of geologic time, that these great shapers of the world rule everything that rides upon them—and all that collides and subducts at their volatile edges.
Tectonic plate map, courtesy Chuck DeMets, University of Wisconsin-Madison, (NorthAmerican Plate highlighted in yellow, Iceland in blue)
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