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An island of boiling springs, ancient glaciers and sheep farms

Posted in Geography, Geology, Historical articles, History, Nature on Wednesday, 31 October 2012

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This edited article about Iceland originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 775 published on 20th November 1975.

Whaling industry, picture, image, illustration

The whaling indusrry in Iceland

To expect the unexpected is a way of life in Iceland. A land of contrasts, its rugged surface reveals but a fraction of the awesome powers which exist below.

Indeed, few can have had experiences such as that of Hannes Jensson in 1934. In his capacity as district postman (he was also a farmer) in the south-east of the island, he was forced to endure an eight-hour trek across a lurching glacier which was floating on the flood-waters caused by a volcano erupting under the ice behind him.

Yet, despite the eccentricities of their own country, the Icelanders have carved out a land still in the throes of creation, a land to be proud of.

The name Iceland is misleading. Although nearly twelve per cent of its surface is covered by glaciers, the island’s position at the junction of two oceanic ridges – one running between Greenland and the British Isles, the other extending 80,000 kilometres around the Earth’s surface – has earned it the title of a geological hot-spot: an area of tremendous thermal activity where hot-springs are commonplace and volcanic activity frequent.

Indeed, during recent decades. Icelanders have come to expect a serious eruption at least once every five years. Mount Hekla, the most famous – or infamous? – volcano of all has erupted fourteen times since records began in 1104, transforming it from a mere hillock into a mountain 1,491 metres high! The year 1783 saw the outpouring of the largest lava stream in historic times due to a single eruption, when the fissure Lakagir spewed out enough material to cover England to a depth of nearly four inches! The resulting devastation was colossal. Showers of ash affected crops as far as the islands off the Scottish coast, and in Iceland caused the death of 11,500 cattle, 28,000 ponies and 190,500 sheep. The following year one-fifth of the population perished through starvation.

Today, the remains of these disasters invoke amazement and awe among visitors as they gaze upon an eerie landscape of cinder desert, broken by the contorted shapes of hardened lava, stretching out to a backdrop of glistening ice-topped mountains in the distance. So unique is this lunar type of surface, that the American Apollo astronauts were trained for their missions in parts of Iceland.

The hot-springs and spouting geysers also catch the newcomer’s eye. However, of greater importance, is their potential as energy supplies. Many homes are now heated solely by natural hot waters; as a result, the capital, Reykjavik, is pollution free. And facilities such as open-air swimming pools can be used all the year round.

Plants benefit, too. Although conditions in Iceland enable a mere one per cent of its area to be cultivated, successful experiments with naturally heated greenhouses have yielded vividly-coloured flowers and many fruits – even bananas!

Water and untapped energy are also to be found together in the form of fast flowing rivers. Less than one tenth of the economically harnessable hydro-electric power potential is at present being used by the islanders – for them this is a comforting thought when the rest of the world is caught in the wake of fuel shortages.

Because of the small population – the total figure of some 217,000 is less than that of most medium-sized towns in other countries – there are often more job vacancies than people to fill them. Many people manage two jobs during parts of the year. Four-month school holidays give teenagers time to work full-time on the trawlers and farms during their vacations. In fact, some communities have been known to postpone the beginning of term so that a greater catch could be made before the end of the fishing season.

As it is an island, fishing plays a vital role in Iceland’s economy (fish products accounting for 75 per cent of all her exports). Hence it is not surprising that the islanders are determined to enforce their extended fishing limits and to contest fiercely the rights of other countries, such as Britain, to have trawlers in the disputed zones.

Thoughtless farming techniques employed by the early settlers have led to large strips of land being laid bare by soil erosion and only recently have attempts at reclamation shown any signs of success.

However, animal rearing, especially sheep, is still of prime importance. Rather than keep their flocks penned in fields, farmers let the sheep loose to roam the uninhabited interior during the summer months. When the time comes for the annual round-up, the animals found in each parish are herded together and are later sorted out and returned to their rightful owners.

Due to its fine quality wool, the Icelandic sheep is a highly prized animal. Having been isolated for a thousand years, it has developed into a special breed. When two attempts were made to improve the stock by introducing foreign breeding rams, they ended in national disasters. The native sheep had no immunity to some internal parasites brought in with the newcomers and the majority of the Icelandic stock was wiped out on both occasions. Now laboriously re-built, the sheep remain jealously protected possessions.

The nature of the land has proved a formidable barrier to communications as well as farming. There are no railways, and many of the major roads are made of nothing but rolled cinder. When venturing across the interior of the country, it is advisable to follow the tyre tracks of previous vehicles, if there are any to be seen. Care is essential in these wild areas, when for a car to break down could mean a journey of fifty kilometres or more to the nearest habitation.

One step to improve this state of affairs was the completion of the island ring-road in 1974. This was the bridging of the coastal sands alongside the Vatnajokull Ice-cap (which is greater in size than all the glaciers of Continental Europe put together), whose melt-waters cause wild fluctuations in the courses of the rivers running to the sea.

Iceland, then, is truly a land of variety. In summer, the Midnight Sun can be seen in the north. The Irish monk, Dicuil wrote in A.D.825 that all night there was enough light for a man to work by “even to picking lice out of his shirt”. In winter total darkness reigns most of the time. This is cited as the reason why Icelanders are good chess players. It is too dark for them to go outdoors.

Volcanoes rage alongside frozen glaciers while boiling springs compete with icy streams.

It is an exceptional island, of which the inhabitants are justly proud, a fact affirmed in 1974 by the Icelandic president during the 1100th anniversary of the arrival of the first settlers: “The land is our most treasured possession, our foothold in the world; our national culture is our heritage, confirming our right to exist as a nation among nations.”

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