Iceland: Don't Like The Landscape? Wait Till Tomorrow

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Sculpted by glaciers, forged by volcanos, wrenched by earthquakes, and heated to the boiling point by hot springs and geysers: Welcome to Iceland - the land of shake and bake.

At a mere 15 million years of age, this geological babe is still in its growing stages and reinvents itself more often than Madonna.

Its latest dramatic incarnation took a serious turn earlier this month when a volcano erupted under Vatnajokull - Europe's largest glacier that covers 1/10th of the country.

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Icelanders have long been familiar with this brooding crust of ice that reaches a thickness of 3,200 feet and covers an area of more than 3,000 square miles. A growing sport here is to rent a souped-up snowmobile and buzz around the glacier.

Tremors under the glacier had been going on "all the time" according to local residents, but this time scientists knew Vatnajokull was up to more than letting off a little hot air.

Initially it rumbled and spewed forth steam like some mythical Norse dragon. Just another "tourist eruption," many thought - a popular term for the occasional bursts of volcanic activity that lure outsiders to Iceland.

But this time a bigger story was to come.

Geoscientists predicted the volcano would soon burst forth creating a "catastrophic flood" to the area.

"We knew it was going to [burst] but we just didn't know when," says Agnes Bragadottir, news editor at Morgunbladid, Iceland's largest daily newspaper.

Then at 8 a.m., Nov. 5, the as-advertised happened. In a violent explosion of water, steam, and mud, a great river surged from under the glacier and roared 40 miles toward the sea in a fast-moving, sweeping flood.

A river of water and mud estimated at 100 million tons, and the equivalent in volume of Iceland's largest lake emptied into the Atlantic, destroying nearly 50 miles of road, covering another 20 miles with mud, and knocking out several bridges in its path.

Icebergs, some as high as a six-story building, broke from the glacier and tumbled onto the beach.

The flood lasted but a few hours with a short aftershock the following day. Now contained to only a few rivulets, water continues to flow.

Fishermen were warned not to drop their nets too close to the area because of the turbulence of the sea bed.

Flying over Vatnajokull, one can see where the glacier crust, smooth and glossy as meringue, gives way and begins to crack like thick folds of elephant hide near the volcano's five-mile by one-quarter-mile gaping mouth.

This latest eruption has already picked up the tourist business. Small commuter planes carrying tourists leave Reykjavik airport several times a day to fly over the eerie site.

The eruption is the most significant here since 1973 when a volcano threatened to engulf the town and destroy the fishing harbor of Heimaey, part of the Westmann Islands group.

In 1969, a previous blast in the ocean near the Westmann Islands gave birth to the tiny island of Surtsey, which continues to draw scientists as it begins to nurture emerging plant and animal life. Only scientists are allowed to step foot on the virgin island.

The latest word from Vatnajokull is that the ice-bound volcano has begun rumbling again. Tourists are booking flights over the glacier; journalists are beginning to gather; scientists are holding their breath; and for Icelanders, it's business as usual.

A member of Parliament, Einar Oddur Kristjansson puts it, "The oldest part of Iceland is 15 million years old, the newest is since yesterday."

VIRTUALLY ICELAND

* Iceland has virtually no trees. Nudging the Arctic Circle as it does, the island has a growing season that lasts about as long as a snowman in the Sahara, so trees grow in increments. There are some indigenous trees, especially around Reykjavik, but many mature trees have been brought in from warmer climes - like Alaska.

* Surnames virtually don't exist: Iceland uses the ancient Norse system of patronymics where the children take their father's first name and "son" or "daughter" - as their last.

Example: Bengt Olafsson's son, Rolf, is Rolf Bengtson; Bengt's daughter, Ingrid, is Ingrid Bengtsdottir, a name she will keep even if she marries. Bengt's wife might be named, say, Greta Johnssdottir - (John's daughter). Get it?

To add to the confusion, everyone is listed by first name in the telephone directory.

* There is virtually no crime here: A man wearing a ski mask knocked at the back door of a bank in Reykjavik a few years ago just as it was closing. The tellers let him in and laughed as he filled his pockets with money. Thinking it was all a joke, they waved goodbye as he left. He never returned.

And when a woman was convicted of killing her husband several years ago, her parent's offered to build a small house on their farm as no women's prison existed.

Security has been beefed up lately. Although there are still no guards around the president's home in Reykjavik, one is discouraged from going up and peeking in the windows.

*Pollution is virtually nonexistent because almost no fossil fuels are burned. In about 96 percent of buildings, including homes, geothermal heat is used. And with a population of just over 260,000, there aren't a lot of cars either.

* Although it would be a stretch to say there is almost no skiing here, dry winters often force ski buffs to fly off to the Alps to enjoy their favorite winter sport. (Swimming - believe it or not - is Iceland's national sport.)

* There are virtually no indigenous land mammals here. The only one that predates man's arrival is the arctic fox. And no, there aren't (and never were) any polar bears. You must travel to Greenland to see them - and Eskimos, and even mosquitoes.

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