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Not Coal, nor Oil, but Icelandic Fire

Updated on September 23, 2018
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Richard F. Fleck is an active hiker and leads Sierra Club "Hike and Write" treks in the foothills of the Rockies of Colorado and Wyoming.

Geothermal Pool in Iceland
Geothermal Pool in Iceland | Source
Geothermal Bore not yey capped
Geothermal Bore not yey capped | Source
Geothermal Power Plant near Reykjavik
Geothermal Power Plant near Reykjavik | Source
Geyser at Strokkur, Iceland
Geyser at Strokkur, Iceland | Source

Not Coal Nor Oil, But Icelandic Fire

Iceland is situated atop the Great Atlantic Rift that is quickly (geologically speaking) dividing Iceland in half by 3 centimeters per year. This rift is separating the North American tectonic plate from the Eurasian plate to create powerful volcanism in Iceland with a hot spot of magma only 1500 meters below the surface that creates not only geyers, mud pots, cauldrons, and hot springs, but also volcanoes. Iceland is a volcanic anomaly in Europe with ten percent of the Earth's volcanoes.

Tectonic Plates Collision

How did all of this happen? What caused these tectonic plates to rift apart? One wild and disputed theory comes from the Russian scientist Immanuel Velikovsky in his book Worlds in Collision (1950) in which he contends that a huge asteroid hit the North Atlantic region at a phenomenal speed of over 17,000 miles per hour tens of millions of years ago to fracture the planet and create present-day Iceland. It would be like hitting a marble ball with a hammer to make a very noticeable fracture.

Other less wild theories attribute Iceland's volcanism to gradual tectonic shifts of the Earth's floating plates that ultimately result in serious rifts like the great African continental rift or the upper Rio Grande Valley rift in northern New Mexico or Iceland's very own rift. If one looks at a map of the underseas of our planet, he will see multiple fissures in the Atlantic as well as the Pacific with its rim of fire.

Giant Rift in Middle of Iceland

On our second day in Iceland we toured Pingvellir National Park north of Reykjavik to experience with our own eyes the very noticeable rift with two lava walls separating bit by bit in the middle of a valley that has become the border between Europe and North America. We got off the bus to take a mile walk deep within the actual lava-wall rift. Who knows what sounds a person could hear in the dark of night if he decided to camp right in the midst of the rift. We all emerged from this lava valley to walk across a river and see the spot where the ancient Vikings held council a thousand years ago that started the gradual process of a political rift of Iceland from Denmark when Iceland finally became an independent republic in 1944.

Thermal Activity in Iceland

An hour or so later we stopped at a cafe near Gullfoss Falls to enjoy a steaming, lava-hot bowl of wild mushroom soup with fresh-baked Icelandic bread. My wife Maura and I then quickly proceeded along the trail to this famous waterfall of a glacial river that first tumbles one hundred feet over a black lava bed and then turns abruptly at a right angle to drop another hundred feet over a lava bed into a narrow, misty canyon where the river continues its journey toward the sea. Gullfoss reminded me a bit of Niagara Falls except that it is a double-decker so to speak. Its constant roar is hypnotic and, in a way, soothing.

Later in the afternoon we proceeded to Strokkur and have a first hand glance at a gigantic geyser whose steaming waters shoot into the sky every five minutes or so, far more frequent than Yellowstone's Old Faithful.. Strokkur's geyser first forms as a huge blue bubble that bursts open into a sudden, skyward torrent. Just above this geyser lies a steaming spring that looks much like Morning Glory Pool in Yellowstone (see digital image).

In the far distance rose icy, glaciated volcanoes not unlike the famous Eyjafjallajokull that erupted in 2011 when we were visiting family in Ireland. I remember well that Iceland's volcanoes that year caused Ireland coldest summer on record! It actually snowed at sea level in Donegal in early June. Many flights to Europe were cancelled in 2011 because of so much volcanic ash in the atmosphere, since this ash can cause damage to jet engines.

The Geothermal Power Plant

Our last stop of the day was at Iceland's geothermal plant some thirty miles north of Reykjavik. Our driver stopped within several meters of a somewhat terrifying uncapped steam bore 1100 meters into the fiery earth below. The volcanic steam erupted out of this bore hole that sounded like being inside Vesuvius. The ground actually shook. Eventually such a bore will be capped and piped to the power plant (along with hundreds of other such steam bores) to turn turbines to generate electricity for Reykjavik and environs.

The power plant also provides hot water for the faucets of hotels, businesses and homes. Since half of Iceland's population of 320,000 people live in the Reykjavik area, they are truly fortunate to be free of the need for coal and petroleum. The average utility bill for a household in this area of Iceland is only a little over a dollar a day. As expected, many of their cars are hybrid. No wonder Iceland's carbon footprint is practically non-existent!

Approximately half of Iceland's population is in the Reykjavik area which is completely geo-thermally powered.


© 2012 Richard Francis Fleck


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