In the Land of Fire and Ice: Barnard Environmental Science student explores Iceland

Jökulsárlón, the glacial lagoon

By Claire Mathieson

The smoking lava field, Fimmvörðuhál

This year, back-to-school for me didn’t mean buying textbooks and finding classrooms, but packing hiking boots and rain gear for my flight to Reykjavik, Iceland. I had been lucky enough the semester before to overhear one of my Solid Earth professors saying that there was room on Columbia’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (DEES) graduate trip to Iceland, and asked her if it would be possible for me to join. Less than an hour later, Bill Menke, the professor who would lead the trip, pulled out a well-loved geological map of the country and went over the group’s route – from that moment, I was on my way.

The trip was largely organized by a pair of graduate students and, though not for credit, was meant to give students a chance to experience certain aspects of the geological world we study firsthand. Our group was made up of thirteen people in all, including Professor Menke and four guests, and though I was the only undergraduate in the program, everyone came from different programs and backgrounds and brought something unique to the trip, so I didn’t feel left out at all. Upon landing, we went straight from the Keflavík airport to a rainy spot on the Reykjanes peninsula, where we got our first up-close look at the basalt that makes up the volcanic island nation. We then moved on to what turned out to be a trip highlight for many- the famous Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa southwest of Reykjavik known for its steaming opal surface and its healing properties. After a talk on monitoring Iceland’s thirty volcanic systems from Páll Einarsson, a professor of geophysics at the University of Iceland, we retired to our campsite, which looked out on the capital. From there we made a gradual circle around the country, visiting a geothermal power plant and carbon dioxide sequestration site (where carbon dioxide is stored in reservoirs, rather than accumulating in the atmosphere) east of Reykjavik, then staying at Þingvellir, home to Iceland’s ancient parliament.

Gullfoss

Next, it was on to Geysir and its centerpiece Strokkur, which explodes every few minutes, and then Gullfoss, a monstrous waterfall whose flow changes direction halfway through its drop. The most memorable day for many started at 7:30 AM in our picturesque campsite in Skógar (complete with towering waterfall) and ended at 6:30 PM at a remote point 25 kilometers away. Throughout our trek we passed through vibrant pasturelands draped in myriad waterfalls and dotted with sheep, barren hills of sand and ice, the smoking lava field, Fimmvörðuháls, which erupted last year as a precursor to the air traffic nightmare Eyjafjallajökull (which after days of practice I finally managed to pronounce: aja-fyat-la-jo-kutl) , and a magnificent panorama of steep dark slopes tinged green and cut through with glacial rivers. We were rewarded with a glimpse of the site off of which Tolkien based the Black Gate of Mordor, and learned that Iceland, not New Zealand, had inspired the author to create Middle Earth.

Icelandic sheep. So chill.

As we continued to drive around the country, we hiked a glacier, jumping crevasses; visited Jökulsárlón, the iceberg-studded glacial lagoon featured in the James Bond films and Batman Begins; and stayed in Mývatn, a town on a beautiful lake neighboring the volcano Krafla. Mývatn’s only drawback was its wildly successful colony of midges (similar to gnats or mosquitos) whose sole purpose in life is to bother humans, usually by flying at their eyes and into their noses and mouths. From Mývatn in the northeast we drove southwest to Reykjavik and spent a free day in the city, visiting its famous church and a variety of museums, and admiring the impressive street art, which included everything from murals and collages of glass shards to intricately yarn-bombed trees. Finally, ten days after our arrival, we took down our tents and boarded our bus for the last time. As I gazed out the window of the plane to catch my last glimpse of Iceland, I couldn’t help wishing that Hurricane Irene had come late enough to delay our flight home for a few days. As much as I knew I needed to return to class at Barnard, a part of me felt that my time with DEES in Iceland had been more worthwhile than any college course.

The group on a glacier hike (Claire, first on the left)
Photo courtesy of Bill Menke

Claire is a junior at Barnard College. She is majoring in Environmental Science and is Features Editor for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

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