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Need to know ~ Places

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Iceland

People on the slopes of Fagradalsfjall, watching the eruption at Geldingadalir, March 24, 2021

Photo: Berserkur, CC BY-SA 4.0

Viti Crater Lake, Iceland

Photo: Hansueli Krapf, CC BY-SA 3.0

Why current?

2021-04-13

On March 19, 2021, there was an eruption in Geldingadalir, an area just 40 km (25 miles) outside of Iceland’s capital city, Reykavik.  A split in the valley on the Reykjanes peninsula opened, and red-orange lava started to pour out from 17-20 km (10-12 miles) beneath the ground.  Volcanic eruptions are not that uncommon in Iceland, but this particular area hadn’t seen one in some 700 years.  Locals rushed to witness the spectacle, flooding social media with pictures of the flowing molten rock and the red-tinted sky.

This particular eruption, which happened near a volcano called Fagradalsfjall, was not comparable to the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption, which exploded massive amounts of ash into the sky.  Hundreds of airports across Europe had to shut down for days, and more than 100,000 flights were cancelled.  By contrast, last month’s eruption in Geldingadalir consisted of slow-moving molten rock that surged out of a fissure in the Earth.

People reported getting very close to the stunning and relatively nonthreatening lava flows.  As the lava cooled, it formed a glassy surface which clinked and crackled.  Whenever there was moisture in the air, the droplets could be heard sizzling on the hot lava.

Scientists aren’t sure how long this eruption will continue.  They say that it could go on for months or even years.  It could also stop abruptly.  At this point, there are no signs that the gushing of lava is slowing down.  In fact, the molten rock is filling the valley and is even starting to spill into neighboring valleys.

See Iceland on Google Earth: https://earth.google.com/iceland

More about Iceland

– Population of Iceland: 369,000

– Capital city: Reykjavik.  More than 60% of the country’s population live here.  It is the northernmost capital city in the world.

– 80% of the country is uninhabited by people.

– Iceland is a nation of contrasting landscapes.  There are black beaches, green valleys, hot springs, rushing rivers, vast ice fields, and red lava flows.  Geologically young, Iceland is still in the process of being formed.

– Because of the Gulf Stream, the climate of Iceland is milder than might be expected.  Still, its climate is generally cold, gray, windy, and unstable. 

– Iceland is located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is where the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates meet.  These two plates are actually shifting away from each other.  As they move, molten rock from under the Earth’s crust can sometimes spill out onto the surface of the Earth.  This is what makes Iceland one of the most volatile volcanic regions in the world.  Iceland has about 200 volcanoes, and more than 30 of these are active.  Scientists estimate that since the year 1500, about one-third of the total lava flows on Earth came out of volcanoes in Iceland.  In addition, there are earthquakes, hot springs and geysers, all due to the fact that the island is literally sitting on top of – and born out of – the Earth’s constantly shifting, cracking, opening up crust that is regularly being formed and reformed by the cooling of lava.  Iceland is expanding by about 5 cm (2 inches) per year, as the two plates on which it sits move further and further apart.

– Some volcanic eruptions have been deadly.  In 1783, there were eruptions at Laki, Iceland.  These released poisonous gases into the air for almost a year, killing 9,000 people (around one-fourth of the country’s population at the time).  These eruptions were so disruptive that their effects were felt all over Europe.

– Glaciers cover more than 10% of Iceland.  About 269 of the glaciers are named, including the largest one – and the biggest in Europe – Vatnajökull.  The average thickness of the ice on this glacier is 900 meters (3,000 feet).  Vatnajökull covers 8% of the country but is steadily shrinking because of climate change.

– If global warming continues on its current trajectory, rising sea levels and melting glaciers could have a catastrophic impact on this island nation.  Iceland is doing its part to build a better future, though, and has become one of the most innovative countries in the world when it comes to moving away from the use of fossil fuels (like oil, coal, and natural gas) and toward more sustainable alternatives.  Almost all electricity on the island is produced in an eco-friendly way, using only renewable sources (mostly geothermal energy).

– The colors of Iceland’s flag have symbolic significance.  The red represents the heat and fire that come from the country’s many volcanic eruptions; the blue represents the ocean surrounding the island; the white represents the snow and ice that make up Iceland’s vast glaciers.

– Iceland was one of the last places to be settled by humans.  One obvious reason is that the land is not hospitable; it is difficult to build on and, in many areas, impossible to farm.

– When humans did first begin to inhabit Iceland in the mid-800s, the only native land mammal was the Arctic fox, which migrated to the island during the last ice age.  Many of the breeds of domesticated animals that the first settlers brought with them have remained unchanged since that initial arrival of people on the island.  The Icelandic horse is still just as it was 1000 years ago.  Other purely Icelandic domesticated animals include the Icelandic sheep and the Icelandic sheepdog.

– There are other mammals that have since appeared on the island, including rabbits, reindeer, mice, and mink.  Polar bears sometimes stop by during their migrations from Greenland, making the journey on icebergs.  There is lots of marine life around Iceland’s shores, including a wide variety of fish species, as well as seals, dolphins and 20 different species of whale.  Also, Iceland is home to many types of seabird, including puffins and skuas, who seek nesting sites on the country’s many high cliffs.

– In an effort to protect its unique national beauty, Iceland has created four national parks and more than 80 nature preserves.

– When Iceland was first settled, it was covered by enormous forests.  But as humans began building, grazing animals and cutting down masses of trees, whole ecosystems were destroyed.  There have been attempts to reforest the island, though some of the trees being planted are not native species.

– There is very little violent crime in Iceland.  The nation has no professional, standing military (only a national coast guard and air defense system).  There is what is called a Crisis Response Unit (ICRU), which consists of about 200 people who are trained to work as peacekeepers.  They typically do not carry weapons or even wear uniforms.

– Iceland was the first nation to elect a female president.  Presidents are democratically elected to four-year terms.  There is no limit on the number of terms a president may serve.

– Iceland was under Norwegian and then under Danish rule until its independence in 1944.

– Even though earthquakes are a common occurrence in Iceland, there is rarely significant damage to buildings.  This is because structures have been designed to survive even strong seismic shocks.

Source: Lev, Einat, edition.cnn.com, “Volcanologist: The big question about Iceland’s ‘cute’ volcano,” https://edition.cnn.com/fagradalsfjall-volcano-iceland.html, March 25, 2021; Volcano Discovery, “Fagradalsfjall volcano update: Eruption goes on, filling Geldingadalir valley,” https://www.volcanodiscovery.com/fagradalsfjall/news.html, April 2, 2021; Kaufman, Mark, Mashable, “Why Iceland’s volcanic eruption is so gooey and thrilling,” https://mashable.com/iceland-volcanic-eruption/, April 1, 2021; Trafalgar.com, “13 strange and interesting facts about Iceland,” https://www.trafalgar.com/iceland/, February 16, 2020; Arctic Adventures, “Iceland Facts,” https://adventures.is/iceland-facts/National Geographic Kids, “Iceland Country Profile,” https://kids.nationalgeographic.com/icelandEncyclopaedia Britannica, “Reykavik,” https://www.britannica.com/place/Reykjavik.