Monday, June 24, 2013

Adventures in Iceland: Volcanoes, Geysers, Hot Springs, Boiling Mud and More

Courtesy Bill Large
Just as we were about to wing our way to Iceland to start a two-year tour of duty in 1972, my mother-in-law sent a clipping from her local newspaper — an island had just disappeared off the coast of Iceland. Oh dear. An entire island. I mentally crossed myself, hoping that Iceland itself would still be there when our plane touched down.

It was, of course. The island was born out of the sea eons ago due to a violent submarine explosion. It sits atop the mid-Atlantic rift and is the most volcanically active place on earth. Flows of lava regularly add to the land due to new eruptions both above and beneath the sea.  Wholly new islands, such as Surtsey in 1963, have been thrown up out of the ocean. On the other hand, numerous active volcanoes, such as Hekla and Katla, cover the island. Their recurrent eruptions have been recorded since the Norsemen arrived in the ninth century. Vatnajökull and Eyjafjallajökull of recent memory (2010) are examples of glacier-covered volcanoes, giving Iceland the name of the “Land of Ice and Fire.” Eruptions of these ice-capped volcanoes understandably lead to massive flooding.

The volcanic activity beneath Iceland’s surface naturally heats the water in the depths of the earth giving rise to spouting geysers, boiling mud, hot springs (of varying temperatures) and mystical looking steam rising from the land. In Iceland, this hot water is harnessed to heat homes and businesses, cultivate plants in hot houses, generate electricity, and even warm outdoor swimming pools to name a few.

Geysir at Hveragerði

According to an old brochure distributed by Icelandair in the early ‘70’s, Iceland a World of Difference, “There are more than 700 natural hot springs in Iceland, either boiling or warm, down by the seaside, up in the valleys, or high in the ice fields themselves . . . The most famous and remarkable of all the hotsprings is the Great Geysir (Gusher), which spouts a column of boiling water and steam to a height of more than 150 feet.” Unfortunately, we never had a chance to see its spectacle, but did delight in the displays of other smaller ones.
Courtesy Bill Large

Eden, Hveragerði’s Greenhouse and Gift Shop for Tourists 1973
(Mr. KK holding our toddler, center)
One area of hot spring activity not far from the capital of Reykavík is Hveragerði. Here the steam is used to heat numerous tropical greenhouses where flowers, fruits and vegetables are grown – even bananas and grapes. We used to enjoy visiting the wonderful gift shop, Eden, there and indulging in goodies at the snack bar, as well as coming away with plants and “glitware” — pottery to which “glit,” or solidified volcanic ash particles, had been decoratively applied to the exterior. These lovely items were handled with care as the “glit” (small jagged bits of rock, minerals and volcanic glass) was a bit sharp to the touch. 

The kids having fun at Eden Gift Shop, Hveragerði 1974
 Sadly, Eden burned down, July 22, 2011.

Camping at Lake Mývatyn with Bill & Anna
One of our camping adventures took us and our good friends, Bill and Anna Large, to the north of Iceland and to Lake Mývatn, another area of hot spring activity.  We were all utterly captivated by the breathtaking panorama of the lake and its geological features. It was formed several thousand years ago during a volcanic eruption when molten lava was spewed into the lake creating bizarre columns and strange shapes of basalt.

Lake Mývatyn
We camped toward evening looking out on the lake, grilled dinner, enjoyed the camaraderie of our friends, and thought how perfect a spot this was and that we must come again. But, when we poked our heads out of our tents the next morning, we were beset by a black cloud of a kazillion little midges. They were in our eyes, our mouths, absolutely everywhere. We stuffed our panicked kids into the car, tore down the tents as fast as we could and headed into the town of Akureyri. We later learned that Mývatn translates to “fly (midge) lake”!

Lake Mývatyn
For a timeline of volcanic eruptions in Iceland dating back to approximately 900 A. D. visit:

To view current information on Iceland’s individual volcanoes — the scale of their activity or dormancy, including live webcam’s of each — visit:

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