Looking forward in the Land of Fire and Ice

Iceland has long loomed large on my bucket list, inspired by glimpses of its otherworldly landscape from a two-hour layover twenty years ago. Now, I’ve finally done it, spent a week in Iceland, and “otherworldly” doesn’t do it justice. It is, in fact, quite of this world, as purely elemental a place as any I’ve ever been, still being shaped by fire and ice. Our first night in Reykjavik, the earth shook. I was brushing my teeth, and the five-story hotel we were in suddenly grumbled as if the building was experiencing a bout of indigestion.

“Was that an earthquake?” I wondered. My phone confirmed it, squawking like phones do these days, with an emergency alert to check for gas leaks and find a safe place to shelter. The locals carried on. This was just one of 26,000 earthquakes Iceland experiences in a year.  My first earthquake wouldn’t be my last. It was one of many in a swarm of quakes caused by magma racing to the surface of Litli-Hrútur mountain on the Reyjkanes peninsula about twenty miles away. Two days later it would erupt. The locals cheered. Authorities requested that people stay away, but many still went to see it. Though reported on nationally and internationally, it wasn’t a cataclysmic event. It was a fissure in the side of the mountain oozing lava. Think Hawaii, not Pompeii.

Later in the week, we traveled to the southeast of Iceland, home to Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland, and most voluminous in all of Europe. You see it first in the distance as you drive along the Ring Road. “That’s the strangest looking cloud I’ve ever seen,” you may say to yourself. Then you see that the cloud is, in fact, attached to the earth, and Valhalla comes to mind. Tongues from this beast push through mountain passes they have carved, as if reaching for the ocean. In fact, they are retreating. This glacier and others like it have carved this landscape into what it is. Despite having the power to cut stone, Vatnajökul is no match for rising temperatures.  

There are any number of ways to describe the rate of ice melt. Many tons per day. At Jökulsárlón lagoon, we watched ice chunks float from the glacier out to sea. Since 1890, the glacier has lost an area equivalent to the size of Luxembourg. Just since 2000, it has lost the area of Washington, D.C. Some melting comes along with our emergence from the last ice age. But scientific consensus is that the recent rate of acceleration is tied to the rise in global temperatures from the proliferation of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Iceland is at the forefront of doing something about this.

Today, over 99% of Iceland’s heating and electricity needs are met through renewable energy production, primarily hydropower and geothermal, with some wind power. We visited the Ljósafoss Hydropower Station on the River Sog, built in 1937. A public exhibit explored the history of electrical production and Iceland’s transformation in particular. Until the 1970s, most of Iceland’s energy production came from imported fossil fuels. Being such a small country meant that even small oil price fluctuations had dramatic economic impact. So, Iceland set out to use its own natural resources to sustainably produce power. They built geothermal plants to harness that power I felt my first night in Reykjavik. They added more hydropower stations and started to build wind turbines.

Climate change led Iceland to intensify its efforts. Nearly every vehicle is either hybrid or fully electric. Charging stages abound. Unlike the U.S., Iceland has taken its commitments established in the Paris agreements seriously. It is on track to become carbon neutral by 2025 and to cease the importation of fossil fuels by 2030. Granted, it’s a small country with a lot of natural advantages, but it’s an inspiration, a view of what can be, because in the end, there is no other world. This one, with its fire and ice and everything in between, is the only we’ve got.

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