Upon a modest island tucked away on the Atlantic Ocean lies a breathtaking land of scenery that defies imagination, a beautiful culture of people, and powerful technologies of tomorrow. This past August, I had the opportunity to visit Iceland, explore its landscape, and learn about its renewable energy industry. Traveling as part of The GREEN Program, a fantastic experiential program that combined nature exploration and studying sustainability in one (see the links below if you are interested!), I was able to witness how the country forges a bond with its exceptional geography.
Iceland stands where the warm North Atlantic Drift ocean current meets the cold current from the Arctic. At least in the southwestern parts of Iceland, the climate is warmer and milder than people would commonly expect from its location and name. Nonetheless, weather in Iceland is erratic. The weather forecast is about as reliable as looking up at the sky yourself and judging from the clouds—sometimes even less so.
Iceland is also known to be the land of ice and fire—a spectacular amalgam of volcanic and glacial landforms. Iceland sits on top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the Eurasian tectonic plate diverges away from the North American plate. At these divergent regions, faults permeate throughout the rocks while magma wells close to the surface by convection. The highly active tectonics of the area melds and reforms the ground in fascinating manners. The rocks are broken, pushed, and bent, leading to endless cinematic landscapes that never fail to take one’s breath away: from mountains and ridges to highland plains, valleys, and uncanny cliffs and rocks.
At the same time, due to the ice caps and glaciers around the island, the landscape includes many glacial features, such as wide valleys and sharp ridges. Ice from packed snow accumulates and flows gradually along valleys as glaciers, all while eroding the landscape. Some of the ice caps cover the volcanic craters, and when the volcanoes erupt underneath, the ice cap rapidly melts, leading to a massive flood mixed with volcanic ash, rocks, and numerous gigantic ice blocks. Many large river plains are covered with obsidian rocks and stones, a black volcanic rock formed from rapid solidification of lava, telling the tales of past floods.
The cracked and porous rock serves as a perfect point for groundwater and geothermic heat to meet and form geysers and springs. Gases and steam evolve and build underground, until they reach one of the many cracks in the rocks and rush to the ground surface. While the milder sites feature hot springs and rivers, more violent sites feature geothermal vents with dense white steam furiously gushing out into the air. In some cases, water accumulates at the mouth, where the cool water acts like a pressure lid on top of the narrow vent. When the pressure reaches a threshold, the superheated water bursts through the surface and boils into steam. Thus, a geyser is formed.
Incidentally, the word geyser comes from Geysir in Iceland, one the first documented geysers, named after the Icelandic word “geysa” (gush). Water surfacing in this manner also brings along with it plenty of volcanic gases and salts in the rocks, giving rise (pun unintended) to the colorful salts deposition on the ground, the high mineral content of the water, and strange smells around geothermal sites. The famous Blue Lagoon, in fact, owes its cloudy bluish water to the silica minerals in the water, the result of an industrial disaster where waste water from a geothermal power plant was left out without proper management. What a “natural” spectacle, no?
In Iceland, life isn’t drastically different from the one that we know of here in the U.S. Icelandic people go to church, drive, eat fast food, drink, party, study at school, go to work, play sports, and chat over social media. (Note: We didn’t find any unusual Pokemons; not that we put much effort into it—there were better things to do). Yet, it is evident that people live in great harmony with the nature around them. Much of Icelandic life is consciously tied with the environment, plus a little technology. For instance, hot and cold water in Iceland are strictly divided into two separate sources. The cold water comes mainly from the glacial runoff. In fact, the cold freshwater at Iceland is some of the cleanest in the world, and totally potable without filtering. I had the chance to drink directly from glacial meltwater on top of a glacier, and it was perhaps the freshest water I had ever drunk.
In comparison, the hot water is usually produced at geothermal plants by exchanging heat between freshwater and the geothermal fluid (the fluid is clearly not potable). Hence, especially in the southern regions of Iceland, the sulfurous smell of the hot water mostly does not come from the geothermal source. Rather, sulfur is added intentionally to hot tap water to prevent water pipe scaling by the calcium carbonate in the water (scaling refers to the deposit of solid minerals along the inner lining of the pipe—much like fats depositing inside the walls of our blood vessels, causing health issues). In fact, it is not entirely accurate to refer to the smell as “sulfur”. The main chemical responsible for the notorious smell around geothermal vents, as well as the very same but milder smell in the hot water, is hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a gaseous molecular compound. The same gas is also responsible for the obnoxious smell of farts and rotten eggs (leading to the joke of “rotten egg hot showers”). Hydrogen sulfide is produced biologically in the metabolism of sulfur-containing chemical groups, particularly the methionine and cysteine amino acid residues in proteins. So, yes, in a way of speaking, the Icelandic ground just passed some gas.
Despite its environmental initiatives, Iceland is not perfect. The country has suffered from severe wind and water erosion of soils due to rapid population growth. The birch forest formerly populating the island has been decimated. But in recent years, the Icelandic people have put much attention to the protection of their environment, and many of their efforts should be emulated in other nations.
One of the most impressive and significant aspects of Iceland, aside from its geological landscape, is its role in the modern development of renewable energy. All across Iceland, it’s not difficult to find geothermal and hydroelectric plants of various sizes, equipped with state-of-the-art technology and infrastructure. More than 80% of Iceland’s primary energy use comes from geothermal and hydropower sources, and more than 99.9% of Iceland’s electricity is generated from renewable sources. Such rates are unprecedented in the world, and Iceland stands as the world leader in implementing a renewable energy-fueled society. The per capita renewable energy generation of Iceland is also the top of the world, several times ahead of the average in other developed countries.
Meanwhile, Iceland is also actively developing wind power technology to establish a third renewable source of energy. Out of economic motives as well as an effort to reduce the global greenhouse emission, Iceland has been actively attracting energy-intensive industries to build their factories on Iceland to make use of its energy, the most significant of which is aluminum smelting. In fact, more than 80% of electricity consumption in Iceland comes from these industries. These industries work with the energy plants to adjust their production rates and energy consumption, depending on the capacity and state of the energy source and the environment, making sure that they do not disrupt the environment or the power security of the residents.
Even with this consumption, Iceland is still not close to fully exploiting its energy potential. Most of its power plants do not run at their full capacity, and often there is spillage of energy. Iceland is also planning to construct submarine cables to England and mainland Europe, which can be up to 2000 km (more than 1200 mi) long, in order to directly export its energy. Notably, there is a conscious effort in striving to strike a balance between economic and environmental benefits, the impact on people’s living, and potential damage to the environment.
The close and conscious bonds that the Icelandic people forge with nature demonstrates their wisdom and insight in how to develop their country in a responsible, sustainable, and effective manner. Too large a fraction of the developed world became lost in the desperation of the race of industrial, technological and economic development in the past century. The environment and sustainability became the first element of civilization to bear this expense. Scientific and technological knowledge can be used recklessly and destructively, but it can also be used constructively, intelligently, and responsibly. So later today or this week, no matter if you are picking up your pipette, turning up the heat plate, adjusting the telescope, or switching on your laptop, remember to make friends with nature—not enemies.
I learned all this in the brief but incredible 10 days in Iceland, and there is still way more that I couldn’t fit in this article. The GREEN Program is an amazing experience, and they offer programs all year round in Iceland, Peru, and Philadelphia. Check them out here and apply for a program yourself!
The GREEN Program: http://thegreenprogram.ontraport.net/t?orid=9236&opid=11
Applications (rolling): http://thegreenprogram.ontraport.net/t?orid=9236&opid=8
Peter Wang is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured Image: Around the geothermal vent, salts and sulfur deposits give the ground strange colors. Image courtesy of the author.