Today, Iceland’s population is approximately 330,000. As my guide Jón explained, if not for natural catastrophes such as volcanoes or weather and diseases like the black plague and small pox brought from mainland Europe there could potentially be as many as 1.5 million Icelanders. I mention this because it’s important to highlight the importance of volcanic activity in Iceland. The volcanoes gave birth to a spectacular land mass and what they giveth they also takeith.
Earthquakes and volcanoes dominate and even dictate life in Iceland. Volcanic ash and chemicals spewed into the air make it hard for people to farm animals and food when essentially the land is poisoned or lava flows turn fertile land into rock and tundra killing everything in its path. Ash from a volcano is similar to a film of glass from windows and is even finer than a grain of sand. The minute lava hits the cold air it transforms and the jet stream disburses ash from eruptions all over Iceland and Europe depending on the direction the wind blows. This is why experts are constantly monitoring the activity of Icelandic volcanoes.
There have been three major volcanic eruptions that have stalled Iceland’s progression since settlers arrived. The first occurred in 936, the second in 1300 something (there is a dispute as to when and where) and lastly the eruption of Laki in 1783. Laki erupted for about eight months and is responsible for lowering global temperatures by 2-3 degrees as sulfur dioxide discharged into the Northern Hemisphere. Iceland lost 25-35 percent of its population as 50 percent of its livestock died resulting in widespread famine. According to How the Earth Was Made: The Age of Earth, Laki’s eruption and resulting clouds of hydrofluoric acid killed more than 6 million people throughout the world as crops failed and cut off food supplies.
Jón taught me the difference between a caldera (Spanish for cauldron), a large bowl shaped depression left after a volcano empties a shallow-level magma chamber and a crater, a circular depression in the ground more like a basin, which occurs for magma, gases and lava to erupt. We scaled a miniature inactive volcano known as “twin sisters” and observed a battlefield of lava fields. We identified the difference between new rugged lava fields and older ones flattened by years of wind and weather. People refer to Iceland as a wasteland, but it’s anything but bare. Moss covers the contrasting lava fields and delicate flowers inch between the crevices. For a moment, I stood transfixed until soaring birds caught my attention and eyes followed the rocks through rifts and gaps in the surface to the base of towering ice capped mountains of various shapes and sizes.
On our way to Grindavik, a fishing village on the Reykjanes Peninsula, Jón and I aided two stranded hitchhikers. There were students from Poland age 24, a couple. She studied psychology and he math. They traveled all over Iceland from north to south and mentioned they learned more from Jón on our hour journey than in their entire two-week trip. At first, this fact immensely bothered but as I spent more time talking with them (they spoke English) I figured out they preferred a holiday traveling as free spirits–eating when they were hungry, sleeping where they could and relying on the hospitality of strangers to transport them from place to place. They were young and fearless, open and sincere–simple. I reveled in their spontaneity and yet wished we could combine my invaluable knowledge gained with their innocence and first impressions. Now that would be quite the adventure.
Jón dropped the travelers at a corner in Keflavik near the airport and me at Raven’s, his sister’s bed and breakfast. Hulda, my gracious host, baked all sorts of delicious pastries and fresh breads for guests. The converted farmhouse contains a number of refurbished antique rooms perfect for a one-night stay or maybe a few more if you stage from Keflavík. It’s worth a stop to experience a taste of her homemade rhubarb.