It is known as the land of fire and ice where scalding hot magma can bubble underneath frozen glacial ice.
Iceland in an island in the center of the North Atlantic Ocean. Lying at a latitude of 64 degrees north and 19 degrees west, this country rests on the edge of the Arctic Circle. This means that seasons are radically different with almost twenty four hours of daylight in the summer months and vice versa for darkness in the winter. Iceland is about the size of the state of Kentucky and has a miniscule national population of approximately 300,000 people. It is also one of the most unique places on the face of the Earth with respect to geology. Last summer, I had the privilege to travel to this mysterious land myself with my choir.
Although we were there primarily for music, our tour guide Ernie was a proficient geologist who has spent many years studying the geological formations in Iceland. He took us on a eight day long tour of the Golden Circle on the Ring Road which follows the coast around the southern half of the island. It was on this exotic journey that I was introduced to astounding and fascinating geology of Iceland. From visiting the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between the Eurasian and North American Plates to seeing columnar jointing on the beaches of Vik to learning of the natural occurrence of geothermal hot springs, I came to realize that Iceland is truly a geological gold mine. Thingvellir National Park marks the spot where the first Icelandic parliament gathered together to be unified. It is also the most famous geological landmark in Iceland.
It is here where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge rises out of the ocean onto the landscape. The majority of this ridge is submerged beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. This portion of the ridge in Iceland however is extremely unique because it is the only place in the entire world where the ridge is visible from the surface of the Earth. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge in Thingvellir lies on a divergent plate boundary where two plates are slowly drifting apart from each other. This boundary is the boarder of separation between two plates, The Eurasian plate and The North American. Each year the plates are slowly spreading further apart from each other. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge causes most of the volcanic activity within the country. When there is movement on the Eurasian plate and North American plate, little gaps called fissures allow magma from the mantle to more easily break through the igneous crust.
This is why there are many volcanos and earthquakes throughout Iceland. It is also believed that Iceland originated from volcanic activity associated with this ridge. Traveling further into Iceland lies a little town on the coast called Vik. Vik is a very famous location for both tourists and scientists to visit because like Thingvellir, Vik is a center for geology, specifically volcanic activity.
Vik’s sandy beaches are covered with a thick layer of black ash. However, that is not the only wonder that this sight has to offer. Vik is also home to a number of basaltic rocks that resemble dominos in shape. These features are known as columnar joints. The formation of these columnar joints relied on the aid of basaltic lava flows from a nearby volcano Katla, buried underneath a glacier.
Underneath this volcano, mineral rich basaltic lava depleted of silica formed in the magma chamber. When Katla erupted, this basaltic lava rose causing the glacial ice to break and then quickly change into liquid. This mixture then expanded outward and effected a large mass of land around Katla. Once the destruction was over, the material cooled into igneous rock. Overtime, this material then eroded into the columnar joints that are present on the beaches of Vik today. It’s an amazing sight to behold. These joints stand several stories high and standing on them, you can see a clear view of the beautiful North Atlantic Ocean.
Besides the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland is also home to a large hot spot. Hot spots are caused by extremely hot magma that is exposed and rises out of the mantle. This geological hot spot impacts the life of everyday Icelanders.
You would think because Iceland is so far up north that the water on the island would always be cold. This is not the case however. Although the North Atlantic is bone-chilling cold year round, the fresh water underneath the land is steaming hot. This is because Iceland abounds with naturally occurring geothermal energy as a result of all of the volcanic activity.
This energy is stored in the Earth’s interior and can be seen all throughout Iceland. One interesting fact about this hot water is that wherever you go in Iceland, sulfur is imbedded in the water. This is because the mineral is widespread due to the volcanic nature of the land. On a trip to a geothermal field, this yellow sulfur’s influence can be seen on the rocks.
Geothermal energy is used in ninety percent of Icelandic homes and it allows Icelanders to bathe outside year round in naturally occurring hot springs. I had the opportunity to travel to one of these hot springs, The Blue Lagoon and it was an amazing experience. Besides hot springs, the effects of geothermal energy can also be seen inside as well. When showering, Icelanders will tell you that their water will smell like sulfur. However, don’t be alarmed, the sulfur is filled with nourishing minerals which boost skin health.