DIMBERU: The Land of Fire and Ice

Over winter break, I had the opportunity to visit Iceland. Besides partaking in the usual revelry that is an integral part of any vacation, I also learned a great deal about this island that is oft described as the land of fire and ice. As one of the newest landmasses on Earth, Iceland features a geologically active landscape that continues to be shaped by volcanoes, earthquakes and glaciers. Surely you remember that unpronounceable volcano that erupted in 2010, grounding commercial flights around the globe? (If you don’t, it was Eyjafjallajökull. Have fun with that one.)

Although its activity made international headlines because of its toll on air travel, it’s not the only active volcano to be found. In fact, there are approximately 130 volcanoes in Iceland with an average of one eruption occurring every five years. So what makes this land so restless? As it happens, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are diverging, slices right through Iceland. In fact, the island itself was formed by molten rock seeping through this crack in the Earth’s crust. Currently, the two tectonic plates are racing away from each other at a rate of about two centimeters per year. And every so often, an eruption releases pressure in the form of lava and ash from deep within the Earth and puts on a spectacular show — or annoys you by ruining your travel plans. It’s all about perspective, really. But credit the ingenuity of the Icelandic people to make the best out of a land many would deem inhabitable by humans. Consider this: one of the top-ranked scuba dive sites in the world can be found in Iceland! Situated in the serene Thingvellir National Park, the Silfra fissure is where you can see the diverging tectonic plates. Century-old glacier water that has been slow-filtered through the surrounding lava fields fills the fissure with some of the purest water found on our planet. This purity results in breathtaking clarity as you dive through the fissure, sometimes passing through gaps so narrow that you can literally have one hand on each continent.

Besides creating unique tourist attractions, the Icelandic people have also made practical use of their land. One of the advantages of sitting on top of a crack in the Earth’s crust is the vast amount of geothermal energy that can be harnessed there. Geothermal energy is simply thermal energy or heat that originates deep in the Earth’s core. Though it’s normally trapped thousands of miles underground, it finds its way closer to the surface where there are tectonic plates diverging. This energy can be used to heat water and create steam that turns turbines for generating electricity. And this is precisely how most of Iceland is powered and heated. According to the Nordic Council of Ministers, about 66 percent of Iceland’s energy needs are met by geothermal energy. Besides generating electricity, geothermal energy also creates an abundance of hot springs around the country, many of which have been turned into spas where people can soak in the warm and mineral-rich waters.

In addition, the presence of many powerful bodies of rushing water has allowed Iceland to generate an additional 15-20 percent of its energy needs through hydropower, though this is slated to expand significantly in the coming years. Currently, the burning of fossil fuels provides only a small fraction of the country’s energy, and that is mainly in cars and ships. Even here, Iceland is at the forefront of utilizing hydrogen to power its cars and hydrogen filling stations can be found in a growing number of areas. The nation has set a goal for itself to be completely energy-independent by 2050, which seems feasible. So while the rest of the world continues to race through whatever oil and gas reserves it has left, Iceland is quietly churning along, powered by nothing more than an indomitable spirit and an abundance of clean energy sources.

Peniel Dimberu is a fifth-year graduate student in the Department of Immunobiology. Contact him at peniel.dimberu@yale.edu.