Iceland Fieldwork & Road Trip 2011

Before I start I’d like to point out that Iceland is simply the kind of place that defies description. There are volcanos AND ice and, in several places, volcanoes under ice. It’s pretty cool. Plus for extra geography geekiness – Iceland straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the Eurasian and North American Plates are slowly pulling apart. We walked down the gorge between the plates, in some areas you can even scuba dive through the gap. Seriously awesome geology in action (I refer you to the Urban Dictionary’s definition of ‘geogasm’).

Before I get to talking about what I got up to I need to thank Gordon and Fran for letting me use their photos. Some of my own also feature, but I realised that I had somehow not taken any photos of several important places/ things and had to call on these guys for back-up. So merci beaucoup! As you go through the gallery you’ll see details of who took each photo in the captions.

The Fieldwork Bit

As part of our assessment at Edinburgh, we had to work in a team of three to produce a small fieldwork study on or around Eyjafjallajökull in South Iceland (that’s the volcano that caused all the European flight chaos in 2010). We were in the field for two weeks or so and the whole show was run by Prof. Andy Dugmore and his team of academics and PhD students. My fieldwork group decided to map the geomorphology of the Seljalandsá river above the impressive Seljalandsfoss waterfall. The hunch was that the waterfall is too greatly undercut for the relatively small volume of water currently flowing over it; perhaps this could be the site of a palaeo jökulhlaup?

For those who are not familiar with glacial hazard management, jökulhlaups are floods that suddenly surge out from underneath glaciers – the word in Icelandic literally means “glacier leap” because the ice surface lifts as the water passes beneath it. In Iceland the most common cause of these floods is the eruption of a volcano buried under ice. The heat from the eruption melts a load of the ice, creating a lake that jacks up the glacier until a critical level is reach when the water suddenly flows out as a jökulhlaup. These are no laughing matter cause a lot of damage and destruction. We even had to be temporarily added to the Icelandic government’s emergency text alert system. Apparently, if the volcano erupted during our stay we each would have received a text along the lines of ‘run for the hills, but not the one currently spewing out ash and noxious gases’.

Back to the science. Our research involved producing a series of river cross-sections and a long profile from the source of Seljalandsá to the waterfall. It also involved looking for potential palaeo-flood deposits by digging some holes and studying exposed sediment sections. We were keeping a look out for tephra (ash) layers in the soil as these can be linked to specific eruptions and used to relatively date any flood deposits that we came across. Although limited for time, we did get enough data to conclude that Seljalandsá probably was a palaeo jökulhlaup route. As well as the waterfall, there is a convincingly massive gorge and some suspicious-looking flood deposits – now we just need the Edinburgh academics to go back and confirm our findings. And we even managed to sneak in a fair few naps and Disney sing-a-longs during the fieldwork and the write-up. Productive time management!

The Road Trip Bit

After our fieldwork was done, eight geographers decided to brave the high alcohol prices and stay on a bit longer for a wee Icelandic road trip. Our first stop was Reykjavik where we picked up the dodgy hire cars (from the appropriately named ‘Sad Cars Rental’). To say that the cars were not the finest is massive understatement – the one I drove allowed you one of steering or breaks, but never both. At one point we had to jump-start a car in the pouring rain up in the hills using jump leads borrowed from a passing coach. And they didn’t get on terribly well with gravel roads (there are a lot of gravel roads in Iceland). We really missed the university’s Land Rovers! But the dodgy car mechanics were the only bad thing and having transport gave us the freedom to stop off at every glacier, beach, lake, waterfall or geyser that we passed.

I think I’d have to say Jökulsárlón was probably my favourite place. It’s a lake in front of a calving glacier snout. Calving is the process of ice bergs breaking off from a glacier, so this lake was absolutely filled with ice bergs of every shape and size. Incidentally, this is the place where they filmed the car chase on ice for the Bond film “Die Another Day”. One of the boys (you know who you are) decided to go for a swim a climbed up onto a berg – big mistake, the water was close to freezing and the ice shredded his hands and knees. We had to apply plasters, towels and hot chocolate pronto! But it did make for some suitably heroic photos. The beach outside the lake was also good for pictures, black sand strewn with ice bergs. Very photogenic!

Throughout the whole trip we were all massively geeking out at all the cool landscapes, you could tell we were physical geographers. But even if you’re not a geographer I would recommend that you check out Iceland, it’s an awesome place. Stick on some suitably dramatic music (the Jurassic Park theme, Lord of the Rings theme etc.) and go do a spot of Icelandic adventuring of you own.


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