Hotspots Guestblogger Ford Cochran: Iceland’s Latest Saga

M. Ford Cochran directs Education Technology and Mission Programs online
for National Geographic. He formerly taught Earth and environmental science at
the University of Kentucky,  and has also
written for National Geographic magazine. A geologist by training, Ford
regularly dons his scientist hat leading trips for the National Geographic Expeditions
travel program. He recently journeyed to Iceland
with a group of lucky
high-school students.

We are ecstatic to finally play host to
Ford (who serves as manager of National Geographic’s Bioblitz Blog in
another one of his many capacities) here on the My Wonderful World Blog during Geography Awareness Week!

Of Hotspots and Meltdowns: Iceland’s Latest
Saga

Thursday_FordPic1

Consider the
irony: Iceland
—perched just below the Arctic Circle, partially shrouded in glaciers, and
with a name from the Old Norse for (that’s right) “Ice Land”—owes so much to
fire.

Without the
magmatic inferno of an Atlantic seafloor thinned and torn asunder, combined
with a column of extra-hot and buoyant rock rising beneath the island, Iceland might
lie at the bottom of the ocean with the rest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

Without fire, in
short, there would be no Iceland.  Humans have shaped Iceland’s  environment since the first Vikings arrived and began depleting its forests to
create pastureland and charcoal.

The environment
has shaped the lives of Iceland’s inhabitants, too. Volcanic eruptions routinely wreak regional havoc. One that
began in 1783, the Laki fissure eruption, killed most of the island’s
livestock, produced widespread famine, and nearly induced those who survived to
abandon Iceland for the European mainland. Laki released more lava than any other known
eruption in the last millennium. Eruptions beneath ice (such as the 1996 Gjálp
eruption beneath the Vatnajökull icecap, which blankets much of eastern Iceland and is
the planet’s third-largest glacier) produce stupendous floods.

Today, Iceland’s volcanic fire pays dividends to its citizens in the form of cheap geothermal
power. Electricity, hot water, and heat are nearly free, and practically every
small town has its own heated public swimming pool, open through even the
darkest and coldest winter months.

Iceland earned unwelcome attention last month for
the financial
meltdown
of its largest banks. But across the
landscape, a more protracted and relentless meltdown is underway, as Iceland’s largest
glaciers thin and retreat
 at astonishing rates. If the trend
continues, by next century the glaciers could be all but gone, transforming Iceland into an iceless land.

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