Iceland

February 2017

More than half of Iceland’s population lives in and around the capital city, Reykjavík.

Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in Iceland.

Inside Hallgrímskirkja.

The Sun Voyager sculpture.

Inside the Harpa concert hall.

The two of us have known for a long time that Iceland is geologically active — the island nation is known for hot springs, geysers, geothermal power, and the infamous Eyjafjallajökull eruption that resulted in more than 100,000 flight cancellations over an eight-day period in 2010. But it never occurred to us to worry about volcanoes while we were planning our trip to Iceland… at least, not until two weeks before the trip, when a caring family member sent a news article pointing out some important facts.

Iceland is located right at the boundary between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The two plates are slowly moving apart, creating a geological hot spot that formed the island and its 130 volcanic mountains — 30 of which are active.

Over the years, many eruptions have caused massive destruction in Iceland. But none was as catastrophic as the eruption of the Laki fissure in 1783 and 1784, which killed a quarter of Iceland’s population and more than half the country’s livestock. A haze of poisonous sulfur dioxide emissions resulted in deaths across Europe, and weather patterns were disrupted around the world.

But it’s a possible eruption of the Katla volcano that was the subject of the most recent news article. Lately, scientists have been monitoring the area closely because of increased seismic activity. Katla, one of the largest volcanoes in Iceland, hasn’t had a major eruption in 99 years, despite eruptions spaced 13 to 95 years apart throughout all its previous recorded history. And except in 2010, the last several eruptions of nearby Eyjafjallajökull have all been followed within months by a Katla eruption.

Despite concerns about Katla, we decided to stay positive. We learned a lot about volcanoes before our trip, and while in Iceland, rather than worry about potential eruptions, we focused on the amazing landscapes that volcanoes have already created. We’ll certainly hope for continued volcanic stability for the foreseeable future.

The Blue Lagoon’s mineral-rich waters come from geothermal sources.

Bruarfoss has the most intense blue color of all the waterfalls we saw in Iceland.

Öxarárfoss.

Gullfoss.

Seeing double at Vesterhorn.

Treasure hunting on Diamond Beach.

A Pixelicious Planet board meeting.

Jökulsárlón lagoon is filled with icebergs that recently broke off the nearby glacier.

Svartifoss pours over an amazing wall of basalt columns.

It’s impossible for us to resist the Icelandic horses that we see while driving around Iceland. As soon as we stop the car and start walking in their direction, they gather by the fence, hoping for some friendly interaction. They quickly became one of our favorite subjects to photograph.

We wondered why there are so many horses in Iceland (about 80,000, compared to 317,000 people). It turns out that they still play a big role in everyday life in Iceland: some farmers still use them to herd sheep and to help with farm work; but most of all, they’re used in leisure riding.

To protect the purity and health of the breed, Icelandic law prohibits any horses from being imported into the country, whether they’re a different breed or a previously exported Icelandic horse. As a result, Icelandic horses remain the only breed of horse in Iceland, and diseases in these horses are practically unheard of.

They’re also a popular breed internationally, and for good reasons. They look absolutely stunning: they are compact and muscular, with long shaggy manes and coats in a wide range of colors. They’re extremely hardy, and capable of surviving the harsh Icelandic climate. And they have friendly, easy-going, and enthusiastic personalities, making them great companions for people.

If only we had space for a horse in our garden…

Seljalandsfoss.

Skógafoss.

We admit that one big reason why we went to Iceland in the winter was the possibility of seeing the Aurora Borealis — one of our favorite natural phenomena to experience. Thankfully, we lucked out: for three nights in a row, the northern lights were very active and we had clear weather! We chased the northern lights as long as they kept dancing, deep into the night, completely forgetting about being sleepy or cold. All we could think about was the incredible show of delicate shapes slowly morphing in front of our eyes.

According to old Icelandic legends, the northern lights relieved the pain of delivering a child. But the same superstitions warned that a mother-to-be shouldn’t look at the aurora while giving birth, or the child would be born cross-eyed.

These days, we know that auroras are caused by collisions between charged particles released from the sun and gases in the earth’s atmosphere. Occasionally, the sun’s atmosphere develops a coronal hole, allowing extra electrons and protons to escape. They are thrown out of the sun’s atmosphere, and some reach our planet. Most of these particles are deflected by Earth’s magnetic field, but some enter the atmosphere near the magnetic poles (which is why auroras are most visible near the poles).

As the charged particles descend into our atmosphere, they collide with gas molecules and produce a beautiful display of color in the sky. The auroras we saw were predominantly green, which is the result of electrons colliding with oxygen, and purple, which is the result of collisions with nitrogen. It’s a pretty amazing light show!

Natural and manmade.

Kirkjufell is a popular place for photography. Can you spot the photographers?

Pixelicious Planet

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