Jan. 17, 2001
is a geological wonderland.
The landscape is dotted by
bright glaciers and steamy geysers. Earthquakes shake the frozen
ground regularly. But what Iceland mainly has is volcanoes -- dozens
of them, including some brewing under ice and seawater. In our third
installment of this week's series on Iceland, the World's Rebecca
Roberts introduces us to some folks who revel in the island's geological
is a sound you hear a lot of in Iceland:
(sound of burbling)
It's a little pool of steaming hot water bubbling up from underground.
The treeless, moonscape of Iceland is full of these pools. You can
even bathe in them -- and lots of people do.
(sound of kids shouting
and splashing in a lagoon)
This hot springs is
the Blue Lagoon. It was formed in the 1970's when a geothermal plant
started using the underground water to heat houses. The used water
was then released back into the ground but it was never absorbed.
A mineral in the water reacted with the lava-filled soil and it
sealed, forming a very large pool. Blue Lagoon's public relations
director Magnea Gudmundsdottir says it wasn't long before people
were swimming in it.
People in this area started to take a dip, of course. This is
very tempting, we don't have, we can't use our beaches like you
can in the States and most other countries. So all of a sudden
we had this hot seawater, where we could bathe in it out in the
While swimming in the
runoff of a geothermal power plant may not sound like an obvious
recreational choice, the Blue Lagoon quickly became one of Iceland's
top attractions. Last year, they opened a new pool, filled with
water directly from the ground, rather than the power plant's outflow.
But the water was so hot, Blue Lagoon engineers had to install a
cooler to keep it at 98 degrees Fahrenheit, so the tourists wouldn't
Sigmundsson: We can say Iceland is like a laboratory, a geological
director of the Nordisk Volcanological Institute, says all the bubbling
and gurgling underground is caused by iceland's many volcanoes,
which makes Iceland a living laboratory for vulcanologists. Sigmundsson:
We can monitor volcanoes, study them, learn about then processes,
actually use that knowledge to help with monitoring volcanoes elsewhere
in the world. But the danger is relatively little, because there
are so few people here.
Only 270,000 in a country
the size of Ohio. Iceland's geography is its destiny. It lies at
the point where the North American and European continental plates
meet -- the seam runs right through the middle of the country. And
that plate boundary is what makes Iceland so volcanically active.
There's a volcanic eruption here every five years or so -- although
the last five years have seen three. And Iceland is the only place
on Earth where the plate boundary is above sea level. Scientists
can literally watch the the continental plates shift and they've
discovered that North America and Europe are moving away from each
other about one inch every year. But don't worry: Iceland's not
about to split in two -- all that volcanic activity provides plenty
of new material to fill in the rift.
Is Iceland growing bigger every year? We really don't know, because
there is erosion. The sea is taking part of the land on either
side so I think it is about stable.
Scientists here are
constantly listening for increased seismic activity, a tell-tale
sign that a volcano will soon erupt. That advance warning is a boon
to amateur volcano watchers like filmmaker Villi Knudsen. He's been
filming volcanoes since he was a child -- sometimes from a little
too close up.
I had very big lava bombs landing very close to me. And I must
have broken the world record in sprint in running a few times.
Knudsen flies off to
smoking craters at a moment's notice. He's filmed glaciers from
the air while volcanoes erupt beneath them. He even documented the
underwater eruptions that formed new Icelandic islands in the 1960's.
In the summer, Knudsen shows his films to visiting tourists. Volcanoes
are a big attraction here, and often the warning signs scientists
post about possible eruptions only serve to attract curious spectators.
Being close to an eruption, says Knudsen, is thrilling and terrifying
I've been close to lava streams that run like 40 meters, 40 yards
per second, which is like water. And you would imagine that those
kind of flows make a lot of noise, but they don't. It's like the
sound of breaking of glass. It's like one million Coca Cola bottles
running, rolling down a hill.
agrees. Despite the danger -- or maybe because of it -- nothing
compares to a volcanic eruption.
It is magnificent. It is interesting. The question is always,
is it safe? If it is safe, one can enjoy it. And one certainly
feels how small mankind is, compared to nature.
It's easy to feel that
way in Iceland. Just when scientists think they have some mastery
over the geology, the mountains explode, the earth quakes, and the
continental plates drift apart a little more. For the World, I'm
Running on Hydrogen