A fitting beginning to my trip, a grand view of the Golden Gate Bridge!
One of my main objectives on this part of the trip was to observe the characteristics of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge on Iceland. This image is taken from the summit of the volcano, Laki, looking northeast.
Here one can also see a ridge of cinder cones stretching to the southwest and eventually joining with the axis of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The combined eruptions here in 1783 created the largest modern outflow of basaltic lava in the world (estimated at 12 - 15 cubic kilometers). Some of the flows extended over 70 km to the sea.
Fluorine released by the eruption was implicated in the death of cattle that ate contaminated grass. The death of 100's of thousands of livestock contributed to a famine implicated in the death of somewhere near 10,000 Icelanders. A NASA geologist has documented the evidence of climatic changes associated with the eruption including Benjamin Franklin's observations of it while in France in 1783. The eruption was followed by a very cold winter, poor harvests the next summer, severe famine, and a widespread disease epidemic. (References: Stothers, R.B. 1996. The Great Dry Fog of 1783. Climatic Change 32, 79-89. and Stothers, R.B. 1998.)
I also wanted to experience Iceland's geographic and geologic features. By taking a flight to Heimaey I was able to see the results of a volcanic eruption in 1973 that buried much of the town, some with lava and most of the rest with ash. The lava flows nearly closed in their harbor entrance. The harbor is in the notch in the dark hills on the far edge of the island in this aerial photo.
As seen labeled on the larger image, the dark ridge was formed during the eruption of a completely new volcano on the island. A view of the harbor from the lava flows.
On a boat trip around the island the outer margin revealed an interesting radial columnar jointing pattern exposed in the wave eroded cliffs. Signs of damage to the city remain. A home engulfed by the lava flows and a water tank near the harbor.There is more on this eruption from this Volcano World page.The harbor was saved and actually improved. It is now the home of Keiko the killer whale, star of the movie "Free Willie." He was being prepared for release, if possible. (Info on Keiko) The enclosure seen in this image is approximately the size of a football field. From the observation site across the harbor, I actually saw him surface and blow. It was said that that is a pretty rare occurrence.
There are some great pictures of the eruption at this location.
Back walking around in Reykjavik, I had the good fortunate to meet an interesting man, Isleifur Jonsson, (seen here) who has successfully returned the "smoke" to the area from whence the town gets its' name (the "valley of the smokes"). Unfortunately, use of groundwater has lowered the water table and the heated water and steam no longer reaches the surface. The town pumps hot water from deep wells and it is stored in an impressive geothermal storage facility high on a hill overlooking the city (the facility also has a couple of restaurants and an observation platform to view the impressive 360 degree view.) Prior to the waters getting to the storage facility, Isleifur gets some to create an artificial geyser that he designed and operates. Unfortunately on this day it was warm and the water being supplied to the storage facility was below the temperature that is needed to make it fountain. The geyser was only boiling and he was very disappointed that it was not fountaining this particular day. He was fountain of information for he has been a drilling engineer in Iceland for 30 years and was instrumental in recovering cores from the still flowing lavas on the island of Heimaey.
For two weeks I camped in Skaftafell National Park and worked with other Earthwatch volunteers assisting a group of British researchers in studying the glacier features and outwash plain that was derived from Iceland's largest icecap, the Vatnajokull Glacier (map of Iceland). The study area focused on the Skeidararjokul, an outlet from the Vatnajokull glacier that in 1996 experienced a dramatic "jokulhlaup" or flood that burst from its margin as a result of the Grimsvotn volcano erupting beneath the icecap.
This aerial photo taken on a charter air flight to the volcanic eruption site under the icecap is of the Skaftafellsjokul and its outwash plain just east of the national park campground.
The outer outwash plain (Skeiðarársandur) of the Skeidararjokul that destroyed the island perimeter road in 1996. A portion of the upper outwash plain with depressions left by stranded icebergs. The eastern outlet responsible for the previous outlet plain features. The glacier front and the western outlet for the jokulhlaup (glacial outburst flood). The black streaks on the ice front are layers of ash embedded within the ice, and one of the objectives for the studies being carried out.
Approaching the upper reach of the glacier. Ash and collapse features over the Grímsvötn volcano. A large collapse feature with a steaming pool. A lake in the glacier.
A glacier dam and icebergs on the western margin of the Skeidararjokul.
Click image to see a closeup of the icebergs.
A breach in a terminal moraine by the western outwash from the jokulhlaup (another study site). Striated landforms exposed by as the glacier front retreats. The major outflow site with deposits and potholes.
As volunteers on our first day we were introduced to the park with hike to the Svartifoss waterfall which tumbles over a dramatic columnar jointed cliff. We also got to see some of the braver of our group (Matt, Phil, Tomoe, and Kate) who climbed behind the falls.
On our first evening we were introduced to Bird's Custard...many of us not having either knowledge of it or just how to prepare it. Sometimes in the early days it came out a little thick, like here with chef Lisa.
On the second day we received an introduction to glaciers and a first hand visit to the Skaftafellsjokul and it's outwash plain. The pronounced accumulations of black ash (tephra) make the glacier a real black and white environment and only periodically giving glimpses of blue ice. Fortunately some of the volunteers wore bright colors while viewing a fracture zone that brings materials from the base of the glacier to the surface where evaporation and/or melting of the ice causes it to accumulate.
At the end of our first full day, we were visited in camp by the "Iceland Today" news program reporter who interviewed a couple of principal investigators and a volunteer.
We were then formed into three research teams that would each spend 3 days with each of the principal investigators. The team that I was on spend our first day with Matt, a Phd candidate who is investigating the fracture system and consequent delivery of tephra to the ice surface, especially related to the jokulhlaup. Here he introduces us to the project on deposits created by the 1996 glacial outburst. We observed and measured the fractures and their related tephra cones. One of our team volunteers (Judith) found an particularly interesting fracture with interbedded ice and tephra (shown here close up). We also found fractures that had both frozen and unfrozen portions, like this one that has been scraped off and exposed. The rounded lower surface is frozen.
With Matt we also made measurements of a group of rather enigmatic large boulders scattered around the glacier surface. Some of us made the measurements (Judith receiving instructions on use of the compass) and some were the locators. Some of the boulders sat on little columns of ice that were protected from the sun. How effective the sun is in evaporating and melting the ice is shown by the fact that the glacier surface here near the margin has dropped some 20 meters (60') since 1996. Matt is struggling with how these boulders got to the surface and is considering that they might actually have been expelled with water from the base of the glacier during the jokulhlaup. Later that day he found a weathered version of the same type of rock buried in the ice. We look forward to his solving this problem in his Phd!
On the third day with Matt, we returned to the consideration of the fracture zones, mapping out the distribution of one particularly interesting one that the group named Fred. For much of it's extent it is frozen sediment clearly along a prominent fracture zone that dips into the glacier. It is exploited for a distance by a meltwater stream on the surface of the ice and then it turns interesting. We found evidence of it being exploited by the meltwater and then possibly refilled by sediments. One section showed convolutions on the surface that seem to show glacial water meandering through the subsurface (rather similar to the appearance of a limestone cave in production) and then these sediments filling in the voids. This particular section dove beneath the surface and then reappeared at a lower level.
Such things must have a very temporal existence and only with constant observations of the glacier surface would things like this ever be recognized. We also excavated a similar but smaller feature (Judith working on enlarging the feature and then admiring her handiwork)
Our last "discovery" with Matt was when we followed Fred across the meltwater stream at the front of the glacier and found an interesting dike network reminiscent of granitic intrusions and their associated dikes. A closeup of one of the "dikes" and Matt holding a portion that was extracted from the exposure.
Each day at the end we faced a climb back up onto the outwash terrace (Carol, Sinead, Matt, and Judith) and there was commonly relief to be back up the slope (Sinead).
Following our day off excursion to the Laki area discussed above, I was honored to be assigned to work with an investigator who was to be with us a short period of time. He was Ian Fairchild, Chair of the Earth Sciences at Keele University. He obviously doesn't sit in his "chair" all the time since he walked our butts off! We resurveyed a series of tubes that were inserted in the outwash plain surface to see if the ground water table and chemistry of this water could be monitored. In this photo Richard Ward dips the improvised wooden skewer measuring device into one of the tubes while Ian records the information. Ian was quite surprised when many the tubes were found to be filled with a significant amount of sediment that was above the screened bottoms (in the first the dip stick went in only about 6cm and the tubes were around 70 cm deep). What had been meant to be used as a ground water monitoring project had, because the weather had removed the duct tape covers, become an aeolian transport measurement! This was clearly resolved when we found several that had been left with large rocks on their surface and had no fill it them.
Ian's field setup for filtering and sampling the waters collected. One of the tubes had been exposed in the channel by bank erosion and showed the significant wind abrasion that formed before the tube was excavated by the stream. After a productive day, the long walk back to the pickup location and the enjoyment of having the boss do the cooking.
The next day, I returned to my original group and spent time with the expedition leader, Richard Wallen of Greenwich University. Richard received his Phd with studies of this glacier.
Currently he is interested in the tephra bands within the ice and during this phase of our research activities we experienced one of the most interesting, the "washing " of the glacier. Evaporation and melting of the glacier release vast amounts of basaltic ash that in many places coats the glaciers surface. To find the elusive tephra bands that are found inside the ice we had to collect meltwater from streams on the glacier, pack it to the sites and clean the ice to reveal if it had any tephra. Some times this had to be done from rather precarious sites on the tops of sharp, slick ridges. (Michelle and Richard on ridge)
The prize was finding tephra bands like those seen in this photo. Specific measurements were made and samples were taken to be chemically analyzed at Keele University in England. The hope is that the tephra bands may be able to be correlated to other sites around the icecap. Here is a photo of a sample from one of the layers that I took and hung out to dry (the relative amounts of water and scoria fragments are shown well).
Judith and Sinead prepare for lunch with the handiwork in the background.
We also were introduced to a large pond on the glacier surface.
On the following day, we were introduced to features that have been exposed from beneath the ice as it retreats. This patterned ground is even obvious from this air photo taken on my aerial flight around the glacier. The labeling was my attempt to summarize it as I saw it and yes, jokulhlaup is misspelled.
We were directly introduced to these features that Richard suspects are drumlins (seen here looking towards the ice margin) with extensive fluted structures on their surface. We had our lunch in a kettlehole on the patterned ground and spent the afternoon making observations of the glacial till fabric that will hopefully give clues to the specific origins of the patterned ground. It hardly gets any better than this in geology, where something that has never been observed from the modern environment before is available for study.
Off to work with Phil...deviating somewhat from his previous work with the other teams, we visited a new site and made observations to compare with those made in his primary site. These sediments that stand high off the current outwash plain surface are related to a 1930's ice margin and may represent jokulhlaup deposits. The measurements that we were making may give clues to this history. I certainly have a better appreciation of imbrication after measuring with Carol a lot of tilted pebbles and cobbles shown it this photo (the ice margin can be seen in the background and meltwater streams below us).
I recorded for Phil on a particularly tenuous site...notice how he is strung out on the slope to stay in one place...both of these pictures don't come near to looking like they did when you were working on them! This photo gives some sense of the scale of the moraine and the rocks within it.
On one of the other two days we were stopped by equipment problems and weather from working in the field so we went back to camp and entered data from the previous groups into the computers. Eventually we finally succeeded in getting out to survey features of the primary site on the edge of the Giga river drainage. Measurements with a EDM (electronic distance measurer) of the character of the moraine at this location, surface relief of a particularly lumpy topography with numerous slump features that included the locations of buried melting ice in the moraine, the position of the river cliff margin and the levels of the river terraces were all objects of our attention.
On our last day in camp we had wrap up of some of our work and results by the three principal investigators (here Richard summarizes some of his groups work) and a hilarious award ceremony for the participants and staff engineered by the staff (here Richard Ward is given a blue plastic shovel in recognition of his massive scale hydrological diversion projects)
Early on Monday we said our goodbyes and the staff gave us a sendoff from Skaftafell Park Headquarters. Thanks again, folks for a wonderful learning, and thoroughly enjoyable, experience.
On the return to Reykavik we took the scenic route back through the Landmannlargar region. This region has both basaltic and rhyolitic lava regions. After all the basaltic lavas seen at Laki and the first half of this trip, reaching the Landmannlargar region was a strikingly different kind of beast. Shown in this photo are some of the characteristic colors of the volcanic rocks in this area.
And best of all, a path that led to an open air changing room and a delightful hot spring to bath in.
Guess who enjoyed it while contemplating the oddity of having felsic volcanic rocks here on the mid ocean ridge and enjoying some final hours with my new friends and research colleagues Kate, Nevadi, and Jack.
Post Expedition Note:
This information about my "EEsland" travels were originally uploaded from Cyprus!
At the time Iceland seemed far away and certainly a whole lot cooler than it was in Larnaca, Cyprus. I uploaded the first draft of this page from a cybercafe that I found that overlooked the blue Mediterranean and had cheap beer! How can it get any better than this? Sabbaticals are good things!
Additional web resources on Iceland
On to the next adventure, Cyprus