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The Lava Wonderland
by Rebecca Roberts
Jan. 17, 2001

Iceland sculpture

Iceland 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 oddities.

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This 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.

Gudmundsdottir: 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 open air.

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 boil.

Freysteinn Sigmundsson: We can say Iceland is like a laboratory, a geological laboratory.

Freysteinn Sigmundsson, 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.

Sigmundsson: 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.

Knudsen: 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. (laughs)

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 and captivating.

Knudsen: 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.

Freysteinn Sigmundsson agrees. Despite the danger -- or maybe because of it -- nothing compares to a volcanic eruption.

Sigmundsson: 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 Rebecca Roberts.

Other stories:

Tech Trendsetters | DNA | Lava Wonderland | Running on Hydrogen | Name Game


copyright Exploratorium 2001