We were traveling when the pandemic began in 2020. We felt lucky to get home on one of the last flights to leave Buenos Aires on March 15, 2020, before Argentina locked down. The first stay-at-home order in the Bay Area was announced a few hours after we arrived home on March 16th. Since then it was never clear when we would be able to travel again. Frankly, it still isn’t, but we signed onto a trip to Iceland in July anyway because it was the first trip that looked relatively safe and I guess it was. We were allowed to visit 3 ports before one positive Covid test on our ship cancelled visits to the remaining 3 ports.
Iceland is one of the most geologically interesting places on the planet. It is equally interesting culturally because it is a highly functioning society and one of the oldest democracies in the world. I’ll share a few tidbits about what we learned in Iceland because some are relevant to my interest in natural history.
A New Land
Geologically, biologically, and culturally, Iceland is a new land. It was created about 18 million years ago by molten rock arising from the great rift of the North American and European tectonic plates. Unlike the junctures of most of the tectonic plates that form the surface layer of Earth, the North American and European tectonic plates are separating, which creates an escape route for the molten material below the surface of the Earth. This rift is thought to have separated the fused, singular continent of Pangea, creating the Atlantic Ocean. This separation of the continents began some 180 million years ago, putting the relative youth of Iceland into time perspective.
Iceland remains a geologic hot spot where volcanic eruptions, lava flows, and earthquakes are frequent occurrences. Geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles are constant reminders that Iceland sits on a rift in the Earth’s crust that provides immediate access to the Earth’s molten interior. Icelanders heat their homes with geothermal hot water and their electricity is generated hydrologically. Their air is cleaner because they are burning little fossil fuel.
Land created by volcanic eruptions is composed of barren rock. Turning rock into soil is a slow process, typically taking thousands of years. Every new volcanic eruption on Iceland adds more barren rock. A series of volcanic eruptions that began in 1963 created the island of Surtsey on the southern coast of Iceland. It was immediately designated as a nature reserve that prohibits all but scientists from visiting. It is therefore a laboratory to study the lengthy process of colonizing barren rock with plants and animals.
The first terrestrial plant was found on Surtsey in 1965, while the eruption was still active. Mosses were found in 1967 and lichens in 1970. Mosses and lichens now cover much of the island. Although 20 plant species were observed over the first 20 years, only 10 species became established in the nutrient-poor soil.
Soil conditions began to improve when birds began nesting on the island. By 2008, 69 plant species had been found on Surtsey, of which 30 species were established. More species continue to arrive at the rate of 2-5 species per year, but Surtsey’s plant life is a small fraction of the 490 plant species found on mainland Iceland.
Scientists give the birds on Surtsey credit for much of its flora: “Birds use the plants for nesting material, but also continue to assist in the spreading of seeds, and fertilize the soil with their guano. Birds first began nesting on Surtsey three years after the eruptions ended…Twelve species are now regularly found on the island.” This is a reminder that humans are not the sole dispersers of plants to new locations.
Insects were first detected on Surtsey in 1964. “The original arrivals were flying insects, carried to the island by winds and their own power. Some were believed to have been blown across from as far away as mainland Europe. Later insect life arrived on floating driftwood, and both live animals and carcasses washed up on the island. When a large, grass-covered tussock was washed ashore in 1974, scientists took half of it for analysis and discovered 663 land invertebrates, mostly mites and springtails, the great majority of which had survived the crossing. The establishment of insect life provided some food for birds, and birds in turn helped many species to become established on the island.” Wind, storms, ocean currents are other methods of natural dispersal of species to new locations.
Although we saw many cosmopolitan plant species on Iceland that are found all over the world, such as dandelions and clover, only one introduced plant seemed to be controversial. Lupine was introduced to Iceland in about 1970 to deal with soil erosion in coastal areas. It has spread far beyond where it was introduced and has earned a reputation as an “invader.” That reputation can be the beginning of a poisonous eradication campaign.
However, although we saw lupine wherever we went, most of our guides and lecturers were more positive than negative about it. They acknowledged that some people don’t like the spreading lupine, but they explained that lupine is a nitrogen-fixing plant that builds soil in a place that is dominated by rocky, nutrient-poor soil. Based on our limited experience in Iceland it seems that lupine is selling itself to the people of Iceland as a non-native plant that brings more benefits than problems.
Update: Adalsteinn Sigurgeirsson is the Deputy director of the Icelandic Forest Service. He has given his permission to publish his Facebook comment to this article: “I fully agree with you, in your analysis of the discourse in Iceland on the Nootka lupin. The general public favors the plant, as it is able to “invade” derelict soils on eroded land and replenish the nitrogen stocks in the soils. However, as elsewhere in Western societies, “people who favor native plants are invading our local, state, and national governments, spending taxpayer dollars on the destruction of our environment.” (http://lazycompost.com/the-invasiveness-of-native…/…).
“Iceland’s history since settlement in the 9th century is one of nearly wholesale deforestation, soil erosion and ecosystem destruction. A likely underlying reason for this state of affairs is the lack of nitrogen-fixing plants in our native flora (lack of biodiversity in general, on a remote island in the N-Atlantic). The few native nitrogen-fixers have been introduced since settlement and these can only grow if fenced off from the omnipresent, free-roaming TGBs (tree-gobbling bastards, i.e. sheep). Icelandic volcanic soils are rich in all plant nutrients, save nitrogen.” https://www.skogur.is/…/history-of-forests-in-iceland
A new culture and an old democracy
Iceland was inhabited by humans about 1,100 years ago, one of the last patches of land on Earth to be colonized by humans. Our hominoid species, Homo sapiens evolved in Africa over 300,000 years ago and began migrating out of Africa shortly after. Humans occupied Australia, another island nation, about 60,000 years ago and one of the most recent human migrations occurred about 13,000 years ago to North America. In other words, Iceland is one the last places on Earth occupied by humans.
Shortly after being colonized by Vikings, Iceland formed one of the first parliamentary bodies in the world. The first meeting of the Althing was in 930. Ironically, it occurred in one of the most geologically interesting places in Iceland where the rift separating the North American and European tectonic plates forms a narrow canyon. The early settlers had no way of knowing they were meeting in a place of great geologic importance. They selected it because the towering walls of the canyon provided shelter in an extreme climate for their annual meeting that required a temporary encampment of chieftains coming from all over Iceland.
A highly functioning society
The population of Iceland is less than 360,000, less than the population of my hometown, Oakland, where about 425,000 people live and actively participate in a complex, diverse society where democratic decisions are made, but not without heated debate and frequent conflict. Based on my experiences at home, I admire Icelandic culture.
The unique manner in which Iceland dealt with the economic collapse of 2008 that caused financial hardship all over the world is one example of how problems are solved in Iceland. Bankers in Iceland engaged in the same risky borrowing and lending that caused the financial collapse in the US and the government was complicit because it did not enforce the laws that could have prevented some of those risks. However, Iceland is the only country that reacted to that collapse by replacing the government, closing the banks, prosecuting and jailing the bankers who broke the laws. Once again, Iceland’s economy is strong despite 18 months of collapse of their tourist industry, which is second only to the fishing industry in creating jobs in Iceland.
On the last day of our visit to Iceland we had our only opportunity to wander freely in Reykjavik before boarding our plane. We were able to visit a cemetery close to the museum that was functioning as our waiting room before our flight. Early on a Saturday morning a large group of people was visiting the grave of family or friend. It seemed to be a festive occasion for them and their mood was consistent with the cemetery itself. Every gravesite was decorated with a small garden of blooming annual plants that must be planted every year after their extreme winters. Every gravesite said that families and ancestors are respected and loved. We are regular visitors to a historical cemetery in our neighborhood in Oakland. Although it is well tended by cemetery staff, there is little evidence of the active participation by the families of those buried there.
One of the gravestones in the Icelandic cemetery was inscribed with “I did it my way,” a clue to the influence of America in Iceland where we have had a strategically important military presence since World War II. Iceland is the midpoint on the flyway between Europe and North America and therefore crucially important militarily.
Thank you, Iceland, for graciously hosting our first voyage back into the world.