Front row: Christine Shipyan '10, Catherine Noyes '09, Megan Fitzgerald '10, Kaitlin
Nikiforov '11. Back row: Patrick Nugent '11, Billy Campion '11, Bray Wilkins '11,
Professor Michael Fenster, Ph.D. (environmental
studies ) and seven of his students are currently in Iceland in conjunction
with the summer course "The Geology of Iceland: A Seam on the Coat of the World."
The travel course enables students to examine, analyze and map individual
volcanic and glacial features, as well as landscape features produced by the interaction
of fire, ice and the ocean.
Fenster began teaching at Randolph-Macon College in 1999. He earned a B.S. and M.S.
at the University of Mississippi and a Ph.D. at Boston University, and he conducted
post-doctoral research at the University of Virginia. Fenster currently serves as
the director of the college’s environmental studies program.
About the Course
Iceland owes its dramatic landscape features to its distinctive geologic setting
on top of a tectonic “spreading center,” where magma rises from the Earth’s mantle
and “rests” precariously close to or emerges onto the surface—in concert with its
geographic position at a high latitude (65° N latitude compared to Ashland’s 37°
N latitude). Students are investigating how humans have survived in this harsh geologic
environment and they are learning about the rich history and culture of this Nordic
country. They are also evaluating the impact of humans on the environment by analyzing—firsthand—contemporary
geologic environmental issues such as climate change, soil erosion and renewable
energy. Over 80% of Iceland’s energy comes from geothermal and hydrologic sources.
Fenster is sending blog entries—virtual “diaries”—back to the college describing
the group’s travel experiences, as well as the history and landscape of Iceland.
Read Fenster’s exciting blog entries below—and visit R-MC’s Web site often for
updates on this unique travel course.
June 20, 2009
We had a spectacular day today. We rolled off the airplane at 6:00 a.m. and went
directly to a town called Keflavik about 30 minutes away from the airport (“Kefla”
means “sticks” and “vik” means “bay”). It got its name because of all the big sticks
or pieces of wood that fishermen have to deal with in the bay. After a terrific
breakfast at our hotel - more
Fenster and students in the mid-Atlantic rift valley.
Note the geothermal power plant in the background.
Students visit a home buried in the
1973 eruption on Heimaey.
Note the white chimney in the upper left.
R-MC students climbing the crater of the
Elgfell volcano, which last erupted in 1973.
(l-r) Patrick Nuegent, a Viking, Billy Campion,
a Viking, Kaitlin Nikiforov, and Bray Wilkins
attend a party given by the Canadian
ambassador at the government center
European style than American, but definitely unique (I had salmon on a roll with
an egg spread and cukes on top), we met Barb Tewksbury from Hamilton College, her
husband Dave and her research student Elyse at our hotel. Our guide, Edward Williamson,
took us all in a mini bus to three stops along the Reykjanes (pronounced "Wreck
Yah Nays") Peninsula. "Reykja" means "smoky" and "nes" means “peninsula.” Put the
two together and you can see what it means. Each stop was awe inspiring, breathtaking
and truly unbelievable. The scale of volcanic processes that you can walk right
up to and look at is truly in a class by itself.
We first visited a place called "Crater Row" which contained "spatter cones" in
a line for kilometers and kilometers. These are steep-sided hills of "spatter" built
up by lava fountains and central vents that form above fissures (cracks) where magma
comes to the Earth's surface. We saw and hiked on many different kinds including
one that had had a lava lake in it when it formed a thousand years ago. The lava
would fill up the crater to form a lava lake, spill over the sides, fill back up
and spill over—over and over again, each time forming a hard crust on the top before
it spilled. Then, after it spilled, it flowed down the side of the spatter cone
through lava tubes that are now hollow. My student Bray climbed in one to get his
picture taken. He wanted to crawl all the way through it, but Barb thought that
wasn't a good idea.
Our second stop was truly astonishing. Huge piles— almost mountains—of volcanic
material that formed about 12,000 years ago under ice sheets also form a line along
the peninsula. We visited the one right on the southwest coast of Iceland on the
Atlantic Ocean and it was breathtaking. Here, the Earth literally splits in two
and moves in opposite directions so that each year, the U.S. and Europe get father
apart from each other. This site showed why Jack Trammell, the director of our summer
school program, wanted me to call this course "The Geology of Iceland: The Seam
on the Coat of the World." The two pieces of lithosphere move at about the same
rate that your fingernails grow, but you could literally see the crack—really a
valley—starting on land and then descending down into the Atlantic Ocean. The valley
on land had numerous, small shield volcanoes in it and a new power plant that's
tapping the hot water beneath the ground but on top of the magma for generating
power (electricity) and sending hot water to homes. Then, around the corner from
this large mountain of lava, on the ocean, and right in the middle of the valley
that I just mentioned, was the most unbelievable beach I have ever seen. The beach
was not made of sand, but of boulders the size of about 10-20 bowling balls put
together, about 3 feet or more around each. The waves that brought those boulders
to that beach must have been enormous!
We ended our field trip at a place with boiling sulfur water (hot springs) and mud
pots (a hot spring that carries mostly boiling mud and some water). We hiked all
around it while the very hot water spewed steam and sulfur (it was stinky).
We heard lots of great folklore and saw a few interesting animals, including short
and cute horses whose lineage comes from horses brought to Iceland by Nordic Vikings.
Some of my students want to ride them, but that's not high on my priority list.
I did, however, see an advertisement for helicopter rides around Iceland!!
Tomorrow we're off to the Blue Lagoon—a hot bath—next to a geothermal power plant
on the Reykjanes Peninsula, then to Reykjavik for museums, map/book collecting and
some shopping. Then Tuesday a.m. we visit a geothermal energy plant and then take
the ferry boat to the Westman Island, off the south coast of Iceland.
It's now midnight here and the sun has not set. You may know that this is the summer
solstice, or longest day of the year. I hope you have enjoyed your day as much as
June 22, 2009
Hello again from Reykjavik.
Today we began the day with another terrific breakfast at Hotel Keflavik before
heading to the Blue Lagoon, the outfall from the geothermal energy plant. Our guide,
Edward, picked us up in a four-wheel-drive converted Ford van that had huge tires
on it, stood about 3-4 feet off the ground, and required a step ladder to get into.
He said we would need it to get to some of the places we plant to go later in the
week—like the volcano Hekla.
Barb Tewksbury, a structural geologist from Hamilton College who happened to meet
up with us on the Reykjanes Peninsula yesterday, told me that she has used the vehicle
to drive across a 3 foot deep river in northern Iceland. We plan to use it to drive
off the road to reach a volcano named Hekla. Today, while in the Settlement Exhibit
(more later), the museum director told us that he had heard on the news that Hekla
erupts every 10 years and that the government has issued a warning about the possibility
of another one soon. That’s bad news given that we plan to hike up its flanks this
weekend. Thankfully, volcanoes usually issue warnings... but I'm jumping ahead.
After breakfast, we spent the day pretty much relaxing in a big steamy hot bath
at the Blue Lagoon. We had pushed ourselves hard for two days, so slowing down felt
nice. Although touristy (it is the #1 destination for tourists in Iceland), it was
fun. It reminded me a bit of the bath houses in Austria because of the hot water
you could relax in and the waterfalls that you could stand under… except this was
a BIG one, and you could put natural white paste—which is really silica mud—on your
face and skin. It’s supposed to heal blemishes on your skin.
Edward went with us and I enjoyed getting to talk to him in the “lagoon.” I learned,
for example, that Edward also volunteers for a search and rescue team that rescues
people from mountains and glaciers when they get lost or caught in pickles. He told
me that technology has improved rescue operations dramatically. For example, in
the “old” days, people weren’t reported missing until they didn’t show up at home
some time after their adventures were supposed to end and families got worried.
Now, with communication and GPS devices, they know right when people get in trouble
and right where they are, so they can go and pick them up much faster. He drives
a Ski Doo on the snow and ice and takes part in about three missions every year.
After the Blue Lagoon, we took off for the capital city of Reykjavik, where we checked
into our hotel and then headed to the old part of town. After a brief driving tour
by Edward (he wears a headphone set with a microphone while driving us around),
including driving by a church with a columnar basalt facade, and the building on
Reykjavik Harbor where Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev held their famous Reykjavik
Summit and considered banning all ballistic missiles, we went straightaway to the
Barb Tewksbury was right: It was amazing. We had a personalized tour from the director
of the exhibit of one of the first Viking houses on the island. The Viking house
and artifacts from this period are preserved in the lower level of a hotel next
to the harbor. With the help of geologists, the archeologists dated the site accurately
to 871 +/- 2 years because geologists know the year (871) that an ash layer from
a volcano about 400 kilometers to the east fell from the atmosphere and landed onto
a stone fence that surrounded one of the Viking’s houses. Fortunately, the ash layer
also landed on the Greenland ice sheet and geologists dated the ash layer (really
tephra) that got incorporated into the ice there. After the eruption and after the
Vikings left the site, the tephra layer—and the village—got preserved under about
two meters of wind-blown sediment and organic matter. More than 1100 years later,
construction workers discovered the village in 2001 when new construction began
on this site.
Unlike America (as I was told), construction crews who locate potentially important
archeological findings stop to study and preserve them. In this case, the findings
represent the earliest (oldest) Viking village on Iceland. Sadly, the findings debunked
the Icelandic legend that Ingólfur Arnarson, the first settler on Iceland, established
the site for the settlement (now the city of Reykjavik) by allowing pillars to float
in the ocean and taking their landing spot on shore as an omen of where to build
the first settlement site. The archeologists can learn a lot about the Vikings by
studying the buildings and the materials found around the site—like metal, glass
and wood objects. That reminds me, we also drove by a new museum between Keflavik
and Reykjavik that houses a replica Viking ship. The museum had only been open for
one week and has huge glass windows that allowed us to see the whole ship without
going into the museum. And, speaking of Vikings, a few of us stopped to have our
pictures taken with Vikings who were guarding the Reykjavik government center. Apparently,
the Canadian Ambassador threw a party for locals to celebrate Canada Day and used
the Vikings as "bouncers"—and we weren't on the invitation list!
After lunch…and by the way I had mink whale for lunch…our group split up and had
a few hours to poke around Reykjavik. I didn’t feel great about eating whale because
I don’t want to support whale hunting, but Edward assured me that the Icelanders
practice excellent conservation. In fact, the Iceland government removed a ban on
whaling a couple of years ago that they had established in 1986. My group assured
me that it was best to use the meat that way since the whalers had already claimed
the whale. In any case, it was only a once in a lifetime opportunity for me and
it was delicious! It tasted a lot like a “regular” steak.
After lunch, we split up for some "free time" in Reykjavik where we all did a little
shopping and a few of us went to a café for chocolate cake and coffee. It really
hit the spot!
After a long walk along the harbor back to the hotel and a shower, we walked back
to town for dinner at the Carusa. Now back in the hotel room, I’m planning tomorrow’s
adventures that consist of a tour of a geothermal energy power plant and a 2.5 hour
ferry boat ride (I was told the ferry holds 200-300 cars!) to the Westmann Islands.
We plan to hike straight up the newly formed volcano whose lava flow in 1973 claimed
about one-third of the town of Heiemaey on the Westmann Island. Barb told us that
if you dig down a bit at the top, you can still feel the heat of the lava from this
eruption. We’ll spend the next day on the island as well, then head back. Believe
it or not, my students want to make it a priority to have puffin for one of our
meals. I’ll let you know how it goes.
As they say in Iceland for “goodbye"
June 22-23, 2009
Wednesday marked yet another memorable day on our Icelandic journey. We started
the day with breakfast in Reykjavik and then, on a cloudy and sometimes rainy morning,
we drove in our guide’s “super van” (more about the van in a later entry) about
30 minutes southeast to the newest geothermal energy power plant on Iceland – Orkuveita
Reykjavíkur. Although we arrived with a couple of tour buses full of people, after
a little while, the tourists left and we had the tour of a lifetime with our own
personal tour guide. The facility had excellent exhibits including an earthquake
room that simulates earthquakes of various magnitudes. The people who run power
plants “worry” about earthquakes because they have pipes that transport hot water
and power lines that deliver electricity to the people of Iceland and an earthquake
could do substantial damage to those. To reduce the potential risk to these systems,
the engineers developed a pipe system that “gives” with earthquakes. The pipes,
about 1 meter above the ground, will run straight for a while, then take a 90 degree
turn, then another, then another and then go straight for a while longer only to
repeat the pattern. Fortunately, Iceland will never have earthquakes as big or that
last as long as those in California, because Iceland sits on top of a different
kind of tectonic plate boundary than California, so it will experience shallower
earthquakes. Still, the earthquakes can reach 7.0 on the Richter scale – certainly
large enough for everyone who has lived on the island to have felt one and to have
caused substantial damage. I guess it’s the geologist in me, but I hope we get to
feel one before we leave.
After seeing a video about and getting a short talk on how this company uses super
hot steam from below the ground to generate electricity, our guide took us to platforms
that overlook the actual rooms where all the action happens. I was struck by how
quiet the facility was given the huge generators and turbines (4 of each) in the
room. By the way, our tour guide, as do many people in Iceland, spoke perfect English
–without an accent. You would think that English was his first language. When I
asked him how he learned to speak English so well, he said what several others have
said when I asked them that question – from watching TV!
After finishing up at the plant, we went to Þorlákshöfn to catch the ferry to Heimaey
or what the locals call Vestmannaeyjar (Westmann Islands). The Westmann Islands
got their name from the Irish slaves (Celtic/Irish men from lands to the west of
Norway) who fled there after killing their master Hjörleifur of Hjöleifshöfði. Unfortunately,
for the slaves, Hjörleifur’s brother-in-law, Ingólfur Arnarson found them on Heimaey
and ended their lives.
The Vestmannaeyjar make up 13 islands but Heimaey is the only island that people
live on. It is quite an amazing site to come into the harbor after traveling across
the Atlantic for 2.5 hours on turquoise blue water. The islands only exist because
of their location on top of a spreading or rift zone that has piled lava on the
sea floor and over time built up to extend above sea level. In fact, there are many
“islands” under the ocean that you cannot see from a boat or plane. The north end
of the island has very steep and tall cliffs that are made of magma that came to
the Earth’s surface beneath glaciers that were in this area about 10,000 years ago
– and that’s what you see when approaching the island by ferry. But these rocks
only make up the very north end of the island, and if that’s all the lava that came
there, it would be a tall, but very small island. Fortunately for the people of
Vestmannaeyjar, another volcano – one like you would see in Hawaii – erupted under
the sea, built itself up, and created lava flows about 2,000 years ago that connected
to the older 10,000-year-old rocks. The entire village of Vestmannaeyjar (which
by the way is the largest village in Iceland with more than 5,000 inhabitants) is
built on the lava from this volcano named Helgafell.
However, and unfortunately for the people of Vestmannaeyjar, another very violent
volcano popped up out of the sea and erupted for 6 months – from January 23 to July
3 – in 1973. This is the event that John McPhee wrote about in his trilogy, “The
Control of Nature.” His chapter is called “Cooling the Lava” because the Civil Defense
Corps in Reykjavik came up with the idea to pump water on the lava to try to keep
it from burying the entire village of Vestmannaeyjar. It was a very tough fight
and the people finally won, but not before the village incurred a lot of destruction
– including the burying of hundreds of homes under the lava and the piling of cinders
up to the second floor of homes. In fact, some of the roofs collapsed under the
weight of the cinders and so the rescue teams had crews that spent all of their
time shoveling the cinders off the rooftops. The locals called this stuff “black
rain.” After our guide, Eunoch, picked us up from the ferry, he took us to an outdoor
exhibit before checking into our hostel where you can see the tops of some of the
homes as crews dig them out from under the lava. The exhibit is known as “modern
Pompeii.” Some of the people who owned these homes don’t like this idea.
We arrived to Vestmannaeyjar about 3:00 in the afternoon wrapped in a beautiful
blue and puffy white clouded sky. We had planned to depart the island the next morning
at 8:00 a.m., so we had to hit the floor running again – and boy did we! Good thing
the sun never sets here in June.
So… as a first matter of business, we decided to climb the 220 meters to the top
of the notorious Eldfell volcano. It took us about 20 minutes to walk the crater
flank to the rim of the volcano for the most amazing view of the island and the
mainland. There, right in front of us stood the massive subglacial cliffs, Helgfell,
and of course the crater of Eldfell and its destructive lava beneath us. After some
time on the top – and for a while staying warm up there by sitting, lying, or standing
on the warm volcanic tuff that makes up the rim (it's still hot a few centimeters
beneath the surface as steam continues to rise from hot lava beneath the volcano’s
rim), we scurried down the volcano where Enoch picked us up in the big bus and off
we went to the harbor to catch a private boat ride around the entire island. It
Turns out that a family-run business was taking care of us – the dad was the boat
captain, the son was the bus driver, the mom made our dinner at the café. We had
to wait a bit for the captain to take us because he was repairing their big tour
bus as they were expecting 1,000 kids the next day for a big soccer tournament on
the island. Once he got that repair taken care of, we shoved off about 6:00 in the
afternoon for the ride of a lifetime! The ride beheld some magnificent scenery,
including a huge elephant head on the side of a cliff made from columnar basalt,
puffin and guillemot watching, but I have to say that the highlight happened when
the boat captain pulled into a sea cave with our boat, turned off the engine, pulled
out a saxophone and played a beautiful ballad.
Homemade pizza dinner and chocolate cake at the family café hit the spot. We also
got to watch the movie “Volcano,” about the 1973 eruption, while eating dinner so
that we could get a real feel for what it was like before, during and after the
eruption. After dinner, the students walked to our hostel and I stayed around to
talk with Unner (the mom) and Simmi (the dad). We talked for 2 hours. Turns out
that Simmi and Unner last year rented a Harley Davidson motorcycle with 16 other
Icelanders on Harleys and took 6 weeks to drive from Los Angeles to Orlando along
Rt. 66. They were very proud of the Iceland magazine that featured their trip with
two full pages of color pictures.
A trip to the café and a walk to the hostel ended this remarkable day. Just a few
sunny hours later, we would awaken, hop on the ferry back to the mainland, and greet
the 1,000 soccer kids waiting to take “our” ferry back to Vestmannaeyjar for a day
For more information on R-MC’s Environmental Studies program, visit