In seventh grade world history, I learned two things about the country of Iceland. The first was that the name of the capital city was pronounced “REJ-a-vik.” This was incorrect. The second was that Iceland, despite its name, is a land full of fire. It utilizes natural heat from the earth to provide heating and electricity to its people.
This second part was true. My history teacher was half-right. But it took a trip to the island nation to fully understand the extent to which they are a true world leader in clean, renewable energy and just how creative Icelanders are in utilizing it.
Iceland’s abundant natural energy comes as a result of a dynamic interaction between its geology and its geography. You learn in science classes about how when our planet was new, it was a hot, violent, ever-changing place. Continents grew apart. Cracks in the surface spewed super-hot magma from the planet’s interior. Glaciers spread their fingers slowly away from the two poles, then just as slowly carved out fjords as they receded back to the other direction. In Iceland, you can see these processes happening all at once.
Where the Earth itself is roughly 4.5 billion years old, Iceland is a comparative newcomer. The island rose out of the sea about 60 million years ago from the valley of Þingvellir. Þingvellir sits on the border between two tectonic plates, the North American and the Eurasian. These two plates are still moving, rising out of the sea and pushing toward the west and east, respectively. As a result, Iceland grows just a tiny bit every year. It is young, volcanic, and ever-changing, demonstrating many of the dynamic characteristics of the early Earth.In the space between the two plates, literally at the crossroads between two continents, molten lava wells up close to the surface. This and other seams in the Earth’s surface are the sources of the magma that brings the island’s beautiful natural geography, the geysers and hot springs that dot the landscape, and the major volcanic eruptions such as the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, which shut down air traffic over Europe for six days. They are also the source of geothermal energy that lights and heats homes across the island. Much like the early Earth, Iceland is a land of both destruction and creation.
The nation also receives an abundant amount of rain. The average annual rainfall in the south is 50-80 inches. With all that fire, and all that fresh water, energy is just a few steps away, and Icelanders are leaders in harnessing the natural steam to bring clean energy into their homes and businesses.
It wasn’t always that way. There was a time when Icelanders burned fossil fuels to heat their homes. Locals knew of the heat beneath their feet, but tended to utilize it only for recreational purposes. Soaking in naturally heated spring water is a favorite activity on the island. “Every country has its thing,” explained on of our tour guides. “Finland has its saunas; America has its guns. We have our hot springs.”
However, with the oil shortage of the 1970s, the country began to seriously explore their abundant natural wind, fire, and water in an effort to become energy independent. It invested heavily in the power plants and infrastructure necessary to utilize the nation’s natural gifts to provide cheap and clean energy to its citizens, and in doing so completely eliminated its need to use fossil fuels for light and heat.
“In Iceland,” said another tour guide, “everything is expensive except water and electricity.”
One example of how Icelanders have innovated their way into energy independence is the massive and beautiful Perlan structure. Translating to “Pearl,” Perlan is a beautiful domed building that dominates a hilltop overlooking Reykjavik. It houses a revolving restaurant and has a fantastic observation deck which provides gorgeous views of the capital city. But more importantly, it is also home to six giant water tanks, each able to hold four million liters of naturally heated water. Gravity driven, that water travels downhill to city residents, and everyone in the capital has easy access to green energy.Another innovative use of natural resources is Iceland’s heavy emphasis on greenhouses. Given the island’s far-north location, the proper climate to grow vegetables is hard to come by. Food is often imported and expensive. Icelanders are moving toward growing more of their own food by transferring their natural geothermal energy into light and heat for an expanding number of greenhouses to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, and a number of other vegetables. Standing out of the winter darkness with their ghostly yellow glow, Iceland’s greenhouses are on the forefront of transforming the country into a food-independent nation. Perhaps the most innovative thing Iceland has done with its natural resources is inject an incredibly promising jump start into its economy. With only 336,000 citizens, Iceland has a small economy. For a long time its major industry was fishing. Lately, however, tourism has been booming, and with tourists comes cash.
Tourists come to see northern lights. They come to see the amazing natural beauty filled with waterfalls, geysers, black sand beaches, ice-capped mountains, bright blue glaciers, and majestic fjords, but the nation’s top tourist attraction is none of these. The nation’s top tourist attraction, visited by hundreds of travelers every day, is an accidental hot spring created by the bluish water running off from a power plant: the Blue Lagoon.
About a 45-minute ride from Reykjavik, situated in the middle of moon-like landscape of bumpy little barren hills, the Blue Lagoon is a man-made pool on a natural hot spring. It appears blue because of light’s reflection off of its white silica mud. The minerals in the water are said to have health and skin care benefits, especially for psoriasis. It opened as a tourist attraction in 1976 and has been growing as an attraction ever since.
Today, the lagoon is home to modern facilities. It caters to tourists by providing its special mud for bathers as a facial application, and it serves them with a swim up bar and an algae facial mud that comes with an extra fee. Bathing in the Blue Lagoon is a surreal experience, especially in the winter as tourists soak in comfortably warm water as snowstorms push through the area. Business is booming, and the facilities are expanding. Tourists love it and spend their money happily as they navigate the comfortably warm water, GoPros in hand.Smaller examples of Icelanders taking advantage of the land’s natural heat for economic gain are all around. The Secret Lagoon is a more rustic experience. It is smaller and less manicured. Once a community’s naturally heated swimming pool, tourists are now bused in from Reykjavik to soak in its steamy waters, bringing a flow of income to the locals.
In Húsafell, closer to the island’s interior, there is another hot springs option. Situated next to a lava field and very close to both a natural lava cave and a walk-through glacier, Hotel Húsafell provides a full experience for visitors. In addition to the fire and ice options, visitors can soak in the hotel’s naturally heated hot tub while gazing at the magnificent rural mountain scenery. Its location also tends to drive away clouds, making the northern lights more visible in the area. It is an up-and-coming place, but it is another example of Icelanders ingeniously working with their land’s resources sustainably and profitably.Þingvellir is the place that started it all. In this valley, the two tectonic plates slowly push out to create this island. It is the site of Iceland’s original parliament, a place where Vikings would travel to annually to govern their tiny country. It is a place where people, continents, and ideas meet. It gave birth to the country, both as a land mass and as a nation, and its natural activities continue to bring life to its people.
Not every country has access to profound amounts of geothermal energy, but every country has resources that can be harnessed without the damaging obsession with imported fossil fuels. All countries have their version of Þingvellir, a place where people and ideas can come together and solve problems while seeking a better, more independent future for everyone. The Vikings sensed something powerful in this valley. They were right. If other nations could come together in their own sacred crossroads and allow ideas to clash and create something new, much like what we see in the geology of Iceland, the world may well be a cleaner, greener, more peaceful place.
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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.