Sure enough, one day later, Iceland's newest volcano blew through the ice, sending smoke and ash thousands of feet into the arctic sky while millions of gallons of water from melted ice made its way downhill. It was a grand production of nature, more or less another day in Iceland. 

The Vatnajökull eruption, the ultimate combination of fire and ice, was a perfect example of the geologic extremes that take place in Iceland. In the early 1960s, when the United States decided to send men to the moon, NASA scientists were confronted with the problem of finding a place on Earth similar enough to the lunar landscape so that the Apollo astronauts would know what to expect. They needed a terrain that was variegated and barren, something reminiscent of that "magnificent desolation" that Neil Armstrong would later describe on July 20, 1969 while the world listened in astonishment. 

"Why not Iceland?" somebody said, "It looks like the moon." 

There are certainly places on Iceland that look like they belong on another world. Rough and empty lavascapes swell up around extinct and active volcanos. Glaciers carve their way through soft rock, creating serrated ridges and valleys as defined as cut crystal.  There are steaming, sulfurous blue lakes and geysers that spit up water like hidden, landlocked whales. At times, the whole country seems like a giant laboratory in the dreamscape of a sleeping geologist. But although Iceland may look like another planet, it is, if anything, more like Earth than Earth itself, a place where mother nature leans towards the demonstrative. 

Why all the geologic hullabaloo? Well, the island of Iceland sits smack in the middle of something called the Mid Atlantic Ridge, a 10,000-mile long crack in the ocean floor caused by the separation of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Tectonic plates are those rafts of land that float upon the Earth's molten interior, making up that thin, habitable crust upon which we live.  The plates can do all sorts of things at places where they meet: they can rub each other as they head in opposite directions; they can collide head-on in a stalemate, pushing each other up or down like two fighting rams; or one might win out and push the other one beneath it. Sometimes, they don't fight at all, but move away from each other, releasing pressure and exposing the lava sea between them.  The lava bubbles to the surface and cools, forming new land. When this happens, the area of separation is called a "constructive junction," and this is precisely what is happening in Iceland. The area is so constructive, in fact, that 20 million years ago the island didn't even exist. 

 To get an idea of the extent of geologic activity, one need only look at Iceland's volcanos. Over 30 are active, meaning that they have erupted within last few centuries. On average, Iceland experiences a major volcanic event once every 5 years, the most active volcano being the picturesque Mount Hekla. Most of this volcanism takes place along a North-South path down the center of the iceland, where the Mid Atlantic Rift passes through. The magnitude of the eruptions varies. Sometimes they do little more than steam and gurgle up slow-moving lava flows; other times they blast red hot lava thousands of feet into the air. At numerous times in the island's history, volcanoes have meant disaster. The largest recorded lava flow in world history happened here in the late 18th century, when Mount Lakagigar emitted 3 cubic miles of lava. So much ash was released that the sun was permanently obscured, and hundreds of thousands of sheep and cattle perished from the poisonous gasses. In the ensuing famine, one-third of Iceland's people died. More recently, the important fishing village of Heimaey was nearly destroyed in 1973 when a volcano called Eldfell erupted virtually inside the town. Miraculously, two-thirds of Heimaey was saved by using huge jets of water to cool the lava, which in turn created a rock dam against the flow. Ironically, by the time the eruption was over, the town's harbor was even better than before - the new land provided greater protection from wind and water. 

It may be fire that created Iceland, but what shapes it is ice. Ten thousand years ago, the entire island was covered by ice, and the creeping, cutting glaciers are responsible for Iceland's extraordinary fjords and valleys. Today, a full 11 percent of the island is buried beneath ice caps, but the modern glaciers are believed to be relatively new; they probably formed around 500 BC and are still increasing. The largest glacier, Vatnajokull, is 3,200 feet thick and 3,200 square miles in area.  It is not only the largest glacier in Europe, but larger than all of Europe's other glaciers combined. 

While fire and ice have brought their share of destruction to the people of Iceland, they bring with them priceless gifts. The same geologic activity that creates the volcanoes provides an endless supply of geothermal energy. Over 90 percent of the island is heated by natural gas - one of the cheapest and cleanest forms of energy around. Virtually every community has its own naturally heated swimming pool. Hot springs can be found almost everywhere, and the melt water created by sub-glacial volcanoes provides the country with a limitless supply of hydroelectric power. All this clean energy has made Iceland the least polluted nation on Earth, which probably contributes to the fact that Icelanders have the longest life expectancy on the planet. Parts of Iceland may look like the moon, but in terms of livability, the island is far closer to a heaven on Earth. 


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