How to explore Iceland through the eyes of a geologist: Part 3 – Glaciers and volcanoes of the centre and south

Intro: The last part of my Iceland geology blog series ventures from the centre to the south of the island. These areas contain the youngest rocks in Iceland (i.e., Nornahraun 2014/15 lava field), glacier-covered volcanoes (i.e., Vatnajökull), geothermal altered mountains (i.e., Landmannaluagar) and the scar of one of the most violent eruptions ever (i.e., Laki)!

This post is part 3 in the continuation of my series “How to explore Iceland through the eyes of a geologist” which is based on the field trip to Iceland that I co-organized as part of our university’s SEG student chapter. For an intro to the geology and tectonic setting of Iceland, check out my first post here and my second post here.

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Areas outlined in my 3-part blog post series “How to explore Iceland through the eyes of a geologist”

  • Part 1: A Land of Ice and Fire

    (Intro to Iceland, Reykjavík, the Golden Circle, Snæfellsnes Peninsula)

  • Part 2: Volcanic Landscapes of the North

    (Mývatn, Dimmuborgir, Krafla, Námafjall, and Askja)

  • Part 3: Glaciers and Volcanoes of the South

    (Nornahraun 2014/15 lava field, Central Highlands, Landmannaluagar, Laki, Vík)

 

Part 3: Glaciers and Volcanoes of the South

There are some pretty hairy river crossings when traveling through the north centre of Iceland. The main road is F88 and requires a 4-wheel drive vehicle… and a bit of courage. These roads are also frequently closed due to floods and bad conditions, so make sure to check ahead of time if it’s good to go.

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River crossing on the F88 road, on the way to the central highlands area of Iceland.

 

Holuhraun (aka. Nornahraun) lava field

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The Bárðarbunga volcanic system (Jóhannesson and Sæmundsson, 1998)

The most recent eruption in Iceland was part of the 190 km long Bárðarbunga volcanic system, located in the rift zone part of the Eastern Volcanic Zone.  One third of the volcanic system lies below the Vatnajökull ice cap. On August 16th 2014, intense earthquake swarms associated with magmatic activity and deformation were detected at the Bárðarbunga system (Sigmundsson et al., 2014). Over the next 13 days dykes propagated 45 km northeast to the Holuhraun lava field where it breached the surface and formed a small 4 hour effusive eruption (Dumont et al., 2015). A couple days later, more intense gas-rich eruptions started and continued until February 27th 2015. What remains now is a tholeiite basalt lava field that is more than 84 km2. Textures of the lava vary from a’a to slabby pahoehoe (Lavallee et al., 2015).

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Steam from the contact of the Holuhraun lava field with a river – Bárðarbunga volcanic system, Iceland

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Walking over the Holuhraun lava field of the Bárðarbunga volcanic system – Iceland

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A’a texture of the Holuhraun lava field of the Bárðarbunga volcanic system – Iceland

The volcanic eruption also produced large amounts of wind-spun, thread-like tephra known as Pele’s hair. In Icelandic, Pele’s hair is known as Nornahár, which means “witches’ hair”, and thus the new official name of the lava field is Nornahraun or “witches’ lava” (Thordarson, 2015).

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Pele’s hair, known as Nornahár in Icelandic, which means “witches’ hair” – Holuhraun lava field of the Bárðarbunga volcanic system, Iceland

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People walking in the geothermal water from the contact of the Holuhraun lava field with a river – Bárðarbunga volcanic system, Iceland

 

Ice caps and glaciers

Heading south through the interior of Iceland reveals some of the most amazing glaciers and ice caps. The largest glacier, which covers a fair bit of Iceland, is Vatnajökull. Two of the other large glaciers are Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull. Active volcanoes are often underneath these ice caps. Eyjafjallajökull (a tongue twister of a name to pronounce), for example, is where the infamous 2010 eruption occurred. This dispersed volcanic ash into the atmosphere which eventually reached Europe and caused a shut down in air traffic for a week! Recently there have been reports on some rumbling at the even larger neighboring Katla volcano…

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Vatnajökull ice cap in the highlands region of Iceland. it extends as far as the eye can see, and can quite possibly be mistaken for the sea if you didn’t know better!

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An outlet glacier from the Vatnajökull ice cap, in the central highlands area of Iceland

Further along south is the 8 km long Sólheimajökull temperate outlet gla­cier, which descends from ~ 1500 m at its parent glacier Mýrdalsjökull, to ~ 100 m (Russell et al., 2010).

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Sólheimajökull temperate outlet gla­cier – south Iceland

 

Landmannalaugar

Landmannalaugar (yet another Icelandic name that is a mouthful to pronounce), is a geothermally active area in Iceland know for its amazing colourful mountains. Whereas most of Iceland is composed of mafic rocks, the Landmannalaugar area (i.e., within the Torfajökull central volcanic complex) has the most silicic rocks in Iceland. It has been active for ~ 1 million years, and more than 250 km3 of rhyolite has been erupted in numerous, mostly sub-glacial eruptions (Sæmunds­son, 1972; McGarvie, 1985). An example of one of the rhyolitic mountains is Bláhnjúkur. Bláhnjúkur formed by a sub-glacial rhyolitic eruption, which overlaid older rhyolite.

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Hydrothermally altered rhyolitic mountains of Landmannalaugar, southern Iceland

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Driving toward Landmannalaugar, Iceland

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Bright colours on the geothermally altered Landmannalaugar mountains – southern Iceland

The Námshraun lava flow at Landmannalaugar is an interesting mixed compositions lava flow. It is a mixed rhyolite-basalt composition. It is volumetrically dominated by metaluminous rhyolite, with sub-decimetre scale inclusions of icelandite and basaltic icelandite, which may have increased the temperature of the original magma and influenced its rheology (Wilson et al., 2007).

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Námshraun lava flow entering the lake – Landmannalaugar, Iceland

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Close up of the mixed composition (i.e., rhyolite-basalt) Námshraun lava flow at Landmannalaugar – Iceland

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Neat Icelandic moss growing over the mixed composition (i.e., rhyolite-basalt) Námshraun lava flow at Landmannalaugar – Iceland

 

Laki

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Geological map of the Laki lava field (Hamilton et al., 2010)

Laki is one of the most impressive sites in Iceland, as here remains the preserved scar that really gives you a sense of how destructive these volcanic eruptions can be. The Laki fissure eruption occurred over an 8 month period in 1783 to 1784. It occurred along ten en-echelon fissure segments that opened toward the northeast to form a 27 km long cone row. There were over 140 eruption sites which include scoria cones, spatter cones, and tuff cones. The most common features are the scoria cones (40 to 120 m high) which consist of several thick (2 to 15 m) scoria fall layers, and capped by a thin (0.5 to 1.5 m ) spatter layer (Thordarson and Self, 2003).

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Overview of the Laki fissures from the 1783/84 eruption – Iceland

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…and one with me 😉 Overview of the Laki fissures from the 1783/84 eruption – Iceland

The Laki eruptions were the second largest basaltic lava flow in historic times. It produced 10 to 13 km high columns of volcanic ash and SO2 that dispersed into the westerly polar jet steam to then be dispersed over Europe. The produced sulfur emissions casted a veil over Europe and caused climate perturbations, including a drop in temperature of 1.3°C for 2 to 3 years (Thordarson and Self, 2003). The nox­ious fumes emitted by the eruption also stunted grass growth and killed more than half of the livestock in Iceland through fluorine poisoning. The consequences ultimately resulted in the dis­astrous ‘Haze Famine’ that killed 20% (10,000 folks) of the Icelandic human population (Thordarson and Hoskuldsson, 2002).

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View from inside the Laki fissures scoria cones from the 1783/84 eruption – Iceland 

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Eerie moss and fog from inside the Laki fissures scoria cones from the 1783/84 eruption – Iceland

 

South coast

Lastly along the south coast, near Vik, there are more beautiful examples of columnar basalt… as well as puffins you can spot if you get lucky!

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South Iceland coast line with flying puffins, near Vík – Iceland

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Icelandic puffins at the south coast of Iceland near Vík

Some of the major waterfall in the area are Fagrifoss “beautiful falls” and Skogáfoss. Skogáfoss is sourced from both Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull glaciers and travels down the Skóga River (Jóhannesson and Sæmundsson, 2009). The cliffs that Skogáfoss fall over (60 m tall) represent the former shoreline of Iceland before sand-rich deposits from recent jökulhlaup (i.e., catastrophic floods) extended the islands length to the south.

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Fagrifoss “beautiful falls” – Iceland

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Skógafoss falls over cliffs that represent the former shoreline of Iceland

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Morning sunrise in Þakgil valley in southern Iceland

 

Final Thoughts: Iceland’s precarious position on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge has lead to a constantly changing landscape formed from violent volcanism. This post concludes my 3-part geology series of Iceland. I hope I have shed a bit of “geological” light on this dramatic, volcanic, island country that is Iceland! Even though I covered a fair bit of ground, there is still so much more to see and explore in Iceland (hence I would love to return one day). I regard Iceland as one of the neatest places I have ever travelled to, and I reckon that anyone who travels there would have a similar feeling, whether you are a geologist or not!

-Stephanie

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Table of Icelandic Geology Terms

á (s) ár (pl), fljót (large river) River
askja Caldera
aur (glacial outwash) Sandur
bergkvika Magma
berg Rock
bjarg (s), björg (pl) Cliffs/Rocks/Crags
borg (s), borgir (pl) Rocky hill
bunga Rounded hill
dalur Valley
díabas Dolerite
eldar (pl) Fires/Eruptions
eldborg (s), eldborgir (pl) Lava ring
eldgjá Lava fissure
fjall (s), fjöll (pl) Mountain
gjall Scoria
hellir Cave
hraun Lava flow
jökull Glacier
móberg Tuff/Hyaloclastite
vatn (s), vötn (pl) Lake
víti (also used for explosive volcanic craters or maars) Hell
völlur (s), vellir (pl) Field/plain

 

How to explore Iceland through the eyes of a geologist: Part 2 – Volcanic Landscapes of the North

Intro: The north of Iceland offers a young and dramatic volcanic landscape that is truly “out of this world” (you will see what I mean later). Heading northeast toward Akureyri, you enter what is known as the North Volcanic Zone (NVZ). The NVZ is a subset of the roughly north-striking rift that is pulling apart Iceland and causing volcanism. The abundant volcanism in the area has resulted in brilliant places to visit in the central north, such as Mývatn rootless cones, Dimmuborgir lava formations, Námafjall  geothermal area, Krafla fires, Askja volcano, Herðubreið table mountain, and more!

This post is part 2 in the continuation of my series How to explore Iceland through the eyes of a geologist which is based on the field trip to Iceland that I co-organized as part of our university’s SEG student chapter. For an intro to the geology and tectonic setting of Iceland, check out my first post here.

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Areas outlined in my 3-part blog post series “How to explore Iceland through the eyes of a geologist”

  • Part 1: A Land of Ice and Fire

    (Intro to Iceland, Reykjavík, the Golden Circle, Snæfellsnes Peninsula)

  • Part 2: Volcanic Landscapes of the North

    (Mývatn, Dimmuborgir, Krafla, Námafjall, and Askja)

  • Part 3: Glaciers and Volcanoes of the South

    (Nornahraun 2014/15 lava field, Central Highlands, Landmannaluagar, Laki, Vík)

Part 2: Volcanic Landscapes of the North

Mývatn and Skútustaðagígar

The Mývatn area is packed full of interesting geological features, most of which formed in roughly the last 2,300 year. The lake itself (Mývatn, vatn = lake in Icelandic), contains a ponded area called Skútustaðagígar, which is a natural monument due to its spotted terrain full of pseudocraters. Pseudocraters (also known as rootless cones) are volcanic landforms that resembles a true volcanic craters, but differs in that they are not actual vents from which lava erupted. They are composed of scoria, splatter and tephra and formed ~2,300 years ago when lava flowed over the lake’s water-logged sediments. This caused numerous phreatic (steam) explosions that built the series of cone (Lanagan et al., 2001; Thordarson and Hoskuldsson, 2008).

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Mývatn rootless cones – Iceland

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Mývatn rootless cones – Iceland

Dimmuborgir

Dimmuborgir is a place nearby Mývatn. It is known as the “dark castle”. They formed ~1,800 to 2,300 year ago, when large, ugly, means trolls were exposed to sunlight after a night of dancing and turned to stone!

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Volcanic rocks or frozen trolls? – Dimmuborgir, Iceland

… according to Icelandic folklore. Actually, the bizarre rock pillars formed because of a pooling of lava, or ‘lava lake’, over top of wet, unconsolidated sediments. Gases and steam built up underneath the lava and when the steam escaped from the underlying wet sediments, it ripped through the lava and the lava froze (or solidified) in the air, forming these chimney-like structures (Gregg and Christie, 2013). The lava lake eventually drained and collapsed, leaving neat features evident of the lava’s subsidence and retreat.

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Dimmuborgir lava formations – Mývatn, Iceland

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Dimmuborgir lava formations – Mývatn, Iceland

Krafla Fires

Krafla volcanic system is a major contributor to the crustal formation of Iceland. The Krafla system is part of the active Northern Volcanic Zone (NVZ), and contains fissure swarms, crater rows and normal faults surrounding a central volcano. It has been active over the past 300,000 year with 29 reported eruptions in recorded history. The most recent was the Krafla fires (fire = eruption in Icelandic) between 1975 to 1984. What remains is a stunning lava fields that is still steaming and too hot to touch in places. Here you can observe some of the complexities of how the lava flowed and formed (e.g., mini lava tubes).

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Landscape of the Krafla Fire lava field – Iceland

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Recently solidified lava – Krafla Fire, Iceland

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Recently solidified lava – Krafla Fire, Iceland

Námafjall Geothermal Area

Námafjall is a high-temperature geothermal field (~250°C at 1,800 m depth; Arnorsson et al., 1978). The name Námafjall is derived from the Icelandic words meaning “mountain of mines”, due to the abundant sulphur that was historically mined from the area. Námafjall is related to the Krafla volcanic system. Boiling mud pools, steaming fumaroles and solfataras with sulfur crystals compose the yellow and beige stained landscape.

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Steaming fumarole with native sulfur at Námafjall geothermal area – Iceland

The gas from the fumaroles is steam as well as hydrogen sulfide which results in the characteristic “rotten egg” smell of the area.  The waters are acid-sulphate, which comes from the gases. When you have boiling at depth, the rising gas phase can comes into cold groundwater and condense. Hydrogen sulfide and that gas can react with water to form sulfuric acid which alters the rocks and sediments of the landscape.

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Mud pools of Námafjall geothermal area – Iceland

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Altered rocks and mud pool of the Námafjall geothermal area – Iceland

Lots of ‘___foss’

There are two particular waterfalls (foss = waterfall in Icelandic) in this regions that are stunning and must-sees; Goðafoss (“waterfall of the gods”) and Dettifoss (“the beast”). Beautiful columns make up the rocks they fall over. These rocks are basalt at Goðafoss, but at Dettifoss some of the rocks are icelandite (a type of andesite rock that is Fe-rich), and as you can probably guess, discovered in Iceland.

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Goðafoss – Iceland

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Goðafoss – Iceland

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Dentifoss – Iceland

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Dentifoss – Iceland

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Icelandite (Fe-rich andesite) – Denitfoss, Iceland

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Icelandite columns near Dentifoss – Iceland

Herðubreið

Driving south from Mývatn you enter the Ódáðahraun lava desert and Herðubreiðarlindir (oasis of Herðubreið). The landscape is dominated by basaltic lava. Standing prominently in the oasis is the mountain called Herðubreið. This is a 1682 m high mountain and voted as the “Iceland national mountain”. It is known as a table mountain (tuya), which is obvious by its defining flat top. Table mountains form when a volcano erupts (effusively) beneath ice. Approximately 800 m of ice covered Herðubreið when subglacial hyaloclastite and pillowed basalt flows erupted beneath the ice, this was then capped by 300 m of subaerial lava (Thord­arson and Höskuldsson, 2002).

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Herðubreið oasis – Iceland

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Herðubreið (table mountain “tuya”) – Iceland

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Herðubreið (table mountain “tuya”) – Iceland

Askja

Toward the south towards the Dreki huts is the ominous Askja. The landscape surrounding it seems like it is out of this world, and infact NASA astronauts used the area to practice moon landing training. Askja is another central caldera and fissure system (like Krafla) that is located on the active NVZ. It has been active for at least 200,000 years (Sigvaldason, 2002), which increased activities between 10,000 to 4,500 years ago due to crustal rebound from deglaciation.

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Askja huts – Iceland

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The sulfuric (~ 28°C) Viti (Vitilaug) crater lake at Askja – Iceland

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Öskjuvatn at Askja – Iceland

The most famous eruption was a violent rhyolitic “plinian-style’ (i.e., tass gas, ash and pumice-rich columns over 50 km high) eruption in 1875 A.D. This formed the Öskjuvatn caldera now filled with Öskjuvatn (vatn = lake). Visible on the rims are rare welded fall deposits, as well as marked changes from wet to dry eruption styles (Carey et al., 2008).

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Welded fall deposits on the rims of Öskjuvatn caldera at Askja – Iceland

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Oxidized rhyolite lava from Askja – Iceland

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Öskjuvatn at Askja – Iceland

Final Thoughts: While it might be tricky to get to (and require a bit of 4-wheel driving), the north centre of Iceland offers spectacular landscapes and sights, that I personally think are must-sees for any adventurer in Iceland. This is truly a land shaped by young volcanism, and what remains is a diverse array of geological features to explore.

Next up in my “how to explore Iceland through the eyes of a geologist” series is Part 3 – Glaciers and Volcanic of the South. This last post will be about the central highlands and south, where the youngest rocks and massive glaciers reside!

-Stephanie

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Table of Icelandic Geology Terms

á (s) ár (pl), fljót (large river) River
askja Caldera
aur (glacial outwash) Sandur
bergkvika Magma
berg Rock
bjarg (s), björg (pl) Cliffs/Rocks/Crags
borg (s), borgir (pl) Rocky hill
bunga Rounded hill
dalur Valley
díabas Dolerite
eldar (pl) Fires/Eruptions
eldborg (s), eldborgir (pl) Lava ring
eldgjá Lava fissure
fjall (s), fjöll (pl) Mountain
gjall Scoria
hellir Cave
hraun Lava flow
jökull Glacier
móberg Tuff/Hyaloclastite
vatn (s), vötn (pl) Lake
víti (also used for explosive volcanic craters or maars) Hell
völlur (s), vellir (pl) Field/plain

 

How to explore Iceland through the eyes of a geologist: Part 1 – A Land of Ice and Fire

Intro: Iceland is a land of ice and fire. Not only is it one of the most breathtaking places in the world to visit, but it is also one of the most unique geological sites to study. I recently co-organized and participated in a field trip to Iceland and Sweden as part of our university’s Society of Economic Geologist Student Chapter (check out the video here!). In this multi-part series I will give a quick summary and self-guide on how to get the most out of a visit to Iceland by seeing the amazing country though the eyes of geologist in order to help you understand and appreciate just how (geologically) unique Iceland is! On our route we traveled clockwise around the island, and cut through the middle. Thus, the multi-part series is broken as follows.

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Areas outlined in my 3-part blog post series “How to explore Iceland through the eyes of a geologist”

  • Part 1: A Land of Ice and Fire*

    (Intro to Iceland, Reykjavík, the Golden Circle, Snæfellsnes Peninsula)

  • Part 2: Volcanic Landscapes of the North

    (Mývatn, Dimmuborgir, Krafla, Námafjall, and Askja)

  • Part 3: Glaciers and Volcanoes of the South

    (Nornahraun 2014/15 lava field, Central Highlands, Landmannaluagar, Laki, Vík)

*Disclaimer; Yes I am a Game of Thrones fan, so the there may be  some references to this within the post series, as they filmed a large portion of the show in Iceland.

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Ice stalagmites of the Raufarhólshellir lava tube, Iceland

Part 1: A Land of Ice and Fire

Brief geological setting of Iceland

The reason that Iceland is so unique is because it is centered on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is an active spreading rift of two large continental plates; the North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate. As the tectonic plates move apart, magma rises up resulting in basaltic volcanism. The oldest rocks are 16 million year old (Ma), but most of rocks are less than 3 Ma (Moorbath et al., 1968).

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Iceland is located on the active spreading rift called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that separates the North American and Eurasian Plate (right image = volcanolovers.net)

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General geology map of Iceland showing the main geologic subdivisions and volcanic zones (fault structures). RR – Reykjanes Ridge; RVB – Reykjanes Volcanic Belt; WVZ – West Volcanic Zone; MIB – Mid Iceland Belt; EVZ – East Volcanic Zone; NVZ – North Volcanic Zone; TFZ – Tjörnes Fracture Zone; KR – Kolbeinsey Ridge; ÖVB – Öræfi Volcanic Belt; SVB – Snæfellsnes Volcanic Belt. See Day 10 for sandur deposit information (modified after Thordarson and Larsen, 2007)

From Reykjavík to the Golden Circle

The capital city of Iceland is Reykjavík, and from there the most accessible and popular destination is a tour of the Golden Circle. On the Golden Circle route is the impressive Gulfoss (foss = waterfall) and the geothermal field containing Geysir and Strokkur. This is actually where the word geyser comes from!

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Gulfoss, along the Golden Circle – Iceland

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Gulfoss, along the Golden Circle – Iceland

The water in the geothermal fields is alkaline, and the hot spring eruptions are driven by heat from a magma body ~ 2 to 3 km beneath the surface (Waltham, 2000). The hydrostatic pressure (i.e., pressure from the overlying water column) causes the water to boil at temperature over 100°C at depth, where it is converted to steam. The decreasing pressure with proximity to the surface results in flash production of steam from the superheated water which drives the explosive eruption every ~ 10 minutes!

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Strokkur geyser eruption, on the Golden Circle – Iceland

Þingvellir

Next along the Golden Circle is Þingvellir National Park. This is arguably the most famous geological place in Iceland, as it is the northeast-elongated graben that represents the Mid-Atlantic ridge. It is the only above-water expression of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, i.e., the rift that is pulling apart Iceland to this day! This area has been extensively studied and provides exceptionally clear evidence for continental drift and plate tectonics. It is also makes as neat photo as here you can “stand on” part of North America and Europe.

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Þingvellir rift valley, on the Golden Circle – Iceland

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Standing on the “rift” of the plates at Þingvellir rift valley, on the Golden Circle – Iceland

The Snæfellsnes Peninsula

The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is the western section of what is known as the Snæfellsnes Volcanic Zone. This is an intriguing area of island, as it is west-striking zone of intraplate alkalic volcanism that is off-rift to the main north-striking central volcanic axial rift system (Sigurðsson, 1970). On our trip we were joined by the Icelandic volcanologist Haraldur Sigurðsson (head of the Volcano Museum in Stykkishólmur which is definitely worth a visit). There are many interesting geological features to see, so I will just highlight several prominent ones we visited as we drove from Stykkishólmur counterclockwise toward the western end of the Peninsula.

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Snæfellsjökull stratovolcano on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula – Iceland

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Geological profile of Mt. Kirkjufells

Heading west from Stykkishólmur, a famous (and well photographed) mountain is Kirkjufell mountain. Differing from the volcanoes, this mountain is actually intermixed with glacial and interglacial-stage sedimentary rocks full of fossils, as well as layers of lava (Thordarson and Höskuldsson, 2002; Denk et al., 2011).

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Kirkjufell mountain on Snæfellsnes Peninsula – Iceland

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Kirkjufell mountain on Snæfellsnes Peninsula – Iceland

At the western edge of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula resides Snæfellsjökull. Snæfellsjökull is a stratovolcano located on the western tip of the peninsula; an infamous volcano featured in Jules Vernes’ Journey to the Centre of the Earth. This stratovol­cano is 1446 km high and capped by the Snæfellsjökull gla­cier. It has produced both felsic and mafic volcanics. Products of the volcano shape the landscape on the western end of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The volcano has had several large eruptions that dispersed rhyolitic tephra over parts of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and well as smaller basaltic flows from fissures related to parasitic vents at the foot of the volcano (Kokfelt et al., 2009).

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Snæfellsjökull stratovolcano on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula – Iceland

Lastly, a visit near the Djúpalónssandur is necessary to see some “magical” and bizarre rock formations.

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Bizzare rock formations at Djúpalónssandur on Snæfellsnes Peninsula – Iceland

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Benmorite lava of Djúpalónssandur on Snæfellsnes Peninsula – Iceland

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Classification for alkaline and sub-alkaline igneous rocks (image source: Imperial College Rock Library)

The lavas here are a great example of the unique alkali lavas that compose the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Alkaline rocks have an excess amount of alkali content (i.e., Na2O and K2O) over silica (SiO2). They are rarer than their sub-alkaline counterparts, which  are the dominate lavas that make up the rest of Iceland, and most other igneous rocks in the world. The rock types seem at Djúpalónssandur and Hellnar are mugearite and benmoreite. Due to their higher silica content, beautiful flow banding can be seen in the grey lava. The dark (black) rocks represented parts of the lava that cooled very fast and are glassy, and the red lava represents oxidized lava that interacted with water.

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Spectacular flow banding of mugearite and benmoreite rock at Hellnar, Snæfellsnes Peninsula – Iceland

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Mugearite and benmoreite rock at Hellnar, Snæfellsnes Peninsula – Iceland

Iceland, Geology, Travel, Volcanoes, Volcano, Lava, Plate Tectonics, Geologist, Landscape, Explore, Outdoors, Nature, Earth Science, Science, Geoscience, Photography, Adventure, Field Trip, Guide, Formation, Map, Location, North American Plate, Eurasian Plate, Rift, Mid-Atlantic Ridge, geotourism, ice, fire, Snæfellsjökull stratovolcano, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Djúpalónssandur, benmorite, alkalic rocks, alkalic, alkaline, mugearite, hellnar

Spectacular flow banding of mugearite and benmoreite rock at Hellnar, Snæfellsnes Peninsula – Iceland

Iceland, Geology, Travel, Volcanoes, Volcano, Lava, Plate Tectonics, Geologist, Landscape, Explore, Outdoors, Nature, Earth Science, Science, Geoscience, Photography, Adventure, Field Trip, Guide, Formation, Map, Location, North American Plate, Eurasian Plate, Rift, Mid-Atlantic Ridge, geotourism, ice, fire, Snæfellsjökull stratovolcano, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Djúpalónssandur, benmorite, alkalic rocks, alkalic, alkaline, mugearite, hellnar

Spectacular seacliff exposure of mugearite and benmoreite rock at Hellnar, Snæfellsnes Peninsula – Iceland

Final thoughts: From the moment you land in Iceland you can sense something is very special about this place. It is nice to be able to understand a bit more about the dramatic geological processes that shaped such a spectacular land. Because most people fly into Reykjavík, a tour along the Golden Circle is one of the easily accessible things to do, and definitely a good place to start your adventures in Iceland. The Snæfellsnes Peninsular is not too far away either (~2 hour drive north) and offers a beautiful landscape in the shadow of the mysterious Snæfellsjökull stratovolcano, and a landscape shaped by some odd geological processes compared to the rest of Iceland.

Next up in my “How to explore Iceland through the eyes of a geologist” series is Part 2 – Volcanic Landscapes of the North. Here resides ominous volcanic landscapes and features that look truly out of this world!

-Stephanie

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Table of Icelandic Geology Terms

á (s) ár (pl), fljót (large river) River
askja Caldera
aur (glacial outwash) Sandur
bergkvika Magma
berg Rock
bjarg (s), björg (pl) Cliffs/Rocks/Crags
borg (s), borgir (pl) Rocky hill
bunga Rounded hill
dalur Valley
díabas Dolerite
eldar (pl) Fires/Eruptions
eldborg (s), eldborgir (pl) Lava ring
eldgjá Lava fissure
fjall (s), fjöll (pl) Mountain
gjall Scoria
hellir Cave
hraun Lava flow
jökull Glacier
móberg Tuff/Hyaloclastite
vatn (s), vötn (pl) Lake
víti (also used for explosive volcanic craters or maars) Hell
völlur (s), vellir (pl) Field/plain

 

Visiting CERN; A Geologist's attempt at particle physics and the Higgs Boson [Switzerland]

LHC, CERN, Switzerland, Geneva, large hadron collider, particle accelerator, particle physics, quantum mechanics, European Centre for Nuclear Research, Science, Europe, Travel, Standard Model, Instagram, Accelerating ScienceIntro: Alright, time to blog out of my comfort zone and go a little extra nerdy. Coming straight from the Spectacular Swiss Alps, my sister and I decided to make it a mission to go to Geneva whilst in Switzerland and visit CERN. CERN is the European Organization for Nuclear Research and home of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). This is 27km circular tunnel about 100m underground which functions as a particle accelerator.

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Map of CERN’s location with the purple ring representing the actual size of 27km LHC on the border of France and Switzerland.

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The Famous Lake Geneva at the Switzerland/France Border

In the LHC subatomic particles are smashed together at speeds close to the speed of light, and this recreates conditions that would have been present at the beginning of time, just after the Big Bang. They observe and record these collisions, which in turn leads to amazing scientific breakthroughs, from understanding fundamental building blocks of life to creating the internet!

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LHC Control Room at CERN, Switzerland

Now, I’m no particle physicist, but I have read and watched countless books and documents on the subject so I was very excited about the prospect of checking out the LHC and CERN in person.

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CERN Main Entrance at Geneva, Switzerland

Science-Spiel: From the very, VERY small, to the building blocks of all (Particle Physics)

So this is slightly different from my usual earth science related spheel. This time I’m going to dig into the world of particle physics and quantum mechanics, home of such topics like anti-matter, quarks, extra (possibly 9?) dimensions, Schrӧdinger’s cat, wormholes, fundamental forces, and Higgs Bosons – just to name a few. But I clearly can’t talk about it or else this post would be very long… so for more information check out http://cern.ch, and in the meantime I will highlight the 4 fundamental forces of the world and the newly discovered Higgs Boson.

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Mural of a collision within a particle detector on the exterior of the building hosting the ATLAS experiment.

Everything is made of matter particles (two basic types called quarks and leptons). Different forces act between the particles, specifically; there are four fundamental forces at work in the universeThe Gravitational Force, The Weak Force, The Electromagnetic Force, & The Strong Force.

The Four Fundamental Forces, LHC, CERN, Switzerland, Geneva, large hadron collider, particle accelerator, particle physics, quantum mechanics, European Centre for Nuclear Research, Science, Europe, Travel

Four Fundamental Forces and Particles They Act Between

These forces work over different ranges and have different strengths. Both gravity (the weakest forces of all), the electromagnetic (many times stronger than gravity), and the strong force (strongest force of all) glue particles together into bigger structures, from tiny atoms to massive galaxies of stars. The weak force (not to be confused with its name, is actually the 2nd weakest forces…) changes particles and atoms from one type to another, such as the reactions that fuel the sun.

The unification of forces theory forms the basis of what is known as the Standard Model, and explains how these forces act on all the matter particles. Three fundamental forces result from the exchange of force carrier particles, which belong to a broader group called ‘bosons’.

quarks, leptons, fermions, bosons, Higgs boson, particle, collision, god particle, LHC, CERN, Switzerland, Geneva, large hadron collider, particle accelerator, particle physics, quantum mechanics, European Centre for Nuclear Research, Science, Europe, Travel

Missing Higgs boson from the Standard Model

But there was something missing…

This theory mathematically worked if these force-carrying particles have no mass, which cannot be true. Thus a particle dubbed the Higgs boson was hypothesize. This essential ingredient of the Standard Model, sometimes called the ‘God particle’, is the key to the origin of particle mass. But it was never found, that was, until July 4th 2012.

Both the ATLAS and CMS experiments found convincing evidence of a particle consistent with the Higgs boson. Therefore CERN may have found the final missing ingredient in the Standard Model of particle physics!

LHC, CERN, Switzerland, Geneva, large hadron collider, particle accelerator, particle physics, quantum mechanics, European Centre for Nuclear Research, Science, Europe, TravelOf course, this is just briefly touching on all the exciting things happening at CERN. By no means is the story over yet, there is still so much to be discovered and understood, from dark matter in the far reaches of the universe, to the unreachable subatomic world. Until then, we will just have to wait and stay tuned! (Source: CERN)

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A proton collision detected by the ATLAS experiment at CERN, containing a signature for the Higgs particle production (ATLAS EXPERIMENT – www.atlas.ch)

Why-You-Might- Recognized-It?: Black Holes and Revelations (Angels and Demons)

It would seem that any sort of sci-fi concept can be explained or dis-proven (given a bit of time) right here at CERN. From black holes to extra dimension/wormholes, to anti-matter, the possibility are endless! However, going past the concepts and to the actual facility of CERN, this massive science experiment itself was featured in a recent movie, Angels and Demons. This was Dan Brown’s sequel book to the Da Vinci Code and was turned into a movie in 2009, where the opening scenes were set here at CERN… something about anti-matter and using it as weapons of “mass destruction”, but that’s just in the movie, so I wouldn’t be worried about what they are making at CERN just yet 😉

Particle, collision, god particle, LHC, CERN, Switzerland, Geneva, large hadron collider, particle accelerator, particle physics, quantum mechanics, European Centre for Nuclear Research, Science, Europe, Travel

Image of one of the LHC’s particle detectors at CERN (not my own photo sadly, Source: CERN)

Final Thoughts:

Overall, pretty amazing experience/experiment! We didn’t get to go underground to see the actual accelerator, but all the displays and the tour above ground was very informative, and seeing the control panel and where ALICE is was a really neat experience and worth the trip to Geneva. Be sure to check out my sister’s video on our Switzerland travels: Base Jumping and Science. As for tours of CERN, they are free to the public, but try and book a couple months in advance as they do fill up. However, if you are lucky and show up in the morning they might be able to squeeze you in without a booking.

In my opinion, visiting CERN is a must for any traveler, whether you’re a sci-fi fan, or just interested about what the universe and ourselves are truly and fundamentally made of.

-Stephanie

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Nadine and I at the LHC Science Information Dome at CERN, Switzerland

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How the Alps assembled; Mountain building 101 [Switzerland]

U-shaped Valley, Lauterbrunnen, Glacier, Processes, Carving, Formation, Switzerland, Geology, example, Travel, Adventure, Earth Science, Photography, Instagram, CollageIntro: A night train away from Slovenia and we were in Switzerland. We stopped briefly in Zurich (the largest city in Switzerland, located at the edge of Zurich Lake) which allowed me to visit the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), regarded as one of the top universities in the world with over 21 Nobel Prize laureates (such as Albert Einstein!). I was considering studying here in the future so it was an excellent opportunity to check out the university in person.

Switzerland Map Country Europe Travel Adventure Route

Map of journey through Switzerland

After that it was off to what Switzerland is known best for, and no, not chocolate or pocket knives, but mountains – the spectacular Swiss Alps!

Switzerland Europe Alps Swiss Travel Jungfrau Lauterbrunnen Adventure Mountains Glacier Rock Climbing Via Ferrata Snow Geology Formation Plate Tectonics Photography

Myself on top of the Switzerland Alps, Near Jungfrau Lauterbrunnen

I wasn’t sure how to I would react when we made our way to south-central Switzerland, near Interlaken and Lauterbrunnen, and the start of the Alps mountain range. Being from British Columbia, Canada, particularly the Whistler/Vancouver area, I’m used to towering, glacier-cap mountains. That being said, my first reaction was how similar it all looked, but then as I truly gawked around more I notice how actually high and vertical the faces of the mountains were, and accompanied with the glowing green grassy hills, they definitely offered a much different feel than Canada.

Switzerland Europe Alps Swiss Travel Adventure Mountains Train Hill Rolling Grass Snow Geology Formation Plate Tectonics Photography

The Alps Mountain Range in Switzerland, near Interlaken

And the best way to see the mountains? Why, go to the very top! All you have to do is take a train to the “top of Europe” Juangfrau, or you can do what we did and get a more intimate, if a bit sketchy, experience with the rocks and climb up doing a via ferrata (cross between mountain walking and rock climbing).

Switzerland Europe Alps Swiss Travel Jungfrau Lauterbrunnen Adventure Mountains Glacier Rock Climbing Via Ferrata Snow Geology Formation Plate Tectonics Photography

Nadine doing a via ferrata in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

Science-Spiel: How to build mountains 101 (Geology, Plate Tectonics, and Geomorphology)

The impressive scale of these mountains can be attributed to the same mechanisms that cause earthquakes and tsunamis; plate tectonics.

The Alps are the result of a collision between two tectonic plates, the African and Eurasian plates (where the continents of African and Europe/Asia reside on, but the plates themselves extend past the edge of the landmass and far into the surrounding oceans).

Tectonic Plates of Earth Geology Geophysics Map earthquakes mountain building boundaries countries collision tsunami travel adventure

Tectonic Plates of Earth (USGS 2013)

Plate Tectonics Europe Collision Africa Switzerland Alps Formation

The African plate migrated northward, at speeds probably no more than 10-15cm/year, until it eventually collided with the stable Eurasian plate and swallowed up a former sea separating the two plates, called the Tethys. Over time this constant pressure resulted in rocks being squeezed, folded, and thrusted upward. Thus the final result is spectacular, high standing mountains with bends and folds visible within the rocks. The whole process started about 55 million years ago, so geologically speaking, this is actually quite a young mountain belt.

Switzerland Europe Alps Jungfrau Lauterbrunnen Swiss Travel Adventure Mountains Glacier Rock Climbing Via Ferrata Snow Geology Formation Plate Tectonics Photography Folds Compression Layers Layered Limestone

Layered Limestone Rocks of Swiss Alps at Jungfrau, Switzerland

Switzerland Europe Alps Jungfrau Lauterbrunnen Swiss Travel Adventure Mountains Glacier Rock Climbing Via Ferrata Snow Geology Formation Plate Tectonics Photography Folds Compression Layers Layered Limestone

Layers and layers of rocks compressed and folded onto of the Swiss Alps, at Jungfrau, Switzerland

Like British Columbia, these mountain ranges also experience heavy glaciations. Since about 2.5 million years ago the cyclic glacial periods have lead to these massive ice blocks carving out sharp mountain faces, and rounding valleys, like the classic glacial U-shaped valley of Lauterbrunnen (as opposed to river formed valleys which are more V-shaped).

U shaped Valley, V shaped Valley, Glacier, River, Processes, Carving, Formation, Switzerland, Geology

V-shaped valley (left) formed by rivers, and U-shaped valleys (middle and right) formed by glaciers

U-shaped Valley, Lauterbrunnen, Glacier, Processes, Carving, Formation, Switzerland, Geology, example, Travel, Adventure, Earth Science, Photography

Classic U-Shaped Valley of Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

Why-You-Might-Recognize-It: The Name’s Bond… (James Bond)

James Bond, Filmed, Location, Switzerland, Schilthorn, 6th, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, 007, Europe, Alps

Switzerland’s Schilthorn was the location of the 6th James Bond 007 Movie

From the “top of Europe” claim of Jungfrau to the revolving restaurant on the summit of Schilthorn, I thought these looked like picturesque spots for some secret mountain fortress and kept thinking

“I’m pretty sure a James Bond was filmed here…”

Well it turns out I was right, go figure. This was where On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was set, the 6th James Bond film in the series and only one starring the not so popular George Lazenby. The revolving restaurant at the top of Schilthorn called Piz Gloria in particular was a main location for the film. So yeah, score one for James Bond trivia!

Final Thoughts:

The Alps are one of the most impressive mountain ranges in the world. And like most thing, but especially in this case, it is something you have to see for yourself rather than in a picture to truly get the sense of its awe-inspiring scale. Yes it is very similar to Canada and the coastal belt in BC, but add some rolling green meadows and old Swiss chateaus, and you’ll see how unparalleled the land of the Swiss really is.

-Stephanie

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Myself in the Classic U-Shaped Valley of Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

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