Travels in Geology December 2003

Touring tectonics in Iceland

Though at first it may seem off the beaten path, Iceland is an ideal stopover on the way to Paris or Rome. Icelandair offers an unbeatable deal for travelers en route to or from mainland Europe or the United Kingdom. At no extra charge, travelers may stop over in Iceland for up to three nights — enough time to sample the capital city and tour several geologic must-sees within striking distance of a comfortable hotel.

Iceland has spent the past decade promoting an effective campaign encouraging tourism from abroad. While many Americans were happy enough to listen to rockers Björk and Sigur Rós, few had contemplated visiting the North Atlantic nation until the pervasive advertising began. Reykjavík has developed into a chic capital, renowned for its café culture, nightlife, fine arts and popular music. It has rightly billed itself as a hip European city within striking distance of the U.S. East Coast and it is becoming a standard destination for global travelers. The country's geological attractions though, have always been good reasons to visit Iceland; the recent deals associated with the tourism campaign are only icing on the geologist's cake.

The Mid-Atlantic spreading center rises above sea level at Thingvellir, Iceland. The left side of the photograph is the North American tectonic plate and the right side is the Eurasian tectonic plate. All images by Callan Bentley.

No trip to Iceland would be complete without visiting the only spot in the world where you can stand on the mid-ocean ridge without a wetsuit. At Thingvellir, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge rises above sea level. Historians know the site for an A.D. 930 meeting of Iceland's version of the Continental Congress, which set down the laws for ancient Icelanders. This human history pales, however, in comparison to the topographic setting. Geologists will awe at Thingvellir's numerous parallel chasms. Half of Iceland is heading east; half of Iceland is heading west. It is a thrill of tectonic proportions to walk from the Eurasian plate to the North American plate. The hike across the spreading center takes only a few minutes through a landscape of columnar basalt dusted with corn snow, and water lying clear as gin in the deeper fissures.

Next stop on any geologic adventure should be the country's famed geysers. From Wyoming's Yellowstone to New Zealand's Rotorua, every spouting hot spring in the world is named for Iceland's Geysir — a steaming pool in the Haukadalur Valley, a few hours' drive from Reykjavik. Pronounced "gay-zeer," this original geyser (the word the English language co-opted from Icelandic) means "the gusher." Like geysers everywhere, it is a hot spring with an underground chamber. Subterranean magma heats water until it reaches a flashpoint. In a sudden boiling conversion, deep steam expands and drives overlying water up through a fissure in the surface. The release of pressure triggers a further conversion of hot water to steam, and the eruption is thus a positive-feedback loop — vaporizing a great deal of groundwater. Fountains of boiling water and steam shoot high in the air.

Geysir has been erupting since the 13th century. In its heyday, these eruptions reached heights of 60 meters. However, in the early part of the 20th century, the eruptions became more and more irregular and ceased altogether in 1916. In the less-environmentally aware days that followed, people could coax Geysir into eruption by dumping carbolic soap into the pool; but this practice is currently out of vogue. Now, Geysir sits gently steaming next to a large boulder chiseled with its name — almost a tombstone for the geyser, given its dormant state.

Fortunately for Haukadalur tourism, Geysir is not the valley's only geothermal feature. A short stroll away from the deflated "father" of geysers is the yet-virile Strokkur. Depending on your translator, Strokkur means "the churn" or "the piston." It erupts every eight minutes or so, with an obelisk of steam and water reaching 30 meters high. Due to few visitors and easy access, it is far more impressive than Yellowstone's prized Old Faithful. Unlike at Old Faithful, visitors can walk right up to the lip of Strokkur. As the eruption begins, there is a slight whirlpool effect, and the pool's water level falls as in a flushing toilet basin. Then a dome of aquamarine water bulges up from the center, 2 meters in diameter and 0.5 meters tall. Viewers only get a brief glimpse of this gem; it exists for perhaps half a second, and then is pierced from within by a vertical jet of steam. After the water collapses again to the ground, the steam hangs in the air like a retinal after-image, dissipating slowly.

Every eight minutes, the geyser Strokkur erupts a column of boiling water and steam to heights of 30 meters.

Not far from Geysir is Gullfoss, a bi-level waterfall, located in a deep canyon on the Hvitá River. Hvítá means "White" in Icelandic. Here, water plummets a total of 32 meters in two perpendicular ledges. Gullfoss would be fantastic enough if it were only one falls, but having two ledges in such close proximity lends a geometric M.C. Escher effect to the scene. The river's torrent plunges over the upper falls, makes a 90 degree turn to the left, plunges over the lower falls, and makes a 90 degree turn to the right. Mist drifts up from the falls to several viewpoints situated along the chasm's edge. It deposits a shadowlike edge of ice on the riverward faces of guardrails, cliffs and any tourist who stands there gawking too long.

At the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall, two ledges at right angles drop the Hvítá River a total of 32 meters.

Round out your Icelandic tour at the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa near Keflavík. Here, opaque turquoise waters steam in the midst of a dark bouldery basalt flow. Iceland's promotional literature typically features bikini-clad Scandanavians with white mud masks lounging in this surreal setting. Although the Blue Lagoon is not a natural phenomenon, its origin is in Iceland's use of geothermal power. The nearby Svartsengi power plant, industrially venting steam in the visible distance, is fuelled by geothermally warmed seawater. The plant dumped its effluent into the empty lava field, but dissolved minerals precipitated and sealed the cracks in the basalt, forming an unintended pool of pale azure brine. The spa's distinct color is attributed to cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) that live in the hot water.

The elegant bathhouse building includes changing rooms, a restaurant and a skin-care products shop. Iceland prides itself on bold architecture, and the Blue Lagoon facility is no exception. Japanese-style footbridges combine with blond wood and a sweeping glass wall to create an impressive structure. From the changing room, bathers enter the Blue Lagoon indoors. They push open a submerged door to exit into the pool proper. It is a wonderful sensation to glide through the dense (2.5 percent salt) water, surrounded by piles of lichen-encrusted basalt. Because of the water's opacity (visibility is approximately the same as in latex paint), bathers must gingerly grope forward with their toes as advance feelers. Visitors also lather their faces with silica mud, although there seems to be little benefit aside from amusing other bathers. After an hour or two, wrinkled as prunes, bathers head back inside for a requisite shower (lest the hair petrify into a geological formation of its own), a Viking beer and a bowl of plokkfiskur fish soup or a set of diminutive puffin steaks.

A footbridge traverses the tuquoise waters of Keflavík's Blue Lagoon.

The Blue Lagoon is a short drive from the Keflavík International Airport, also an architectural masterwork and the hub of Icelandair's trans-Atlantic fleet. If you don't have three days, another airline promotional feature allows a stopover of only four hours for the sake of visiting the Blue Lagoon. Travelers may arrive from Glasgow, Paris or Stockholm, pop through Customs with merely a bathing suit and a towel, have a lapis-tinted soak, then head back for their connecting flight to Baltimore, New York or Boston.

Callan Bentley
Geotimes contributing writer


More about the Blue Lagoon
More about Thingvellir
More about Geysir

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