Dr Donato and I were two of the successful 15 teachers across Hertfordshire selected by Herts AHEAD to go to Iceland during October half term. Herts AHEAD is a collaborative outreach project between the University of Hertfordshire, Royal Veterinary College and the regional colleges across the county. It is funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and demonstrates the opportunities available to students in higher education to raise their aspirations. This amazing experience will help teachers to develop and inspire their students through their dedicated subjects.
Iceland is a relatively new piece of land originating some 60 million years ago from a hot spot in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The island is slowly being pulled in two directions by the North American and Eurasian plates moving apart. This allows for magma to rise to the surface and continue to create new land. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge travels through Iceland, making it one of the most active volcanic islands in the world. The centre of the island is only 700,000 years old. Due to its 65◦N latitude, Iceland has a very cold climate and a short growing season, this means vegetation struggles to grow here. With cold conditions and the relatively newness of it’s rock little weathering has taken place, without decomposition of plant life very little soil is available, resulting in an almost Martian landscape.
The first day after a wake-up call of 3.30am we arrived at Luton Airport to meet our colleagues for the next few days. After a short flight of three hours we arrived in Keflavik airport. We were greeted by our Icelandic bus driver who introduced us to Iceland’s fairy tales. During winter the days are very short and the nights very long due to Iceland’s latitude. Telling stories was his favourite pass time.
We later spent a few hours exploring Reykjavik; Iceland’s capital city with a population of 120,000 (the same as the whole of Welwyn and Hatfield!) this is where a third of Iceland’s total population lives, and Iceland is about the same size as England, so a very sparsely populated country.
We visited the Blue Lagoon, famous for it’s warm blue water and cosmetic products. We were surprised to find that these Blue famous lakes are in fact left over waste from the geothermal plant. The water is heavily laden with silica providing a soft gooey material that you slather all over your face as a rather attractive face pack. After our refreshing dip in the hot pools we drove out into the dark in search of the Northern Lights. Very soon we started to see a green cloud that streaked across the sky. Having parked the bus we stood on the volcanic landscape in the dark watching the most amazing light show on earth. (Northern Light photograph by Mr R. Sutton.) There is a folk lore that the northern lights are the spirits of children and when they shimmer and dance the spirits are happy and when they stand still the children are sad. Well the spirits were very happy. The best way to describe them is imagine a silk scarf floating above your head being blown in the wind changing colours like the wings of a dragon fly. We were extremely lucky as we also saw the purple/red colours you can see in the photograph which is quite unusual in the northern hemisphere.
The next day was a mix of traumas, heroic deeds and natural wonders. We found ourselves the rescuers of 40 tourists from China. As we drove over a mountain pass, a snow storm hit and the road turned icy. Their bus did a 360 degree somersault off the road trapping two of it’s passengers. Luckily we had room on our coach and provided first aid to the least injured passengers, all of whom were in severe shock. Both Dr Donato and I felt very lucky that it was not our bus coming off the road and also thankful that we had been there at that moment so we were able to shelter the passengers and treat them out of the howling winds.
Once we could do no more for the unfortunate holiday makers we went on to one of Iceland’s tomato greenhouses. Producing a Mediterranean vegetable in extreme climates would be a challenge without their access to geothermal energy. These greenhouses are golden beacons in the landscape, bathed in an eerie yellow light 24 hours a day. The tomatoes need warm temperatures and sunlight. Two things lacking in Iceland in October. These houses can consume as much electricity as needed for 3000 people in a day. However, their carbon footprint is minimal as they use renewable geothermal energy to heat and light them. Iceland is far ahead of many nations in their ability to harness geothermal power. They are also successfully returning carbon dioxide and any other waste material from the plant back into the earth. They can actually turn carbon dioxide gasses back into rock!
On the same day we drove around the Golden Circle, we visited huge waterfalls and gorges, where the spray was so intense you became soaked in a matter of seconds. We also saw ‘Geysir’ shooting into the air at over 20meters drenching onlookers in sulphur smelling hot water.
The next day we took a coach, then a 4×4 coach to the foot of a glacier. Here we were transferred to an old UN missile launcher converted into a bus and in a total white out started to drive up the glacier. After half an hour of driving in the white, we arrived at a large tube sticking out of the ice. We slowly descended the tunnel, to 20-40meters below the surface. Here we walked through the glacier’s man made (500 meters long) tunnels and caves. In one of the caves we were privileged to be sung to by our tour guide so that we could hear the great acoustics. We also walked across a rather large crevasse in the ice, which was a little bit scary.
It really was one of the most amazing experiences and both Dr Donato and I are incredibly pleased that our applications were successful. The trip has re-invigorated our passion for our subjects, and has deepened our understanding of the amazing natural world in which we live.