Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Iceland - The coolest place on Earth

There is a sure fire-way to cure yourself of boredom, joblessness and that nagging feeling that you should possibly be doing more with yourself and engaging with reality, and that's by doing the exact opposite of that and escaping reality.

And for an Australian, there really isn't anywhere further away you could go than Iceland - actually, from this cool little page, the exact opposite side of the Earth to Sydney is in the middle of the Atlantic - the opposite to Iceland is down near Antarctica below New Zealand - but my point remains... It has been a dream of mine to go to Iceland for many years - partially because of this escapism, but also because everything I had heard of this place suggested that I may like it - forward thinking, a little bit socialist, very clean (although ironically, because it only has around 300 000 people and a large aluminium industry, it has one of the largest carbon foot-prints per capita in the world), attractive and reserved Nordic people, stunningly beautiful and interesting scenery, as well as a bit of a science novelty. For me, I find it fascinating that of the 103 000 square kilometres of land that makes up Iceland, 11% is covered in glaciers, 64% in wasteland (cooled lava flows mainly, giving it a desolate "moon-like" appearance) and 2% by lakes, leaving only around 23% for vegetation. This fact, and its isolation, mean that there are relatively few people living in Iceland.

Perhaps it is a virtue of the amazing geothermal activity in the country, mainly due to its position straddling the Eurasian and American plates which are slowly moving apart, but Iceland has very progressive policies regarding energy usage. Perhaps it is also because if our worst fears of global warming come true, then it wont be long before the massive Icelandic glaciers melt (within 200 years our tour guide mentioned), which would not only be an environmental catastrophe in itself but could cause unknown flooding, avalanches and displacement for Icelanders.

The country is setting itself up to be "Carbon Neutral". Renewable energy makes up 72% of Iceland's energy portfolio, well ahead of the next best in the world, New Zealand, on 57%. The importation of coal stopped more than 50 years ago after the 2nd World War. The energy economy is based around hydroelectricity and geothermal power plants, and whilst it is fortunate that Iceland is in a position to take advantage of its geography for this purpose (perhaps things would be different if they were on top of oil like Norway or the Middle East, or Coal and Uranium like Australia - although Australia does also have a lot of sun for solar power...), at least it is aiming to be a world leader in other renewable sources. In a world where oil security is becoming more and more important, firms such as Icelandic New Energy Ltd are aiming to create the world's first hydrogen economy, with a number of buses in the country's capital Reykjavik already powered by the renewable source. The aim is eventually to power the country's large fishing fleet with Hydrogen, and this is quite difficult as many of the ships are quite old. As the technology is new, it is also quite expensive, and being a small, isolated country, it may be difficult for the Icelandic Hydrogen industry to compete internationally, and so therefore it will take a while before the costs reduce enough for Hydrogen power to be common place.

The government even offsets each of its overseas trips by planting trees to soak up the CO2 through the Iceland Carbon Fund. Can you imagine how many trees the Howard Government would have to plant to offset all the Prime Minister's trips to the UK to see the cricket at Lords? Imagine how many trees Tony Blair would have to plant to offset his recent farewell tour to Africa?

Iceland are aiming to minimise their carbon footprint through renewable energy developments, and through programs such as the "Green Flag Program" in which schools are awarded prizes for meeting their own environmental goals. One primary school on the Snaefellness peninsula - a day trip from the capital Reykjavik - built a dam to generate electricity to provide renewable power for local greenhouses. They also built windmills and captured solar energy. I think the most environmentally conscious thing that my primary school did was plant a couple of trees in a new garden - but this was after it lost half of its area for a new motorway.

87% of Iceland's heating comes from geothermal energy, and the exportation of geothermal know-how is one of the largest ways that Iceland contributes to foreign aid. The slight smell of sulphur in the bathrooms is the only downside.

One of the really fascinating developments in Iceland in recent times has been the interest Internet giants such as Yahoo! and Google have shown in moving server farms to the country, due to the fact that the energy is cheap and renewable. Server farms use up enormous amounts of energy, mostly because the computers consume ridiculously large quantities for cooling. This is a real problem, as if the servers go down, this has the potential to produce catastrophic results for world business and commerce. With the world linked up through the Internet, there would be no problem locating server farms in Iceland, although a new submarine cable will need to be laid. The fact that much of the land is not occupied also helps. This is being seen by locals as a much more environmentally friendly way of making money and creating jobs compared to the aluminium industry which currently generates much of Iceland's wealth and creates the surprising effect that per capita, Iceland is one of the world's largest carbon emitters.

Iceland was not always so forward thinking. Studies have shown that at the time of settlement, around 1000 years ago, the country was 30% covered in forest. These days, due to erosion, farming, grazing and other human uses, the figure it closer to 1%. However, around 1 million trees are being planted each year through the Icelandic Forestry Commission.

Another really interesting feature of the landscape is the presence of geysers - the English word actually comes from Geysir - an erupting spring in Iceland. A geyser is a hot spring that erupts periodically, shooting a column of hot water and steam into the air. About 1,000 exist worldwide, and they are formed by surface water gradually seeping down through the ground until it meets rock heated by magma. The heated water then rises back toward the surface. As the geyser fills, the water at the top of where the water is reaching the surface cools down and presses down on the hotter water beneath. This superheats the water at the bottom due to the pressure from the top, and eventually temperatures near the bottom of the geyser rise to a point where boiling begins and the steam rises explosively to the top, giving us the geyser show.

It is not quite as cold as you might expect for somewhere very high up in the North. The North Atlantic Current keeps temperatures high. When I was there, the sun was going down at around 2 am and rising again at 4 am, and I had the very strange experience of buying ice-cream at midnight with the sun still out! I have some Iceland video that I will put up the site once it has all been edited.

OK, that's about it for now on Iceland, but I am hoping to do some more stories on this fascinating country and will post some video soon. Something for a future story is the absolutely fascinating island of Surtsey, an island that was formed when a volcano off the coast of Iceland and 130 metres below sea-level started to erupt. We might also tackle the hot springs, Gulfoss waterfall, I'm sure we'll think of something!

Many of my photos of Iceland can be found here

The podcast can be found here and the individual episode here

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