Iceland journey unveils geological treasures
Walking across a still-warm lava field, getting a first-hand look at sites of historic volcanic eruptions, riding through a landscape that changes in an eye-blink from green to barren and other-worldly. These experiences stand out in Jacob Hector's mind from the three weeks he spent in Iceland over the summer.
While the tour was a nonstop blitz of geological, environmental and cultural input, the experience only made him want to see more.
"I want to go to Iceland every year for the rest of my life," says the Traverse City native, one of 28 undergraduate and graduate students who went on the trip. Sponsored by the Department of Geological Sciences, the Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates (GIEU) program and the International Institute, the trip was led by geological sciences professor and chair Samuel Mukasa and Holli Frey, an assistant professor of geology at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., who received her doctorate from U-M in 2005.
Geological Sciences offers field trips almost every summer, with destinations ranging from Hawaii to the Pyrenees, but previous trips have been designed for geology students and have focused exclusively on Earth sciences. This year, the department teamed up with GIEU to offer the experience to non-science students and integrated a cultural component into the curriculum, says geological sciences doctoral student Jason Barnes.
"The trip was supposed to foster cultural exchange, but what was unanticipated was the mini-cultural exchange that happened within the group because you had these two different student perspectives represented," he says.
In return, geology students willingly answered GIEU students' questions about the volcanoes, glaciers and rivers they visited. Some stops on the tour were sites where textbook examples of natural hazards occurred in the past.
"A volcano called Laki, for example, is famous for an eruption in 1783 that created environmental devastation in Iceland and the rest of Europe," says Mukasa. "It was called the summer of the blue haze, because the lava that spewed out of the ground caused a bluish haze that impacted crops and livestock in a big way. It led to a terrible famine in Iceland with something like a quarter of the population dying. You can read about a disaster like that, and it just seems like something out there somewhere, but when you walk the ground where it happened, it becomes real."
In addition to geological standouts, the tour focused on energy and environmental issues, with stops at hydroelectric dams and geothermal plants.
"One thing Icelanders are really proud of is the fact that they're weaning themselves off oil," says Mukasa. "They're able to generate electricity by utilizing water that comes out of the ground already superheated." In addition, some of the hot water is piped into buildings for use in heating systems. More than half of all Icelandic homes are heated this way, Mukasa says.
More controversial projects involve building hydroelectric dams on pristine rivers. "Environmentalists are up in arms about that," Mukasa says, "but between geothermal and hydroelectric energy, Iceland has reduced its hydrocarbon use to a small fraction of its total energy budget."
Climate change also was a topic of discussion.
"We had stopped in front of a glacier that had a big pool of water in front of it, and the driver pointed to the edge of the pool and said, 'You know, when I first came here in 1988, that glacier was out to here,' " Mukasa recalls. "Now it's a quarter of a mile away with a big lake in front of it. That was an eye-opener, seeing how quickly these glaciers are simply melting away."