Three Phases of #NCS14 in Iceland

Me swimming between tectonic plates at Silfra

Diving between tectonic plates at Silfra

The panel was on ice, but the trip was surrounded by water in all phases. This post is mostly photos, with stops in gas, solid, and liquid.

Mist @ Guilfoss

Iceland teems with waterfalls, and once you’ve spent even a little time driving around the country it’s hard to work up the energy to stop for another one. But Guilfoss — the Golden Falls — is the best. It roars down off the central highlands a little northeast from Þingvellir, where the Icelandic Parliament has been meeting since 930, though only ceremonially in recent years.



The waterfall is really two falls, with a sharp turn in between them, and the second cascade disappearing into mist. It’s a place of raw elemental power, water surging within the rocky border it slowly erodes — but what I remember is the cold mist on my face and hands. Pulverized water in the air.

The island is built on magma and its economy runs on hot water, but in places like Guilfoss the force of water is visible, tangible, audible.

Ice @ Solheimajokull

"Hugh Willoughby Talks to the Seafarer about ice"

“Hugh Willoughby Talks to the Seafarer about ice”

The day before we’d been walking near Vatnajokull and had heard the glacier rumble, like thunder but intimate and hidden, tantalizingly close. We didn’t hear anything as we ice-scholars walked in a group up Solheimajokull but we could feel the ice living. Oddur Sigurdson, the glaciologist who accompanied us, told the history of science’s discovery that ice flows like other forms of water. He also explained the features of

The family gets geo-thermal at the Blue Lagoon

The family gets geo-thermal at the Blue Lagoon

the glacier as we walked up them, including cone-like formations covered with fine black volcanic ash and deadly moulin sink-holes, the edges of which we carefully avoided.

The ice was wet and covered in places with volcanic grit, twin testaments to forces working to minimize its presence: volcanic heat from below, and solar radiation from above. Oddur recalled that there will be no glaciers 200 years from now in Iceland, but to emphasize the mass of ice on our planet, he reported that if we assembled all the nuclear weapons on the planet and exploded them beneath the Antarctic ice shelf, only 1% of the total ice would be destroyed.

My paper for the next morning was partly about loving ice as it kills you, and while walking up the glacier I wanted to write it all over again, though I’m not sure what exactly I would have changed.

On the way down, I struck up a conversation with Jonno, our Malysian ice guide, who is a Himalayan climber who’s climbed on the Lhotze Face and trained with Rob Hall’s company, though he joined them after Hall’s death on Everest in 1996, as chronicled by Krakauer in Into Thin Air.

The ice panel on Solheimajokull

The ice panel on Solheimajokull

Water @ Silfra

The narrow canyons of Silfra, near Þingvellir, show the tectonic plates separating the American from the Eurasian continents. Their water is fed by the glacier above, and it takes 35 years for the melt to filter slowly downhill. The result is perfectly clear, cold (2 degrees C) water. It’s become a  destination site for scuba enthusiasts. I went for a snorkel with my son Ian and niece Maddie.

I’d never worn a dry suit before, and by far the hardest part of the adventure was getting into harness. The rubber gaskets at my wrists and neck chafed tight, and we also wore a quilted jump-suit underneath. But it kept us (mostly) warm and (mostly) dry, though my hands, in 7mm neoprene mittens, got cold, as did the

Ian thinking about (on) millennia old ice

Ian thinking about (on) millennia old ice

exposed skin of my face.

But the water in Silfra was a blue I’ve never seen through before.

It was an amazing thing to swim there, look down, and know that I was looking into no continent. There was a sandy and rocky bottom about 25m down, perfectly visible from the surface, but that was fill, growing wider each year by a couple cm, at least when more dramatic activity didn’t open up and change the rifts entirely.

The cold water is full of life: pale lime-colored algae and supposedly very small fish, though they are almost impossible to see.

It’s hard to get beneath the surface of the water in a drysuit with no weight belt, but I managed it, swimming hard with my arms until I could get my fins underwater to kick. I probably only went 10-12 feet under before heading back up, but for that moment, fighting my own buoyancy, in that clear cold blue, I thought about water. Alien and intimate water, all around me but barely wetting my skin. Water filling this a-continental space, and me inside it.

Troll attack!

Troll attack!

Iceland is like no other place I’ve been.


  1. A lyrical meditation, of the kind water wants. Thanks for being part of the Ice panel Steve!

  2. Thanks for inviting me, Jeffrey! It was a true pleasure in all forms and phases. Looking forward to the next round-up, in Santa Barbara in October!

  3. David Farley says:

    Great piece, Steve. Have you read Francis Spufford’s I May Be Some Time?

    • I have not read it — but I recognize the quotation! My friend Hester Blum at Penn State, whose first book was on Melville mostly, is working on things polar and exploratory now. I wonder if you know her?


  1. […] between the continental plates is a swimmer’s paradise, deep blue and ethereal. I’ve blogged about it already, and it’s now my Facebook profile picture, but I still can’t quite […]

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