Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Where fire meets ice - by Judge Jim Gray

Many people in Iceland talk about trolls as nasty or evil ogres, plagued with a seemingly endless aggressive streak. But others will tell you that these are untrue and shameful images that say more about the ignorance of the storyteller than about the trolls themselves. Yes, trolls are quite large and tremendously strong, but by nature they are essentially peaceful cave-dwellers who only come out at night. The reason they are nocturnal is that if they are touched by the rays of the sun they will turn into volcanic statues. In fact I saw many of these unfortunate creatures while on our recent trip to that most interesting island, which is east of Greenland and south of the Arctic Circle.

Actually Iceland and Greenland are misnamed, because most of Iceland is green, and almost all of Greenland is glacial ice. The common explanation is that the two lands were intentionally misnamed because Icelanders were happy being left alone and so adopted that inhospitable handle, but people in Greenland wanted to lure more tourists and residents with the more enticing name.

But it is no mistake that Iceland is a totally volcanic island, because it sits on the fault where the American tectonic plate meets the European plate. These plates are actually moving apart from each other at the average rate of about two centimeters each year, and that opens the earth for occasional but violent volcanic eruptions.

The most recent of these was in May when Eyjafjallajökull erupted. This actually added another page to the book titled "Who Says Life is Fair?" because the airport in the capital city of Reykjavik was closed just as a precautionary measure for about two hours, but due to the volcanic ash being spewed into the air and the direction of the prevailing winds, airports in England, Belgium and even Spain were shut down for weeks.

Volcanic eruptions actually occur comparatively frequently in Iceland. For example, between 1963 and 1967 there were a series of eruptions that created a new island that was named Surtsey in honor of Surtuk, who was the mythological Norse god of fire. Originally the new island was 1 square mile in size, but with subsequent erosion by the ocean's waves it has been reduced to about half that. It also has a bit of a comical history, because a group of Frenchmen actually landed on the island while it was being formed and claimed the new land for France. The attempt was unsuccessful.

Icelanders are a hardy people who are proud of their history and identity. Their language, which is based upon a combination of Nordic and German, is functionally unfathomable to non-speakers, and the Icelanders are actively trying to keep it that way. To that end they have constituted a native committee to coin new Icelandic words for any new developments that may occur. Thus they have their own word for "e-mail," "taco," "baseball" and others.

During the summer months, the sun almost does not set, which can, of course, cause a significant change in lifestyle. One example is that there is an annual golf tournament in June in which the participants tee off at 10 p.m. and finish about 4 in the morning. And parents have to be careful, because if they tell their children in June as they are going out to play to be back just before dark, they might not see them again until August.

Iceland was originally blessed with a significant growth of beech trees, but these were cut down by the early settlers to be used for their houses and boats. Some trees have been replanted, but because they are slow growing, most of the trees that now are on the island are still small. This has given rise to the comment that if you are lost in a forest in Iceland, all you have to do is to stand up.

About 40% of the exports from Iceland are fish, but that industry only employs about 6% of the workforce. The other money makers are lamb and sheep for their meat, iceberg-pure bottled water, and tourism. They once had an abundance of lobsters in their waters as demonstrated by one of our guides who told us that even her cat used to eat lobster. That leaves them with their primary fish — cod, salmon and halibut.

Iceland is also deservedly well known for its bird population. The ones that bring in the tourists are the puffins, which are truly amazing creatures. With their bright orange beaks, legs and feet, these birds that are about the size of a dove look like cute little flying tugboats. They live at sea except from April to August. In April the male comes ashore to make a tunnel in the dirt on the top of a shoreline cliff, and, because they mate for life, he waits for the female to arrive. If he gets impatient the male will allow a different female to share his nest, but if his "true love" appears, he kicks the new one out.

The female lays one egg per year, and then both parents go out to sea and dive up to 150 feet to capture anchovies or other small fish to bring back to the youngster. Amazingly enough, the average lifespan of puffins is about 25 years, and the oldest on record is 38.

Another remarkable bird found in Iceland is the Arctic tern. This is a sleek bird about the size of a robin that has a twin tail and comes to Iceland during the summer months, which is their mating season. But the amazing thing is that this small creature migrates every year down to the Antarctic! Considering its size, it would be the equivalent trip for us humans to fly back and forth to the moon three times per year.

Another interesting feature of Iceland is the presence of geysers, hot pots and other geothermal activity. This is so prevalent that about 80% of all homes and other buildings in Iceland are heated by piping in the naturally hot water. In addition, geothermal is also used to generate most of the island's electricity. But those are subjects we will explore next week.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the composer of the high school musical "Americans All" (Heuer Publishing), and can be contacted at or


Unknown said...

Hi James.

The name Greenland was given by the viking Erik the Red (Father of Leiv Erikson, who discovered America some 500 years before Columbus), to persuade his countrymen to come live there. This was to some degree an exaguration, but at the time, the medieval warmth period made Greenland much greener than it is today. The small ice age during the 1400s covered most of Greenland with ice, causing the end of the nordic settlement.

Torbjørn, Norway

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