The earth moves. Two centimeters per year. The eastern half of the island moves one way, the western half the other way. Iceland not only suffers from risky banking, the country is built on two tectonic plates creating an ever growing space in-between.
Right where the country is literally torn apart, it is at its best. Here the rock, one is standing on, is melted by a surfacing natural acid. ‘Mudholes’, the Icelandic call these places. At other places natural silica colors the water white-blue. People bath in it to soften their skin. A small resort called ‘Blue Lagoon’ conditions and sells the experience.
Everywhere steam escapes from the ground. Hot water bubbles to the surface. Power plants and factories cautiously tap into the resources. Not without risk. The construction of a power plant in the seventies in Krafla, in the northeast of Iceland, triggered volcanic activity in the area to such an extent that after nine years the site had moved four meters down, while the whole area had been covered with a fresh layer of lava.
What interests me is that the Icelandic government seems to increase their effort to protect the landscape against the effects of tourism. At first that seemed like a contradiction to me: to try to freeze something that is moving. Even more so, new volcanic eruptions are being predicted all over Iceland, what means that what is now being protected could be overflown by new lava any second.
However, after haven seen some of the damage done to the lava fields by ‘exploring’ tourists, I realized that the destruction outpaces the changing earth. In all its wildness, the ground is still highly fragile and therefore should definitely be protected.
In order to do so, routes through the landscaped are being marked and boardwalks are being installed. More and more parts of the country are defined as ‘national landscape’, which basically means these landscapes have a higher level of protection.
Still, the Icelandic government isn’t completely thorough in the protection of its natural resources: in 2009 it is still possible to hunt for whales. Having seen them swimming in their habitat, I find that hard to understand. Positive is that for now ‘whaling’ is limited, as the demand for the black whale meat is low. The whale watching industry protests too. Every year about 60 whales are killed.
Beyond the lava fields, the Icelandic landscape is barren. As barren as it can be. The rocky mountains and gravelly delta’s for large parts are not overgrown. If there is anything growing at all it is moss or grass. There are almost no trees.
Probably because it is winter for three-quarters of the year in the houses in the villages don’t have gardens. It is the modernist dream: the houses simply stand in, on top of, the natural landscape. There is no difference between the landscape outside or inside the village. It is simply continuous.
The houses themselves are constructed in wood, in a Scandinavian style. Since Iceland has no trees, all building materials have to be imported. As this is expensive, the architecture throughout the country remains basic. Because of the humidity and long winters the wooden construction is mostly finished with a tin or plastic cladding. The first houses on the island were build with wood from shipwrecks.
In sense of urbanization Iceland can be divided into ‘Reykjavik’ and ‘the rest’. Almost the whole population of the country, about 300,000, lives in the capital. The agglomerations in the rest of Iceland are spread along the coast and vary from less than a hundred inhabitants to 15,000 for Akureyri, the second largest city in the country. Basically urbanity in Iceland starts and ends with Reykjavik.
The pre-crisis wealth in Iceland also doesn’t seem to have reached further than the Reykjavik region. Looking at the architecture, the countryside has seen almost no investments whatsoever in the past decennia. In Reykjavik all past economic energy has capitalized in the suburbs. Iceland is a car nation, Reykjavik is a car city.
I wonder how sustainable these developments are. Maybe they are. The accessibility of the warmth of the earth means that there is plenty of warm water to heat the suburb houses. It also means that this might be an ideal country to produce hydrogen fuel. Mercedes-Benz already has a couple of hydrogen buses running on the west part of the island.
In the past year the Icelandic currency has lost half its value. Prices are now comparable to those in the Netherlands, not the cheapest country in the world. Since its three banks went bankrupt and the Icelandic government took them over, the country is on the verge of collapse. The debt caused by the bankruptcy of the Icesave bank only adds up to 40,000 euro for each Icelandic family. People told me the government won’t be able to pay the unemployment benefits from November on.