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Power in Iceland

Sabine Jessen, National Manager of the Oceans and Great Freshwater Lakes Program for CPAWS, is accompanying the Students on Ice educational expedition on a trip through the Arctic.

Students witnessing the GeysirOver the past two days, my first ever in Iceland, I have been reflecting on the different sources and nature of power. Today, we experienced the raw power of nature, the power of history and culture, the inspiring power of a political figure, the power of words, and the potential power of a new generation to change how we manage the earth. 

Iceland sits atop the dividing line between two of the earth's plates - the North American and the Eurasian plates. These two plates meet in the mid-Atlantic ridge, which extends from Antarctic to the Arctic, and are pulling apart through the center of Iceland forming a rift valley. While visiting this valley, we learned from Iceland's most famous explorer, geophysicist, poet, and author, Ari Trausti Guðmundsson, about the active volcanic features of Iceland, that are found here due to the meeting of the two plates. Iceland is well-known for its active volcanic and seismic activity, including the eruption of Grimsvotn earlier this year, and Eyjafjallajökul in 2010.

Associated with the volcanic character of the country are the extensive geothermal features and resources. Witnessing the geysir, as it is called in Iceland - a name that has been adopted throughout the world as geyser - was exciting and a little frightening, especially when I was standing close to the edge of the most active geysir, as it was shooting into the air! The geothermal energy produced by the heating of water by magma in the earth's crust creates not only popular attractions like the geysir and the Blue Lagoon, but in Iceland has been harnessed as clean, cheap energy to heat most homes in the country. 

I was inspired to learn about the Viking culture and history of the country, as my ancestral roots are in northern Germany and Denmark, where many of the Vikings came from. We learned from “Raven” our guide for the first 2 days of our travels by bus through the Icelandic countryside around Reykjavic, that the Icelandic language is actually the original Viking language. In addition to retaining their language, the Icelandic people, who number about 300,000 today, can all trace their ancestry back to the original Viking settlers, and know how closely they are related to any native born Icelanders.

But we also learned of the power of people to drastically change the environment.  When the Vikings first arrived on Iceland, it is estimated that 25% of the country was forested. Today that figure is only 3%. The early Vikings used these forests for build their boats and homes, and for fuel, never thinking that they could ever use them all up. The result is problems with erosion that they are trying to address using introduced species like Alaskan lupin. 

The rift valley we traveled through today is part of Pingvellir National Park. It has been designated as a World Heritage Site for both its natural features, and also its immense cultural significance in Iceland as the seat of the first "parliament" for the people of Iceland. Over a thousand years ago, chiefs and their advisors from communities throughout Iceland began traveling by horse to the natural "theatre" created by the rift valley, in order to discuss and make the decisions about important governance issues of the day. This form of government ended when Norway and later Denmark took over Iceland  and imposed their government system on the country. 

Iceland is now a republic, having obtained independence from Denmark in 1944. Today was an historic occasion for our group as we were invited by the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson to visit him at his official residence. The President gave us an inspiring talk about the challenges facing the Arctic, the greatest one being climate change. He emphasized the need for collective action, and urged the students, no matter where they lived, to become active and use the power of their voices and energy to change the trajectory that we are on. The President has given me new hope that there are politicians who truly understand and are honest about the challenges we face, and are using their power in positive ways to achieve the Students on Ice moto "protect the poles. protect the planet"!