In the fall of 2006, secluded, faraway Iceland found itself at a turning point. A remote highland wilderness was being flooded—this to create a reservoir measuring 22 square miles as a power source for a new aluminum smelter. The dam that went with the reservoir was the tallest of its kind in Europe (the continent Iceland is conventionally associated with), and the land was going to be irreversibly changed: highland vegetation submerged, waterfalls and part of a dramatic canyon dried up, pink-footed geese and reindeer herds displaced. Environmentalists around the world were condemning the flooding as an attack on one of Europe’s last intact wilderness areas—they called it “the drowning”—and the Icelanders themselves didn’t know if they were headed for an economic boom, an economic bust, and/or the greatest environmental disaster in European history.
But that’s getting ahead of things. This modern Icelandic saga actually begins millions of years ago, for it is rooted in the land itself—the island’s unique geology and the geologic destiny that issues from it. First of all, the country is largely uninhabitable—a rocky, windswept, treeless terrain, unsuitable for much of anything beyond raising sheep. “Forbidding” comes to mind. Breathtaking. Strange. Giant chunks of blue ice floating in glacial lakes edged with boiling mud. Craggy mountains with formations that resemble human heads. Volcanoes, geysers, glaciers, belching gas vents, and vast stretches of gnarly lava fields where American astronauts came in the 1960s to see what they would be up against on the moon.
Here’s where geologic destiny comes in. Iceland happens to be situated right on top of the intersection of two of Earth’s tectonic plates, straddling a volcanic boundary called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Consequently, a third of all the lava that has erupted from the Earth in the past 500 years has flowed out right here, and there are so many natural hot springs that almost all the homes and buildings are heated geothermally. On the surface, meanwhile, sit giant glaciers and the abundant rivers that flow from them. This hot-and-cold combination, of churning activity beneath the surface and powerful rivers above it, makes Iceland one of the most concentrated sources of geothermal and hydroelectric energy on Earth—clean, renewable, green energies that the world increasingly hungers for.