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Norsemen and the Great Crack in the Atlantic

Posted by | June 27, 2009

More than a thousand years ago, my Norse ancestors were busy pillaging Europe. Using Viking long boats (the stealth weapon of the day), we could sneak up the coasts and rivers of civilized areas, plundering and pillaging at will.

But perhaps we were not thoroughly evil souls. After just a couple of bloody centuries, we converted to Christianity, beat our swords into plowshares, and became peasant farmers. From that day until this one, we’ve been known only for eating fish prepared with caustic lye and making stupendously depressing films.

A few Norse arrived in Iceland about 1200 years ago – quite far back, indeed. They realized they needed a way of deciding disputes on the island, so they began holding open-air assembles at a spot called Thingvellir, a location where some dramatic, uneven and wide “cracks” in the rocks provided natural highs and lows that were useful as speaking platforms and seating areas.

In a very rough and ready way, the Icelanders had started grassroots self-government. Instead of physically attacking your neighbor, you could come together with others and seek a resolution to questions like which sheep belonged to whom or which Gods should be worshipped in Iceland.

Ancient Iceland was far from a perfect or sophisticated democracy, to be sure, but it can also be seen as a step forward from anything northern Europe had ever seen earlier in history. That’s why the Thingvellir location is a historic shrine in Iceland today.

Every geologist who ever visits Iceland goes to Thingvellir, too. It’s not that we are good students of democratic history. It’s because the great cracks of Thingvellir sit astride some major volcanic features.

Thingvellir is located on what geologists call the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a rift tens of thousands of miles long that runs the long length of the Atlantic and that vomits up enormous volumes of lava. The ridge is mostly underwater, but in Iceland it has risen up above the waves (convenient for the Norse, so they could settle it).

The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is a place where two enormous tectonic plates move apart from each other. They creep along at about the rate your fingernails grow. That doesn’t sound like much, but when you consider it’s a whole region of Earth that’s moving, you can get a sense of the great magnitude of the process. The movement of the two plates away from each other allows molten rock from deeper in Earth to well up toward the surface where it becomes lava. When lava cools, volcanic rock is born.

At Thingvellir, the ancient Norse actually used landscape features – natural platforms on which to stand, long and low places on which to sit – created by the Mid-Atlantic Ridge to help make their rough-and-ready democracy work.

But there’s also now another connection between Icelandic society and geology.  The tiny island nation is energy-rich because it has abundant heat stored in the young volcanic rocks under the island.

Icelanders heat their homes with hot water brought up from the rocks beneath their feet. And Iceland generates electricity from turbines turned by the steam from the same source. There are risks to living so close to Mother Nature’s warm heart – namely volcanic eruptions – but real benefits, too.

Iceland got clobbered by the financial “bubble” that swept so much of the world in recent years. For reasons I don’t quite fathom, institutions and individuals in Europe sent their money to banks in Iceland offering high rates of returns. But those banks are long since belly up and the country itself is said to be bankrupt. (No, I don’t understand how a country can be bankrupt. A mere geologist has her limits.)

As an old Viking myself, I’ve got to be hopeful that Icelanders will soon find ways to better use their amazing reserves of heat energy from volcanic rocks to work their way back to solvency. One hope is to generate a lot of geothermal electricity and ship it to Europe via underwater cables.

With the oldest democratic heritage in the world, and surrounded by stunning geology, Icelanders have a lot going for them. Let’s hope it’s enough to get through these tough times.