Arctic jewels: sailing the ice kingdom

By Ken Eastwood 7 November 2013
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See the images from 2011 Australian Geographic Society expedition to Iceland, Greenland and Svalbard.

Regular Australian Geographic contributor Ken Eastwood spent 14 days sailing around Iceland, Greenland and Spitsbergen on an AG Society expedition in September 2011. Read the full story in issue 106 of Australian Geographic and find more details about going on the 2012 expedition below. 

ICELAND IS DEFINITELY misnamed. There really isn’t a lot of ice. There is a lot of moss – some 500 species of it, growing thickly on walls, lava fields and forming spongy mats like trampolines to walk across – so perhaps it should be called Mossland.

The temperature in winter hovers around zero and in summer it’s an average of 14ºC – so although it’s on the Arctic Circle, it really isn’t that cold, mainly due to the warm currents coming all the way from Mexico as part of the Gulf Stream.

Only 12 per cent of Iceland’s 103, is covered by glaciers. Compare this to Spitsbergen (where our voyage will finish), which is 60 per cent ice. Iceland’s glaciers are also melting fast. One, Solheimajokull, is retreating at a rate of 75m a year.

Harbour seal

launch gallery

Arctic: stretched and twisted

Anyone with even a passing interest in geology, and the way the Earth is being shaped, twisted, stretched, crumpled and moulded over aeons, should definitely explore this fascinating country. Geology happens before your eyes.

From the 40-minute drive from the airport to Reykjavik, you drive through vast lava fields from thousands of volcanic eruptions over 16 million years. The dark grey, jagged rocks poke like razor blades through the rumpled velvet of vibrant green mosses.

At the World Heritage site of Althingi, you can stand at the point where the European and American continental plates collide, rub and stretch, creating volcanic eruptions that occasionally stop the world, and seven earthquakes a day in Iceland (although most of these are tiny and aren’t even felt in Reykjavik). Iceland itself is growing at 2-3cm a year as these plates slide past one another.

Thermal engineering feat

Travel just a few hours out of Reykjavik and you’ll see hundreds of volcanic craters, some of which have been formed in the last 5000 years. Thirty have erupted in the past 200 years. In the Haukadalur valley, 60km east of Reykjavik, these intense geological forces result in geysers shooting boiling water 30m into the air – in fact the ‘Geysir’, the mother of all geysers from which all others were named, is here.

About 20 per cent of Iceland’s power comes from the vast reserves of 200ºC or 300ºC hot water that gushes up from underground. The hot water is also piped into all the buildings in Reykjavik for heating and hot water, and in an amazing engineering achievement, it only loses about 2ºC even though it is being transported from 30 km away.

Iceland is a fascinating place to start our 14-day cruise in the Arctic.

Learn more about how to sign up to the 2012 expedition and find detailed information about the itinerary here.