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Sustainability, Green Ideas, Environment, Networking, Architecture, Engineering, Building Systems, Farah Ahmad, Farah Naz Ahmad

Iceland: First 100% Renewable Country

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My personal journal: architecture, travel, current events, New York City, & more.

Iceland: First 100% Renewable Country

Farah Ahmad

This is PART ONE of a series of blog posts on my Fall 2018 Europe trip. Highlighted company names will link you directly to travel websites for your own reference!

ICELAND

While the 5.5 hour overnight flight via Icelandair + the 5 hour time zone difference between the States and Iceland may have created an unpleasant jetlag, the rush of excitement I felt upon landing at Keflavík International Airport was overwhelming. Shortly after, we were whisked away on a shuttle bus to the airport terminal. I recall anticipating Fall weather- 60 degrees per the projected forecast- but was instead greeted by Winter weather! Had I really departed my warm New York City Fall for a much more frigid season? This was supposed to ‘feel’ like vacation! Little did I know, I was in for a real surprise. I quickly bundled up into extra layers and checked in. Soon after, we boarded a bus and arrived 40 minutes later at Hotel Cabin, in Reykjavik.

We began our journey with the 8 hour Golden Circle tour- one word, fantastic! Shout out to our guide, Thor, who made it that much more pleasant. We navigated through Reykjavik to arrive on the Ring Road, where I was cognizant of the wavy and mossy green landscape intrinsic to Iceland’s Summer season! This is also where I began to see the geothermic power plants!

1. ENERGY

ICELAND’S ENERGY IS DERIVED 100% FROM RENEWABLES.

Iceland’s energy history originates in peat and coal, with an eventual shift to electricity generation completely by renewables. Today, boreholes are drilled underground to harness the steam and hot water that turn the turbines to produce electricity.

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Within 20 minutes of our first official tour of the country, I saw geothermal piping running along the road! The geothermal water running through the piping is used for space heating, domestic hot water, sidewalk snow melting (particularly in Reykjavik), swimming pools, lagoons, etc. Mounted to concrete footings, the gleaming grey piping was elevated off the ground and ran for miles!  Yes, most of it is above ground. Every now and then, I noticed the pipe running through an above-ground mound of moss, before emerging from the other side (in fact, over 80% of the piping is above ground). I later learned the pipes are insulated with rockwool. This insulation combined with the high water speed contribute to a low temperature drop along the length of the pipe, maintaining the water’s heat. Every so often, I also realized that the pipes changed direction, as pictured above- this is to counter the expansion due to water’s heat. This also helps counter earthquake movement much better than piping running in a straight line would.

2. ICELAND’S GOLDEN CIRCLE

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Kerið Volcano Crater -our first landmark. Tip: wear sturdy walking boots, as there is loose soil by the crater’s edge.

Our early morning ventures included a pit stop at an Icelandic bakery- many delightfully colorful pastries galore. By the way, understand your USD to Krona currency conversion! Another pro tip: I found major American credit card companies easily utilized at every place I visited- no need to exchange for foreign currency.

Next up was Faxafoss- while it isn’t the largest or most powerful Icelandic waterfall, its scale is still breathtaking. The special experience of this site includes the descent to its base and the ability to feel the evaporating mist from the water. We spent quite a bit of time just soaking in the view of our first official Falls in Iceland! Needless to say, I knew I was in for an adventure considering we had already been blown away in a couple of hours.

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Here’s a quick stop at a small farm to pet some (and take selfies with) Icelandic horses, a breed unique to Iceland. They have a thick coat of hair necessary for Iceland’s harsh weather, and are smaller than your typical horse breed.

In my opinion, Gulfoss Waterfall is the single must-see waterfall- incredibly breathtaking in its immense scale, and terminating in beautiful evaporating mist. The walkway along the falls will shift your viewpoints drastically as you curve around the perimeter, so be sure to photograph it from all angles. If in a rush: you will need a solid 45 minutes here to be able to walk the length and back, and stop for photography along the way. There is a rocky formation at the end of the trail along the falls: definitely climb up and check out the stream from which the falls begin. This site makes my personal favorites list!

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The Geysir Hot Spring Area and Strokkur sites are iconic Iceland. In the hot springs area, there are boiling pits with warning signs of the high water temperature. This is relatively flat terrain so the walk is pleasant- soak in the sights of the bubbling shallow streams flowing throughout.

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Strokkur spouts water high through the air- it is quick though, so have your camera READY prior! As we walked from the drop-off point to the gathering crowd, the smell of sulfur filled the air while the hot spring erupted approximately every ten minutes. Pay close attention to the direction of the eruption, by keeping an eye out for any wet adjacent surfaces, and I would advise you to stay away! We witnessed two eruptions up close and heard the screams of the observers for several others fairly regularly, during our 90 min stay in the area. There is an adjacent restaurant and café nearby, so this is also a decent pit stop for food.

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We visited this lake, located in the rift between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. It’s pretty neat to say I have walked in between two continents!

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Game of Thrones was filmed in the above area at Þingvellir National Park, in Stekkjargja: a vast park you will need time to explore. There are loads of trails to traverse throughout the park. Our tour gave us plenty of time to visit this location and to also climb the trail to a higher elevation and obtain an expansive view of the surrounding scape below. This park marks ‘no man’s land’- the valley between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.

After a super long day, we were beat and took the drive back to a cloudy and chilly Reykjavik. The entire area was cast in tones of dull grey. Our bus driver dropped us off at the local grocery supermarket chain, Krónan, where we joyfully scoped out local produce! While halal meat was nowhere to be found for me (there are a few halal restaurants in Reykjavik!), we did purchase snacks, fruit, and local cheese (oh boy, it is deliciously fresh and unlike any that I have tasted in the States!). Walking back to the hotel, I paid closer attention to Reykjavik’s local architecture: much more experimental for residential complexes than New York, each building differing from its adjoining neighbor. Playfully composed protruding facades, varying compositions of opaque wall and floor to ceiling glass, angled metal panels, and colorful glazing greeted me as we walked back to our hotel.

3. EXTREME ICELAND

On Day 2, we embarked upon the Extreme Iceland tour. On this particular day, we experienced bright sun in the morning, shining brilliantly over the undulating landscape . Such a contrast between yesterday’s muted grey morning! This tour is several hours longer-be well rested!- and so I have done my best to summarize the highlights:

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Skogafoss Waterfall: I captured this rainbow which disappeared within 90 seconds after its appearance. Note that it is easy to get soaked if you stand close as the rush of the falls is rather overwhelming. There is also an adjacent stone walkway you can climb up to obtain an encompassing view. The falls is a 200 ft drop, one of the largest in Iceland!

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The drive to this beach along the southern coastline was totally worth it. It was pretty windy when we visited Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. Not your typical beach. The sand gets its color from lava of a nearby dormant volcano. The roaring, high waves + wind create dynamic movement along the shore, so it is best to keep a distance and stay away from the water. There is also a shallow cave which makes the perfect backdrop for photography.

We drove by  Vatnajökull , the largest ice cap in Iceland, and the largest glacial mass in Europe! We also caught sight of  Mt. Hekla  (my first volcano!), and the glacier volcano of  Eyjafjallajokull , along our drive.

We drove by Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap in Iceland, and the largest glacial mass in Europe! We also caught sight of Mt. Hekla (my first volcano!), and the glacier volcano of Eyjafjallajokull, along our drive.

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The beauty of Jokulsarlon Glacier lagoon was mesmerizing: my first time seeing icebergs! This is another personal favorite site. My mouth dropped in awe when our shuttle first pulled up to the site, because the scene is truly what I envisioned when dreaming of exotic Icelandic landscape. And, fun fact, the melting of glaciers at the Glacier Lagoon make it the deepest lake in Iceland. After taking in these sights by foot, we went sailing in the lagoon too! On board, the wind was crispy and freezing, but delightfully refreshing. Blue iceberg formations surrounded us. On board, I even held a remnant of Icelandic history in my hands: a piece of ice over 1,000 years old.

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The nearby Diamond Beach contains chunks of ice that have floated down from the lagoon.

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We spent our evening in the town of Vik- a great spot for dinner, as there are a handful of food options (for vegetarians, or for those like myself who keep halal, fish sandwiches are a fresh choice and readily found in most cafes/restaurants I encountered!). There is also a really neat indoor store for Icelandic apparel. Wool hats, anyone? Pro tip, the weather changes in Iceland quite frequently. Pack for all seasons! Periods of rain followed by periods of sun were very frequent. It remained cold throughout our three days.

Courtesy of Jocelyne Jeannot

Courtesy of Jocelyne Jeannot

Seljalandsfoss: It was rainy and pitch black when we stopped by! The floodlights only lit up the cascading falls, as we approached the base. The main attraction of this falls is the ability to walk behind it! Given the time of day + weather conditions, we opted to stay on the main pedestrian path leading upto the face of the falls. I let the drizzling rain wash over me as I absorbed the rushing water in front of me.

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4. NORTHERN LIGHTS

While driving back to Reykjavik, we were informed at around 11:00 PM, that the Northern Lights were visible from the shuttle bus! It was rather hazy and difficult to see, but I thought I saw bits of yellow in the sky from our shuttle bus. After arriving back at Hotel Cabin, we geared up our cameras, threw on extra layers, and practically ran to the edge of the Atlantic, just a few minutes walk from the hotel. With minimal light pollution in the area, it seemed like the most obvious place to try and catch sight of the spectacle.

Yes, at nearly midnight, we decided that we were going to venture out- Iceland is known as the safest country to travel to, and I certainly felt that way! We were outside between midnight and 1 AM with expensive photography equipment and with a few other onlookers, photographing along the edge of the Atlantic in Reykjavik. No sense of crime felt, for our entire duration in Iceland! I’ll also note here that the city streets were very clean, with no vandalism in sight.

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It wasn’t too long before I noticed the presence of a green haze. It seemed fragmented at first, appearing only in bits and pieces, hovering above the horizon and changing appearance every minute. It was hard to grasp a clear visible form with the naked eye, but once we adjusted our cameras to the right settings, we could appreciate the lights with clarity! As minutes passed, the transformation was that much more coherent. The form elongated and stretched out towards us at certain bits along its length. It broke apart at times, and melted together again in different spots along its stretch. At some point, I also noticed that the lights were ‘dancing.’ It is hard to describe, but the haze we saw began sparkling along a certain section. The green haze with specks of red that eventually disappeared, soon encompassed the length of the horizon along the ocean.

Below is the same setting the next morning!

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5. REYKJAVIK

On Day 3, we decided to explore the city of Reykjavik. There are a few major landmarks that are must sees.

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Sun Voyager sculpture, made of stainless steel, and resting upon granite, overlooking the Atlantic. You don't need much time here. If you’re headed to Harpa, this isn’t too far away and the blue mountain range + horizon blends in well with the ocean, making this a scenic backdrop!

Harpa is absolutely magnificent, and the interior is even more stunning. This concert hall and conference center overlooks the Atlantic. Be sure to walk through the lobby and up the various levels to see the double skin and multi-faceted envelope, exposed structural wall assembly, ‘floating’ mezzanines, and the playful light gushing into the open walkways, casting a multitude of patterned shadows throughout.

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Hallgrimskirkja is the largest church in Iceland and is a representation of the glaciers of Iceland’s landscape- just look at its bold concrete form against the horizon from far away! You can purchase a ticket for admission to the tower, and ride a lift to catch view of Reykjavik from about 240 feet above. We wandered into the church, whose interior space is relatively small. However, it houses the largest organ in the country, which was neat to see.

6. BLUE LAGOON

Our last stop prior to leaving was the Blue Lagoon- it’s less than a 30 minute drive from the airport! Conveniently located, and a great pit stop leaving to or from the airport, the Blue Lagoon is a relaxing getaway for anyone seeking a spa treatment like no other. I was relieved to see that the waters are just as turquoise as seen in photos- no Instagram filters needed! The water originates from the adjacent Svartsengi Power Plant (seen in the background behind me below, billowing steam), and at its bottom, rests an alleged beauty secret. I was a little bold and smeared some of this white ‘gunk’ from the lagoon onto my face. It’s really just silica mud paste that supposedly helps exfoliate your skin and is bottled as a facial mask product. I didn’t notice any difference on my skin by the way, so I would conclude that the lagoon masks at the airport are simply a tourist trap.

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Thank you, Iceland, for an out-of-this-world travel experience. I plan on returning someday and sincerely hope visitors can learn from your energy efficient ways! I also pray that, despite the influx of tourists, Iceland can protect its natural grounds, and avoid rapid development for the goal of preservation.

All in all, this is a very tourist friendly country: everyone I spoke to could converse in English, currency exchange was never an issue, and shuttle buses conveniently picked us up and dropped us off at our hotel. Iceland is definitely on the pricier side for food & other goods: lots of travel blogs recommend utilizing the local supermarket chains to prepare your own food. If you do have time and spend around a week or longer in Iceland, renting your own car to traverse the entire Ring Road is a popular way of seeing the country. All in all, there’s really no end to Iceland’s natural beauty: the land of fire and ice seems to house every formation of Mother Earth.

7. WHAT’S NEXT FOR ICELAND?

The rise of the sea level, frequency of natural disasters, and the melting of ice caps + glaciers are all real-time threats. However, the Iceland government is taking action, and Iceland’s commitments to the international Paris Agreement were cemented this past Fall: check out this resource for more information.

One final note- anyone planning to visit Iceland should also take the time to stop by Geothermal Exhibition, in order to appreciate the life that runs through this country’s veins!

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