10 September 2009

Swamping in Iceland

Monday the 31st, at five, the first episode of my Plymouth life came to an end: Roland came to rescue me from the smelly house. I thought he would take me home for dinner, but he didn’t: there was going to be yet another Veit-Roland goodbye beer session. And even this one most likely won’t be the last. We ended up at Roland’s for dinner after all. It’s a place one easily feels at home in. And we went to bed early, for the next morning at six we would be picked up by Wil, the third man of the field trip. So in the cold dark of early morning I for the first time met the man I would be spending a week with. And we took off, heading for Heathrow, and all went well so before we knew it we were at Snorrastadir, where we would spend the week. The comfortable chalets, surrounded by sceptical sheep, were greeting us in the low sun. We made dinner and had a nice glass of whisky. Let the fieldtrip begin.

The gang! Me, Wil and Roland, looking characteristically cool

The chalets as we found them

The weather forecast had suggested that the next day would be beautiful, and after that things would deteriorate, so we wanted to make the most of this promising field day. Thus we loaded the surveying equipment, the sampling paraphernalia and our personal stuff into the car at an early hour, and set off. Smoothly. Until we came to where we had to park the car and continue on foot. Between us and our destination were mudflats (and it was high tide), lava flows, and salt marshes. The mud flats were no option at this time of day and the lava flows are difficult to negotiate, so we chose the salt marshes, which were intersected only by paths made by and for sheep. But these provided the most comfortable passage.

I quickly lost my sense of direction, but Roland seemed to know exactly where he was going. And he did. After one and a half hour, at a spot in the marsh that to me looked like any other spot in the marsh, Roland and Wil walked to a channel that had cut through the marsh surface, and looked very pleased. And indeed, in a curve of the channel an old cut-out could be discerned. Years before they had taken samples there, and it could still be seen! And they had found it. In order for the surface measurements to be calibrated we also needed to find a benchmark they had made in the nearby lava flow. A benchmark in the shape of a stainless steel nail, marked with bright paint. Years ago, that is. When we set out to look for it Roland let himself be guided by his GPS, and at some point announced it should be there somewhere. I just looked around and saw an unmarked, very rusty nail sticking out of a crack in the rock. It was the benchmark! After years of destructive work by the sea and the wind.

A general impression of the marsh

Roland above the old cut

The not very conspicuous anymore benchmark

Lunch in the sun

Evidently we had a good vibe. We enjoyed a sandwich in the sun, and rolled up our sleeves. We wanted to gather surface samples around the old section to ground truth it. Initially we wanted to do two transects in the vicinity. Roland marked them out. And then another one because he couldn’t resist. Using a tape measures, land surveying equipment and marker flags we measured the elevation along the transect, chose and marked sample points, and got out our brand new cutters. Wil knows a blacksmith who had made special salt marsh surface samplers. Excellent! Like a well-oiled war machine we sampled away. One transect. And another one. And the third! And then, why not, we marked out a fourth one, along an extra low part of the marsh. Who knows what we would find. And then we had 58 samples, tired bodies and empty stomachs. Time to go back to the chalets. I was the only one with a reasonably sized backpack, so the honour befell to me to carry not only the EDM (the surveying object) but also all the samples back. After the winter hike in Iceland I am not so easily impressed with heavy backpacks anymore. I should mention, though, that if I would have been, these men would have been more than willing to take over. But this time unnecessarily.

Wil looking menacing beside the EDM

A transect laid out

A full action picture

We came back to the chalet at about eight, and I set out to cook curry, while Roland fell asleep on the couch, and Wil actively avoided couch-like surfaces in order to escape a similar fate. And after the curry, a glass of whisky and feeling quite pleased with ourselves we went to bed.

Another impression of the surroundings

Decorative sheep in the evening light on the way back

We had done two days of fieldwork in one, so we allowed ourselves a day of relative rest. In the morning we set out to visit a nearby mini-volcano. If it would have featured a Hollywood film we would have criticised it for hardly being realistic. But there it was. The dog belonging to the chalet owners saw an opportunity and joined us. It was not only a stroll for fun: the students were always in the back of the men’s mind, and this would be a perfect excursion point for some volcanologic education. Even being pint-sized it managed to impress with its view into the crater. I could not resist and walked (and clambered) all around it, accompanied by the ever-enthusiastic dog.

Cute dog on a background with a cute volcano

It was too big to be captured in one picture…the gentlemen for scale

The afternoon was spent on a reconnaissance mission in the surroundings. Were there more suitable salt marshes? Were the other interesting features? This time I got to drive. First time in an automatic! You get used to it quickly. And the narrow gravel roads felt familiar.

We came across yet another dog eager to get some company. Two men happy with the configuration

The homely routine had by that time also settled in. I thought we made a good makeshift household. I had to step up a bit in prompt hygiene but I think I managed. And Roland and Wil have shown before to be a good team, and I had no difficulty at all feeling blended in almost immediately. And I think we found a good balance between working hard and focussed, and letting off some steam by being silly in between. It was good!

The surface samples were the main goal, but we also wanted to resample the vertical section since the original one was running out of material. So after this day of recovering ourselves we had to go recover more sediment. We left the EDM in the chalet, and set off with large steel liners that would hold 60 cm of sediment. This time it already seemed much quicker to get to the site. At which Wil magically conjured up two liners more! He had been here in 2003, and had gathered so much sediment it was hardly possible to carry it back, and in order to not make things worse he had left two empty liners behind. And he retrieved them. Six years of tides had not even rendered the labels unreadable.

Some bird we came across
We hammered three tins (steel tins? Well why not) into the wall, got them out, cleaned, packed and labelled them, and then we were basically done for the fieldtrip. This time we walked back over the mud flats, as we had timed our quest well this time. It meant a lot of sloshing through mud that just wasn’t deep enough to drool into your shoes, a lot of splashing through low water, and jumping (or trying to jump) over numerous streams, but we could more or less walk as the crow flies and in an hour we were near the car. There we explored terrain for potential sites for the students’ excursion, and went home. After lunch we went for a walk along the beach, again digging in every exposure we came across, hunting for educative features. And briefly teamed up with the dog again. And coming up with the brilliant idea to have Wil cook an excellent meal of fish and chips while Roland and I jumped into the hot tub that belonged with the chalet, accompanied by two beers and the usual cheeky little snifter of whisky. It worked brilliantly.

A fresh section is cut

Clean up, pack in, and leave!

We already had done everything we needed to do for the fieldwork and more, but the men had come up with the idea of looking for a pure peat bog section and take that home as well, for scientific reasons I will not get too deep into here. So the next day we went on a search. We tried several promising sites, but the peat was never pure enough. Until we drove along a bog with a freshly cut drainage channel running through. The bog had been inaccessibly swampy, but with this channel it would soon be fit for grazing by horses. And it saved us the digging of a deep pit. Happily we recovered another tin-full of sediment from the channel, and called it a field trip. Getting even more material would be really overdoing it. And we also had to manage to get everything home.

Wil looking very smug with another tin full of sediment, and the drainage channel in the background

We then had two and a half days left. Time for fun! We used the afternoon for a road trip. We intended to drive closely past Snaefellsjokull volcano, but unfortunately the road was exclusively claimed by a hoard of rally drivers. Luckily the volcano is also beautiful from the other side.

We drove a nice curl in the rain through the magical, dreamy landscape. We passed by numerous volcanic cones that had vomited out numerous jagged, crumbly lava flows, and by beautiful basalt columns, dizzying vertical cliffs, strange erosional features, and got out of the car often to be humbled by this landscape that seemed to have such an overpowering personality.

Slightly less impressive are the towns: here Stykkisholmur

Sunday the weather was supposed to be rather bad, so we decided to drive inland and have a look there. Roland had come up with a cunning route featuring many interesting sights, beginning with a very picturesque waterfall. And then whole range of waterfalls, many of them coming from the flank of a lava flow. These can be very permeable, and this one obviously was. The main channel this water ended up in was a roaring white mass, just some tens of meters upstream. And then something I looked forward to! A 4 km lava cave. We first went in at the wrong side. It was more 40 than 4000m there. Pretty, though! On the other side a tunnel went into the rock, and it was easy to believe it indeed would lead far, yet entry was blocked. Understandable, but disappointing too. So we went on.

This was the wrong end
This was the right end, but still an end…

And what then followed was for me the absolute top of our roaming. Coming inland the landscape already became inhospitable. Grey lava flows as far as the eye could see. No vegetation, no colour, nowhere a little spot you could pitch your tent. Just grey rock. And dark peaks lurking at the horizon. We drove deeper and deeper into this unforgiving interior that could not be captured on camera. I felt like my heart was blown clean by the sheer beauty. And then we came to the edge of the ice cap. The road led all the way to it; we could even have driven onto it. But we were rowdy, yet not that rowdy. But standing on glacier ice again, so soon after Strupbreen, was amazing. The skies were haunted by dark clouds, and the reign of this troll-infested land was complete. Awestruck we went back to the car. And slowly drove back to civilisation.

We had thought we could do some hikes on Monday, since Wil and I would travel on Tuesday. But we had forgotten that it would be an early flight, and we would have to spend the night near the airport. And that we had to deliver the rental car back to the rental company, and Roland to Reykjavik where he would meet up with the students. So we had to be back in Reykjavik at four, and it still was quite a drive. We therefore restricted ourselves to a visit to a nearby volcano that had produced a lava flow that is mentioned in the Landnammabok. It had evidently spat out some more explosive material, of remarkable colours, after the more gloopy lavas. And finally we just drove into another very arctic-looking, empty valley, where we had lunch on the shores of a lake. And then we headed back.
It felt like being on Mars!

The red tuffs on the blackish lavaflow, and Eldborg, the cute volcano, on the background

We delivered a miserable Roland, who was dearly missing his family, to the slightly depressing youth hostel that was crouching in the drizzle, in some uninteresting quarter of an ugly city. And drove to the airport. And about 24 hours later we were back in Plymouth, and unloaded all the samples into the cold storage. The end of an amazing field trip. And though we are now temporarily bereft of our inspiring scientist-in-chief we can start moving forward the boundaries of science with these ample samples. And start preparing for the next field trip…


De TV-psycholoog said...

Je doet het goed als autoadvertentiebabe! Mocht je nog eens zonder werk zitten... Mooie foto trouwens, die met die schapen!

Margot said...

Ja ik dacht nog, moeten we er niet ook een maken waarbij ik in bikini op de motorkap lig... maar ik was te verlegen. Nou ja. Als ik vrees voor mijn carriere in de wetenschap krijg ik in Portugal wel de kans om mijn autoadvertentiebabekunsten bij te schaven!

Viking said...

Hmpf. Ik vind strakke rode outdoor-gear toch beter hoor. Bikini's in unforgiving troll-invested landscapes... Ik weet het niet...

En verder... ehm... Amsterdam-Noord kan ook heel mooi zijn. Hier en daar. Dus ik ben heus niet jaloers. Phuh!

Margot said...

Nou, mooi, dan ben jij tevreden met mijn motorkappendellerij! En Maaike heeft aangetoond dat je in een reactie ook foto's kan plaatsen. Dus imponeer ons Viking!