Astronomy eclipse expedition explores Iceland

Posted by David Eicher
on Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Gullfoss, the most spectacular of Iceland's many waterfalls. // Credit: David J. Eicher
On our second day, March 16, the 2015 Astronomy magazine eclipse tour group focused on the remarkable geology and history of Iceland. We got a firm start in Reykjavik, the country’s capital and by far the largest city (with some two-thirds of the entire population in the Reykjavik area), our group swelled to some 50 people with a few more joining us.

We took a second drive around the city, stopping at a couple of important places, such as the former French consulate, Höfði, where in 1986 Ronald Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev during the Reykjavik Summit. And then we headed east into the interior to explore some really remarkable sights. The old saying goes that if you don’t like the Icelandic weather, wait five minutes, and it will change. And here it is literally true. We had high winds, brisk cold, splotches of sunshine and blue sky, heavy rain, hail, and an occasional drizzle. The options at times seemed to be on a set rotation.

Despite the weather challenges, our group explored Geysir and several associated hydrothermal pools and vents in a large area famous for being the first region of geothermal activity known to modern Europeans. A vicious, cold wind met us as we hiked uphill from the car park and luncheon restaurant, but we could still smell the sulfur and had great views of several areas of hot outgassing. What a great site, and one that is vaguely reminiscent of Yellowstone National Park in the States.

We also explored nearby Gullfoss, the country’s most famous waterfall. It is a cascading, wide, and beautifully blue-green shelf of icy water surrounded, at this time, by impressive blocks of ice and vaguely brown grass. It was a great photo stop, and we had a furious icy and windy downpour unleash as the last travelers climbed back aboard our bus.

The most interesting cultural visit of the day came as we stopped in to see Skálholt, one of the most important cultural centers in Iceland from the 11th through the 18th centuries. The Cathedral here, completed in 1963, is one of many built on the site since the first in 1056. The incredible stone coffins in the church’s crypt offer a look at bishops’ honors from several centuries, most prominently the huge stone coffin of Bishop Steinkista Páls Jónssonar (1155–1211) discovered by accident in 1954.

The last major site of the day was the coolest. Þingvellir National Park is an enormous and beautiful region that preserves a significant rift valley where the Eurasian and North American continental plates separate, and visitors can walk through basaltic walls showing the power of continental drift. Volcanic mountains loom in the distance, waterfalls cascade down to what once served as a sacrificial pool, rays of sunshine splay out from behind a bevy of clouds, and ancient sites where ritual ceremonies happened a thousand years ago pepper the base of the rocks along a half-hour walk.

It is really quite an astonishing place.

Today, Dennis Mammana and I turn to the business of the solar eclipse by giving morning talks, and our group will scour the island’s south shore.

More to come soon. Keep fingers crossed for clear skies!


For all images from the trip, visit the Online Reader Gallery.

For related blogs, see:
    Astronomy's 2015 eclipse trip begins in Reykjavik, Iceland

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