Discovering Iceland: my summer touring the land of fire and ice

When Science Met Nature…

Jessica’s Science Blog- 09.01.18

Discovering Iceland: my summer touring the land of fire and ice



What did you do this summer? This year I have an exciting answer: I spent the bulk of my summer on expedition in Iceland!


Iceland is AMAZINGLY beautiful, and unlike any other place I’ve traveled, I am of course referring to its basalt lava-rock dominated landscapes. Mosses and lichens cover most of the land, with a sprinkling of tiny arctic wildflowers and introduced lupines.

Waterfalls and volcanoes dot the landscape, mountain streams run to the shore, hot springs bubble up from the ground, and the largest ice cap in Europe sits perched atop a giant hot spot.

I went to Iceland to teach three University-level field courses on environmental studies to 16 college studies from the U.S. and Canada. Driving the circumference of Iceland (and keeping everyone engaged and happy) was quite the adventure, as you can probably imagine.

My TA and I each drove a 9-passenger manual diesel van across the length of Iowa and back. I had recently learned to drive stick, and before long I found myself down-shifting as we climbed up and down mountain roads. We usually sang along to music in the vans, music that later became the soundtrack of the trip. I still can’t listen to certain songs without reflecting on my time with the students.

Icebergs drift in the glacial lagoon

We spent six intense weeks together on the road, camping and hiking our way through the land of fire and ice. My favorite part of the trip was seeing the glacier at Skaftafell in Vatnajokull National Park. It was my first glacier, and I hope it won’t be my last. The size and scale of the glacier was too large to fully comprehend. We took a tour of a glacial lagoon on an amphibious vehicle. It was both sad and wondrous. We tasted one-thousand year old ice from icebergs in the lagoon.

Sea cliffs at Arnarstapi on the Snaefellsness peninsula

On the Snaefellsness peninsula, we heard ancient folktales from our Icelandic host. We toured a lava tube where trolls were said to party underground. We catalogued the diversity of delicate flora along our hike to a volcanic crater. On Lake Myvatn, we observed and studied waterfowl behavior, including that of tufted ducks, horned grebes, whooper swans, and widgeons.

The course curriculum focused on the ecology, conservation, and cultures of Iceland.


I can’t thank Wildlands Studies enough for this momentous and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! I feel fortunate to have been given this opportunity. Every day was an adventure. Some days were punishing. Others were downright magical. Several of my students inspired me with their intellectual curiosity, infectious sense of humor, and creativity and excellence re: their assignments. I feel honored to have met them.

Travel tips: In June and July, the weather in Iceland can be quite cold, windy, and rainy. We found this to be particularly true in the west. Milder temperatures were found in the northeast, near Egilsstadir. Bring rain pants, a good rain jacket, hat, and waterproof boots. Campsites are luxurious by U.S. standards. Many have geothermal heated showers, which is wonderful after a day in the rain.


If you liked this post, be sure to check out my previous blog entries on When Science Met Nature….

MAR: Feed your microbiome wisely!

FEB: Warriors of cold and flu season

JAN: Adult snow days

NOV: Gorillas have sex, too

OCT: Frogs and spiders, oh my! Surprising food web dynamics in neotropical swamps

SEP: The Long Trail

JUN, JUL, AUG: Tales from a far-flung forest: parts 1, 2, and 3,

MAY: We can be heroes! Finding your community on iNaturalist

FROM 2016: The health benefits of yoga: A scientific perspective.

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