Iceland: A Little Clean-Up in the Wintertime

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Iceland in March:  Environment, Photography, and Aurora Hunting

By Ava Kabouchy

It all started with Sister Adelaide. When Sr. Adelaide told us eight-year-old third graders about the aurora borealisIMG 6519 in geography class at St. Brigid’s School in North Bergen, New Jersey so many years ago, I was enthralled by the idea of the night sky lighting up in green.  

A Different Kind of Trip to Iceland

My trip to Iceland many years later wasn’t only about seeing the aurora.  Protecting our planet’s health had come to the fore with the advent of ecotourism. 

A possibility to both see the aurora and better understand how to protect our planet was provided by joining a workcamp organized by SEEDS, an NGO based in Reykjavik.

Impossible to spend extended amounts of time outside in mid-March in Iceland, we workcamp participants in the Environmentally Aware and Trash Hunting Project, did two cleanup projects in Reykjavik.

Appalled to discover how many bits of broken plastic, other trash, and cigarette butts we collected on and under the melting snow, we filled two large burlap bags and could have filled more. 

Full and Busy Days

All of our days with SEEDS were filled with activities, which included after-dinner workshops on photograph composition, lighting, and editing.  We also visited the educational Whales of Iceland exhibition, reminding people of the negative impact humans have on the existence of whales. 

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One afternoon we observed an Icelandic language course for a large group of immigrants and refugees faced with learning a new and difficult language. 

As I looked at two Muslim women, I wondered how they had managed to get to Iceland, but even more, how they were adjusting to such an extreme change of culture and climate. 

Visit to a Geothermal Plane in the Golden Circle

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If you aren‘t an engineer or a scientist, you might not find a visit to a geothermal plant interesting, but this was Iceland, which uses imported oil only for transportation and fishing.

We learned at the Hellisheiði Power Plant that in 1940. Iceland began using geothermal power, a renewable energy source. 

Amazingly, 73% of Iceland‘s electricy is produced by hydropower plants and almost 27% is produced by geothermal energy.

The Beauty of Iceland.  It really is all that it is cracked up to be!

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After visiting the plant, our young driver and guide drove us to the Geysir Geothermal Area to see some of the geysers which provide the country‘s hot water for heating homes and other spaces. 

We saw steaming fumaroles caused by the boiling water which runs just a few feet beneath the earth‘s surface and the geyser, which regularly shoots steam and boiling water high into the air. 

Nearby was the Gullfoss Waterfall, giving us an idea of the power of hydropower, a spectacular sight under a blue sky and white snow.  On our way back to Reykavik, we spotted a small herd of Icelandic horses – small but strong animals with a double coat to keep them warm in the very long and harsh winter. 

Brought to Iceland by the Vikings in the 8th century, the horses by law cannot be imported so that the breed will remain pure and disease free.

Snaefellsnes National Park

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Another excursion took us to Snaefellsnes National Park, located on a peninsula where March winds blowing over the cliffs made us tread carefully as we watched high surf crashing into the black volcanic cliffs.  The back of a whale emerged, an amazing site, which was like a gift. 

We then hiked in the snow to a cave in the blue and white landscape to see a river flowing within it, then down to a black sand beach bordered by black volcanic monoliths protruding out of the white snow and others standing in the sea, being battered by high winds and high seas. 

As our van approached Kirkjufell Mountain, its iconic beauty could be seen even from a distance.  High and looking much like a peaked hat, some snow still covered it and below cascaded two waterfalls.

Reflections of a Different Kind of Visit to Iceland

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You can visit the Blue Lagoon and Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, behind which you can walk, and sleep in a bubble hotel waiting for the aurora to appear.  But this was a different kind of Icelandic experience.  The progam participants, all young women by chance from Italy, Greece, France, Mexico, Belgium, Germany, and Portugal had admirable goals.

Some had just finished high school and were doing a gap year to travel not as tourists, but as young women interested in organizations such as SEEDS and the environmental work it is doing. 

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Their interests were in developmental economics and humanitarian work, art, business start-ups, medicine, and medical research.

Concern exists among Icelanders and within their government that over-tourism is harming the country’s fragile environment. 

Justin Bieber, who produced a video in the valley where the Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss Waterfalls are located, brought so much tourism to that area that the government had to close it for a while. 

Bieber‘s antics, such as skateboarding atop a crashed plane and rolling down a moss-covered hill were being imitated, causing not only danger to the tourists themselves but harm to the environment – moss can take up to 70 years to grow and it was being destroyed.

Back to Sr. Adelaide 

I did see the aurora borealis.  As we got out of the van on a very cold and very windy March night in Kleifarvatin, the dream of an enthralled eight-year-old came to life.  I put my gloved hands over my face in awe and just stared upwards. 

Green lights in the sky just as Sr. Adelaide had described them, different sizes and shapes, shades of light green and dark green. 

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They would disappear.  They would return.  They would change shape.  Fourth of July fireworks could never have compared.  This was natural, nature at her finest.

I thought of Sr. Adelaide’s long Dominican habit and wimple, which covered much of her pretty face.  When we third graders became fifth graders, we heard a rumor that Sr. Adelaide had left the convent, which didn’t surprise any of us.

Today I wonder if all those years ago if Sr. Adelaide was enthralled by the vision of the aurora borealis and if she, too, saw it as I did one day and experienced the wonder of green lights dancing in the northern skies.

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