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It's A Gray Area: Where fire meets ice

August 14, 2010|By James P. Gray

Many people in Iceland talk about trolls as nasty or evil ogres, plagued with a seemingly endless aggressive streak. But others will tell you that these are untrue and shameful images that say more about the ignorance of the storyteller than about the trolls themselves. Yes, trolls are quite large and tremendously strong, but by nature they are essentially peaceful cave-dwellers who only come out at night. The reason they are nocturnal is that if they are touched by the rays of the sun they will turn into volcanic statues. In fact I saw many of these unfortunate creatures while on our recent trip to that most interesting island, which is east of Greenland and south of the Arctic Circle.

Actually Iceland and Greenland are misnamed, because most of Iceland is green, and almost all of Greenland is glacial ice. The common explanation is that the two lands were intentionally misnamed because Icelanders were happy being left alone and so adopted that inhospitable handle, but people in Greenland wanted to lure more tourists and residents with the more enticing name.

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But it is no mistake that Iceland is a totally volcanic island, because it sits on the fault where the American tectonic plate meets the European plate. These plates are actually moving apart from each other at the average rate of about two centimeters each year, and that opens the earth for occasional but violent volcanic eruptions.

The most recent of these was in May when Eyjafjallajökull erupted. This actually added another page to the book titled "Who Says Life is Fair?" because the airport in the capital city of Reykjavik was closed just as a precautionary measure for about two hours, but due to the volcanic ash being spewed into the air and the direction of the prevailing winds, airports in England, Belgium and even Spain were shut down for weeks.

Volcanic eruptions actually occur comparatively frequently in Iceland. For example, between 1963 and 1967 there were a series of eruptions that created a new island that was named Surtsey in honor of Surtuk, who was the mythological Norse god of fire. Originally the new island was 1 square mile in size, but with subsequent erosion by the ocean's waves it has been reduced to about half that. It also has a bit of a comical history, because a group of Frenchmen actually landed on the island while it was being formed and claimed the new land for France. The attempt was unsuccessful.

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