Tag Archives: Iceland

Looking in the Margins for Clues About Economic Inequality and Environmental Change in Medieval Iceland

During the middle ages, Iceland’s recently settled landscape saw many changes—everything from the transition to an agricultural society to the adoption of Christianity. These changes altered and shaped the rolling hillsides and the people of Iceland to their cores.

Kathryn Catlin, a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University’s Anthropology Department, is digging in Iceland’s soil for clues to the impacts of these changes. She is now in the second year of a National Science Foundation-funded project to uncover how manmade environmental changes impacted the lives of medieval Icelandic farmers who scratched out a living on highly eroded farmland. The project, titled The Archaeological Investigation of Erosion and its Effect on Social Processes in the Arctic, focuses on medieval farms in Hegranes, an island in Skagafjörður, north Iceland.

This month, Catlin speaks with Field Notes about her research in to the connections between soil erosion and economic inequality and what we can learn from them now, as our own landscapes undergo dramatic manmade changes.

Field Notes (FN): What did the Norse settlement of Hegranes Iceland look like circa 870?

Kathryn Catlin (KC): Iceland in the middle ages was a lot like Scandinavia. The settlers brought a Scandinavian-style social structure with them. There would have been a chieftain who had several followers living and working on his farm.

During the medieval period, what we have were isolated farms dotting the landscape. Some of these farms were large and more powerful. Then there were these more peripheral, dependent farms where the farmers owed some sort of rent, tribute or labor to the central farm. I’m interested in the peripheral, marginal places.

FN: What do you hope to learn by studying the remnants of these smaller medieval farms in Iceland?

KC: I’m interested in looking at a series of abandoned structures that are still visible on Iceland’s landscape. These places are located in the marginal areas, between the more viable lands where the soil is deeper. The marginal areas are highly eroded; there’s barely any soil left at all.

I want to understand what the people were doing in these areas, how they related to the more successful farms, and how this was related to the human-driven environmental changes that were happening during this period of time.

FN: What was happening in medieval Iceland? Why were the first 500 years after settlement so dynamic and full of social change?

KC: The environment was changing quite a bit at this time, especially during the first 100 years of settlement. People began to deforest the landscape. They cleared land for homes, they set animals out to pasture in the highlands, and they cut down trees for fuel and for construction.

There was a really big push to change the land and make it similar to the agricultural landscape they had created in Norway and elsewhere in Scandinavia. At the same time, there were related social changes that were happening where people begin to establish large farms and then smaller ones.

According to the Landnámabók, a medieval text that describes the settlement of Iceland, by about the year 930 the land was “fully settled.” We usually take that to mean that just about all the viable land that people could farm and live on had been claimed and turned into the property of one powerful family or another.

On top of everything I just mentioned, around the year 1000 Iceland officially became a Christian country. So there was a lot going on!

FN: What are the connections between soil erosion and economic inequality?

KC: There’s actually a relatively large body of research and literature to do with erosion and social difficulty. Studies, particularly some done in Africa, show that places where people are living in poverty tend to also be areas that are eroding.

It’s all tied in to the economic infrastructure of the region. The powerful groups often benefit from the exploitation of the land. At the same time, this exploitation destroys the livelihoods of the people that live on areas becoming degraded.

Along with the loss of trees in medieval Iceland, we are able to see rapid erosion and changes in the soil profile.

FN: How do you collect data to shed light on the relationships between erosion and economic inequality in a settlement that’s over a thousand years old?

KC: One of our major methodologies is soil coring. We do over a thousand soil cores every summer. We use a core that can extend up to 120 cm. This gives us a soil profile that contains information on how the landscape formed and the degree of erosion. It also helps us locate turf used for construction and midden areas where trash was disposed. We will be collecting more cores this summer, as well as many 1m by 1m test excavation units to learn more about each site and to collect materials (primarily charcoal) for carbon dating.

FN: What types of data do you collect? Do you find many artifacts?

KC: We actually find very few artifacts. In the places I’m looking, the people would have been on the lower side of the social scale. They may not have had that many objects, and the majority of the things they had would have been organic—made of bone, cloth, or wood, all of which tend to degrade over time. We often find butchered animal bones, mostly sheep and some cows. Additionally, Iceland’s soil is not very good for making ceramics, so there isn’t much of a ceramic tradition on this island. Occasionally we’ll find metal objects—things like jewelry, nails, arrowheads, and other kinds of iron workings.

Most of the construction in Iceland during this time was made from cutting turf out of the bogs and letting it dry. You can still see numerous historical sites where people built these types of structures. Once the turf gets buried in the sod, you see a very red iron signature in the soil. This tells us where the structures were on the landscape.

We also look for areas where they deposited trash—like charcoal, peat ash and animal bones. So these are the things we look for to tell us what was going on at these sites, when sites were established, and when they were abandoned.

FN: Can what you learn about medieval Hegranes tell us anything about how environment changes shape social and economic standing today?

KC: I’ve thought about this a lot! Infrastructure is something that’s created by the powerful to maintain a particular relationship with the environment and that feeds the economic resources back to those in power. Everyone living within that infrastructure tends to support the ongoing status quo that may or may not be environmentally sustainable.

My hope is that we can think about our modern-day infrastructure in these terms and consider how we can build and shape people’s practices more toward sustainability rather than away from it, which is what I think is happening now.

For more photos and information on Kathryn Catlin’s archeological work in northern Iceland, visit www.blogs.umb.edu/scass and www.kathrynacatlin.net/blog. –Alicia Clarke

Exploring Fisheries Management and Livelihoods in Iceland

The settlement of Norðurfjörður is home to 50 people who are snowed in all winter when the roads shut down. In the summer the harbor in bustling with activity from visiting fishermen due to its close proximity to cod grounds. Photo: All photos courtesy of Catherine Chambers

The settlement of Norðurfjörður is home to 50 people who are snowed in all winter when the roads shut down. In the summer the harbor bustles with activity from visiting fishermen due to its close proximity to cod grounds. Photo: Catherine Chambers

The North Atlantic island nation of Iceland is home to both large and small-scale fisheries; among them are cod, capelin and herring fisheries. Strong fisheries coupled with the country’s unique fisheries management system makes it a perfect place to explore questions of how people, their families, interests and finances are all connected to fishing and management strategies. These questions are driving the ethnographic research of University of Alaska Fairbanks doctorate researcher Catherine Chambers. She’s lived in Iceland for the past six years and is leading a National Science Foundation-funded project titled, Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant: Fishing livelihoods and fisheries management in Northwest Iceland, to examine these questions and their broader implications.

This month Catherine Chambers discusses her doctorate project, how she collected data and some initial findings with Field Notes.

Catherine with a small perk of the job. If you help out on deck you might get to take home dinner!

Catherine with a small perk of the job. If you help out on deck you might get to take home dinner! Photo: Catherine Chambers

Field Notes (FN): Where did the idea to study fishing livelihoods and fisheries management in Iceland come from?

Catherine Chambers: My husband and I came to Iceland in 2008 right at the time of the global financial crisis, which, as you might know, impacted Iceland first and very significantly. I became really interested in how people talk about the link between economic crises and other crises or changes, like climate change. There’s such a strong link between fisheries and economics, of course. For me it was really interesting to watch the discourse develop—OK, we have this really big financial shock, what does that mean for how we access our fish? Can we still make money off of our fish? So I began this self-led exploration in to all these issues through the Marine Ecosystem Sustainability in the Arctic and Subarctic program at University of Alaska Fairbanks.

FN: What do you hope to learn from this project?

CC: The main question I have centers around the connection between how we design our fisheries management systems and what that means for the individuals engaged in fishing. We know from around the world there are so many really intense cultural connections to fishing. Fishing is a way to make money, but it’s much more than that in many places. So my big question is what does a sustainable fisheries management systems look like – sustainable both ecologically and socially.

FN: What makes Iceland so well suited for this type of research?

CC: In Iceland almost all of the fisheries are run under one management system, which is a quota system. That means that the right to fish is a tradable commodity. So you own the right to fish and you pay for that right. The reason that it’s interesting to look at fisheries management in Iceland is because when you have something like people needing to pay to enter a limited fishery, it brings up questions about equity, who has the money to participate, and the fairness of the system.

FN: What roles do fishing and fisheries play in Icelandic culture and modern day society?

CC: Icelanders have always had a strong relationship with the sea, which has changed over time. The Vikings that came from Norway were farmers. Fishing was a way to feed their families in the winter months. It wasn’t until the 1700 or 1800s that people from other countries came in significant numbers to access the rich fishing grounds here.  Then in the 1800s and 1900s, as fishing technology improved, Iceland as a nation really started to get in to fisheries. When Iceland became an independent nation in the 1940s, fishing really became a nation-building activity because of the high export value of fish, especially cod. Fishing here has a very different history than a lot of other places where marine resources have been taken in large quantities for daily sustenance and direct consumption. It’s always been tied in with money and commerce, but that doesn’t mean it’s more or less culturally important.

Conducting an interview for a short film on fishermen's experiences with sea ice. Here Chambers talks to a fisherman about the way the ice moves in the bay and how fish accumulate around the ice.

Conducting an interview for a short film on fishermen’s experiences with sea ice. Here Chambers talks to a fisherman about the way the ice moves in the bay and how fish accumulate around the ice. Photo: Catherine Chambers

FN: How did you collect data?

CC: I primarily used methods from social sciences, especially anthropology, because I’m very interested in the cultural connections to fishing and fishing livelihoods. I use a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods. The qualitative methods are interviews. I go out on fishing boats to observe and help out, I meet up with fishermen in cafes and sometimes go to home visits and I have a list of questions to make the interview a bit more standardized. But I can deviate from those questions a little if something interesting comes up, and that makes it a little more qualitative than quantitative. I then transcribe those interviews and put them in to a coding software. It’s kind of like how people tag photos on Facebook. For example, you can tag every time someone is talking about salmon in the interviews. This lets you process the data in a way that is meaningful and lets you see how people are thinking about issues and what is important to them.

After I analyze the qualitative interview data, I then take the major themes, issues and questions that come up and I turn them in to survey questions. Last summer I finished a big, nationwide survey of Icelandic fishermen. We surveyed people by mail and also collected demographic data. The survey let me quantitatively test some of the questions that came up in the interviews to see if a broader survey sample size of people still agrees with that.

Iceland is pretty small, but it was great to take a whole sample frame of a nation. That’s really hard to do in the U.S. and maybe other countries. We sent the survey out to 500 people. There are approximately 1,200 small-scale fishing boats. So to survey a little less than half is pretty amazing. And the response was great.

FN: Are there any initial findings you can share with Field Notes readers? 

CC: In the survey there was a section that examined job satisfaction. Understanding how people like their jobs is an important link in fisheries management. It’s really interesting because the way people respond to these questions lets you know what’s going on in the fishery.

I have a lot of responses about people enjoying being their own boss, not wanting to work in an office, and therefore people want fisheries to be sustainable. People also want to be involved in fisheries management to ensure they and future generations still have a job as a fisher.  So you begin to see the underlying reasons of why people are fishing.

Research partner Katharina Schneider chats with a fisherman about his many previous boats, all with the same lucky name.

Research partner Katharina Schneider chats with a fisherman about his many previous boats, all with the same lucky name. Photo: Catherine Chambers

FN: What’s next?

CC: My next steps are to take the results, once they are ready, back out in to the community. My plan is to go around the country and do some talks in communities to show people what it is that I found. I want to invite fishermen to the talks to show the research they participated in is meaningful. I want to also invite community leaders and decision makers so they can see the results. For more information of Catherine Chambers’ research, visit: https://sites.google.com/site/catchambers/. Also check out a short video Chambers produced about her research titled Fishing livelihoods & fisheries management in North Iceland visit, at http://vimeo.com/40929092. Alicia Clarke

Notes From the Traveler’s Journal: Iceland, Day 2

Small spouts of steam rise through the ash covered snow.

In the first installment of his Icelandic adventure, we followed Field Notes contributor Larry Mishkar and his hiking partner Jenni Post as they hiked toward the Eyjafjallajokull volcano. They spent seven weeks in Iceland last summer testing their physical and emotional endurance against the country’s ashy trails and scree-covered switch-backs. In this installment, their second day of hiking takes them through deep ash and over new lava from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano.

June 19, 2010

We awake to clear weather (meaning no fog) after a good nights’ rest at the Baldvinsskáli hut. Yellow trail markers outline the zig and zag trail crossing the ash-covered snow, and the Fimmvörðuháls hut is still visible. It’s one of the many huts across Iceland owned by Útivist, an Icelandic hiking association.

It’s hard to judge distance here, but after an hour of grueling switchbacks, we’ll get to see the hut first hand. Beyond the hut, we’ll be hiking through Goðaland on the way to Thórsmörk.

Upon reaching the hut, we hear voices coming from inside, and see a bright yellow unicycle stored under the eaves.

The hut at Fimmvörðuháls surrounded by ash. All photos: Larry Mishkar

Dark lines on the hut’s walls tell the story of a thick blanket of ash, up to a meter in depth that had covered the deck. Someone did a lot of shoveling!

Some ash still remains on the hut's deck.

Quietly, a man appears at the door and identifies himself as the hut keeper. He welcomes us. Inside we find warmth supplied by a heater and eight bodies who’ve spent the night curled up in the bunks.

A hole dug to access snow for drinking water shows the deep ash layer.

As luck would have it, a Útivist guide named Ása and her family are about to leave the hut for Básar, another Útivist hut at Thórsmörk.

A new trail, marked the day before by another Útivist guide, detours around most of the new lava flow, and we’re invited to hike with them.

As we set off, fog rolls in, but the yellow trail markers keep us on course—it’s still hard to stay on the path.

Our group comes to a ‘Y’ in the trail; to the right the original trail goes a short distance, ending at a 20’ wall of new lava.

The new trail, with fresh markers and no deep rut cut from boots, veers left. So do we. After a brisk uphill hike, we come to a stop on a ridge.

Below us, the landscape looks like the moon.

The landscape covered with steam vents.

Above us, somewhere up in the clouds, is Eyjafjallajokull. Evidence of the eruption is all around us: ash, small steam vents, burned rock, hot lava, and the stench of sulfur. There is sound too, the sound of super heated steam bursting through the earth’s surface through tiny holes in the crusty surface.

Our hiking speed slows as we linger to observe the eerie landscape and take photographs. We stop along side of the new lava flow.

Part of the new lava field covered dusted with ash.

The air is damp and mist accumulates on the surface of our clothes. Even with a thick mix of fog and clouds, we get some sense of the landscape. Vents shoot up steam from cracks in the earth.

Small spouts of steam rise through the ash covered snow.

Rock, turned brilliantly wild colors by the heat, crunch under foot. They’re sharp, brittle, and still hot.

Scorched earth, still very hot, shown in various colors.

Hot air radiates from the earth and sulphur smells twist our noses. We stop for a while and build a small cairn with loose lava rock to mark the trail between yellow markers.

Making a cairn with lava rock along the new trail.

After traversing the interior of Magni, the larger of the two new craters that erupted back in March, we carefully cross over a short distance of fresh lava.

Traversing a small crater on the new trail.

(The newly staked route takes in two new craters, Magni, and the smaller Móði, named after the sons of the Norse thunder god Thor).

Stepping lightly, the new lava appears like whipped chocolate frosting, with brittle tips, sharp points and edges, and smooth surfaces.

We move quickly; there’s no time for photography. If we rest too long, we might break through the crust, and suffer severe, if not deadly, burns.

We cross without incident, then stop and take photographs.

Despite all the ash, one small flower manages to grow near the lava flow.

Its deep pink color contrasts greatly to the black ash. We stop to admire its success.

The trail continues up a step ridge, then immediately down the other side, equally steep and treacherous. We rejoin the original trail here, and pass a rock cairn marking where two women and a man died in a 1970 sleet storm.

With the aid of a steel cable, we lower ourselves down a steep ridge traverse, shielding ourselves among boulders to have lunch in the saddle of two ridges. Then the rain begins.

For an hour, it rains horizontally as we continue our hike across a rocky plateau. Small rocks outline the trail, guiding us slowly down another ridge. Gradually, we begin to see more green. Thórsmörk is close by.

Hiking downhill into Thórsmörk from the south.

As we dip below the clouds, we see dwarf birches, green grasses, and millions of flowers in bloom along the hillsides and peaks. Guided by ropes strung between high points, we step carefully as the trail follows the ridge’s razor’s edge.

Flowers and shrubs perfume the air. The sweet aromatic smell is almost overwhelming. Many plants are quite small, in various colors, shapes and sizes.

We also notice the Heath spotted orchid (Gevlekte orchis), huddled close to the ground. We’ve arrived at Thórsmörk.

The heath spotted orchid (Gevlekte orchis) growing in Thórsmörk.

Our Iceland companions quicken their pace and disappear down the trail. We stop and make numerous photographs. Having witnessed so many landscape and weather patterns in just 48 hours, we wonder: what’s next?

We follow the signs to the Útivist campground.

Amongst the birches are open areas for tent camping. Lush green grass rooted in thick ash is a reminder of what occurred here just a few months before.

After dinner, we chill out and enjoy the view. Large rock outcrops surround us. The Krossá River, the drainage for the giant Mýrdalsjökull Glacier rush nearby; its wide expanse will require skill to cross tomorrow as we continue northward.

As the evening settles, the clouds begin to clear and shafts of yellow light paint the surrounding rock walls from blue to yellow, orange, and red.

Rock forms in Thórsmörk glowing under the evening sun.

The young leaves on the birches are bright green in this light, their edges outlined in bright yellow.

Another night of sore feet, full bellies, and a sense of ‘wow’ overcome us. Tomorrow will be another day of adventure.

Notes From the Traveler’s Journal: Iceland

Field notes contributor Larry Mishkar and his hiking partner Jenni Post spent seven weeks in Iceland last summer testing their physical and emotional endurance against the ashy trails and scree-covered switchbacks they encountered during their first pedestrian crossing of Iceland. Lucky for us, he brought his camera along.

Downtown Reykjavík as seen from the Hallgrimskirkja (church). All photos: Larry Mishkar

June 16, 2010

We landed in Iceland early this morning—the land of fire and ice, and a wee bit of ash—after leaving Seattle last night.

Air travel was flawless, as the volcano under Eyjafjallajokull Glacier is no longer erupting. (The ash plume resulting from the volcano’s eruption last spring disrupted air travel in the western hemisphere for weeks.) Our plans were-touch-and-go for the past few months, but now only innocent white steam clouds rise above the crater. We also learned the volcano’s nickname, E15. Now, if only all long, Icelandic words had nicknames! Our rudimentary Icelandic lessons are proving a wise investment, however, nicknames not withstanding.

Three Stages: Glacier, Desert, Coast

 We’ve divided our route into three parts: the glacier pass section from Skógarfoss to Thórsmörk; the long hike across the desert highlands from Thórsmörk to Mývatn, and the final leg up the north coast from Mývatn to Hraunhafnartangi on the Greenland Sea. The 1950s concrete lighthouse and the rock cairn burial site of Thorgeir Hávarsson lies just 800 meters from the Arctic Circle.

We plan to spend two days in Reykjavik for jet lag recovery, sight-seeing, and shopping—we need to buy stove fuel and some trail food.

We’ll be sending a care package to Landmannalaugar, Landmann for short. The town is a rest stop (between Thórsmörk and Mývatn) on our route and the northern terminus of the famous Laugavegur Trail. It lies where the mountainous southern region bows to the expansive central high desert.

About the Laugavegur Trail

Thousands of tourists visit Landmann each season for its famous hot springs, loon inhabited lakes, and numerous nearby day hiking routes. With relatively easy road access from Reykjavik, it is a natural place to relax. It’s on one of the daily Landmann buses that our package will ride, tightly packed next to the hoards of backpacks and suitcases from around the globe.

Base camp in Reykjavik is a hostel just off the main square and next to the Allthingi—House of Parliament—and close to food, ATMs, pubs, and anything we might need.

The sculpture Solfar Suncraft installed along the coastal walk in Reykjavík.

There’s also an underground Viking archaeological site visible through a large window in the sidewalk just a few feet away. Another excavation recently took place on the other side of the hostel—archaeologists found a Viking-age forge site, the first forge ever located in Iceland.

June 17, 2010

We discovered yesterday that today, the 17th, is Iceland’s Day of Independence; we hurried with our shopping in anticipation of stores being shut. We suspect that the revelers will be up through tomorrow morning, not any different from your typical Reykjavik weekend, actually, so we’ll do the respectful thing and join them for beers on the lawn across from the Allthingi. Part of the celebration includes an antique car show, replete with large, shiny cars mostly from Detroit’s Golden Era.

June 18, 2010

After two mostly sleepless nights with 24-hours of daylight streaming in through our white-curtained windows, food buying, and Independence Day celebrating, we slide our packs (about 35 lbs each) into the belly of a white cross-country bus and fall into a coma as it heads east to Skógarfoss trailhead.

We are concerned about conflicting information concerning our ability to hike the pass. “Yes, it is open,” says one hut operator on the north side of the pass. “No, it is too dangerous and still closed,” the bus driver and a ticket seller say.

With dried sausage and vegetables, Icelandic cheese, jars of American peanut butter, and bags of custom-smoked salmon from Seattle, we leave the city behind and head east along Highway 1 – the Ring Road.

Blast off

Skógarfoss spills over the original shoreline.

A few hours later, we arrive at Skógarfoss. Foss means waterfall, thus it’s the Skógar waterfall. A small wood hut and brightly colored tents announce we have arrived.

This first section ends in a wooded dreamland called Thórsmörk. It’s about 13.7 miles to Thor’s Woods, that lovely valley filled with dwarfed birch, fragrant flowers, and one of Iceland’s most beautiful orchids.

To get there, the trail begins with a step staircase to the top of the original shoreline.

Lunch first—those stairs can wait.

During the meal, we meet a fellow hiker from France, Melwina, who, like us, has planned to hike across the country, using the same route. With my rusty French and really rusty, German, and her confessed uncomfortable English, we communicate enough to agree to join forces and become three.

Hiking beneath the foss before heading uphill.

After the obligatory waterfall photo, we take on the steel treaded stairs. Feel the burn!

Forging ahead

When we approach our first electric fence, my hiking poles vibrate in my hands, but wood fence ladders safely move us into sheep pastures.

Climbing over a live electric fence.

With each step, a cloud of gray ash floats upward. Here and there, green grass pokes through ash. We follow the marked trail north, and climb toward the pass.

Kicking up ash along the Skógar River.

Our goal today is a set of huts at the pass summit, about six miles from the trailhead. The map showed two huts, relatively close together. Either one will work, we figure.

Into Skógar River canyon

After breaking for snacks and photos, we pass day hikers, waterfalls, and large singular boulders.

Boulders and ash cover the earth, hiding the grass.

The Skógar River canyon narrows; the water sounds furious. The higher we go, the colder it gets. We pass a group of German day hikers lunching while perched on a pile of rock. Soon there’s no one else but us.

The Skógar River canyon narrows as we approach the Baldvinsskáli hut.

Thick fog whirls. Dead silence surrounds us.

Emerging from the quiet

Suddenly, a parked white pickup truck, a road, and a pedestrian bridge appear through the fog. From the timber bridge, we stare down at a rushing Skógar River, forced between steep-walled rocks.

Crossing the Skógar River canyon.

Surrounded by fog

We soon find a trail that, according to the map, leads toward the lower elevation hut. We climb higher and higher, dense fog concealing every view. Only the sound of rushing water gives us a sense of place. It’s eerie.


And then a shout. “The hut.” A large, red rectangle of corrugated metal looms closer with every step. Our new French friend stands on the porch and welcomes us with a wave to the abandoned A-frame hut.

The Baldvinsskáli hut standing in the fog.

A sign carved with the name Baldvinsskáli in large block letters cut from plywood has been blasted by blowing sand and snow. But where is the other hut, the Fimmvörðuháls?

An otherworldly landscape

Around us, the landscape resembles a tray of brownies. Escaping heat has melted pockets in the snow, making thousands of dimples on the ashy surface.

Old steam vents leave marks in the ash covered snow.

Slowly the clouds clear and blue sky shows to the south. Thin baby blue clouds hang over the southern ridges, reflecting in pools of melted snow.

Low clouds fill the valleys at sunset.

Before bed, I take one last look out the hut’s window. And there it is, sitting in silhouette on a black ridge to the north, the Fimmvörðuháls hut.

The Fimmvörðuháls hut appears on the next ridge at sunset.

New Study Sheds Light on Volcanic Eruption in Iceland

Andy Dugmore standing on the western part of the summit crater of Eyjafjallajökull in August 2010. Photo: Martin Kirkbride

We all remember the chaos that erupted in the early spring of 2010 when Eyjafjallajökull, a volcano in southern Iceland, sent dense clouds of black smoke and ash into the air.  But the story of the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption is more than just the photos of frustrated, stranded travelers. Once the ash settles, there’s a lot that can be learned about the formation of volcanic ash layers, as well as their environmental and social impacts.

Eyjafjallajökull began erupting in March 2010 and continued shooting large plumes of ash for nearly three months. While many saw this occurrence as a disaster, Andrew Dugmore, a faculty member of the Graduate Center City University of New York (CUNY) and a professor of geosciences at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, saw the eruption as a once-in-a-generation research opportunity.

The glacier Gígjökull flows out of the summit crater—floods and ash fall have transformed the area, infilling the lake in front of the glacier and carving new gorges. Photo: Andy Dugmore

The RAPID Project

Dugmore is the principal investigator for RAPID: Environmental and Social Impacts of the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull Eruption, a pilot project supported by the National Science Foundation.

Icelandic farming areas to the south of the crater. Photo: Andy Dugmore

“There is an advantage of being able to link the human story with the environmental story [of the eruption]. We have the story that people tell on Twitter, Facebook and in the newspapers that is an evolving record about the eruption, its impacts and its consequences. Running in parallel to that, there is an environmental record you can go out and measure,” Dugmore explained.  With his new grant, Dugmore and his team hope to combine the two stories to give a better understanding of the interaction between the eruption, changing environments and humans.

Data Falling from the Sky

Although Eyjafjallajökull’s 2010 eruption was small by world standards, it left quite a bit of material behind for scientific study. Some of the most abundant sources of information are the layers formed by the black and dark brown ash thrown into the air during the eruption. As this material, known as tephra, falls from the sky and settles on the ground, it first forms a layer that directly reflects what is going on in the eruption cloud; over time it is transformed by various environmental processes like wind and rain.

These layers of tephra are an important part of the project because they provide both environmental data and a snapshot of the landscape they bury at the time of eruption. “Once the tephra layer is on the ground, it will begin to be buried and become a part of the geologic record of the landscape and define the surface as it was in spring 2010 in southern Iceland,” Dugmore said.

Tephra layers are common in Iceland and other volcanic areas and they can help researchers like Dugmore work across a landscape and precisely compare and contrast environmental conditions in different areas at the time of the eruption (i.e., coastal versus inland versus farm A versus farm B). The tephra layers also contain clues about past eruptions themselves that help researchers reconstruct the eruptions that formed them. 

“We know these tephra are fantastic data. The next question though is that they themselves also have an impact. Of course they’re not just creating nice, neat marker horizons across the landscape. The fact that these volcanoes erupt, bring challenges to the surrounding people,” Dugmore said.

Studying Societal Impacts

Floods caused by the eruption created much damage. Here teams work at restoring a riverbed south of the volcano. Photo: Andy Dugmore

Remarkably, life in the shadow of Eyjafjallajökull continued through the eruption.  After initial evacuations, when floods from the melting glacier on Eyjafjallajökull were a threat, people returned to their homes.

Some farmers continued operating during the months-long eruption, keeping their animals in barns and staying indoors as much as possible. But it wasn’t smooth sailing. Problems abounded: vegetation was smothered; floods washed away fields and roads; farmers lost lambs whose sensitive lungs could not handle the airborne ash and dust that worked its way into the barns. For people under the eruption cloud, life was very hard.

“This poor guy was on television in tears because there was his life’s work that he felt had just been destroyed. And if you looked at the pictures it was just black everywhere—just like Mordor,” Dugmore remembered.

But some weeks later, things started to look up. On one of the farms most impacted by the eruption, tephra was ploughed into the fields and crop yields improved—also helped no doubt by the warm summer of 2010. And now, the ash also seems to be boosting the longterm quality of the grazing because it has smothered the moss and, through a mulching effect, helped to strengthen the grass that has grown through. The result: a richer, grassier hillside for the sheep and lambs to graze.

Tephra fall has a mixed effect on the vegetation. Photo: Andy Dugmore

“When the eruption started, internationally there was a panic, but as you go through time you realize it has had a mixed effect. It’s a mixed story. What we see is there’s an impact, there’s the way people adapt and reconcile to what happens next.” Dugmore said.

Life goes on but for many of the local people, their views of the mountain that forms the backdrop to their lives has changed forever.


Not only is Dugmore’s RAPID grant study answering key questions on the impact of the most recent Eyjafjallajökull eruption, it’s also an opportunity to bring together a multi-national team of researchers and train the next generation of scientists.

Researchers from the CUNY, the Universities of Iceland, Dundee, Durham, Edinburgh, Oxford and Stirling the Institute of Archaeology, Iceland and Reykjavik Academy all participate in the study. They bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise ranging from geography and ecology to anthropology. This concentration of research experience is the perfect opportunity for research-led education. Dugmore takes graduate students and more than three-dozen undergraduate students to Iceland with him to help collect data and solve scientific questions.

“At the end of the day what we’re trying to do is develop the next generation of people who are well-equipped to problem-solve,” Dugmore said.

In the field the students are divided into smaller groups of three and guided through the process of data collection and how to work their way through research questions. In a way, it’s as if the researchers are detectives trying to unravel how recent and historic volcano eruptions impact people and their surrounding environment.

“For the CSI guys, no crime scene is ever the same. It’s how you solve the problem and what you bring to bear. It’s how you combine together different disciplines, people of different backgrounds and generations. Those are the best ways to tackle field research,” he said.

As the project progresses, updates will appear on http://www.nabohome.org/, which also gives a wider insight into current research on people and environments in the North Atlantic. –Alicia Clarke

In Iceland, Archaeologists Fly Kites

An ancient turf farmhouse. John Steinberg has led summer excavations in the hayfield in the foreground. This picture was taken in 2005 by a team from Pennsylvania State. Visit http://www.rps.psu.edu/iceland/ for more.

A fresh breeze off the Skagafjörður lifts a kite carrying a small digital camera upwards over newly cleared fields. When its altitude reaches 147 feet, the shutter begins to capture the archaeological remains of Viking farms and community structures where animals, crops, and people once took shelter.

The kite flyers are undergraduate and graduate students who are here to map and excavate buried Viking settlement features in this remote corner of northwest Iceland.

A kite-bourne camera flies over the site. Photo: SASS

This is what the camera sees. Photo: SASS

The students work alongside Professor John Steinberg of the Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and founder of the Skagafjörður Archaeological Settlement Survey (SASS), supported by the National Science Foundation.

Steinberg’s been leading student fieldwork trips to this wind-, hail-, and rain-swept location since 2001.

His first SASS project began with the discovery of a longhouse (skali) at the farm belonging to Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir. She is believed to be the first European woman to land at Vineland, an area now recognized as L’Anse aux Meadows on the coast of Newfoundland. While in Vineland with her husband Thorfinn Karlsefni, the son of Erik the Red, she gave birth to the first European born in North America, Snorri Thorfinnsson.

Back in Iceland, Gudrid settled at Glaumbaer (Farm of Merry Noise) with her husband and their sons Snorri and Thorbjorn. Snorri is one of two Icelandic men (the other being Snorri Thorrgrimsson) mainly responsible for bringing Christianity to Iceland.

Late June of 2009 finds the SASS team working in Sauðarkrókur, located in the southwest corner of the Skagafjörður and northwest of Glaumbaer. This region is known for its dairying, sheep raising, and horse breeding (there are more horses here than people).

The yellow square at the top-center of this map of Iceland shows the Skagi Peninsula, where Steinberg's Glaumbaer archaeology site is located. Map courtesy www.armap.org.

The area’s climate keeps students huddled against stiff Icelandic breezes with their kites, cameras, and traditional archaeology tools (trowels and brushes) along with borrowed and repurposed modern technologies from other trades.

Despite several years of excavation, their focus remains the Viking-era farmstead Stóra Seyla hidden deep beneath fallen turf walls.

Fieldwork begins with hours of careful backhoe work and hand shoveling over the archaeologically sensitive areas to reach a layer of geotextile, a synthetic material purposefully left in the ground to mark the depth of the previous excavation. Below the geotextile is new soil that has not been touched by shovel or trowel.

Once smoothed by shovels, the students roll a jerry-rigged radar-on-wheels over the soil to record features invisible to the naked eye. Between each layer of excavation, the process is repeated. Once complied, the digitally recorded radar files allow the students to see, through a time-lapse movie format, the progression of their excavation as they discover, then remove, layers of cultural materials.

Students pull the radar unit across a turf-cleared site. Photo: SASS

An example of this process shows a Seyla Churchyard feature slowly coming into view and disappearing as the excavation level and radar recording continue below the depth of the feature. Archaeology is a destructive science, where continued documentation is mandatory as features are found and then destroyed in search of something older or different deeper in the soil layer. But remote-sensing techniques allow the research team to digitally preserve the site.


Besides the rolling radar, kite and pole-mounted cameras capture aerial photographs of the excavation site. Many of those frames form one big picture with SilverLight software, which carefully stitches the numerous frames into a “photosynth,” a Web-based composite of photographs. Highlighted and zoomable, a synth of the team’s cow barn discovery is posted online.


While colleagues take notes, a student photographs a cleared site by using a pole-mounted camera. Photo: SASS

To efficiently work the site, the 2009 SASS team splits into four groups, with some digging shovel probes, taking core samples, performing site excavation, or acting as detectives searching for evidence of hidden turf walls.

The shovel probe technique allows archaeologists to quickly sample soils through small holes dug in a grid pattern over a large area.  The screened soil and the sidewall stratigraphy of each probe alerts archaeologists to changes in geological or cultural deposits. Shovel probe results are used to determine the locations of traditional excavation units.

Students use shovel probe techniques. Photo: SASS

The smallest and largest middens (historic trash heaps) yet discovered by the team are located in two shovel probes. Animal bones comprise the greatest number of artifacts, along with wool and a copper pot dating from after 1300.

The core sample team collects 100 samples, revealing rhyodacitic tephra (volcanic ash) sequences or datable layers, in the soil below the turf.  Recorded volcanic eruptions, such as when Hekla spewed ash over the Skagafjörður landscape in 1104 and coated the landscape with tephra, provide a deposit date for artifacts caught in that ash layer.

Professor Steinberg inspects a core sample. Photo: SASS

With additional funding from the NSF, archaeologists also tease out pollen from the midden walls and coring holes, using the same technique for dating artifacts stuck in ash layers to determine the deposit dates of the pollen grains.

Students armed with trowels and brushes continue the previous year’s excavation where known structures existed. Excavation of a fire pit reveals a lot of bone and a little slag. Slag is a waste product produced by heating locally sourced bog ore the Vikings used to manufacture iron.

Within the walls of a nearby medieval-age barn are bits of hay and wood, and sheep, horse, and dog bones. The SASS team positively IDs a dog’s skull and a sheep’s jawbone. After documenting these finds and the stone barn floor, the heavy stone walls are disassembled so the team can reach an older, Viking-aged building buried beneath it.

The floor of the excavated cow barn. Photo: SASS

Meanwhile, the search continues for buried fallen turf walls that could help the team determine the footprints of buildings and quite possibly expand the archaeology site boundaries. Success comes when, outside the barn area, archaeologists find fallen turf walls covered with white tephra dating from an 1104 eruption, placing the construction date to before the eruption.


After six weeks of excavation, the 2009 archaeology season ends at Skagafjörður. Kites disappear from the skies over Stóra Seyla; daylight dwindles and snowflakes begin to fall, burying the landscape under a cover of whiteness and wintertime darkness. Only the moo’s of dairy cows drift across the land where this Viking community once stood.

Readers can view the entire 2009 Skagafjordur Archaeological Settlement Survey field season, additional photographs, and other synths on their blog.–Larry Mishkar

Iceland’s Vatnajökull: Europe’s Newest National Park

Field Notes contributor Rachel Walker recently spent a week in Iceland visiting some of the country’s natural wonders and will be writing several posts on her explorations.

On June 7, 2008, Iceland established Vatnajökull National Park. Europe’s newest and largest national park, it joins the existing Skaftafell National park, Jokulsargljufur National Park, and the Vatnajökull glacier.

A map of Iceland shows Vatnajokull in the southeastern part of the country.

A map of Iceland shows Vatnajokull in the southeastern part of the country and the volcanic trends that are so formative to the country's geography.

The new park covers a 12,000 square kilometer area—more than 12 percent of the Iceland’s surface, and Iceland’s tallest peak, Hvannadalshnúkur (2110 m), is located in the southern periphery.

The enormous area is a natural wonder smorgasborg: raging waterfalls, expansive peaks, glacial valleys, volcanoes, hot springs, and, of course, glaciers.

The Svartifoss waterfall spills over columnar basalt in Vatnajokull National Park.

The Svartifoss waterfall spills over columnar basalt in Vatnajokull National Park.


The Jokulsarlon lagoon, where ice falling off of the glacier drops into a giant lake at one of many tongues of the Vatnajokull glacier.
The Jokulsarlon lagoon, where ice falling off of the glacier drops into a giant lake at one of many tongues of the Vatnajokull glacier.
View from the Foss Hotel Skafatell, located in the national park, on a sunny day.

View from the Foss Hotel Skafatell, located in the national park, on a sunny day.

Iceland’s glaciers are retreating. From 1958 to 2000, the Vatnajölull glacier has retreated 328 square kilometres, shrinking from 8,538 square kilometres to 8,160 square kilometres. Still, this namesake glacier remains Europe’s largest. At its thickest, Vatnajökull is about 1,000 meters, and on average it measures between 400 and 500 meters. It covers seven active volcanoes, which cause enormous floods when they erupt (in 1996, the Grimsvotn volcano erupted so violently it lifted the glacier and caused torrents of floodwater to burst forth; the destruction caused significant death and obliterated a major section of the road).

In short, this is a fascinating area with myriad research subjects. It’s also a beautiful place to take a walk. But given the volatile weather, getting a good glimpse of the natural wonders is not guaranteed.