Monthly Archives: November 2013

My Favorite Volcanologist

It shouldn’t be completely surprising that someone writing a book about Iceland´s volcanoes could develop a fan relationship with a particular volcanologist.  His name is Sigurður Þórarinsson (Seh-gur-thur Thor-ar-in-sohn), or Siggi to his friends.  He lived from 1912 – 1983, so I never had an opportunity to meet him.  But his enthusiasm for all aspects of Icelandic geology, history and culture is so very clearly and beautifully communicated in his many writings that I have appreciated him from my initial contact.

He first appeared in my research as the author of several readable books on the histories of several active volcanoes: Hekla, Askja and Surtsey.  Then I found the text of two lectures that he had presented in London in the 1950s and an article in the UNESCO Courier in the 1970s.  Both presented combinations of scientific information and folk lore about Iceland´s dramatic landscape and the people who live in it.

When I tried to track his career, I learned that he studied at the University of Copenhagen in 1931-32 and the University of Stockholm later in the 1930s, initially focusing his field research on glaciers. At that time the University of Iceland (founded in 1911) offered few if any classes in the earth sciences. This undoubtedly encouraged Sigurður´s studies in the other Scandinavian universities.

In 1939 he participated in the important archaeological dig at Þjorsádalur in south central Iceland and developed a method for identifying the age of ash layers and tested his theories there.  He then spent the World War II period in neutral Sweden, refined his dating system as tephrochronology methodology and earned his doctorate degree at the University of Stockholm in 1944 with a thesis on that subject. The tephro-chronology techniques that he developed as a graduate student provided an important tool for volcanologists trying to map the impact range of individual volcanoes.

He returned to Iceland in 1945, becoming head of the geographical/ geological division of the Museum of Natural History in Reykjavík in 1947. In 1968 he became Professor of Geography and Geology at the University of Iceland. He served there until his retirement in 1982. While at the Museum of Natural History he also spent time as a visiting professor at the University of Cambridge, and sponsored a series of British university research expeditions to the Vatnajökull ice cap in the 1950s.

The British faculty and students who came to study the Vatnajökull glaciers considered their Icelandic professor a geologist who specialized in glaciers. Some of his research in the 1950s focused on jökulhlaups, the glacial floods that often result from volcanic eruptions under glaciers. Grímsvötn and Öræfajökull were the two sub-glacial volcanoes he focused on at Vatnajökull.

In the late 1950´s he became an active conservationist, concerned about the future of Iceland’s unique Nature.  He became a member of the Board of the Icelandic Council of Nature Conservation in 1956, the same year that Iceland adopted its first national conservation legislation.  In the 1960s he actively campaigned for establish-ment of Skaftafell National Park.  Founded in 1967, this was to be Iceland’s first national park on the North American model – a natural museum where maintenance of geological processes and native plant and animal life would take precedence over entertainment of human beings.

Clearly Sigurður Þórarinsson was a brilliant scientist, writer, educator and activist.  But Icelanders remember him for one more talent that was less well-known among his international colleagues.  Sigurður was also a poet and song writer, responsible for several popular songs that remained well known in Iceland long after his life had ended.  Wikipedia ( 9E% C3%B3rarinsson) lists them as: Þórsmerkurljóð (María María), Vorkvöld í Reykjavík and Að lífið sé skjálfandi.

Volcano Lady

I started writing about Iceland’s volcanoes a year and a half ago, and I felt rather audacious.  After all, I am not a geologist, a volcanologist, or even Icelandic.  But I am drawn back to Iceland as often as I can rationalize a trip.  When I am there I always spend time in the bookstores.  I have looked at the books about Iceland’s volcanoes and they are either written by geologists for people who have studied geology and have a strong scientific vocabulary or they are picture books – usually capturing the latest eruption in all its glory.

     When I travel, I like to have natural history books with me, so that I have a chance of identifying the birds, flowers and trees I am likely to see.  This helps me understand the environment around me.

     Over the years that I have visited Iceland I have found handbooks of the birds that live or visit there, and one for the many flowering plants.  When I am hiking or visiting there in the warmer months, I have the books in my daypack, to resolve any questions of identification that arise. 

     Hiking is my favorite activity in Iceland, and it is impossible to ignore the volcanic landscape.  Columnar basalt, moss covered lava, erratics, volcanic cones, bubbling mud pots, geysers – they all contribute to a fascinating landscape.  When we drive through the countryside, peaks, glaciers and all variety of landmarks are pointed out: Hekla, Hengill, Krýsuvík and many more. These three are all on the list of Icelandic volcanoes.  And there are stories to go with each of them!

     A few years ago I realized that a book about the volcanoes that includes their stories is what I think is needed – and I could write it.  I love doing research and worked for decades in jobs that required a lot of writing about technical subjects for general readers – state legislators and the public.

     Winter in the Pacific Northwest is a good time to start a new writing project, and last year that is what I did.  Whenever I completed a chapter I have shared it with two friends who have spent most of their lives in Iceland, Bragi in Reykjavík and Selma on her farm, not far from here.

     Join a writers group!  is one of the commandments for writers working toward publication.  So I joined the Olympia Critique Writers Group which has many members but a core of about eight who meet most weeks to listen, read and critique each others´ work.  All of my reviewers there have been helpful and enthusiastic.  ‘‘This makes me want to go to Iceland!‘‘ is my favorite comment.

     After reading the first few chapters, Selma asked if she could share the chapters with her Dad who was visiting from Iceland.  Of course!  He liked what he read, too.  Selma told me that he started referring to me as The Volcano Lady.  Writing this book did not seem quite so audacious after all.