As cold as Iceland can get, in one way it’s also among the hottest places in the world
Rabbi Yaakov Lubin fell in love with Iceland a long time ago.
As a science teacher and textbook writer, he longed to travel and experience everything the world had to offer. So when he got an invitation to a chinuch conference in Belgium earlier this year, he realized it would only cost an extra $200 to fly to Iceland. He jumped at the chance.
“Iceland is an amazing place,” says Rabbi Lubin. For a start, it has the most active volcanoes on earth, with 18 that have erupted in recorded history. But other places, like Japan or Hawaii, have more and bigger volcanoes. What makes Iceland unique is a combination of three things: geothermal activity, meaning the underground forces that make volcanoes erupt; glaciers and other incredible ice structures; and finally, the northern lights, a fascinating natural light phenomenon only visible at the top and bottom of the world.
Rabbi Lubin bought a drone, packed up lots of warm clothing, and headed north — — almost all the way to the Arctic Circle, to put himself under the spell of the fire, ice, and magical lights.
As cold as Iceland can get, in one way it’s also among the hottest places in the world. Geothermal is a combination of two Greek words: geo, meaning the earth, and thermal, meaning heat. The area deep inside the earth is very hot, although usually that heat stays deep underground. It’s so hot that it can melt rocks — — lava is actually melted rock that’s forced up and out of a volcano or a crack in the ground. If the melted rock stays underground, it’s referred to as magma.
All of the earth’s land masses are actually giant plates, called tectonic plates, that move around (very slowly!) on top of this liquid rock. Because Iceland rests on the gap between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, the powerful heat from the earth’s interior, along with all that magma, is much closer to the surface.
“You can actually walk between two continental plates,” Rabbi Lubin says. Even though scientists didn’t understand this concept until very recently, Chazal actually predicted this fact hundreds of years ago. “It says in Pirkei Dd’Rabbi Eliezer, ‘The continents’ land are like plates that sail like ships across the water.’ ”
Because the magma is closer to the surface in Iceland than in most other places on earth, all this heat causes a few different phenomena. These include hot springs, steam vents, geysers, mud pots… and, of course, volcanoes, though fortunately, major eruptions are rare.
Steam vents are areas where underground water is constantly being heated, creating a steady flow of steam rising from a large area of the ground. “There was so much steam, more than any chimney you’ve ever seen,” Rabbi Lubin remembers.
Paths for tourists make it easy to see the steam up close. “You can literally go right up close to the steam vent. It makes a howling sound, like a freight train.”
The boiling water cools off as soon as it hits the chilly air. But as the water cools, it condenses, meaning that you won’t get burnt, but you will get wet. And all that water coming up out of the earth is mixed with all the chemicals found underground, especially sulfur. In fact, you can probably smell the geothermal vents before you even get out of the car because of sulfur’s distinct smell – exactly like rotten eggs.
Within the geothermal field, you can also spot the Strokkur geyser. A geyser is a natural fountain of boiling water caused by steam buildup underground. You may have heard of Old Faithful, a famous geyser in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Like Old Faithful, the Strokkur geyser is very regular – it erupts about every 8 minutes, shooting up a stream of water about 66 feet (20 meters) into the air (Old Faithful erupts less often, from 44 minutes to 2 hours, shooting water about 145 feet (44 meters) into the air).
Shifting tectonic plates don’t just create geothermal fields, they also create earthquakes – in Iceland, about 500 a week! Israel is also located on a boundary between two tectonic plates and can get dozens of very minor earthquakes each year. Most earthquakes are so mild they can’t even be detected without special equipment.
That equipment, along with sensors to detect the earth’s motion and the buildup of magma underground, are a matter of life and death in Iceland, which has many active volcanoes. “While I was there, there was a major magma buildup on the Reykjavik peninsula,” says Rabbi Lubin. “They were expecting a big volcanic eruption.”
In 2010, an erupting volcano in Iceland spewed out so much ash that planes couldn’t fly over Europe for more than a week. Fortunately, nobody was injured, though many people had to be temporarily moved out of the area.
Mountains of Water
About 11% of Iceland’s total area is covered in water – in the form of over 250 glaciers. “In places like Iceland, it snows in the winter. There’s so much snow, and it’s so cold, that not all the snow melts in the summer. The following year, more snow falls onto the old ice. That happens year after year until you have a giant block of ice, or glacier.”
Iceland’s glaciers can be almost a mile tall (1.6 km) and 1,000 miles (1,609 km) wide. Tourists can take a glacier hike, equipped with spiked boots and an ice pick to help them climb.
It’s not easy getting to the top where the tour begins. “Half the fun is getting up to the top of the glacier. You ride in a super jeep with giant wheels. It’s the bumpiest ride you’ve ever experienced in your life. You think you’re going to tip over.”
But the hike itself was even more harrowing. “I was terrified on my glacier hike. I didn’t realize I was scared of heights until that experience. It was actually very scary climbing up this mountain. You have to make sure your foot is secure, holding on with the ice pick.” And, of course, he was trying to film everything at the same time as he was struggling to keep up.
The hike led to Iceland’s famous blue-ice crevasses. “There are walls of ice on either side of you, cracks in the glacier and tunnels you can walk through. The ice on either side is crystal blue.”
Why is it blue? That’s actually the natural color of water, even if it doesn’t usually look that way. “Ice usually looks white because it has air bubbles in it,” Rabbi Lubin says. The weight of all the ice in the glacier forces out the air bubbles, and the true color of the water shines through like almost nowhere else on earth. “It’s a beautiful crystal-clear blue.”
While he was out on the glaciers, Rabbi Lubin took advantage of the unique opportunity to take a skimobile trip as well as a journey into one of Iceland’s many naturally-formed ice caves. When a glacier’s surface melts, running water leaves holes which expand over time, creating elaborate caves inside the ice. “It’s only safe to visit in the winter,” Rabbi Lubin explains. “They’re always changing, they’ll never look the same.” The caves are lit up with artificial light, but he says it’s still pretty dark inside. And you should definitely avoid the caves if you’re claustrophobic. “You have to crawl to make your way through the cave.”
After his cave adventure, Rabbi Lubin couldn’t leave without seeing a few of Iceland’s famous waterfalls. “Iceland has the most gorgeous waterfalls on earth.” A few put Niagara Falls to shame, and even those which are not as high are surrounded with the kind of breathtaking natural scenery that can’t be found elsewhere.
Unfortunately, the temptation to capture this fascinating scenery led to disaster for his drone at the Goðafoss waterfall (it’s pronounced GO-thuh-foss).
“I had the drone flying way out, all the way out over this giant river. All of a sudden, it starts going, ‘Warning, warning,’ and there was a red light. It knows how far away it is, and it’s supposed to tell you it’s time to come home whenever the battery gets down to 30%. But it started going haywire.
“I didn’t know where it was at this point, it was too far away to see. I tried to fly it backwards towards me, but I saw it dropping down, down, down…
“Well, I’m over this sea of ice, it’s all icy and too dangerous to walk. I said, ‘There’s no way we’re going to find this drone.’”
Eventually, with a friend’s help, Rabbi Lubin did get the drone back. “It was behind us, it had made it back. One of the arms got lost, but we actually found it. We lost the footage but we were able to bring it back and get it repaired, so it will fly again for the next video.”
One of the first rules of travel to exotic locations is that things don’t always go according to plan. And unfortunately, that proved true as well when it came to one of Rabbi Lubin’s greatest lifelong dreams: seeing the northern lights.
“The whole time, we were hunting for the northern lights,” Rabbi Lubin says, “but you can’t get your hopes up.”
Unlike most tourist attractions, you can’t exactly book an appointment to see the northern lights. Whether or not they’re visible depends on two things. It must be a cloudless night, and there has to be solar activity going on, which causes the fantastic light shows (see sidebar).
A local weather station gives frequent updates, announcing which parts of the country are cloudless and reporting on the intensity of solar activity. They rate current conditions from 1 to 9, letting people know how likely it is that they’ll catch the lights.
On Rabbi Lubin’s first few days, conditions were only rated a 2, which is too low to make heading out at night worthwhile. Then, there was finally an evening that was rated a 4, and he headed out to Reykjavik’s Perlan Museum, which was built on a hill above the city with a parking lot that offers the perfect view of the lights – should they choose to appear.
“We were waiting, looking… we were all excited. Then there was this little faint glow in the sky.”
It was the northern lights – but just a faint shadow compared to the brilliance of the full experience, Rabbi Lubin explains. “There was solar activity, but sometimes it hits Iceland’s side of the world, and sometimes it goes to Canada’s side of the world. The only time we had a chance, the Canadians were getting the view.”
Does that mean he’ll be heading back to Iceland someday to catch the northern lights in all their glory? “Maybe I’ll go to Canada,” he says with a smile. He adds that they can also be seen from Norway, which also features many natural wonders of its own.
Join the Adventure
The perilous and disappointing moments of Rabbi Lubin’s trip – his fear of heights, the crashed drone, missing the northern lights – all drive home the idea that travel can still be a wonderful adventure, even in the modern era. You can never plan for everything that could possibly happen, and that’s part of the fun.
Maybe one day you’ll travel to Iceland yourself – or somewhere else just as rich in natural wonders. There’s nowhere else quite like Iceland, but there are hundreds of magical, mysterious, and awe-inspiring spots, just waiting for someone like you to discover and share with the world.
The Five Biggest Surprises About Iceland
- Don’t let the name scare you. Iceland isn’t as cold as you think. In July, it might only get up to around 57 °F (14 °C). But in the winter, warm ocean air keeps temperatures mild, averaging around 32 °F (0 °C) in the south, while the north – just below the Arctic Circle – averages around 14 °F (−10 °C). That’s warmer than Montreal, Canada, which averages 6.8 °F (-14 °C) in January!
- Hot water for Shabbos. Because the water is naturally heated deep within the earth, it’s okay to use the hot water all Shabbos long. “It’s naturally flowing hot water, straight from the ground,” Rabbi Lubin says. About 90% of Iceland’s houses are heated this way as well, making the country very environmentally-friendly.
- No fridge, no problem. Even if Iceland isn’t as cold as you think, once it’s frozen, it stays frozen. That gave Rabbi Lubin a handy way to store food. “If your fridge isn’t big enough, store your food outside in the car or on the windowsill overnight!”
- Weather – or not. “Storms come up so quickly, you can go from a totally clear day to zero visibility.” A five-hour drive on a clear, sunny day wound up taking almost fourteen hours when a massive storm blew in. “It’s super unpredictable,” Rabbi Lubin says. “You have no idea what’s going to happen with the weather; it’s dangerous.”
- A horse, of course. If you like petting zoos, you’ll love Iceland. Everywhere you go, you’ll see people pulling over to pet the short, stocky, and supremely friendly Icelandic horses out grazing. “Everyone in Iceland is laid back,” says Rabbi Lubin, “even the animals.” Historians believe horses came over with early Viking settlers. Iceland’s horses are protected with laws banning other horses from entering the country.
A Hachnasas Sefer Torah in Reykjavik
Rabbi Lubin began preparing for Shabbos in Reykjavik the way many tourists do in remote spots all over the world – by calling the local Chabad shluchim, Rabbi Avi and Mushky Feldman.
To his surprise, he discovered that a Swiss family had chosen that week to donate Iceland’s first sefer Torah. They brought in a whole flock of guests from Europe and Israel to join the celebration.
For the first time ever, Jews took to the streets of Reykjavik, singing and dancing, and the U.S. ambassador to Iceland, who is Jewish, hosted a reception to mark this historic occasion. “The Jewish community here will remember this day forever,” Rabbi Feldman said after the hachnasas sefer Torah.
The family’s guests stayed for a Shabbaton, surrounding Rabbi Lubin with the warmth of a heimishe community even in one of the remotest shuls on earth.
Even though there are only about 250 Jews in Iceland, the country attracts many Jewish tourists. With three direct flights a week from Israel, hosting Shabbos meals for fifty or more people is nothing new for the Feldmans. So if you’re expecting a quiet Shabbos in the middle of nowhere, Reykjavik might just take you by surprise
Aurora borealis – Hashem’s amazing light show
Most people call them the northern lights, but to scientists, they’re the aurora borealis, or, down south, aurora australis. (Borealis means “northern,” while australis means “southern” – which is how the Land Down Under got its name as well.) They’re also known as “polar lights,” and this is also what they’re called in Hebrew as well: “zohar hakotev” (polar glow).
Auroras actually start millions of miles away when the sun sends energy particles off into space. These might harm us if it weren’t for the earth’s protective shield, called the magnetic field, which wraps around the entire planet. “It’s this super-shield that Hashem made for us that lets us enjoy the benefits of the sun without getting hurt,” says Rabbi Lubin. “The vast majority doesn’t hit us, but a little does reach the earth.”
Those particles enter near the openings in the north and south ends of the magnetic field, harmlessly colliding with air particles. The heat and energy released by these collisions appear as a vast curtain of shimmering, colorful light over 60 miles (100 km) up in the sky.
The brightness of the northern lights depends on the energy and speed of the solar particles, while their colors depend on the type of air particle they hit. Oxygen gives off a greenish-yellow or red light, while nitrogen creates a blue light. Scientists still don’t know what gives the auroras their amazing, fantastical shapes.
If you ever get to see the northern (or southern) lights, ask a rav before you go. You might have a chance to make the brachah oseh maasei vereishis, which some say should be said for impressive astronomical events. Truly a memory to last a lifetime.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 823)
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