That upheaval is a product of Iceland’s youth. It formed only three million years ago–a blip in geologic time–from eruptions that built its mountains while the island was buried beneath the Arctic ice cap. And it emerged from the ice only 12,000 years ago, after the cap receded. Smaller than Kentucky, Iceland has about 150 volcanoes, the greatest concentration in the world. And these volcanoes are active–they add four-tenths of an inch to the island’s width every year, and they’ve produced one-third of the planet’s lava output over the past 500 years. The largest flow ever recorded, the Laki eruption, happened here in 1783.
All the hot rock comes from 1,000 miles inside the Earth’s mantle, via a plume, or vent, that angles between the plates that form the planet’s crust. The vent spews prolifically, constantly transforming what author Katharine Scherman describes as “a collection of ice-shrouded peaks and craters deformed by glacial action, surrounded by a freakish complex of hot springs, seething mudpots, and simmering lakes, with steam shooting through holes in old ice and cauldrons of boiling water under a frozen cover.”
Early explorers thought this land was the gateway to hell. Except for the high temperatures down below, they couldn’t have been more wrong.
An hour’s hike from the Hrafntinnusker hut, our group descends a crumbling slope into a scene of simultaneous destruction and creation. At the head of a valley thick with steam clouds, the crack-riddled, 100-foot-high snout of a glacier splits apart. Two ice caves, 50 to 75 feet tall and twice as wide, open like giant windows on the underworld, their floors littered with refrigerator-size ice blocks that have crashed down from above. Water drips cold from the ice caves and erupts hot from myriad vents in the ground below. The mixture flows in braids so numerous our boots splash in one every second or third step.
In the days that follow, we’ll pass a dozen similarly breathtaking scenes and decide that Iceland is like a first crush, or a mountain cabin, or Alaska: easy to love, hard to leave. Yet it’s not just the geysers that seduce us. Much of the island remains primitive: Driving into the interior, we’ll fill up at the last gas station for 200 miles, then ford unbridged rivers on rough jeep roads. The people are different, too–or at least their way of looking at the land is. When we learn that Iceland routes new highways around rock formations that are purported to house elves and trolls, we chuckle. But then, thinking of our own billboards and blast-through-the-mountains freeways, the detours seem perfectly sensible.