Iceland Science Expedition Interim Blog 2020

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Interim Trips 2020

Michael Vischak

(Fri, Jan 17 - part 2)

Around 9:00 pm, our group reunited in the lobby of our hotel to say goodbye to our guide, Davið. While Iceland sometimes seemed a series of picturesque and epic landscapes, we were shown the true beauty and spirit of the country through the eyes of Davið. Keeping us informed, keeping us entertained, and most importantly keeping us safe (along with our brilliant driver, Thomann) - none of us will ever think of Iceland without thinking of Davið.


After wishing Davið well, the students went off to their rooms and the chaperones came together to plan for the night. We did a quick scouting trip and then informed the group that we would meet again in the lobby at 11:00 pm to head down to the waterfront to hopefully see the northern lights. Best case scenario - we see the northern lights. But even the worst case scenario - enjoying a final walk along the bay of Reykjavík - was still a lovely way to end our expedition.

It wasn't promising as low cloud cover hung over the bay as we made our way down to the water. Still, we walked to the Sun Voyager sculpture and looked up to the sky. Before long, the Big Dipper appeared through the clouds, helpfully pointing out Polaris, the North Star, and confirming that we were looking in the correct direction. And then about five minutes after that, a hazy green light appeared in the northeast and our effort had proved fruitful. A couple minutes later, a larger swathe of the sky turned green and we were able to truly enjoy a northern light spectacle.


(credit to Alison Z for this photo)

It's probably true that native Icelanders might not have thought much of this display, but for us Texans, it was the perfect way to end this trip on which we have been so fortunate to see so many natural wonders of our planet.

- mv

- Zoe, Kima, and Allison

Today, we split into two groups. The first group started with a cooking class focusing on classic Icelandic foods. We cooked a 3 course meal: Arctic char with a fennel salad, rack of lamb with potatoes and pea purée, and skyr panna cotta with oat crumble and whey cheese caramel sauce. At the same time, the second group visited FlyOver Iceland, an experience where visitors are suspended 20 feet in the air to view Iceland’s most beautiful sites with simulated flight ride technology. They then traveled to the whale museum to learn about various species of whales and the measures the human race can take to protect them. Finally, the second group visited Hallgrímskirkja Church and did some shopping in the town of Reykjavík before grabbing lunch at Geysir (the main course was reindeer meatballs, sorry Rudolph, again). The two groups then met up at an indoor archery range to learn how to shoot various types of bows.

After this, the two groups flipped activities: the second group attended the cooking class, and the first group visited FlyOver Iceland, the whale museum, and Hallgrímskirkja Church. While the second group enjoyed their creations for dinner, the first group ate dinner at Geysir and did some shopping before heading back to the hotel. Finally, the two groups met at the hotel to say goodbye to David, our wonderful tour guide for the trip. We are currently waiting to see if weather conditions are favorable for Northern Light hunting tonight. If so, we will go around 11pm to try to see the northern lights!


Scoring the rack of lamb


Learning Icelandic cooking at Salt Edhús


Irresistibly adorable Icelandic baby


Hallgrímskirkja Church


- Zoe, Kima, and Allison


- Cayman, Carter, Henry, and Spenser
We started our early morning at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik and we met with professor Snæbjörn Pálsson who has done various research on the evolution of species in Iceland. We reviewed and discussed one of his published studies regarding the extinction of a population of walruses unique to Iceland. Professor Snæbjorn explained his methods through examples from several of his own studies, he also took the time to answer many of our questions. After that, his colleague took us into the lab and showed us real samples of ongoing experiments as well as some of the high tech machines that make some of these experiments happen.
After that we met Sævar and listened to his highly entertaining talk on the sky and its wonders. He exposed the truth behind people's "true" horoscope and jeered at the "images" in the constellations. Not only did he scientifically explain natural phenomena, but he also tied in the stories of Greek mythology along with his own personal anecdotes. We ate lunch at the same hotel that we heard Sævar speak at and indulged ourselves in the plentiful buffet.
We hit the bus and drove down the coast where the group went paintballing (didn't actually have paint) and off-roading in buggies. The zippy Buggies gave most drivers an experience unlike any on the roads in Houston. Our ride consisted of sudden changes in elevation with sharp turns, oh and ice! After that we regrouped and drove to the Blue Lagoon, a natural hot spring that humans are capable of swimming in. We got wristbands that allowed us to get mud masks for our faces, lockers to store all of our belongings, and one free drink on the eerie body of water. The steam generated by the hot milky waters made for a mysterious journey when navigating through the different facets of the spring. The Lagoon has a strict policy of showering both before and after entering the lagoon to prevent contamination. We entered before the sun set and left quite after it was dark probably spending around an hour and a half in the lagoon. We drove home, had dinner in our hotel (Alda) which seemed to have an endless amount of courses. This day had it all! We learned from experts in 2 different fields, encountered the elements in a bumpy ride, and finished it off in one of the most magical places.

Learning about the study of Icelandic species


Learning about the night sky and the northern lights


One of the dune buggy groups


Cayman in the driver's seat


The Blue Lagoon

- Cayman, Carter, Henry, and Spenser
- Kyla, Ella, Lydia, and Aaron

After a relaxing day yesterday, we headed out early this morning for an off-road adventure. Swapping out our city-suited bus for three off-road vehicles, we began our backcountry journey. We first stopped at a hot spring. We got to put our new knowledge from the geothermal plant into action and see how these boiling waters help run a spa only a hundred meters or so away from the springs themselves. This pumping station also provides heating for the numerous farms in this part of the country. The next stop on our adventure was in Hraunfossar where we visited Barnafoss, which translates to Children’s Waterfall. This waterfalls’ name has a tragic backstory that documents the misadventures of two children left at home on Christmas day who wandered to the falls and drowned in the turbulent waters. We saw the ruins of the arch and marveled at the sheer power of the rushing waves. The icy water has carved its way through the stone that struggles to contain it and pours out of lava tunnels beneath the falls. 

After a quick stop for lunch, we continued on our way to our final destination—the ice tunnels. Our new vehicles—specially equipped to travel through snow and ice—took us on a twisting path toward the glacier. After battling through poor visibility on the roads we finally reached the tunnels. Entering through a blue tarp cover, we began our subterranean descent. We donned crampons and split up into two groups to explore the underground maze. Blue ice surrounded us on all sides as we trekked through the frozen halls. The tunnels require constant maintenance because the glacier compacts under its own weight as more layers of snow are added and the tunnels begin to shrink from the pressure. Our guides showed us the different ages of ice in the walls, pointing out the old ice that is dark blue and comparing it to the new ice that is full of air bubbles that have yet to be compressed.. One of the groups was even treated to a song by their tour guide in the chapel that has good acoustics from the dense ice it is surrounded by. We learned about the life cycle of the glacier which 7500 years ago was nonexistent and has now grown to cover a huge area, but by 2165 with again cease to exist due to the effects of climate change. We exited the ice tunnels and were met with the beautiful sunset (at 3:15 pm). The group frolicked in the snow, took pictures, threw snowballs, and made snow angels.

But it turns out that the real adventure didn’t begin until we left the ice tunnels. We reboarded our tricked-out vans and headed back to Reykjavík. However, our journey home was not as simple as our arrival. We went off-roading even more. We veered off the path and into the mountains. We spent 40 minutes driving and reversing through snowdrifts that ensnared our tires. Multiple times we had to turn back to help pull out one of the other vans that had gotten stuck in the snow. Bus ICE 8 was evidently the superior van. We never got stuck, and we all listened to great music (or as Victoria Gonzalez (‘22) said “We were vibin”). Although our progress was slow, we eventually made it, unscathed, back to the paved road and returned to our hotel before enjoying a delicious, ‘unplugged’ dinner and returning to the hotel for the night. 






Chapel inside the glacier


Top of the glacier


Top of the glacier


The superior van

- Kyla, Ella, Lydia, and Aaron


- Preston, Harrison, and Will

Up at 7:30 and getting dressed; we were extremely excited to start the day. We’re planning to go to the lava center to learn about Iceland’s volcanoes and then we were going to go to the famed blue lagoon. The milky blue hot springs are Iceland’s most popular attraction and are said to be an amazing experience. At breakfast we were talking about the day, excited to board the bus and that is when the whole day turned around. Dr. Clayton gave us the news that we could not leave because the wind was way too strong and the storm from the night before wasn’t letting up anytime soon. We soon learned that the only road that leaves the hotel was closed. Looks like we would be here until further notice. We slouched back to our room and fell onto our bed, browsing the various Icelandic tv shows. We were bored out of our minds and time seemed to have stopped. We were stranded. It was time to wait.

We waited and waited and waited, then one minute went by. Time was going so slow until lunch came. A delicious penne pasta and fresh Icelandic herbs. After lunch we discussed a paper about how Icelandic walruses went extinct because of Viking settlement. The paper was co-authored by Dr. Pálsson of the University of Iceland who we will be meeting with on Thursday. They over hunted them to sell them for ivory, a very valuable material, which is what walrus tusks are made from.

We then waited and waited and waited until we finally had it.

We had to do something.

So we walked through the brutal winds and trekked a mile through a path on an icy field to go see the ocean, a much needed break from waiting. The beautiful black sand beach was waiting in our view. All we had to do was cross an icy creek, which was difficult as you were required to jump around on different rocks and miniature islands in the middle of the creek in order to make it to the other side dry. When we finally made it, it was worth it. The waves crashing against the black sand went perfectly with the sunset in the ocean (don’t forget the sun rises at around 11 and sets around 4 here). It was a beautiful sight, but it was time to go back before we got blown away with the storm. The journey back to the hotel was the most challenging part of the day. The wind was blowing directly into our faces and it felt impossible to walk, not to mention that our stomachs were stuffed full with penne pasta.

As soon as we returned to the hotel everyone immediately sat down and talked and played their favorite card games with their friends, as we regained energy. We continued waiting for an opening on the road to leave. As the time stretched by, we were losing hope and by 7:00, we were getting ready to settle back in the the hotel, when suddenly, we got the go ahead. It was a risky move, but a move we needed to take. We loaded the bus with excitement and took off heading towards Reykjavík, where we were supposed to spend the night. Even though we did not get to go to the lava center or Blue Lagoon, we were fortunate enough for there to be a crack in the storm, the perfect window for us to get out of the area. As we drove across the south coast of Iceland in the bus, the energy suddenly died down. Just then we stopped at Krisp restaurant to have dinner. The energy of the group shot back up and we had some delicious burgers. We loaded the bus again and prepared to arrive in Reykjavík. When we arrived at our hotel, it was 11:00 and we were all exhausted. We went to bed immediately and dreamed about the day ahead of us. 




more games


and more games


and even more games


looking back at the hotel on our hike


walking to the Iceland coast


Walrus extinction papers


-  Preston, Harrison, and Will

- Emma, Courtney, and Elizabeth

Today we went to Svinafellsjokull Glacier Tongue and we hiked up to the biggest glacier in Europe. As we arrived we were immediately given an ice axe and crampons which made us a little nervous because we did not know how serious our hike was going to be. We walked for 30 minutes and it seemed to be very smooth so we were less nervous, but soon realized the whole hike would not be like that when we reached the bridge. After the bridge, the hike began straight uphill and was much more challenging and some people had to return. However, others got to enjoy the entire hike with an amazing view of the glacier. Nonetheless, hiking down the mountain in the suddenly changing weather was exhilerating because there was a huge force of wind and snow hitting us from every direction. When we got back to the bus our drive was 2 hours and it started to become very dark as the winds picked up and the sun went down. During the drive we stopped at an Iceland supermarket that was small but full of many things such as an abundance of food and souvenirs. The supermarket was very different from one in Houston in the way that it was very compact and had very specific areas for each kind of thing you could buy there. Then, we returned to the hotel early due to the weather conditions that continued throughout the night.


Base of the glacier


Geared up and ready to go


To the glacier we go


The hike begins


Fun adventure


Soon to be frozen faces


Soon to be frozen faces too

- Emma, Courtney, and Elizabeth

Reese, Natalie, Lauren

For the first part of the day, we split into two groups; one group rode Icelandic horses to the planes of the Eyjafjöil mountains, and the other group hiked up 429 steps to Skógafoss glacier waterfall - the largest waterfall in Iceland. While at the waterfall, we filled our water bottles with fresh glacier water that, according to our guide and confirmed by our own taste test, is the best in the world. The Icelandic horses that we rode were trained in English style and are known to be 1.4-1.6 meters tall. We also made a furry friend named Tina who helped us make a snowman, and she even jumped on our bus for some more attention. After both groups finished each activity, we ate lunch in the small hotel nearby and had the hearty American meal of hamburgers (lamburgers!) and French fries.  

After lunch, we drove to Reynisfjara beach that is famous for its pebbly black sand, basalt columns, and murderous undercurrents found in the waves. The basalt columns were formed from lava cooling over time as it comes in contact with the ocean; this forms the hexagonal columns found along the cliffs of the beach. We were also warned of waves called “sneaker waves”; these waves unexpectedly crash deep on to shore and suck up unsuspecting tourists with their strong undercurrents that have killed before. Fortunately, only a couple of us got our shoes wet. Also at the beach, there are large rock structures that according to Icelandic myth, are trolls that didn’t make it back to their cave before sunrise. Next, we drove up the cliffs to see the black sand beach from above. There, we found blasting winds that made us feel like the “king of the world” ;). Finally, we drove to Seljalandsfoss waterfall; while it was dark and slippery, it was all lit up at night and we were still able to enjoy its majestic beauty. After a long day, we headed back to the hotel where we enjoyed dinner and company among friends.

Fun Fact: 100 years ago, Skógafoss glacier waterfall was once along the coast line of Iceland, but the coastline has moved 3 miles south since then. We hypothesize that that is due to tectonic activity.




Skálakot stables


Skógafoss waterfall



- Reese, Natalie, and Lauren

Olivia, Avery, Michelle
We started the day with a delicious breakfast at the hotel before packing our suitcases and heading to the Geothermal Energy Plant. We were very impressed by Iceland’s efficient and environmentally friendly methods of utilizing nature to help them produce energy. There are several plants throughout Iceland that supply different cities, and this particular plant supplies energy to Reykjavík. The process is a heat exchange system taking hot water from below ground heated by the proximity to magma and using it to heat fresh water taken from closer to the surface. Although this plant only supplies Reykjavík, they in fact produce enough electricity and hot water to supply the homes of Iceland’s very small population of 360,000. The plant therefore uses the excess to heat Reykjavík’s downtown streets and supplies many aluminum companies and local greenhouses with hot water and energy. Our group then drove to lunch, and before eating, we stopped at a nearby waterfall to take photos and learn about the town. Our guide told us about how the town uses nature to cook both bread and meat by wrapping them and burying them in the mountain until they cook fully (up to 24 hours). While our lunch was not made in this traditional way, it was amazing! We all enjoyed salads with grilled chicken and watched the sun rise. 
After lunch, we travelled to the Lava Tunnel establishment. Upon entering, we were given helmets with headlights and crampons (metal nets that attached to the bottom of our shoes to prevent us from slipping on icy rock). Our funny tour guide Matilda explained that the name of the cave we were entering, Raufarhólshellir, meant “A a hill... with a crack on it”. Then began the most arduous yet exciting hike some had ever taken. After traversing pits on rusty metal grates, we passed by beautiful icy spots that Hollywood had actually used in multiple films. Then we kicked off the crampons to begin the real trek. The nicely lit and smooth paths disappeared, replaced by darkness and scattered  rocks of all sizes and stabilities. We learned about all the different formations and textures and patterns that lava had created on the walls, floor, and ceiling when a nearby volcano erupted thousands of years ago. During one of our breaks, we turned off all our lights and sat in complete darkness and silence, hearing nothing but the peaceful dripping of water. Matilda told us of the organisms that lived in the cave: thankfully no snakes or spiders or bats, but rather bacteria that could potentially also survive on Mars. After hours, we reached the end of the 3 mile hike, only to realize we now had to go all the way back. Though extremely difficult, the hike for many of us was one of the most amazing and fun things anyone had ever dared to do. 
Next, we hopped back on the bus and headed to dinner, the majority of the bus taking a well deserved nap after our grueling hike. We enjoyed dinner at a four star hotel that was once visited by the Kardashians and the Real House Wives of Orange County, so we were following some interesting footsteps. It was absolutely delicious, and since our group has loved the food so much this trip, we decided to create a new folder in the shared google folder from the groupme dedicated to food pictures so everyone at home could be jealous. Finally we arrived at our new hotel, the Umi Hotel in the south of Iceland.
Some photos of the day...

at Hellisheidi



Prepared for the lava tube

prepared for the lava tube


Entering the lava tube


Deep in the lava tube


- Olivia, Avery, Michelle
Anthony, Bennett, and Audrey

Friday, January 10

(teacher note - because of concerns that the weather would force the highway to the power plant to eventually be closed, we switched some activities on the itinerary. It was an apt decision as a number of roads were shut down this afternoon. - mv)

Today we had a small change of plans and started our day at the National Park of Iceland. We learned many interesting facts about Vikings and their judiciary system. The coolest thing we witnessed was one of the only places you can see the tectonic plates meeting. While the sulfur stench was not the most pleasant part of the geyser, the eruption was not something one could forget easily. The gift shop was a highlight for many. lol.
The last stop of the day was lunch at a tomato farm which much to our surprise was also home to purebred Icelandic horses. We learned that Icelandic horses have 40 different colors and that they have a total of five gates while every other horse in the world has a total of three. This makes them perfect competition horses which is why so many people buy them from outside the country at a lofty price. Another reason for this price is that the horse is of pure bloodline and may never return to the country of Iceland again. They were the sweetest horses and were perfectly comfortable around us. We later walked down the slippery path into the greenhouse farm and restaurant. The food was absolutely delicious with many tomato flavored products including tomato ice cream! It was so cool to see how they grew these fruits which are normally grown in warmer climates in the freezing cold. They use the warm water generated from close hot springs to heat the enormous greenhouse. The lights from the greenhouse can be seen from miles away because they are so bright. Iceland is so much fun and we are having a great time.

Interesting scientific fact: Bees were used at the tomato greenhouse farm, and the queen bee is 3x the size of the average worker bee and we could spot her with no problem.

Icelandic Horse

Preston and horse




First view at Thingvellir

Thingvellir Panorma

Panaromic view at Thingvellir

- Anthony, Bennett, and Audrey