60 Years Since Start of Surtsey Eruption

Surtsey island

Today marks exactly 60 years since the start of the eruption that formed Surtsey island, off Iceland’s south coast. The island, which has been closed to the public since its formation, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. The opening of a photographic exhibition to mark the anniversary has been delayed as Iceland awaits a potential eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula, where one town has been evacuated.

The Environment Agency had planned to open a photographic exhibition on Surtsey in the Westman Islands today, November 14, but a notice from the agency says the opening will be delayed. “In light of the serious situation that has emerged, we don’t consider it appropriate to celebrate this milestone at this moment,” the notice reads.

While the exhibit’s opening party has been delayed, the photo exhibition itself remains open to visitors. It features the work of Iceland Review’s principal photographer Golli, who received rare permission to accompany a scientific expedition to Surtsey this past summer. His article and photos from the expedition, Island in the Making, are available to subscribers on the Iceland Review website.

Minister Denies University’s Appeal for Registration Fee Hike

icelandic startups

The Minister of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation in Iceland, Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir, has denied a request from the country’s four public universities to increase registration fees, citing the financial strain already faced by students. The minister urges universities to improve the quality of education without raising fees.

Presidents appeal to ministry

Last year, the presidents of Iceland’s four public universities – the University of Iceland, the University of Akureyri, Hólar University, and the Agricultural University of Iceland – approached the Minister of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation to seek legislative changes that would allow them to increase registration fees from ISK 75,000 [$553 / €516] to ISK 95,000 [$700 / €654]. The fee has remained unchanged since 2014.

In December 2022, Jón Atli Benediktsson, President of the University of Iceland, stated that it was “timely to adjust the fee.” He explained that the next fiscal year would be challenging for the University of Iceland, as many academic departments were facing financial constraints. Student numbers had declined again after an increase during the pandemic, resulting in lower financial contributions from the state budget.

Jón Atli also maintained that the government had not fulfilled the promises made in the coalition agreement to increase funding for universities to the OECD average by the year 2020.

Tuition disguised as registration fees

As noted in an article on the matter on RÚV, students have long criticised the registration fee, calling it a disguised tuition fee. Rebekka Karlsdóttir, then President of the Student Council of the University of Iceland, stated that it was “no coincidence” that university presidents were seeking a fee increase precisely when the budget was under discussion in Parliament.

She stated that authorities and university officials must “stop sugar-coating the truth” about the reality of public higher education. “Which is, that there are tuition fees in public universities,” she stated.

Request denied

Today, Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir, Minister of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation, announced that the ministry had denied the request to authorise an increase in registration fees. The institutions had requested permission to raise the fees from ISK 75,000 [$553 / €516] to ISK 95,000 [$700 / €654].

“University students are among those who are either newly entering the housing market or are struggling to secure housing,” Áslaug is quoted as saying in a statement from the ministry.

She also noted that a larger proportion of university students in Iceland have young children compared to those in neighbouring countries, and are taking their first steps in supporting a family. “High interest rates, difficulties in securing childcare, and various other economic conditions are already putting a strain on university students to such an extent that it is crucial for public entities not to increase their expenses,” the minister added.

The announcement states that funding for universities has increased, with an additional ISK 3.5 billion [$26 million / €24 million] planned for the year 2024 compared to previous projections. By 2028, the funding for higher education is expected to increase by ISK 6 billion [$44 million / €41 million]

“It is important that public universities, like other public entities, exercise restraint in their operations and find ways to improve the quality of education without raising registration fees,” the minister is quoted as saying.

To Catch an Oystercatcher

oystercatcher reykjanes

Under the regular ascent and descent of Keflavík jet traffic, out past the old American radar stations, at the northwestern tip of the Reykjanes peninsula, sits the Suðurnes Science and Learning Centre. Much like the airport terminal a few kilometres from here, this spit of low-flung land is a place where many visitors to this […]

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Deep North Episode 34: Where There’s Fire

reykjanes eruption 2023

In this special edition of Deep North, we revisit our 2022 piece on the Fagradalsfjall eruption. Read the original here. Read more about the 2023 Reykjanes eruption here.

The eruptions on the Reykanes peninsula in 2021 and 2022 once again propelled Iceland’s volcanoes into the global consciousness. The last time this happened was in 2010, when Eyjafjallajökull’s ash cloud grounded an estimated 10 million air travellers. By contrast, the latest social media-friendly eruptions, a half-hour drive from the capital, attracted even more tourists to the island’s already strained post-COVID hospitality industry.

Although at any given time there’s a 50/50 chance a volcanic eruption is ongoing in Iceland, the last time the Reykjanes peninsula witnessed an active volcano was in the 12th century. The eruptions were part of a sustained period of volcanic activity that spanned more than 200 years, known to Icelanders as the “Reykjavík Fires.” Could these latest eruptions herald a new era of volcanic activity on the peninsula, near the homes of over two-thirds of Iceland’s population?

Guðmundur Felix May Lose His Arms A Second Time

guðmundur felix

Guðmundur Felix, an Icelander famous for being the recipient of one of the world’s first-ever double arm transplants, may be in danger of losing his arms for a second time.

While working as an electronics engineer in 1998, Guðmundur Felix received a high-voltage shock while working on power lines. Suffering an 8 metre [26 foot] fall, he broke his back and fractured his neck and ribs. Following a period of unconsciousness, he awoke to find that his arms had been amputated.

In January 2021, however, he was one of the first people in the world to receive a double-arm transplant. He currently lives in Lyon in France, where he has found a medical team that specialises in such operations.

Read more: Guðmundur Felix Talks About His Arm Transplant

Now, unfortunately, he may be in danger of losing his arms again.

Guðmundur Felix’s full statement can be found below on social media.

 

Approximately a year and a half after his surgery, his body may be rejecting his arms. Guðmundur Felix began noticing tell-tale signs of the rejection recently, which included red spots on his arms and fingernails falling out.

Generally, such rejections of transplanted limbs occur sooner after the surgery, but late rejections are not unheard of.

In his statement, he also said that he is currently on a strong regimen of steroids that acts as a “bomb” on his immune system, which may suppress his body’s rejection of the limb.

 

Students Express ‘Grave Concern’ Regarding Financial Situation at the University of Iceland

Háskóli Íslands University of Iceland

In the wake of reports that University of Iceland is facing a deficit of as much as ISK 1 Billion [$7.02 million; €6.46 million] this year, the Student Council (SHÍ) issued a statement on Sunday expressing its “grave concern” about the situation.

“It’s clear that the lack of funding has had a serious impact on the school’s basic operations,” reads the statement, and the university council has, as a result, “approved austerity measures that include, among other things, teaching cuts and hiring freezes.” With even further cuts on the horizon for the 2024-25 academic year, the student council fears that the university will be unable to maintain comparable standards to other Nordic universities or adequately prepare its graduates to be competitive on the international labour market.

Stated goals not in line with existing funding

SHÍ says it has been vocal about its concerns regarding funding at the university on a number of occasions, most recently in its comment on HÍ’s 2023 budget. SHÍ’s president has also “repeatedly raised the issue and the seriousness of the situation with the Minister of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation, as well as the fact that the university budget does not correspond to the priorities or goals that the new Ministry of Higher Education has outlined.”

“It defies logic that at the same time calls are being made for an increase in the number of students in the health sciences that the School of Health Sciences has a deficit of ISK 240 million [$1.69 million; €1.55 million] and that goals are being set for increased STEM course offerings while at the same time, the School of Engineering and Natural Sciences has had to significantly reduce teaching due to lack of funding.”

‘The University has fallen in international rankings’

“The University of Iceland plays an important role in Icelandic society and is one of the world’s leading universities,” continues the statement,  “but the fact is that due to a lack of adequate funding for research and teaching, the school has fallen in international rankings,”

“Immediate action needs to be taken to foster the foundations of the educational system and strengthen it for the future. SHÍ agrees joins the university council in urging the government to accelerate its review of the university’s operations model such that the funding for public university education is in line with those in comparable countries.”

The current state of affairs is contrary to what the government has declared to be its policy regarding higher education in Iceland, says SHÍ, namely that it will “aim for comparable funding of universities in Iceland as is observed in the other Nordic countries.” SHÍ calls for the government to develop an operations model for the university that is not subject to dramatic fluctuation by increasing incentives and fixed funding for universities.

“The Student Council demands that the government live up to its constitutional obligation and significantly increase funding for public university education,” concludes the statement. “It is essential to Icelandic society, and will improve standards of living, value creation, and the competitiveness of the educational system, as well as Icelandic society on the international stage.”

Cream of the Crop

 Row after row of steep but flat-topped mountains, interspersed with deep fjords. There’s barely enough land in between to make up a coastline, let alone farmland. But on the green patches between the cliffs and the waves, there are still more than a handful of farms dotting the landscape. The Westfjords have always been isolated, but after World War II, when the rest of Iceland experienced a period of sped-up industrialisation, the Westfjords were left behind. Once-thriving communities were slowly drained of life when the young people moved south, and a series of economic setbacks made life difficult for the ones that remained. and new generations still find ways of making it work. 

CREAM OF THE CROP
CREAM OF THE CROP

“I could drive
this road with my eyes closed,
I know it so well.”

6.40 am 

Rauðsdalur 

Mikkjall Agnar Þórsson Davidssen’s alarm goes off. It’s not light yet in the Westfjords but for farmers, this isn’t unusual. Mikki isn’t getting up to milk the cows or feed the sheep but to get his stepdaughter ready for school. At precisely 7.15, the school bus arrives. Rauðsdalur farm is its first stop on the way to bring the preschool and elementary school-aged kids to get their education in Patreksfjörður, the town on the other side of the mountains. 

Íris celebrated her tenth birthday the day before. She’s still waiting on her present, set to arrive any day now by mail from Reykjavík. The post arrives twice a week but the present is yet to turn up. Mikki and Íris are up but her mother Svanhildur is still sleeping, and so is six-month-old Ástey Kolbrún. An online sleep specialist whose aid her parents had requested insists that Ástey be woken up. With bated breath, her parents comply and Ástey rewards them with a smile. They have a whole day to brace themselves for the bedtime-inspired screaming set to happen later. 

Svanhildur and Mikki met in 2019 in Reykjavík. Mikki had lived in Norway for a few years before that, in the same region as the first Norse settler to intentionally sail to Iceland, Raven Flóki. Unlike Flóki, however, he’d never even been to the Westfjords. A couple of years later and he’s building himself a house there. 

The couple bought a prefab house and were hoping to have it ready last summer. Enter Ástey. Svanhildur got pregnant, delaying their plans for a while. They did manage to get the walls up, so all that remains is indoor work. While Mikki is new to the area, Svanhildur is born and bred. She grew up in Rauðsdalur with her parents and two brothers, moving away, like so many of the local youth to go to school, not planning on moving back. “We’d still visit every chance we got,” Mikki notes. “Summer or winter. I could drive this road with my eyes closed, I know it so well.” 

Mikki’s father-in-law drives the milk tanker. He’s been doing it for decades. He’s happy to have some help. Mikki’s taking half the shifts lately. Completely unrelated, his father-in-law is now spending a couple of weeks in the Canary Islands. Alongside the milk truck gig, Svanhildur’s parents run the farm, taking care of their cattle and sheep. They also dabble in tourism, running a guesthouse and campsite. Someone on the next farm over used to take half the shifts on the milk tanker. When he quit, there was an opening for Mikki. “We spent a lot of time here but I needed something more to do than just helping out at the farm.” Mikki and Svanhildur moved west in the spring of 2021, during the lambing season. Despite being raised in a rural area, Mikki says it takes a few years to get to know the ins and outs of dairy farming in the Westfjords. He’s from the south. 

 

Lambavatn

Just before nine, Mikki starts the truck. Twice a week, he collects the milk from the farms along the coast of Breiðafjörður and takes them all the way up to Ísafjörður. He starts at the most remote farm in his area, Lambavatn. To get there, he drives two mountain roads, first over Kleifaheiði heath, under the careful watch of Kleifabúinn, a primitive-looking statue created from excess stone by road workers in the 1940s. In the winter, the Kleifaheiði road can be treacherous, even though it’s cleared once a day to  make sure traffic can flow to and from Patreksfjörður. 

The second road takes you to the remote farming community of Rauðasandur, and it’s more than treacherous. It’s a long and winding gravel road, steep and rough, zigzagging up and down sharp cliffs. In summer, the view over the russet sand that gives the region its name is breathtaking. In winter, with strong winds and ice on the road, it can also take your breath away for all the wrong reasons. The road to Rauðasandur is among the most challenging in the region but there are others that can still be plenty bad when winter sets in. The roads have been slowly improving for the past couple of decades. There are fewer gravel roads. More bridges and shorter routes between towns. But progress is slow. Roads are how kids get to school and how food gets to farms. How products get from factories and tourists get to guesthouses. And how sick people, pregnant people, and people who’ve had accidents get to hospitals. 

It’s still dark when Mikki takes off and there aren’t many other cars on the road. A tiny sliver of light comes from the east. It’s mid-November but it’s still 8°C out and not a snowflake in sight, unusual for this time of year. 

On the road across Dynjandisheiði (try saying that five times fast while trying to keep a truck on an icy road), Mikki regales me with stories of thick layers of ice on the road making it hopeless to brake, and how they could sometimes drive on the edge of the road to keep safe. He also tells me of piles of snow higher than the top of the truck, and how he once had to put chains on the wheels of the truck four times in one day to pass safely over mountain roads. Putting the chains on takes half an hour out in the cold and he has to get them off again as soon as he gets down. He mentions tourists scared shitless who either won’t budge to make room for the truck on the road or give so much way that they almost drive off the road. He’s seen it all. Despite all his adventures crossing the iconic Westfjord mountains, his least favourite stretch of road is driving through the long tunnel connecting the southern and the northern Westfjords. Driving through the calm dark of the tunnels can make you drowsy.

The local milk truck drving across the winding roads of the Westfjords

10.00 am

It takes us less than an hour to get to Rauðasandur but in that time, Mikki’s told me who’s who in every farm along the way and who will greet us when we arrive. As promised, Þorsteinn á Lambavatni meets us in the milkhouse. As Mikki tests the quality of the milk before transferring it to the tank, Þorsteinn explains the watercolour drawing of the milking equipment with directions in English. They have foreign workers at the farm and one of them left the work of art to explain things to the next arrivals. As I admire the picture, Þorsteinn drags me into the cowshed where two further paintings adorn the steel doors keeping the cows away from the winter hay in the barn. Lambavatn may be isolated, at the end of the road, nothing ahead but the north Atlantic, but there’s always people attracted to exactly that. We don’t dawdle too long at Lambavatn. It’s the only dairy farm left in the area so it’s already out of the way. The milk tanker is its lifeline, the biweekly visit from Mikki or his father-in-law a prerequisite for people living there. 

In Barðaströnd, the farms are closer. The next stop is Breiðalækur, where Elín and Kristján are outside working on the greenhouse. Kristján is the third generations of farmers at Breiðalækur, a relatively young farm built in the mid-20th century. Despite only being a few decades old, the farm consists of several buildings and Kristján, a carpenter by trade, has done his part adding to it. There’s the old farmhouse, the new farmhouse sporting a two-year-old annex adding a new apartment for Elín and him. Then there’s the new dairy barn and the old dairy barn, currently in the process of being converted into a greenhouse. “The roof needed fixing,” Elín told me. “So we removed it to make a new one that lets the sun in.” Then there’s the workshop, which Elín has used to tan sheepskin, a garage for the farm equipment and their boat in the winter, and the latest addition under construction – a building to house their new ice-cream-making machinery. 

Their youngest isn’t old enough for school but their six-year-old takes the bus to Patreksfjörður in the morning to go to school. When Elín moved to the farm ten years ago, there was only one school-aged kid left in the region so they closed the local elementary school. Now, there are 14 children below the age of 16 but the school is yet to reopen.

Hagi

Hagi is the next farm over and just like Mikki predicted, there’s no one to greet us in the milkhouse. According to Mikki, “the farmers have decided to stop dairy production when they turn 60 but continue to live on the farm. The milk in the tank is just half of what it once was. They’re gradually downsizing.”

 

Hvammur

Hvammur is next, the largest dairy farm in the area, and Mikki pumps as much milk in his tanker as he did in the first three combined. There’s no one there to greet us. 

 

12.30 pm

Rauðsdalur

We drive up to Rauðsdalur again. Mikki’s family and the in-laws produce dairy, gather it from the surrounding farms, transport it to the dairy in Ísafjörður and drive the finished product back to the area. The dogs greet us with a cheerful bark and Mikki enquires about his daughter’s sleep schedule. All is according to plan. 

There are three dogs in total. The largest one is an Australian sheepdog who moves like an octogenarian after he broke his leg last fall. It takes a while to get used to but we go by the same name: this is Golíat, aka Golli. Pjakkur is a gregarious mutt, constantly seeking attention and willing to place his head in the lap of a perfect stranger in the hope of a scratch behind the ears. The third is more cautious, the namesake of Sveinn Skotti, the son of Iceland’s most famous serial killer, Axlar-Björn. Sveinn took after his father and was finally hanged in the cliffs jutting out into the sea below the farm. This was centuries ago, but I’m still keeping my eye on the dog. 

A quick cup of coffee and we’re off again. This time, we’re taking the milk to Ísafjörður. In Vatnsfjörður, the next town over, we stop and Mikki picks up a Styrofoam box that’s waiting for his arrival. It’s arctic char from the fish farm in Vatnsfjörður to be delivered to the fishmonger in Ísafjörður. Out here, everyone does their part. The tanker carries 5,950 litres of milk on its way to Arna creamery in Bolungarvík. Another milk tanker covers the northern part of the Westfjords bringing in a similar amount twice a week. That’s still not enough and Arna has to buy milk from other parts of the country as well. 

CREAM OF THE CROP

“Roads are how kids get to school and how food gets to farms. How products get from factories and tourists get to guesthouses. And how sick people, pregnant people, and people who’ve had accidents get to hospitals.”

CREAM OF THE CROP

A quick cup of
coffee and we’re
off again.

3.00 pm

Ísafjörður

We arrive in Ísafjörður. There is ongoing roadwork in Dynjandisheiði, the road has already gotten a lot better but there’s more to come. The tunnel by Dýrafjörður has shortened the drive by a lot and on an unusually warm fall day without snow, we don’t run into any issues. “By now, it’s even better to take this road in snow during the winter rather than on a sunny day in the summer. Ever since the tunnel opened the tourist traffic has increased a lot and there are a lot of people on the road that don’t have any experience driving Icelandic country roads.” Mikki’s working so he can’t pick up hitch hikers. There aren’t that many any way. But last year, he took pity on a cyclist on their way up Dynjandisheiði during a storm and drove them to safety. Everyone does their part. 

MS Iceland Dairies has an outpost in Ísafjörður and Mikki stops there for a quality control check on the milk. Everything is as it should be, so we continue out to Bolungarvík where the milk is pumped into Arna’s tankards to become butter, cream, skyr, or cheese. On the way back, we drop the Styrofoam box of char to the fishmonger and Mikki gets a bag of dried fish as a thank you. “I love the stuff, but I can’t eat it at home as the wife has a fish allergy.”

The day is not done yet. The milk tanker has to be thoroughly cleaned in an hour-long process. We get dinner. Mikki is pretty set in his ways but he’s willing to try a kebab in the recently opened kebab shop in an Ísafjörður shopping complex. Before we take off, another truck drives up to the tanker, a delivery from Reykjavík. Pallet after pallet of milk, butter, cheese, yoghurt, skyr and other dairy products is transferred to Mikki’s car for the people back home. He’ll deliver the goods tomorrow. We stop by the grocery. 

On the way back, it’s dark again. The floodlights on the top of the car come in handy. I even see a field mouse crossing the road. I didn’t ask why.

 

Rauðsdalur

It’s half past eight when we get back to Rauðsdalur. We go straight to the barn where Svanhvít is feeding the cows. Ástey is sleeping. 

CREAM OF THE CROP

New Study Shows Large Hole in Arctic Ozone Layer

mosaic polarstern

A major research expedition has recently shed new light on the extent to which the arctic ozone layer has been depleted.

The MOSAiC program, then the largest research expedition ever of the Arctic Ocean, set off in September 2019. Hundreds of scientists representing some twenty nations were involved with the project.

Central to the project was the German ice breaker “Polarstern,” or Polar Star, which was left adrift in polar ice for a year. Instruments aboard the vessel took atmospheric measurements, and the results of the study are now being discussed at the Arctic Round Table.

A key finding in the study was that even after the international banning of ozone-harming substances, the largest hole ever found in the ozone was detected over the Arctic at an altitude of some 20km.

Dr. Markus Rex, a German researcher at the University of Potsdam, stated that: “the ozone layer is not improving. Things are getting worse in the Arctic. Now we understand that it is because the decomposers from the gas are still present in the atmosphere. Climate change makes them more aggressive: it’s bad news for the future of the ozone layer in the Arctic.”

Nevertheless, there is some occasion for hope.

Dr. Markus Rex continued: “We saw that under the ice the sea reaches a freezing point down to a depth of 14 meters in the winter. There is a healthy base for winter ice formation, and we believe we are still in a position to save the ice if we stop global warming. It responds very linearly to warming, and if we stop the warming, the melting of the ice will stop. That is good. This puts a lot of responsibility on our shoulders. We are the last generation that can save the sea ice in the Arctic.” 

Read more about the MOSAiC expedition here.