Story Details

Earth Science Teacher Travels to Iceland

Wonderment and Awe
by Jennifer Grant
Eighth Grade Earth Science Teacher


In 2016 I was surprised and delighted to receive the McLemore Award for Excellence in Teaching from my peers. This humbling honor inspired me to stay passionate about Earth Science and lifelong learning. I decided to add some wonderment and awe to my content knowledge by travelling to Iceland. At the end of July 2017, after a year of planning, packing, waiting, and re-packing, my daughters and I finally departed for an 11 day Smithsonian Journey to discover the unique geology of Iceland. Our first moments in Reykjavik set the tone for the entire trip: fast-paced and breathtakingly beautiful! The special geology of Iceland creates a topsy-turvy landscape of stark opposites: high cliffs and deep fissures; frozen glaciers and steaming geothermal pools; gently rolling pastures and craggy barren lava fields; peaceful braided rivers and towering thundering waterfalls.

Jennifer Grant Hiking in Iceland

The Mid Ocean Ridge is a crack in the Earth's crust that circles our planet like the seams on a baseball. All along this seam, convection in the mantle drives the two sides apart and squeezes new magma to the surface. Iceland is the only place in the world where the Mid Ocean Ridge is above the ocean's surface. The small island is slowly, constantly growing laterally as the landscape is ripped open and stitched back together creating narrow fissures and wide rift valleys.

columnar jointing beach

Adding to Iceland's unique geology is the fact that it is also sitting atop a hot spot. The magma plume under Iceland has pushed up numerous traditional cinder cone volcanoes as well as the square-topped table volcanoes that formed underneath ancient glaciers. Newer lava fields cut across valleys and floodplains creating a terrain hospitable only to moss and the most surefooted of sheep. In addition to all of the volcanoes, the magma plume heats up deeper groundwater enough to generate steam power and hot water for the cities and towns.


The final major geological force shaping the island is glaciation. The ebb and flow of glaciers has scoured many areas of Iceland and left behind broad valleys full of boulders and rock piles called moraine. When volcanoes erupt under a glacier, the lava and steam melt huge amounts of ice into cataclysmic torrents of hot water rushing downhill. The dramatic evidence of massive flooding events, both ancient and as recently as 2015, can be seen in the scraped out cliffs of columnar basalt and scrubbed off valleys below the glaciers. The Icelandic Rosettes are the most beautiful evidence of one of these floods. An ancient flood scraped a chain of small, extinct cinder cone volcanoes in half revealing beautiful 'blossoms' of basalt that had formed as they cooled.

Puffin with Flowers

We witnessed these geologic features by bus, by boat, by plane, on foot, and from atop the famous Icelandic horse. Our tour included geologist Dr. Jim Reynolds of Brevard College who carefully explained the how, when, and why of everything we saw and then patiently answered all of our questions. We also visited many sites important to the culture, history, and wildlife of Iceland. For matters of everything Icelandic and then some, we had a marvelous guide in celebrated artist Arngunnar Yr. Her beautiful depictions of life in Iceland perfectly wove the determined, independent people and the dangerous, ever changing landscape into an experience beyond compare. And the food was outstanding!