How Iceland Went From Blood Feuds to Geothermal
The other day, we brought you a guest post by Nathan Myhrvold that chronicled his recent trip to Iceland. Here, as promised, is the next installment, equally fascinating, with equally stunning photographs.
What is Myhrvold exactly? As he admits himself, it’s hard to say — but in this TED talk he does a good job of describing a few of the many passions that make him tick.
How Iceland Went From Blood Feuds to Geothermal
A Guest Post
By Nathan Myhrvold
In a recent article, Malcolm Gladwell called me a Viking, but “the impish, roly-poly kind who stayed home by the fjords.” Icelanders seemed to agree — they would try to speak Icelandic to me. It is sort of the Latin of the North, because it is virtually unchanged from the Viking language of the 10th century.
The place names in Iceland are impossible. Pretty soon I was referring to places in a bizarre indirect way reminiscent of the “artist formerly known as Prince.” So Snafellsnes became “the peninsula that starts with an S” and so forth.
While Iceland was clearly part of the Viking culture, it did not have a large enough population to support a professional warrior class for large-scale operations (the scary Vikings that raided much of Europe), nor did it have the merchants and traders that built and operated the Viking world. Instead they were primarily subsistence farmers. The Sagas are tales of blood feuds (a la Hatfield vs. McCoy) between a bunch of bad-ass sword-wielding shepherds.
The medieval world was cruel and violent, yet even so, the Vikings had a reputation as the worst of the lot. Yet today the former Viking countries — Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland are arguably the nicest and most civilized people on earth. How did this amazing transformation come about?
Which brings us to the second major mystery of Iceland — how they managed to go from the poorest country in Europe to one of the richest. An interesting essay by economist Thorvaldur Gylfason is titled “When Iceland was Ghana,” because in 1901 they had comparable GDP.
The comparison is quite unfair of course — Iceland has way less in the way of every sort of resource, whether natural, climatic, geographical, or human. Naively speaking it should have done much worse than Ghana. Yet despite all of the disadvantages, Iceland somehow made it to the top.
I was fortunate enough to have dinner with the president of Iceland, Olafur Grimsson, who is an amazingly articulate advocate for his country. I quizzed him on both the cultural question and the economic question.
The president offered some good insights but I remain confused about which of the issues are really central, and which are part of a historical “just so” story that describes symptoms rather than causes. I’m not faulting President Grimmson — it’s the whole field of developmental economics that ought to rise to the challenge. Besides idle curiosity, if one really understood the dynamics, it might inform Ghana and other places as to how they could develop further.
Modern Iceland is a funny place — clearly part of Europe in many ways, but clearly not in others. The cars are the first giveaway — along with the small European models that one would expect are lots of huge SUVs, many of them American.
Traditional cuisine and environmental attitudes aside, Iceland is a completely modern and technological society — I had GSM cell service and e-mail on my Treo virtually everywhere. Even the tiniest little hotels in very remote places had internet access — and all of it powered with clean energy, which is another amazing part of the Iceland story.
Virtually all of the energy in the country is generated by either hydroelectric turbines or geothermal power. A side effect of geothermal power is that the stark Icelandic landscape is punctuated by pipelines or rows of power lines stretching into the distance.
Nearly any place you find natural hot springs, you find people promoting the health benefits of drinking or soaking in the water. It’s mostly bunk, of course. Whatever benefit you might get could also be had from a box of Epsom salt at home, but there is an allure to hot springs that overcomes that logic.
There are many such springs in Iceland, but the most amusing is a large facility called the Blue Lagoon. It is a geothermal power station, which generated a bunch of hot mineralized water from an artificial bore hole; it had such a high mineral content that the water is nearly opaque and milky, a bit like glacial runoff. The waste water was a problem until somebody had the bright idea of fixing the place up and charging visitors $30 a head to come and soak in what is essentially an industrial waste-water catchment basin for a power plant.
You will find geothermal heat anywhere on earth if you drill deep enough, but the hole will have to be very deep (typically 10 kilometers, or 6 miles), and the rock will be dry so you must drill two holes. This adds to the cost. Indeed, the primary barrier in widespread geothermal use is drilling cheap, deep holes. Conversely, Iceland’s big advantage is simply this — they have hot rock a factor of 3 to 10 times shallower.
The United States has some geothermal. It ought to be more widely deployed — at least in the areas where the heat is shallow so it is cheap to tap. I need to understand the economics of why this has not occurred
One reason is politics and special interests. Hydroelectric power is officially classified as not being “renewable,” for example. Wind power in the U.S. is basically a tax scheme that as a side effect produces some electricity — tax subsidies are central to its deployment. Solar also benefits from tax regulations, but less systematically than wind. Until recently, geothermal was not eligible for the same tax advantages as wind. That has been changed, and we’ll see what happens next.
Of course I didn’t come to Iceland for weird food or clean energy or Viking history; I came to see and photograph the landscape and the wildlife.
The early summer weather in Iceland is cool — 52 F/10 C and quite variable. We could have bright sun or rain or fog or anything else on short order. A lot of my photos turned out to be moody as a result. It’s common to see crepuscular rays (also called “god beams”) from sun holes in clouds, or have a moody, misty sky over a harsh and barren landscape.