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Life in the geography text book

Or discovering Iceland

· Iceland glacier fjor,Iceland global warm

I've just stepped off a ship (Fred Olsen's Boudicca) and in to a geography text book. Iceland has everything – glaciers, volcanoes, drifting tectonic plates, geysers, ice floes and a lot of thermal activity. This thermal activity supplies hot water direct to homes and swimming pools in Reykjavik – why bother with your own boiler if the earth will do it for you?

Reykjavik's drinking water comes from the Langjokull Glacier. Filtered through lava for 100 years, it's just about the purest you'll find on the planet. Trouble is, though, that its days are numbered. The glacier has been here for around 3000 years and it's the second biggest in Europe – 70x25km – and 600m deep. That's a lot of ice. But, thanks to global warming, it will disappear entirely during the next century and long before that it will have shrunk so much Reykjavik will lose its water supply. The glacial melt into the sea will mean the fish disappear too. I learn all this from Iris who is my guide into the glacier.

Yes, I did say "into" the glacier. So you'll remember when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted (to the delight of newsreaders everywhere) and closed most of Europe’s skies. In Iceland, though, there was little disruption (their airport never closed) but it did result in exposing the Langjokull glacier so that they could map it, work out where the dangerous crevasses were and then – and what an idea this was – make a tunnel that would reach 45m below the surface and create a cave of ice.

Iris points out a dark line of volcanic ash that marked the 2010 eruption and a second lighter one nearly 2 metres higher, the result of a lesser eruption the following year. So those two metres of ice represent a year's snowfall that is gradually compressed to turn into glacial ice. You can see the process happening around you with the younger ice pocketed with air bubbles that are gradually forced out as it becomes denser over time. There are ponds, rivulets, crevasses, a chapel for weddings (they've had nine so far) and a party room (they do love a party in Iceland) where Dolly Parton once played.

As I said, Iceland has everything. There are black lava fields and geothermal lakes (100C). Grey mud pools bubble and splash in a lunar landscape dotted with volcanic cones. The earth hisses, rumbles, groans – our planet at its most primitive, explosive and violent. There are extraordinary sights: the geological fault known as Almannagha where the American and Eurasian continents are pulling apart from each other and you can stand with a foot in each (like the Major, above, astride the continents!); the original Geysir (after which all others are named) spouting into the sky surrounded by bubbling mud. This is a landscape so mysterious and iconic it's no surprise it's the land of sagas (and no I don't mean Scandi noir detectives).

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