Tag Archives: iceland

In Iceland, CO2 is sucked out of the air and turned into rock

A facility in Iceland is taking atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), the main culprit of climate change, and injecting it into volcanic rocks deep underground. While this is still early days and the volume of CO2 isn’t too great, this type of technology could be very important in the future.

The Orca plant. Image credits: Climeworks.

Even if we’d magically stop all our greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, the inertia of our past emissions would still push the planet to warm a bit. If we continue “business as usual”, things will be way worse. So why don’t we just take greenhouse gases out of the air and store them somewhere safe where they can’t contribute to global warming?

The idea is not new, but of course, it’s easier said than done. Separating out the right gases, processing them, and storing them somewhere where they can’t escape back into the atmosphere are all big challenges — and doing them all together is even more demanding. But a company working in Iceland is not deterred.

Climeworks is a Swiss company specializing in carbon dioxide air capture technology. They’ve recently built a plant in Iceland called Orca that can capture 4000 tons of CO2 per year, making it the biggest climate-positive facility in the world.

Orca (the Icelandic word for energy) lies near the Hellisheiði Power Station — the third largest geothermal power plant in the world. It consists of eight containers stacked up two by two; fans in front of a collector draw ambient air, the air passes through a selective material that collects CO2, and the CO2-depleted air is then released at the back. It’s a bit like “mining” the sky for CO2 — simple in principle, though very difficult to implement.

What happens next is also not exactly simple. After the filter is full, it’s heated to around 100 degrees Celsius to clear the CO2 of any impurities, and then piped underground a distance of three kilometres (1.8 miles) to dome-shaped facilities in a moon-like landscape where it is dissolved in water and then injected under high pressure into basalt rock 800-2000 meters deep. The injection facility was developed by Carbfix which pioneered underground carbon storage.

The injection facility. Image credits: Carbfix.

The dissolved solution starts filling the cavities of the subsurface basalt and reacting with the rock, solidifying and turning into minerals in about two years.

To do this, you need the right geology, and Iceland offers just that. Much of Iceland is a basaltic field, where this dissolved gas can be safely injected. The only way the CO2 would be released into the air is in the case of a volcanic eruption, but the injection site was chosen in an area where the risk of an eruption is very low.

A core of basalt rock (black part) with the injected CO2 (white part). Image credits: Climeworks.

However, as exciting and promising as this technology is, it won’t save us from climate change on its own. While Orca can suck up to 4000 tons of CO2 per year, the yearly global emissions are around 33.4 billion tons of CO2 — so the plant can dispose of 0.00001% of our yearly emissions. Climeworks says this is mostly a trial and it will achieve megaton removal capacity in the second part of the decade, but even one megaton is still a very small percentage of our emissions. To make matters even more complicated, the process is costly and requires large amounts of energy. While the plant is run on renewable energy, this still makes scaling more difficult.

In fact, carbon capture is making such a small dent in our total emissions that critics have argued that it’s a costly distraction from the real policy measures needed to fight climate change. It’s true that only reducing our emissions can prevent catastrophic climate change, but “you have to learn to walk before you can run,” says Julie Gosalvez, in charge of marketing for Climeworks.

Carbon storage is just emerging as a technology. It won’t help us fix climate change yet, but it can be important down the line — provided we have the right conditions for it. The only way it can work is if the world implements a carbon tax, and extracting carbon from the air is incentivized. This makes economic sense, but for now, there’s no such carbon tax on the horizon.

Could fiber optic cables predict Iceland’s next volcanic eruption?

A team from ETH Zurich and the Icelandic Meteorological Office embarked on a seemingly bizarre mission. They deployed some 13 km (8 miles) of fiber optic cable on an active volcano in Iceland. The goal wasn’t to bring faster internet to the mountain trolls, but rather to see if the cables could sense slight tremors in the volcano — an indication that an eruption may be impending.

Image credits: ETH Zurich / Hildur.

The first earthquake detector was invented some 2,000 years ago, and while things have come a long way, the underlying principle is more or less the same: a ground tremor is passed through to a detector that records the movement (and its intensity) and then translates it into a readable measure. Early seismometers were analog, but in more recent times, they all use some form of digital recording.

But things have not stayed still in the world of seismology. In recent years, for instance, a new idea emerged among some researchers: what if we could use something else, something that wasn’t designed for earthquakes, to sense this movement? Something like, for instance, fiber optic cables.

The idea is not without precedent. Operators of critical infrastructure have long used these cables to monitor their facilities, and researchers thought they could use the same for earthquake study.

“The idea of using optical fibres for multiple purposes is nothing new,” says Andreas Fichtner, a professor of geophysics in the Department of Earth Sciences at ETH Zurich. Together with Fabian Walter, a professor at the Laboratory of Hydraulics, Hydrology and Glaciology (VAW), he wants to use this technology to monitor and study glacial earthquakes. “I’m particularly interested in tiny earthquakes that originate in the glacier bed.”

The key to this approach is the cable itself. The way fiber optic cables work, pulses of light of a specific wavelength are directed through the cable continuously from one end of the cable to the other. If the cable is moved or shaken, this will change how the pulses come back to the receiver.

By analyzing the interference in the returning signals, researchers can calculate when and where the earthquakes happen, and how strong they are — and the quantity of data that can be accessed this way is enormous. “You’re basically replacing thousands of seismometers with a single cable,” says Fichtner.

Project manager Fabian Walter (at rear) and his colleague Małgorzata Chmiel check if the cable is fully functional. (Photo: Wojciech Gajek)

The problem is that despite this large volume of data, it is not exactly high-quality data we’re talking about. The cable is less sensitive than a modern seismometer, but researchers hope they can compensate for this with the sheer volume of measured points. But it won’t be easy.

“Analysing it will be a tremendous job,” Fichtner tells ETH with a smile. “We will have to come up with methods to cope with the sheer quantity of data.” The researchers expect that the first measurement campaign will produce around 20 terabytes of raw data.

But the method is promising. For their worksite, researchers chose the Grimsvoetn volcano in Iceland — an active volcano. The idea is that glacial temblors can help researchers estimate when a volcanic eruption may be coming. But this isn’t their first rodeo. A study published by the same authors on a previous test site, on the Rhône Glacier in the Swiss Alps, is already challenging some of the existing theories in the field.

The study found that the glacial quakes occur in clusters, especially at the boundary between the ice and the underlying rock. This would imply that the glacier isn’t sliding smoothly (which would produce a different type of earthquake), but rather moves forward in a jerky motion.

“That’s not what you would expect based on current theories,” explains Walter. “Glaciologists assumed that glaciers could slide because the glacier bed was well lubricated with meltwater.” Some of the mini quakes in the Rhône Glacier occur as often as once a second, and are relatively small.

“My new hypothesis is that the sliding motion of glaciers is comparable to that of tectonic plates,” adds Walter. Most of the quakes measured in the Rhône Glacier have a magnitude of −1 to −2. “That’s roughly equivalent to ice cracking when you skate on a frozen lake,” he says. “It’s not something that you can feel like a real earthquake.”

Image credits: ETH Zurich / Hildur.

The approach could be used to boost earthquake preparedness, since the infrastructure is relatively cheap — and researchers could even piggyback on existing infrastructure. But Fichtner hopes to use this for more than just measuring earthquakes.

Most of what we know about our planet’s deep geology, we know from earthquakes. When seismic waves propagate through the subsurface, they pass through different environments differently, and by picking up this information, researchers can make deductions about the subsurface. Fichtner envisions one day using the fiber-optic networks in big cities to study the geological subsurface. This approach could be doubly useful, as it could identify areas prone to failure, like faults or subsurface voids. He’s already set a test environment in the city of Bern, Switzerland, and would like to see similar setups in other cities.

“The fiber geometry was very simple – that’s one reason why Bern was the ideal test site,” Fichtner reflects.

It’s remarkable to think that infrastructure designed for something completely different could prove useful in so many different ways. Fiber optic cables are already starting to offer a relatively inexpensive way of measuring even the tiniest earthquakes. Soon enough, we may have cheap and capable seismic networks beneath our very feet — in the form of cables.

Iceland tried a four-day work week. It was an overwhelming success

Reykjavík. Image credit: Flickr

Among the many things the coronavirus pandemic has affected, our work-life balance has also taken a hit. Most people are simultaneously working from home while doing their day-to-day activities, with many reporting they actually work more than they did before the pandemic struck in 2020, which leaves many feeling burnt out and stressed — but also unwilling to return to the office. 

This has raised discussions over a four-day working week as a way to increase productivity while improving the mental health of workers. For Iceland, this isn’t something new. The country did two large-scale trials of shorter working hours from 2015 to 2019, with workers moving from 40-hour to a 35-hour week with no pay cut. 

Now, a report has looked at the results of this massive trial, which the researchers are describing as an overwhelming success. More than 1% of the country’s population participated in the program, with participants reporting boosted productivity and wellbeing. The results have made ripples throughout the small country, as trade unions already have started to negotiate reduced working hours as a result of the program.

Iceland, much like Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland, provides a generous social safety net for its citizens. It boasts an advanced economy, a quality healthcare system, and ranks highly for income equality. However, in marked difference to its neighbours, Icelandic citizens are nevertheless faced with particularly long working hours.

Four is better than five

The first trial, done between 2014 and 2019 in Reykjavík, including childcare and service workers as well as staff in care homes. The second one, carried out between 2017 and 2021, included civil servants from multiple national government agencies. Their roles covered both traditional nine to five hours and irregular shift patterns. 

The well-being of the workers who participated in the trial improved dramatically across a range of indicators, according to the study, done by the think tank Autonomy in the UK and the Association for Sustainability and Democracy (Alda) in Iceland. There was no loss of productivity or quality of service provided. People were outputting just as much work but were feeling much better about it.

In fact, workers were encouraged to be more efficient by reducing meeting time, reorganizing their schedules, and improving communication between departments.  Perceived levels of stress and burnout fell in many cases, with employees saying they felt more positive and happier whilst at work due to the trial. 

The participants also said that reduced hours meant they could spend more time exercising and socializing which in some cases had an impact on their in-work performance. Many also noted that work and home life were in better harmony, and this effect was sustained a year into the trial – reporting less conflict between work and home life.

“The Icelandic shorter working week journey tells us that not only is it possible to work less in modern times, but that progressive change is possible too,” Gudmundur D. Haraldsson, a researcher at Alda, said in a statement. “Our roadmap to a shorter working week in the public sector should be of interest to anyone who wishes to see working hours reduced.”

While groundbreaking due to its results and the number of people involved, the idea of a shorter work week goes beyond Island. Spain is now starting a pilot by giving incentives to companies, members of parliament are discussing it in Japan and companies are implementing flexible working systems, such as Microsoft. 

But not every experiment on fewer working hours has been successful. State employees in Utah began working from Monday to Thursday for 10 hours in 2008, hoping to cut down operating costs such as air conditioning and electricity. But it all ended in 2011 when Governor Gary Herbert vetoed the legislation after concluding the savings weren’t significant.

Ultimately, there’s nothing inherently superior about the five-day week the world seems to have agreed on. As more trials are carried out, a clearer picture will hopefully emerge, showing whether a shorter work week really does have a positive impact for employees (and/or businesses).

Icelandic eruption attracts thousands of visitors, helicopter rides, over the weekend

What were probably the tastiest hot dogs made in all of Iceland this weekend were grilled over a volcanic eruption alongside marshmallows.

Aerial photo of the eruption. Image via Wikimedia.

In case it passed by below your radar, Iceland saw a new volcano start erupting late last Friday. Despite the island nation’s long history of volcanic activity and plane-grounding eruptions, this is the first time a member of this particular volcanic system has become active in around 9 centuries.

Still, the event attracted thousands of curious onlookers, and local media has even reported on some grilling marshmallows or hotdogs — which, scientifically speaking, is the best way to enjoy a volcano.

Mount Fagradalsfjall

The hard-to-pronounce volcano is situated around 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. Despite the fact that the only way to reach it is to hike for around 90 minutes from the nearest road, locals came in droves to see the incandescent lava slowly pour down Fagradalsfjall’s slopes.

Luckily for everybody, the eruption has been very calm and small in scope so far, with experts estimating that around 300,000 cubic meters of lava have poured forth from the volcano’s lip now.

“It’s absolutely breathtaking,” said Ulvar Kari Johannsson, a 21-year-old engineer who spent his Sunday visiting the scene, for AFP. “It smells pretty bad. For me what was surprising was the colours of the orange: much, much deeper than what one would expect.”

Access to the area was blocked immediately after the eruption started, to keep everybody safe. After a few hours, however, the police allowed access to the public but were strongly discouraging visits (lava tends to be dangerous). By Saturday, however, visitors were allowed free access as long as they respected strict safety guidelines.

For the most part, however, the police are keeping an eye on visitors and occasionally asking those that get too close to “step back,” according to a local police officer. Emergency teams were also involved in helping people find their way back to the road on Sunday after weather conditions and visibility at the site deteriorated rapidly. These teams also carried devices to measure gas pollution levels in the atmosphere — especially sulfur dioxide, which can pose a danger to health and even be fatal.

High pollution levels on Monday morning prompted the authorities to close the site down for visitors yet again.

A volcanic eruption takes place in Iceland roughly once every five years on average and, due to the rugged nature of the island, they’re often far-removed from population centers. But this was the first such event in the Reykjanes peninsula, which is densely inhabited, in over 800 years, and the first member of the Krysuvik volcanic system to erupt in almost 900 years.

Given its relatively close proximity to people, many visitors went to admire the event, probably happy to break the dullness of staying at home all day after 2020. By Sunday, local media reported, hikers had already beaten a visible trail up to the volcano. Helicopter rides were also organized around it over the weekend.

For now, the site remains closed due to unsafe atmospheric conditions. Experts believe the eruption will die out possibly within a few days. But that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the fun — here’s a live stream of Mount Fagradalsfjall doing volcano things.

Iceland’s most active volcano may soon erupt, throwing air travel into turmoil — again

Iceland’s most active volcano, the Grímsvötn, could be close to erupting again, experts have shown, claiming there already are multiple indicators. The volcano has already seen 65 eruptions over the past 800 years. The last one occurred in 2011 when it released ash 20 kilometers into the atmosphere.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Local authorities raised the Aviation Color Code from green to yellow after scientists recorded seismic activity indicating magma is swelling in the belly of the volcano. This doesn’t mean an eruption is imminent, but it does show that the Grímsvötn has reached a level of unrest, according to the Icelandic Met Office (IMO).

While an eruption would be unlikely to put anyone in immediate danger due to the remote location of the volcano, it could cause heavy local flooding. The Grímsvötn is buried in thick ice so a blast of heat from the volcano can create vast quantities of meltwater, according to Dave McGarvie, a UK volcano expert.

“Grímsvötn is a peculiar volcano, as it lies almost wholly beneath ice, and the only permanently visible part is an old ridge on its south side which forms the edge of a large crater. And it is along the base of this ridge, under the ice, that most recent eruptions have occurred,” wrote McGarvie in an article in The Conversation.

The ice might cause flooding, but also offers a layer of protection as it will absorb some of the force of the explosion. This means ash will be discharged tens of miles into the air, rather than hundreds, and will disperse more quickly. Still, this might be very bad news for the air travel sector, seeking to recover amid the pandemic.

The volcano is estimated to erupt every five to 10 years, and with nine years since its last eruption, scientists believe it could explode any time now. Usually, an eruption is hard to forecast for scientists, but as Grímsvötn erupts relatively frequently, scientists have been able to pick up on the signs.

First, the base of the volcano begins to expand as it fills with magma. This magma then causes intense heating, which leads to the ice arround the volcano to melt fairly quickly. Both signs have been noted in recent months by local volcano experts, as well as an uptick in earthquakes, another important indicator.

“A high frequency of eruptions at a volcano allows scientists to detect patterns that lead to eruptions (precursors). And if these are repeated each time a volcano erupts then it becomes possible for scientists to be more confident that an eruption is likely to happen in the near future. It’s, however, seldom possible to be precise about the exact day,” wrote McGarvie.

Iceland is home to a large number of volcanoes. While the Grímsvötn is the most active, others have also caused severe damage in the past. The Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010 and caused severe chaos in air travel, disrupting around 100,000 flights in April and May, with losses estimated at over $1.3 billion.

Iceland’s most active volcano likely headed towards eruption

The land of ice and fire is at it again, as one of Iceland’s ice-covered volcanoes starts to rumble.

A hole in the ice above Grímsvötn Volcano, Iceland, following the 2011 eruption. Image credits: NASA.

Ice and fire rarely go hand in hand, but at Iceland’s Vatnajökull ice cap, Europe’s largest by volume, the two are inexorably intertwined. Vatnajökull covers several active volcanoes, including Grímsvötn — the most active of them all.

Grímsvötn erupts, on average, every 5-10 years. Eruptions melt through the ice cap and in addition to the eruption itself, this process can form massive quantities of liquid water, triggering floods and landslides.

“The lava melts the ice, it flashes into steam. There is a tremendous amount of energy being released in split seconds,” Ronni Grapenthin, a geophysicist at the University of Alaska, described to GlacierHub.

When Grímsvötn erupts, Iceland gets nervous. In 1783, Grímsvötn caused the infamous seven-month Laki fissure eruption, which triggered a famine that killed 20% of Iceland’s population and temporarily lowered temperatures across the entire Northern Hemisphere by around 1°C.

Nowadays, famine is less of a concern in Iceland, but these eruptions can still cause serious problems. In 2011, an eruption at Grímsvötn sent plumes of ash 12 km (7 mi) high into the air — the strongest eruption at the site in over 100 years. The eruption forced the cancellation of 900 flights which, while less disruptive than the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption, was still considerable in its own right.

Satellite image from 22 May 2011 of the volcanic plume above Iceland. Image credits: NASA.

In late June 2020, the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) reported that Grímsvötn is stirring once again. The IMO reported over 3,000 tremors around the volcano, three with a magnitude greater than 5, one of which was even felt in the country’s capital Reykjavik, 265 kilometers away. No major damage was reported, although several landslides and rockfalls were noted in the area.

However, according to scientists at the IMO, this could be indicative of an impending eruption. While geologists are fairly certain another eruption is coming relatively soon, forecasting it with accuracy is extremely challenging because every volcano is different, and even within the same volcano, eruptions are not identical. However, because Grímsvötn erupts so often (which is unusual for volcanoes), researchers are starting to see a pattern, and the current state of the volcano seems similar to those before the 2011 and 2004 eruptions.

Keeping an eye on the beast

Currently, an international team of researchers is carefully monitoring Grímsvötn using several geophysical methods. A high precision GPS network on the ground measures any ground movement in real-time. As magma flows from below, the ground expands outwards like a balloon, and GPS offers a good image of this process. The same process also brings gases from magma to the surface, and gas measurements are also being carried out at the site. Of course, earthquake monitoring is also being carried out remotely.

Another piece of information comes from a process called jökulhlaup –a violent outburst of water from the volcano. Because Grímsvötn is covered by a glacier, the volcanic caldera is filled with a subglacial lake — as the volcano rumbles, it melts water beneath the ice. Every once in a while, the volume of water exceeds the capacity of the caldera, pouring and flooding the surrounding areas.

These jökulhlaups can actually trigger the eruption since the volcano is very sensitive to pressure release from the removal of the water. If this phenomenon happens this summer, it is quite likely to precede an eruption — so researchers are also monitoring the subglacial lake in real-time.

The window for an eruption seems to be opening in the near future, but if an eruption does happen, researchers expect it to be pretty tame. Grímsvötn only has a massive eruption around once in 100 years, and given how big the one in 2011 one was, the next one is expected to be relatively small.

Still, when a volcano erupts under ice, there’s bound to be fireworks. For now, all we can do is wait, monitor, and be prepared.

Young kids might not be transmitting COVID-19 — though they can get it themselves

The role that children play in the COVID-19 pandemic has been unusual from the start. Children appear to be largely spared by the disease, to the point where the vast majority of them don’t even get the disease, and even across those who do, most don’t develop severe symptoms.

This brings up an interesting question: can schools be opened without increasing the risk of coronavirus spread?

Image credits: Piron Guillaume.

Children are not superspreaders

Since the first cases emerged from China, it was clear that SARS-CoV-2 was ‘not another respiratory virus’ — sure, it took a while for everyone to understand that it’s not another flu, but the evidence was clear from the beginning. SARS-CoV-2 was strange in many ways.

Take, for instance, the difference between children and young adults. It’s understandable that a disease hits the elderly and spares the young and healthy — but why is the situation so different between young kids and young adults? Do children not become infected in the first place, or do they simply brush it off without any symptoms? If children are indeed infected, can they pass the disease on? For how long?

All those questions are still up for answering, but we have learned quite a few things about this.

An interesting piece of data comes from the town of Vo, in Italy. The town, which numbers some 3,400 inhabitants, screened almost its entire population (86% of all adults). Surprisingly, no children under 10 years were found to be positive (compared to an overall rate of 2.6% for the total population) — even if their parents had the disease. Data from contact tracing in Japan also seems to suggest far lower infection rates for children, and a preprint study from China suggests the same thing: children were less likely to carry the disease than any other group.

It’s not that children can’t get the disease — but for some reason (which is far from clear at this point), they seem far less likely to do so. When it comes to transmitting the disease, children also seem to be quite fortunate.

A case study in the French Alps found that a child with COVID-19 didn’t transmit it to anyone else, despite exposure to over 100 children. In Australia, none of the 735 students and 128 staff contracted COVID-19 from nine infected children, despite close contact. It seems that if children do get the disease, they are most likely to get it from their adult family, and they rarely pass it on.

It’s still not clear exactly what role children play in the transmission of the disease, but they don’t appear to be super-spreaders, at the very least. The problem is, we won’t know for sure what’s going on until we have access to high-quality, cheap, and widespread immune tests — and that won’t happen for a while. In this time, we will still have to make decisions and find a way to live, somehow.

Considering all of this, two researchers at the University of Southampton advise the reopening of schools for young children, as it won’t be a significant risk in the grand scheme of things.

“Governments worldwide should allow all children back to school regardless of comorbidities. Detailed surveillance will be needed to confirm the safety of this approach, despite recent analysis demonstrating the ineffectiveness of school closures in the recent past.”

Iceland’s experience

Iceland’s experience in this pandemic is extremely valuable, especially as the country’s approach was almost unique in nature. Iceland’s declared plan is to eventually screen everyone in the country, and they’re making great progress in this direction — on a per capita basis, the small nation has the most tests in the world. Because it is so comprehensive (14% of the 360,000 population has so far been tested), Iceland’s data might also have significance for the rest of the world.

In a recently published article, Valtýr Stefánsson Thors, the President of the Icelandic Paediatric Society, described what the country has learned about the role of children in COVID-19.

Iceland has had no closure of primary schools nor day-care centers, although these facilities have been running on a limited power also due to staff issues. Nevertheless, there seemed to be no significant spread of the disease through schools. Furthermore, despite schools not closing down, Iceland has managed to essentially shut down its epidemic, suggesting

“Sooner than was anticipated, the epidemic has come to a halt (very few cases diagnosed per day for the last 5 days, see figure),” Stefánsson Thors explains. “Fewer than 200 children were infected but none needed hospital admission although they were rigorously followed up by telephone (every 1-2 days) while symptomatic.”

However, while Stefánsson Thors says Iceland’s policy has been based on evidence (which would imply that he considers keeping schools open an evidence-based policy), he stops short of making a clear recommendation. Instead, he praises Iceland’s overall coronavirus response, which is understandable considering that the country is now reporting fewer than 10 cases a day.

“To summarise, the Iceland approach was to react in time and escalate measures as the epidemic surged, but all decisions were made based on the available data (and not emotion). Excellent communication between the health authorities and the public where all decisions were made clear a few days in advance. The three people running the press conferences are now rated as the most popular people in Iceland! The endgame is now in hand and considering that only a small proportion of the population has been infected, the risk of resurgence of infections is high and restrictions are likely to remain in place for the remainder of this year causing catastrophic situations for the tourist industry and the economy of Iceland. One can only hope that the next wave of infections (which is likely to come) will also spare young children.”

Should schools be reopened?

This pressing question is still without a clear answer — and we won’t have one anytime soon. However, policymakers should consider existing evidence and make decisions based on this existing evidence.

The existing literature also doesn’t say much about high schools and universities — teenagers and young adults might be in a different category than young children.

It’s also important to note that even if children aren’t necessarily at a high risk themselves, there is an entire staff system around schools that can be subjected to disease spread. This is not a clear-cut issue though, at the very least, children don’t seem to be the major concern for this outbreak.

Iceland’s testing suggests 50% of COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic

The virus is proving to be remarkably stealthy.

Iceland is a small nation of about 364,000 people with strong healthcare and a supportive social system. While most affected countries are only testing those who display severe symptoms, Iceland wants to test everyone in the country for the novel coronavirus.

It can afford to do so in part thanks to its relatively low population, but also due to its well-organized and well-funded medical system. Iceland has currently carried out 10,000 tests — this is far less than what other countries have done, but on a per capita basis, Iceland ranks first in the world.

“Iceland’s population puts it in the unique position of having very high testing capabilities with help from the Icelandic medical research company deCode Genetics, who are offering to perform large scale testing,” Thorolfur Guðnason, Iceland’s chief epidemiologist, told BuzzFeed News.

“This effort is intended to gather insight into the actual prevalence of the virus in the community, as most countries are most exclusively testing symptomatic individuals at this time.”

Not all the results from Iceland’s tests have come through yet, but the ones that have, show that half of all cases are asymptomatic (at the time of testing).

This would suggest that, on one hand, the virus is not as dangerous as we thought, but on the other hand, it would also suggest that it has spread far more than we are currently aware of.

These results are also indicated by a testing survey carried on an entire Italian town of Vo (population 3,300), where the results showed that more than 50% of all cases are asymptomatic.

The whole population of the village was tested, and 3% of the residents tested positive. Then, after a two-week lockdown, the population was tested again. The transmission had been reduced by 90% and the results were confirmed: the majority of cases seem to be asymptomatic.

Luca Zaia, the governor of the Veneto region told Italian media this week:

“We tested everyone, even if the ‘experts’ told us this was a mistake: 3,000 tests. We found 66 positives, whom we isolated for 14 days, and after that 6 of them were still positive. And that is how we ended it.”

This strongly emphasizes the need for mass testing, as quickly as possible.

This is still a rapidly unfolding situation where we are learning new things every day. It’s important to have a bigger-picture understanding of how the infection spreads. Of course, there is a finite government testing capacity, but expanding that capacity can pay great dividends in both the short and the long run.

Similar studies carried on Chinese patients report similar things: the virus is spreading far more than we are anticipating. For every known case, there are five or ten people whose symptoms go undetected.

“Covid-19 is proving to be a “stealth virus” in that we now know a significant amount of transmission is through people who don’t have symptoms. The exact % will depend on setting, but is high enough to make testing and surveillance key tools,” said Dr. Jonathan Quick in a Reddit AMA.

The World Health Organization also urges countries to expand their testing capacity as much as possible.

“You cannot fight the fire blindfolded, and we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected,” director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week. “We have a simple message for all countries: Test, test, test. Test every suspected case.”

For each and every one of us, there is also an important lesson to apply: we should all act as if we have COVID-19. You may only have a sour throat or a mild cough, you might not have any symptoms at all — you could still be carrying the disease.

As authorities expand testing capacity, and as researchers work on treatments, it’s important that we play our part and prevent the spread of the disease.

NASA goes to Iceland to prepare for Mars mission

NASA is getting ready for its next mission to Mars in 2020 and, as part of its training, it decided to take its new robotic space explorer to the lava fields of Island as a stand-in for the Red Planet’s surface.

Credit: Flickr

A group of 15 scientists and engineers was sent by the US space agency to the Lambahraun lava field at the foot of Iceland’s second biggest glacier, Langjokull, where it will develop a prototype.

The team will aim to continue the work of the ‘Curiosity’ rover, which has been exploring Mars since 2012 in search of signs of ancient life and making preparations for human exploration.

Iceland and its volcanic scenery in the middle of the North Atlantic are in many ways reminiscent of the fourth planet from the Sun, experts said.

“It’s a very good analog for Mars exploration and learning how to drive Mars rovers,” said Adam Deslauriers, manager of space and education, at Canada’s Mission Control Space Services.

The prototype being manufactured is a small, electric vehicle with white panels and an orange chassis. It has a four-wheel-drive propelled by two motors and is powered by 12 small car batteries stacked inside.

“This rover we have is basically indestructible,” Deslauriers said. ‘The rovers that we have on Mars and the Moon would be a lot more sensitive to the environment and conditions of Iceland.”

The rover is equipped with sensors, a computer, a dual-lens camera and controlled remotely. It moves its approximately 570 kilograms (1,257 pounds) bulk at a leisurely speed of about 20 centimeters (7.9 inches) per second.

Thanks to its sensors and camera, the rover gathers and classifies data from its environment and sends back the findings. The engineers then package the data and forward it to a tent where the scientists are huddled, to simulate how the data would be sent from Mars to Earth.

The rover used in Iceland is just a prototype for the one that will be going to Mars next year. That one, which has yet to be named, will also be able to collect samples and store them in tubes to be brought back to Earth by future missions.

As the prototype isn’t capable of doing this, researchers walk to the study area armed with radiometers and other equipment, to collect all the data samples that the finished rover would be able to do.

‘The mineralogy in Iceland is very similar to what we would find on Mars,” Ryan Ewing, associate professor of geology at Texas A&M University, said. “In addition to that, we don’t have much vegetation, it’s cold and we have some of the environments like sand dunes and rivers and glaciers that Mars has evidence of in the past,” Ewing said.

This is not the first time Iceland is used as a training ground for NASA missions. During the Apollo mission years, 32 astronauts in the mid-1960s received geological training in the Askja lava fields and near the Krafla crater in the north of the country.


Vikings cut down all of Iceland’s forests — the country is planting them anew

Iceland is trying to heal its Viking-induced wounds — by reforesting.


The Icelandic countryside; soon to also feature trees.
Image credits Monica Volpin.

Iceland is currently considered the least forested country in all of Europe, but this wasn’t always the case. At the end of the ninth century, as Vikings from Norway first set foot on the island, a quarter of it was covered in lush birch forests. The Vikings, however, cut down almost 97% of these trees to obtain building materials and make room for crops and pastures.

Today, less than 0.5% of Iceland is forested, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Locals joke that, because the forests here are so rare and so young, all you need to do to find your way around them is to stand up. Partly as a way to address climate change, partly as a way to prevent environmental degradation, and partly out of a desire to simply see the island blanketed in forests again, Iceland is now trying to reforest itself, according to AFP.


Iceland, sadly, isn’t a very welcoming place for trees. Its harsh climate and active volcanoes (which periodically cover the soil in layers of lava and ash) make it hard for trees to take root and grow here. However, the lack of trees is particularly bad news for Iceland; without their roots to support it, the soil here erodes quickly and can’t store water very well. All in all, this means Iceland is experiencing extensive desertification despite its northern latitude

The country has made reforesting one of the priorities in its 2018 climate action plan, citing carbon uptake by trees as an important avenue for Iceland to mitigate climate change.

Reforestation efforts that began in the 1950s and the 1990s have helped replant some of these forests, but there is still much to do. For example, the Icelandic Forest Service (IFS) has been tasked to turn the alien landscape of Hafnarsandur, an 8,000-hectare area of basalt and black sand in Iceland’s southwest, into a forest. This is meant both as a way to increase forest cover in Iceland as well as a method to protect the nearby town of Thorlakshofn from recurring dust storms. The IFS is now busy planting lodgepole pines and Sitka spruces in the area

“This is one of the worst examples of soil erosion in Iceland on low land,” Hreinn Oskarsson, the IFS head of strategy, explains about Hafnarsandur. “We are planning an afforestation project to stabilise the soil,” Oskarsson added.

Iceland’s only domestic tree is the birch. However, the IFS focuses its afforestation efforts on other species. The problem with the native birch, according to Adalsteinn Sigurgeirsson, deputy director of the IFS, is that it isn’t a “productive species”. For objectives such as fast carbon sequestrations or timber production, it just doesn’t cut it — so the IFS is branching out from monocultures using this single native species.

Iceland is now peppered with nursery gardens that feed the country’s afforestation efforts with young poplars and pines. These are grown indoors for three months and are afterward moved outside.

“Originally, they come from Alaska but now we have 30, 40, 50 year-old trees giving us seeds, so we collect that and we use that for forest seedlings production,” Holmfridur Geirsdottir, a 56-year-old horticulturist and greenhouse owner, told AFP.

Once in the wild, these trees have an uphill battle to fight. Iceland’s soils are very poor in nitrogen, an essential element for plants, limiting the average growth rate of trees here to around one-tenth the rate observed in the Amazon rainforests. However, climate change might offer an unexpected boost in these trees’ growth rates.

“What has mainly been hampering growth of forest here has been the low temperatures and the coolness of the summers, but we are realising changes in that because of climate change,” said forest service deputy director Sigurgeirsson.

“Warming appears to be elevating tree growth in Iceland, and therefore also the carbon sequestration rate,” he continued.

Since 2015, Iceland has planted around 1,000 hectares of forest (between three and four million trees).

Iceland researchers trap CO2 into rocks — but there’s a catch

Iceland’s volcanoes might hold the key to sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere but the process requires huge amounts of water.

If we want to ensure a sustainable future for our planet’s climate, reducing our emissions is paramount, but ultimately, it would be really good if we could also remove existing CO2 from the atmosphere — otherwise, the inertia of the warming will still continue long after we have reduced our emissions (than in itself is a gargantuan challenge, but that’s a different story).

While the roadmap to cutting emissions is fairly clear, eliminating CO2 from the atmosphere is a whole other beast, and scientists are only now starting to test ways through which this could be done. A project in Iceland seems like the most promising approach so far.

The technique starts from a natural event in which basaltic rocks absorb carbon dioxide and mineralize it, storing it forever — but this geological process happens over great periods of time. In order to accelerate this process, scientists developed a way to first absorb the CO2 into water, and then inject the carbonated water into porous basaltic rocks. The bubbly liquid is then pumped under high pressure into the rock 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) under the ground. The CO2 produced by the injection itself is also absorbed.

“So basically we are just making soda water out of the CO2,” says project director Edda Sif Aradottir.

The solution infiltrates into the rock pores and starts to solidify, reacting with the calcium, magnesium, and iron inside the rock, beginning an accelerated mineralization process. It’s not the first time something like this has been attempted, but researchers weren’t sure just how quick this process was. It took only two years for the carbon to solidify.

“With this method we have actually changed the time scale dramatically,” says geologist Sandra Osk Snaebjornsdottir, who also worked on the project called CarbFix. “Almost all of the injected CO2 was mineralized within two years in our pilot injection,” Snaebjornsdottir says.

For Iceland, a true land of ice and fire, the method is perfect. Virtually all of the country consists of volcanic, basaltic rocks, and the country generates more than half of its energy from clean geothermal sources. The country is also an island, so it has access to what is essentially limitless supply of water — because the method uses huge quantities of water. Around 25 ton of water are needed for each ton of carbon dioxide injected into the ground, something which Snaebjornsdottir calls the “Achilles heel” of the method. Furthermore, the method hasn’t yet been adapted to use saltwater instead of freshwater — which could make a huge difference. Providing hundreds or thousands of tons of freshwater is not something many places can readily do.

Scalability is another concern. The CarbFix project, which was implemented at a power plant, reduced the plant’s emissions by a third, amounting to 12,000 tons of CO2 captured and stored at a cost of about $25 a ton. Considering that Iceland alone, a country of less than 400,000 people, emits over 4 million tons a year, that’s a hefty price tag — but not one beyond affordability. The United States, for instance, produces around 5,000 million tons of CO2 a year which, at the current price tag, would cost $125 billion, which is still only a fraction of the country’s military budget — and that’s enough to offset all of the country’s emission. Of course, having the money is only a part of the problem, you also need to invest in the injection facilities, and have access to proper basaltic rocks in the first place, but since this is still the early stages of the carbon injecting technology, there are reasons to hope that the efficiency and price will improve in the not-too-distant future. Judging by the world’s current climate trajectory, we may need this technology sooner rather than later.

According to the Paris Agreement, Iceland has agreed to cut its emissions by 40% by 2030. However, the country’s CO2 emissions have increased significantly in recent years, largely due to the transportation sector, which is vital for the country’s tourism sector. For this reason, despite the fact that most of the country’s energy is renewable, Iceland’s CO2 emissions per capita are way over the European average.

Iceland’s Environment and Natural Resources Minister Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson has encouraged the project, which might be vital for Iceland’s — and the world’s — climate objectives.

One Icelandic glacier-volcano duo is emitting 20 times more methane than all other volcanoes in Europe

Turns out humanity doesn’t have a monopoly on self-destructive behaviors.

Sólheimajökull glacier.

Sólheimajökull glacier, Iceland.
Image credits Chris / Flickr.

One glacier in Iceland is putting out large quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, a new study reports. The  Sólheimajökull glacier — which flows from the active, ice-covered volcano Katla — generates and releases about 41 tonnes of methane (through meltwater) each day during the summer months. That’s roughly equivalent to the methane produced by 136,000 cows, the team adds.


“This is a huge amount of methane lost from the glacial meltwater stream into the atmosphere,” said Dr. Peter Wynn, a glacial biogeochemist from the Lancaster Environment Centre and corresponding author of the study.

“It greatly exceeds average methane loss from non-glacial rivers to the atmosphere reported in the scientific literature. It rivals some of the world’s most methane-producing wetlands; and represents more than twenty times the known methane emissions of all Europe’s other volcanoes put together.”

Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2) — 28 times more powerful, to be exact. Knowing exactly how much of it makes its way into the atmosphere thus becomes very important, both from an environmentalist and a legal point of view (for cap-and-trade or similar systems).

Whether or not glaciers release methane has been a matter of some debate. On the one hand, they’re almost perfectly suited for the task: they bring together organic matter, water, and microbes in low-oxygen conditions (all very conducive to methane), capping them all off with a thick layer of ice to trap the gas. On the other hand, nobody had ever checked to make sure. So the team decided to take the matter into their own labs.

They visited the Sólheimajökull glacier in Iceland to retrieve samples from the meltwater lake it forms. The team then measured methane concentrations in the samples and compared them to methane levels in nearby sediments and other rivers, to make sure they weren’t picking up on environmental methane emissions from the surrounding area.

“The highest concentrations were found at the point where the river emerges from underneath the glacier and enters the lake. This demonstrates the methane must be sourced from beneath the glacier,” Dr. Wynn explains.

Subsequent spectrometry analyses revealed that the methane was generated by microbial activity underneath the glacier. However, the volcano also has a part to play here. It doesn’t generate methane directly, but it “is providing the conditions that allow the microbes to thrive and release methane into the surrounding meltwaters,” explains Dr. Wynn.

The thing is that methane really likes oxygen. It likes it so much, in fact, that whenever the two meet they hook up into CO2. What generally happens with glaciers is that oxygen-rich meltwaters seep to the bottom and convert any methane trapped there into CO2. At Sólheimajökull, however, most of the oxygen in this meltwater is neutralized by gases produced by the Katla volcano. The methane remains unaltered, dissolves into the water, and escapes from under the glacier unscathed.

“Understanding the seasonal evolution of Sólheimajökull’s subglacial drainage system and how it interacts with the Katla geothermal area formed part of this work”, said Professor Fiona Tweed, an expert in glacier hydrology at Staffordshire University and co-author of the study.

Heat from Katla also keeps the environment cozy for the microbes living under the glacier and may “greatly accelerate the generation of microbial methane, so in fact you could see Katla as a giant microbial incubator,” adds Dr. Hugh Tuffen, a volcanologist at Lancaster University and co-author on the study.

Such active, ice-bound volcanoes and geothermal systems are abundant in both Iceland and Antarctica. The present paper suggests that these systems can have a meaningful impact on our climate projections. Katla “emits vast amounts of CO2 — it’s in the top five globally in terms of CO2 emissions from volcanoes,” Dr. Tuffen explains.

“If methane produced under these ice caps has a means of escaping as the ice thins, there is the chance we may see short term increases in the release of methane from ice masses into the future,” says lead author Dr. Rebecca Burns.

However, the team says it’s still unclear such processes will play out in the context of climate change. There could be a short-term spike of methane released while glaciers melt and thin out, but the process may be self-limiting in the long-term: without ice, the conditions for methane production are removed.

The paper “Direct isotopic evidence of biogenic methane production and efflux from beneath a temperate glacier” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Icelanders went through drastic genetic changes since the island was colonized

If one of today’s Icelanders would somehow stand side by side with one of his ancestors, you wouldn’t see much of a resemblance. Today’s inhabitants have a much higher proportion of Scandinavian genes than their ancestors did, undergoing a surprisingly fast genetic shift.

The colonization of Iceland is a well-documented story: disliking the political situation in mainland Scandinavia, many people (including local lords) sought to leave their native lands and colonize new places. These seafaring Vikings first set sail for Ireland, where they bought numerous slaves and then settled in Iceland between 870 C.E. and 930 C.E. For the next thousand years, the Icelandic population remained mostly isolated and fairly small, keeping under 50,000 people until the 20th century.

As a result, many Icelanders have impeccable genetic records and a fairly straightforward family tree. In the modern world, Iceland is also easily accessible and affluent — all of these factors have made Icelanders (who now number 330,000) a model population for geneticists.

Often times, geneticists are looking for a way to understand the relationship between gene variant and traits. Now, a new study led by S. Sunna Ebenesersdóttir of the University of Iceland analyzed the genomes of 27 ancient Icelanders whose skeletal remains were found in burial sites across the island. The remains have been dated to about 1,000 years, which would mean they belong to one of the first waves of settlers.

Genome sequencing revealed that these ancient Icelanders had an about equal share of Norse (from what are today Norway and Sweden) and Gaelic (from what are now Ireland and Scotland) ancestry. But modern Icelanders have about a 70% Norse ancestry — a surprisingly quick genetic shift.

Norsemen arriving in Iceland. Guerber, H. A. (Hélène Adeline) (1909).

Using computer models, researchers looked at the way in which this shift likely took place: the main culprit is a process called genetic drift, often observed in isolated animal populations, but rarely seen in humans.

Genetic drift is a rather un-interesting phenomenon, but which can have massive implications for a population. Essentially, in small populations, there can be a big variation in the relative frequency of different genotypes as some individuals don’t reproduce. This is a chance phenomenon — genetic drift happens in all populations, but it effects are by far strongest in small populations.

However, there may be another explanation: as mentioned before, the first settlers came with a lot of slaves from Ireland. These slaves (which presumably had predominantly Gaelic ancestry) would have had a smaller chance to have children. In time, this difference could have slowly built up, increasing the gap between Norse and Gaelic heritage.

Authors emphasize that this is still a small sample size. A much bigger one would still be necessary to paint a broader picture. Slaves would have also been more likely to be buried in unmarked graves, which are less likely to be discovered.

Volcano eruption might have pushed Iceland towards Christianity

What do a volcanic eruption, a medieval poem, and a conversion to Christianity have in common? Well apparently, in Iceland — a lot.

Black basaltic sand and bright green moss, at the bottom of Eldgjá. Image credits: Borvan53 / Wikipedia.

The Eldgjá volcano holds two records. It features the largest volcanic canyon in the world, some 40 km long, 270 m deep and 600 m wide at its greatest, and it also boasts the largest flood basalt in historic time, with an estimated 18 km3 of magma poured out of the earth, covering around 800 km2.

A multidisciplinary team of scientists has used information from ice cores and tree rings to date this violent eruption, which took place around the spring of 939 and continued at least through the autumn of 940 — shortly after the island was colonized by Vikings an Celts.

The eruption must have had a tremendous impact on these early settlers. Lava floods are rare and spectacular eruptions, in which huge flows of lava engulf the landscape, destroying everything in its path.

“This places the eruption squarely within the experience of the first two or three generations of Iceland’s settlers,” said first author Dr Clive Oppenheimer of Cambridge’s Department of Geography. “Some of the first wave of migrants to Iceland, brought over as children, may well have witnessed the eruption.”

But the team wasn’t interested just in studying the eruption — they wanted to see what effect it had on people in Iceland and beyond. They found that a haze of sulfurous dust spread over parts of Europe, resulting in an exceptionally blood-red and weakened Sun in Irish, German and Italian chronicles of the time.

More tangibly, the eruption also caused a reduction in global temperatures, which was revealed by studies on tree rings. The evidence contained in the tree rings suggests the eruption triggered an extremely cold summer, one of the coldest in 1,500 years.

“In 940, summer cooling was most pronounced in Central Europe, Scandinavia, the Canadian Rockies, Alaska and Central Asia, with summer average temperatures 2°C lower,” said co-author Professor Markus Stoffel from the University of Geneva’s Department of Earth Sciences.

Tree rings. Image credits: Albert Bridge.

[panel style=”panel-success” title=”Dendrochronology” footer=””]Dendrochronology is the study of tree rings. As is common knowledge, many trees grow ‘rings’ each year. This can not only be used to date certain events, but also infer how if those years have been particularly hot, cold, dry, or wet.[/panel]

This had devastating effects, mostly on people in Iceland, but also for people all around the world. The volcano eruption shifted weather patterns, causing a harsh winter and destroying crops in many places.

“It was a massive eruption, but we were still amazed just how abundant the historical evidence is for the eruption’s consequences,” said co-author Dr Tim Newfield, from Georgetown University’s Departments of History and Biology. “Human suffering in the wake of Eldgjá was widespread. From northern Europe to northern China, people experienced long, hard winters and severe spring-summer drought. Locust infestations and livestock mortalities occurred. Famine did not set in everywhere, but in the early 940s we read of starvation and vast mortality in parts of Germany, Iraq and China.”

Interestingly, this dramatic eruption might have had another effect in Iceland: it brought it closer to Christianity. Iceland’s Christianization began in 999 and was formalized sometime in the 11th century. Iceland’s most celebrated medieval poem, Vǫluspá (‘The prophecy of the seeress’), which can be dated as far as 961, tells a story about the end of Iceland’s pagan gods and the coming of a new age: the age of a single god.

The Codex Regius, an Icelandic codex in which many Old Norse poems are preserved. Credits: Oppenheimer et al.

In the poem, the seeress prophesies the destruction of the gods, with fire and flood overwhelming heaven and earth and the gods fighting their final battles. This is the “fate of the gods” — Ragnarök. What researchers found is that the poem seems to be describing the eruption. Here are some translated lyrics:

The sun starts to turn black, land sinks into sea; the bright stars scatter from the sky.
Steam spurts up with what nourishes life, flame flies high against heaven itself.

All that might seem circumstantial (after all, they are common themes), but it is very reminiscent of an eruption. The poem goes further, talking about cold weather — and in Norse mythology, Ragnarök itself is followed by a very cold weather, reminiscent of a volcanic or a nuclear winter.

“With a firm date for the eruption, many entries in medieval chronicles snap into place as likely consequences – sightings in Europe of an extraordinary atmospheric haze; severe winters; and cold summers, poor harvests; and food shortages,” said Oppenheimer. “But most striking is the almost eyewitness style in which the eruption is depicted in Vǫluspá. The poem’s interpretation as a prophecy of the end of the pagan gods and their replacement by the one, singular god, suggests that memories of this terrible volcanic eruption were purposefully provoked to stimulate the Christianisation of Iceland.”

Journal Reference: Clive Oppenheimer et al “The Eldgjá eruption: timing, long-range impacts and influence on the Christianisation of Iceland” Climatic Change (2018). DOI: 10.1007/s10584-018-2171-9.

Iceland is drilling the world’s hottest hole for electricity

Iceland is drilling a hole to a depth of 5 km (3.1 miles) with the purpose of tapping energy from the hot magma beneath the crust. In the world’s hottest man-made hole, temperatures go up to 1000 °C (1800 F).

Krafla geothermal power plant in Iceland. Image credits: Ásgeir Eggertsson

Geothermal energy is heat energy generated and stored in the Earth’s depths. Since the Roman times (and even before), people have used geothermal energy to heat their homes. In more modern times, geothermal energy has been used for generating electricity as well as heating homes and for other industrial or agricultural processes. Geothermal power is cost-effective, reliable, sustainable, and environmentally friendly, but the thing with it is that it’s geographically limited to countries close to tectonic plate edges, where the temperature gradient is high. Iceland using geothermal energy is nothing new — due to their location, they are one of the best places in the world for geothermal — but they’ve never done it so deep.

Albert Albertsson, assistant director of HS Orka, an Icelandic geothermal-energy company involved in the project comments:

“People have drilled into hard rock at this depth, but never before into a fluid system like this,” says Albertsson. He says the team could find the landward equivalent of “black smokers”, hot underwater springs along the ridge saturated with minerals such as gold, silver and lithium.

Typically, Iceland’s geothermal wells go up to 2.5 km or so (1.5 miles) and yield a power equivalent to approximately 5 MW. Going two times deeper won’t make the well two times better — it will make it ten times better. The high temperatures and pressures at that depth will generate ‘supercritical steam’ substantially increasing the turbine efficiency.

“If they can get supercritical steam in deep boreholes, that will make an order of magnitude difference to the amount of geothermal energy the wells can produce,” says Arnar Guðmundsson of Invest in Iceland, a government agency that promotes energy development.

Iceland is already generating virtually all its energy through renewable sources. The country is not only the world’s largest green energy producer per capita but also the largest electricity producer per capita, yet geothermal still plays second fiddle to the world’s largest energy sector: hydro. This is why this drills like this have great potential.

There are significant environmental concerns about hydro energy, and the infrastructure is already becoming old. Furthermore, if this well is successful, it will not only generate more cheap, sustainable, and eco-friendly energy but it could also be significant for other parts of the world. In other words, it could make geothermal viable in places where we previously thought this wasn’t possible. The increased efficiency is no joke, and with the US being the world’s largest raw geothermal energy production, the approach could definitely yield fruit.

Natural selection is weeding out our drive to go to school, study reports

The genes that make some people seek higher education seem to have been selecting themselves out of our genome for the last 80 years, a new study has found. The authors think that this process of negative selection will have a big effect on the evolution of the human race in the future centuries.

Image credits Pixabay / Pexels.

Researchers from the Iceland-based genetics firm deCODE have studied the genomes of over 129,808 natives looking for genetic markers that predispose people to achieve longer periods of education. The team looked at the birth rates of these people (all between 1910 and 1990) and sequenced the genome of each individual.

By comparing this genetic data to their level of education, the team found that a genetic factor was involved in a person’s likelihood of attending school for longer. The last step was to create a ‘polygenic score’ based on more than 600,000 sequence markers in the genome to estimate a person’s genetic predisposition for education.

Still, genetics obviously isn’t the only factor that dictates a person’s levels of education. After correlating the polygenic score with environmental, social, and biological factors, however, the researchers found individual with higher scores were less likely to have many children.

Running out of a good thing

In essence, they found that these genes also made people less likely to have a large family — meaning that in the end, smart people contribute less and less to the country’s gene pool.

“As a species, we are defined by the power of our brains. Education is the training and refining of our mental capacities,” said Kari Stefansson, CEO of deCODE.

“Thus, it is fascinating to find that genetic factors linked to more time spent in education are becoming rarer in the gene pool.”

This finding doesn’t mean that people are dumber than ever. Modern education along with a wider access to schools and information than before should balance out or even over-match the genetic effect. However, after a few centuries’ worth of this effect adding up, we could be in some serious trouble.

“In evolutionary time, this is a blink of an eye. However, if this trend persists over many centuries, the impact could be profound.”

Overall, the average polygenic score was on a slow but evolutionary-significant decline. They also found a drop in average IQ of about 0.04 points per decade. But that might be an understatement of the problem — as Ian Sample from The Guardian reports, “that figure might rise to 0.3 points per decade” if the researchers included “all the genes that contribute to education”.

Fighting biology with textbooks

The team believes that smarter people don’t have fewer children because they’re busy doing smart stuff instead of pestering the opposite sex. It seems that the genes involved in education can actually affect their fertility on a biological level. They report that the carriers of these genes tended to have fewer children on average than those who didn’t even if they had the same level of education.

The study was performed using only subjects in Iceland, so there’s no guarantee as of now that people in other countries are going through the same process. Still, it’s something that we’d better keep an eye on. The results go to show the importance of continuing and improving education access and quality all over the world.

“In spite of the negative selection against these sequence variations, education levels have been increasing for decades. Indeed, we control the environment in which these genetic factors play out: the education system,” Stefansson said in a press statement.

“If we continue to improve the availability and quality of educational opportunities, we will presumably continue to improve the educational level of society as a whole.”

“Time will tell whether the decline of the genetic propensity for education will have a notable impact on human society.”

The full paper “Selection against variants in the genome associated with educational attainment” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Iceland drilling project close to plugging into the Mid-Atlantic ridge

A new geothermal drilling project in Iceland could produce ten times as much power as regular wells by tapping into the molten mantle of the planet.

Image credits IDDP.

While it may not look like it on the surface (especially now that fall is in full swing), the Earth is a very hot ball of space rock. Dig just a few kilometers under the surface, and you’ll hit temperatures high enough to make water boil. Dig deeper and at about 10 to 70 km (6 to 43 miles), depending on the kind of crust, you’ll find yourself in a place hot enough for rocks to stay molten all the time — the mantle. This is the stuff on which tectonic plates float on. This is where all the volcanoes in the world draw their lava from. And, ultimately, this is where all geothermal plants draw power from.

The hottest hole in the world

A new Icelandic project began on the 12th of August with the aim of supercharging geothermal energy production by drilling a 5 km (3.1 mile) deep hole in the Reykjanes area, southwest Iceland. This would bypass a thick layer of rocks (which aren’t very good thermal conductors) and allow engineers to draw power directly from magma systems that power the area’s lively subsurface volcanism. This may very well become the hottest hole in the world, with estimates placing temperatures anywhere between 400 and 1,000 degrees Celsius.

Called the Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP), the goal is to drill all the way down to a landward extension of the Mid-Atlantic ridge — a major fissure between Earth’s tectonic plates — says Albert Albertsson, assistant director of HS Orka, an Icelandic geothermal energy company involved in the project. Here, magma heats water under the ocean’s floor. Pressures are incredibly high, around 200 atmospheres, which means that the researchers and companies behind the project will likely find the water as “supercritical steam”. It’s neither a liquid nor a gaseous state, sharing properties of both — but most importantly, it can store much more energy than either of those states.

“People have drilled into hard rock at this depth, but never before into a fluid system like this,” says Albertsson.

Albertsson said they’re expecting to find the land version of black smokers, underwater springs that run hot enough to dissolve metals such as gold or silver.

“If they can get supercritical steam in deep boreholes, that will make an order of magnitude difference to the amount of geothermal energy the wells can produce,” Arnar Guðmundsson from Invest in Iceland, a government agency that promotes energy development, told New Scientist.

The project’s idea of tapping sub-surface magma came back in 2009 when the IDDP (then drilling a conventional well) accidentally drilled into a molten rock reservoir about 2 km (1.25 miles). Just to see how much energy it could generate, the team poured water down the hole — and ended up producing 30 megawatts of power.

If this attempt is successful and proves to be more sustainable than the 2009 experiment, we could see a huge increase in geothermal energy output in areas with active volcanism, such as Japan or California. The drilling should be done by the end of the year, and in the following months, we’ll get to see just how much power it can churn out.

The project was short-lived, seeing as it was only ever set up as an experiment, but the team is hoping this new attempt will be more sustainable.

But before you get too excited, for now, this is all purely theoretical – we need to actually get the new well up and running first. The hole should be drilled by the end of the year, and in the months that follow, we’ll get an idea of how much electricity such a set-up can generate.


Large volcano in Iceland might be set to erupt, temblors warn

After two large earthquakes with magnitudes over 4, the Katla volcano in Iceland seems set to erupt.

Myrdalsjökull glacier, above the volcano. Photo by Chris73.

Iceland’s Meteorological Office said that two unusually large earthquakes struck the crater of Katla, causing at least ten aftershocks. There were no reports of injuries or even property damage, but this could be a warning sign that something big is about to happen at the volcano.

Named after an evil troll, Katla is very active. Over twenty eruptions have been recorded between 930 and 1918, at intervals of 13–95 years. Recently, small eruptions took place in 1999 and 2011, but none of them were strong enough to break the ice covering the caldera.

The last big eruption was in 1918 when the volcano spewed ash for several weeks. This seems to indicate that the volcano is overdue for an eruption as it is, but there are no clear signs of when this is going to happen. Geophysicist Gunnar Gudmundsson said the situation around the volcano is “a little bit unusual” but argued against panic.

“People have been waiting for an eruption for 50 years,” Gudmundsson said. “But there is no sign of an eruption.”

[panel style=”panel-success” title=”Katla at a glance” footer=””]- large volcano in southern Iceland, very active
– has a diameter of 10 km (6.2 mi) and is covered with 200–700 metres (660–2,300 ft) of ice
– twenty eruptions between 930 and 1918, last big one in 1918
– seems overdue for an eruption[/panel]

While Iceland’s Met Office did raise the alarm level, it too said that no clear signs indicate an impending eruption.

“It is quite a dynamic situation now, in the next hours and days following this, but as we speak at the moment we do not see any signs that there is an imminent hazardous unrest about to happen,” Matthew Roberts from the Icelandic Met Office said.

The last major volcanic eruption in Iceland was in 2010 when Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted, spitting out an enormous cloud of ash and canceling over 100,000 flights. Iceland is one of the most volcanically active countries in the world. The reason for this is twofold: first, it’s due to its location on the mid-Atlantic Ridge, a divergent tectonic plate boundary, and second, due to its location over a hotspot.

Vikings might have actually used sunstones to navigate

Icelandic legends tell of Vikings using sunstones to navigate the ocean when clouds hid the sun and stars. Now, a new study suggests that Vikings might have actually used these minerals to navigate, making the legends a reality.

Vikings might have used sunstone to navigate the oceans when the sun and stars were hidden by clouds. Credit: ArniEin/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0
Vikings might have used sunstone to navigate the oceans when the sun and stars were hidden by clouds. Credit: ArniEin/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

Modern sunstone is a type of crystal that exhibits a spangled appearance when viewed from different angles. In the new study, the researchers conducted numerous experiments to test the possibility that Vikings used the unique properties of these crystals to navigate their way across the ocean and found that they can be beneficial navigational aids when the skies are blanketed with clouds.

Viking history has been well documented, with researchers uncovering the details of their raids across Europe from the late 790s until 1066. However, further research has revealed their travels to the Middle East and North America, leading scientists to wonder exactly how they made their way across such vast stretches of ocean, especially during periods of time when they could not use the stars or sun for guidance.

Sunstones have been speculated as Viking navigational aids for some time. In addition to their presence in legends, a recent examination of a 2002 Viking shipwreck yielded a sunstone near other navigational instruments, fueling speculation that the mythology could be true.

In the current study, the team suggests a three step process for sunstone navigation: holding a sunstone to the sky to determine the direction of light from the sky, using this information to determine the direction of sunlight, and using a shadow stick to determine which direction is north. Previous research from the same team confirmed the accuracy of the first two steps, leaving the current study to examine the third step.

The researchers gathered 10 volunteers and asked them to determine the position of the sun in a virtual planetarium, where dots represented the results of using a sunstone. Over the course of 2,400 trials, 48 percent resulted in accurate readings within one degree. Furthermore, the team discovered that the sunstone was most accurate when the digital sun was closest to the horizon, meaning that the method is ideal for use at dawn and dusk when the sun is lowest in the sky.

Journal Reference: North error estimation based on solar elevation errors in the third step of sky-polarimetric Viking navigation. 27 July 2016. 10.1098/rspa.2016.0171