Iceland revisited: Trinity geographers return to Iceland after 42 years

Posted on: 29 August 2005

A party of students and staff from the Department of Geography, School of Natural Sciences, has recently returned from a period of field-based research in southern Iceland. The trip in July was the second time that a group of Geography students from the University of Dublin had visited Iceland on fieldwork. A party of undergraduate geographers from the University first visited Iceland in the summer of 1963.

The recently returned party comprised eight undergraduate students, Gareth Anderson, Ailish Cunnane, Stephen Donovan, Yuuki Iwata, Debbie and Leone Kelly, Cormac Lacey and Paul Sheehy, one PhD research student, Aisling Farrell, and three members of academic staff, Prof. Pete Coxon , David Taylor and Dr. Robin Edwards. The group spent two weeks during July 2005 camping close to and carrying out field-based studies on and around one of the branches (Svinafellsjökull) of the Vatnajökull ice cap. The Vatnajökull ice cap, at c. 8000 Km2, is the largest ice cap in Europe and was the location of a major glacier outwash flood (jökulhlaup) in early October 1996 that followed the sub-glacial eruption of the Grímsvötn volcano. The ice cap is today protected as a National Park, the main information centre for which is at Skaftafell in the south.

The undergraduates on the trip are studying aspects of the geography of southern Iceland for their dissertations, which are due for submission early in the Hilary term 2006, while Aisling Farrell’s PhD is an examination of former glaciated landscapes in the west of Ireland. As is characteristic of the discipline of Geography, the undergraduates are studying a range of subjects from across the sciences, including the form and origin of supra-glacial features known as ‘dirt cones’, the dating and mapping of past glacier advances and retreats, plant colonisation and succession over the last forty years and following the withdrawal of ice, landscape change during and since the first human settlements in the 9th century AD, and the human and environmental impacts of the AD 1362 eruption of Oræfajökull (the largest volcanic eruption in Europe since Vesuvius in AD 79).

According to Professor Taylor, the students gained useful experience of field-based research, in addition to obtaining samples and data for their dissertations from one of the most environmentally active locations anywhere on Earth. The party also had to cope with some highly variable weather, at one stage having to take down their tents and sleep in a local school because of a forecast of extreme weather in the area.

Having now established a good working link with staff in the School of Natural Sciences, University of Iceland in Reykjavik, and at the National Park centre at Skaftafell, Professor Taylor is hopeful that it will not be another 42 years before a party of geographers from the University of Dublin visits Iceland again. He finished by saying, ‘Geography is a very challenging discipline. Geographers have to integrate material from a range of different sources and disciplines and at a variety of scales. It is also extremely dynamic and rewarding. There are few places where these characteristics are more evident than in Iceland. Iceland’s challenging, dynamic environments provide an ideal field-based laboratory for geographers!’