Iceland, a sparsely populated island of glaciers, geysers and volcanoes, is again making international news, with the world waiting to see if the Bárdarbunga volcano will spew more than just lava from its latest eruption. In 2010, an ash cloud from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano closed much of Europe’s air space for nearly a week.
Iceland’s unique geology drew two Pellissippi State Community College faculty members to the Northern European country for a two-week research trip this summer. The visit was supported by the National Science Foundation.
Kathleen Affholter, an associate professor of geology, traveled throughout Iceland with a research team, collecting soil and rock samples for DNA analysis from an archaeological site, glaciers, and volcanic mountains.
Affholter was joined on the trip by Pete Lemiszki, an adjunct faculty member who also teaches geology. The two traveled to Iceland at the invitation of a computer science professor at Earlham College, Charles Peck, who secured the grants and awards for the trip.
“Geologically speaking, Iceland is very young,” said Affholter. “To paraphrase volcanologist Thor Thordarson, if the Earth is a year old, Iceland was born less than two days ago. The ice caps covered Iceland five hours ago, and they melted only a minute ago.”
According to Affholter, “Iceland is the only place in the world where you can stand on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a ‘divergent plate boundary’—a place where two tectonic plates are separating.” The country, which lies between the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans, straddles the ridge.
The divergent plate boundary, she says, creates volcanic systems, geysers and geothermal energy in the stark, stunning landscape. Iceland is growing, because the shifting of the plates causes molten rock, or magma, to erupt and the new rock that forms pushes the older rock toward the coastlines.
The group of researchers pulled together by Peck included not only Affholter and Lemiszki but also students from Earlham College and the University of California, San Diego. The American team was aided by researchers from the University of Iceland.
The group gathered rocks of varying ages from different locations around the island. Older and newer rocks may differ in a number of ways—in the amounts or types of bacteria they contain, for example—and the group used a university lab in Akureyri to extract DNA from the samples for further study back in the U.S.
While in Iceland, Affholter and one of the students also wrote a brochure about the zeolite minerals found there. The crystals form in holes caused by trapped gas in the country’s basalt rock. Zeolite crystals are unique, in that they can hydrate and dehydrate. Among their other applications, they are used to eliminate odors in diapers.
The fact that magma is, literally, the bedrock of Iceland presents a unique opportunity for geologic study, and the island is consequently a popular place to visit for geologists as well as other scientists, says Affholter.
“The students and professors on this trip were biologists, geologists and computer scientists,” she said. “It’s important to see how science is no longer compartmentalized. All of our disciplines are needed to do our research.”
This summer isn’t the first time Affholter has traveled to Iceland. She instructed the geology students on a Tennessee Consortium for International Studies trip there in 2013. TnCIS, which is headquartered at Pellissippi State, coordinates study abroad as part of its mission of boosting international experience and culture in higher education across the state.