And now available in video…

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One of the things that was different about this year’s trip was that two of Earlham’s Marketing folks joined us for four days, two at Skalanes, one at Solheimajokull, and one at Laki (and a lot of time in the van/car/trucks gluing all that together). Susanna Tanner and Mark Brim trudged around in the rain and wind taking pictures, video, interviewing people, eating and traveling with us. We were really happy that they were forced chose to come to Iceland and work with us. This video is the first bit to come from that, more to follow.

Birds of Iceland

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Like any good amateur birder, I kept a list of all the birds we saw on our trip. Special shout out to Neil who made many sightings, as well as to Sage, Cait, Nic and Kellan for contributing to the list. Total count: 27 species!

Bird                                        Date                                  Location

Common Snipe                       24 May                              Thingveller

Pink-footed Goose

Mallard Duck

Black-headed Gull

Pied Wagtail


Oystercatcher                       25 May                                 Selfoss

Whooper Swan                                                                 Geysir

Arctic Skua                            26 May                                Solheimajokull

Arctic Tern                             28 May                                 Klauster

Eider Duck                                                                         Jokulsarlon

Snow Bunting

Whimbrel or Dunlin

Pidgeon                                                                             Elgisstadir

Canada Geese

Fullmar                               29 May                                    Skalanes



Ringed Plover                    30 May

Grey Phalarope                 31 May



Greylag Goose

Harlequin Duck                 2 June

Black-tailed Godwit


Raven                               4 June


Next year I want to see the gyrfalcon!!!! It was spotted by Nic and Kellan while flying the drone.

CrampOn. CrampOff.

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Today we ventured back out to the rapidly shrinking glacier, Sólheimajökull. It was an incredibly beautiful day, which made our adventure even more lovely. We split up into three teams to collect data which we will use to measure just how quickly the glacier is melting. One group flew our handy drone and collected great aerial imagery. The other two groups hiked up the glacier with elevation platforms to measure how far above sea level different points on the glacier were. A year from now, many of those points will be noticeably lower.

Preparing to Climb

As one might imagine, climbing an ice cube is no walk in the park. Our lovely glacier guides Gummi and Oddur provided us with crampons (essentially “ice-cleats”) and mini-pickaxes. Without crampons, we would slide all over the place, but we were told the pickaxes were more “for show.” After going over some basic glacier safety, Gummi took a group up the east edge of the glacier finger and Oddur guided another set of us up the west edge. It was a nice trek up, and it was warm enough to wear a single layer at some points. On our way up the east edge, Gummi pointed out some streams where we could fill up our water bottles with authentic, fresh glacier water. The two groups met fairly far up the glacier in the middle, and we had lunch on a giant ice cube. As Emi noted, we would be hard pressed to find a better lunch spot. After lunch, the groups switched paths and Gummi led us down the west while Oddur led the others down the east. On the way down, Gummi recounted coming to the glacier when he was younger and pointed out the general area where the glacier ended 5 years ago. It was easily 50 meters beyond where it ends now.

Glacier Water for Gail

After a warm day on the glacier, we came back to Vik and had a delicious curry and rice dinner prepared by Nic and Kellan. Tomorrow, we will have a cold day on the fissure volcano Laki, led again by Gummi and Oddur.

Long Day’s Journey Unto Ice

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Today began at 7:30 when Charlie and Emi left to pick up the rental van at the airport in Egilsstaðir, roughly 30-45 minutes away. Sanne, who runs and maintains the house at Skalanes, drove them – and as much luggage as we could pack in – out to the parking area where we had one rental car waiting. They transferred people and luggage into the rental and drove off. The rest of us ate breakfast, cleaned up the house as best we could to help out Sanne and the others who run Skalanes (a group of 30 is arriving at Skalanes tomorrow!), and began to load up Sanne’s vehicle with all of the luggage we had not been able to send with Charlie and Emi. Once the luggage was loaded, we began walking out the drive while Sanne drove the luggage to the parking area and then turned around to pick us up and drive us the rest of the way. At the parking area, we were faced with a cold and windy wait as Charlie and Emi drove back. We amused ourselves with word games and hypothermia dances until finally they arrived.

Loading up the vehicles with luggage and humans took only a few minutes, and then we were off on our long drive back to Vik. We stopped for a few minutes at Glacier Lagoon so Marketing could get some nice picturesque footage of us in Iceland and briefly saw a seal – they occasionally swim up into the lagoon, which is apparently close to 200 meters deep due to the icebergs. Other than that, the drive was long and pretty uneventful, with stops only for restrooms and other necessities. At one of the gas stations we learned that today is a holiday here in Iceland (Whit Sunday, the day before Pentecost), and we were concerned that the grocery store here in Vik would be closed, preventing us from getting groceries for tomorrow. We made a short detour to Klaustur, where we knew there was a gas station/convenience store that would have some basic groceries available, and picked up materials to make some quick Mac and Cheese for dinner tonight and sandwich materials for lunch tomorrow.

When we pulled into Vik we discovered that the grocery store is in fact open today and we needn’t have worried, but the early shopping trip did allow us to begin working on dinner much sooner after we arrived. Everyone was tired and hungry, since we pulled into the hostel at 7 pm and had left Skalanes at 8:30 (or earlier) this morning. It’s after dinner now, and Charlie and Neil are working on getting the elevation platforms and drone ready for tomorrow, when we’ll be returning to the Sólheimajökull glacier. Rather than collecting soil samples like last time, we’ll be climbing on the glacier itself to collect geographical and volumetric data we’ll use to chart its recession over time. Nic is down with a nasty cluster headache, which is preventing him from helping get the drone ready. Yesterday I finished modifying and debugging the elevation platforms’ code, but now Charlie is trying to debug an issue with Field Day, the Android app we use to gather data from them. All in all, it’s a pretty regular night for us here, with a group playing Euchre in one area and tech gear exploded across another space.

Tomorrow we leave the Puffin Hostel at 9 am to meet our glacier guides at 10 and begin collecting data on the ice.

Indiana Jonesing For Some Sun

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The day began like many others at Skalanes, grey and rainy. Despite the dreary day Emi, Neil, and I set off to visit an archaeological dig a few fjords south of us. The relentless rain kept the rivers high, forcing us to make the trek out to the parking lot on foot yet again. Conditions were slightly better today, and we kept a quick clip, arriving at our car in under an hour, hitting the road at around 8:30. Along the way we got to go through a 6 km long tunnel dug through a mountain, which I found far more impressive than the tunnels of my native Pittsburgh. Apart from the tunnel we arrived without incident, and were greeted by the sight of several heavily clothed figures kneeling in the dirt.  We were then introduced to Bjarni, who explained the goals and methods of the dig, and took us to several holes pointing out the various tephra they were using to date the soil. It continued to rain. After the tour we enjoyed some excellent pizza and fries in Brekkan, a restaurant in the town of Stöðvarfjörður with the dig team. Following lunch we stopped in Egilsstaðir to pick up Mark and Susana, Earlham photographers who will be recording the rest of our travels, and returned to the house on Skalanes. During the afternoon the rain let up enough that Oli was able to ferry us  and all our gear, back in a single trip! And the sun came out! Although briefly. But it was much appreciated.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, porpoises were spotted in the fjord. Also various bug fixes in software, progress.

No one has died of dysentery …

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… but we did ford some rivers! I have no photographic evidence of our journey (because I was worried about dying) so use your imagination as I walk you through the day.

Goal: Drive to Egilsstaðir to get to the airport to pick up a rental car so Dan, Neil and I can visit an archaeological dig on Friday (excitement!!) and do some shopping since the food delivery to Skalanes was delayed.

Problem: It’s been raining here pretty solidly for the last few days. The three (3) rivers that one must cross to get to civilization are rising … and rising … and rising …

Oli (the owner and manager of Skalanes) arrives in his big 4×4 truck circa 9 am. Charlie and I hop in ASAP, since Oli says the rivers are nearing the point of unfordability. We approach the first river. The water is rushing madly down to the sea. It is easily 3x higher than yesterday. Oli puts the differential lock on so the rear wheels will have more power. We charge through the river. It’s pretty intense but we clear it. We zoom down the road to the second ford and cross it, with similar trepidation (and a larger drop off downstream). Then we approach the third and final ford, which is the largest and most dangerous. The waters are roaring down the mountain. Oli angles the truck well upstream of our exit point, throws on the differential lock and moves forward into the current. I feel the truck being pushed downstream – the water level is almost up to the windows! Charlie is ready with his window-breaking tool, and I’m planning how I will roll down the window and climb out as soon as the river thrusts us against the rocks we are quickly approaching. Can I grab my pack (which contains all my cash, ID, credit card and passport)? Nope, better not risk it … the truck is groaning and lurching and then, inches away from the rocks at the end of the ford, the nose of the truck rises out of the torrent onto the road and we’re safe. Water has made it into the floor of the truck but we escape the mad dash to the sea.

You may think that the rest of the day will be tame compared to this adventure. Incorrect. After picking up our car and getting some serendipitous shopping completed, Charlie and I head back toward Skalanes with myself at the wheel. I head into the mountain pass of route 93 from Egilsstaðir to Seyðisfjörður. The wind is gusting at 20 knots and the rain turns into snow as we crest the pass. We drive through intense pea-soup fog patches as we pass by snowpack, and it’s a good thing that all cars in Iceland are required to have their lights on 24 hours a day so we don’t strike each other in the fog. We finally descend into the valley, and drive past waterfalls which are being blown backwards and upwards by the strong winds. As we approach Skalanes, we know there is no way we can drive our SUV past the rivers (indeed, Oli hung the “Closed” chain over the road as we left). We now face a 4.5 km trek from the road to the house. We call in reinforcements and Dan, Neil and Jacob answer the call. We trudge into the east wind with our groceries. Where there was a road, there is now a series of deep, large puddles and quickly forming new rivers. In one location, the land immediately next to the trail has disappeared (even since Dan, Neil and Jacob walked out to the car) and is quickly being eroded away. The cold wind is blowing the rain directly into our faces. After about 45 minutes, we reach the house. We drag our soaking carcasses into the warm, dry lodge and jump into showers to warm up.

The rest of the day really pales into comparison – mostly because I was exhausted and just sat around by the fire. Shout out to my Marmot water-proof pants and North Face GorTex jacket – they kept me mostly dry!

Tomorrow I take Dan and Neil and drive to the dig site in Stöðvarfjörður. We’re hopeful that we can offer them our services to aid their excavation!

P.S. Sage’s code is working!!!!!

Signing off for now,


The Tides have Terned

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~A late post for May 31~

What a wonderful and slightly surprising change in the weather! The clouds parted and the sun came out, brightening the obscenely picturesque landscape and our moods. Team Dirt made progress, taking soil samples from the gardens. We will be testing their nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium levels (NPK), building off previous years’ data to see if the soil quality has improved since our last visit. Team Drone got a chance to fly and collected a lot of data on the area. Luckily, they were able to fly at a high enough altitude to escape the angry terns. Those of us who went on a walk weren’t so lucky… they were not afraid to dive and peck at us, even when we stayed on the path.

We work hard, but we also play hard. Many of us enjoyed a lovely walk to the beach, crossing a beautiful waterfall running twice as fast thanks to all of yesterday’s rain. The rabbit is still at large, but at least we have a handle on its favorite hiding spot. Unfortunately, it’s also a popular hangout for these Greylag Geese, and they frequently hiss at us. Many birds were spotted today, including the awesome Ringed Plover. This little guy lures predators, and humans, away from its nest by pretending to have a broken wing, and then flying away.

Capping off the evening with a delicious risotto, Dan-icdotes, card games and a sauna, we made the most of our rare day without rain.

Rain Rain Go Away

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Cold, wet and cold. Constant rains at Skalanes, indoor science is not as exciting as outdoor science. Ventured out into the as little as possible. Once to place and geo-reference survey stakes, and once to track the elusive Gandolf. He is a master escape artist and a speed demon. Gandolf is a domestic rabbit that escaped/was released near the house at Skalanes. The first few attempts on his capture involved many hands and quick feet. However in the past few days I have tried a different approach. Slow and steady trust building. I have successfully had him eat out of my hand on two separate days. the rains today slowed the efforts. I hope day three will bring full success. Since we could not fly the drone and decided to wait on soil samples we decided to do a bit of group bonding, many rounds of Euchre and Coup past the time. Even in the rain this place is gorgeous. I can’t wait to get outside and do some more exploring!!

Settling in at Skalanes: Home away from home

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It feels good to be settled for a bit after several long days of travel. And what a place to settle. [Audible deep breath in…and out]

Since we are here for some time and there is much work to be done, we started our day by organizing science gear and planning the research we will do here on the property as well as some of the experiments we will perform on soil samples we collected at Solheimajoekull glacier. Our group has also settled into a nice cooking and chore rotation.

After lunch today, Oli and Rannveig took us on a walk to the cliffs east southeast of the house. Oli shared with us the history of Skalanes, information about the bird colonies here, and the role that lupine plays in fertilizing the soil in Iceland.

We saw lots of fulmars, a type of ocean bird; kittiwakes, a type of gull; and puffins, adorably cute. We have been enjoying the unique sounds of the snipes, discovered that male eider ducks make sounds similar to owls, and we’ve been trying to steer clear of the Arctic terns as they work to protect their nests. I am still researching which bird pooped on me as we began our walk. [Note: this is the second time a bird has pooped on me while on a trip with Charlie; at least we weren’t on our way to visit Earlham alumni and donors this time!]

While Skalanes hosts student and faculty scientists and outdoor education enthusiasts like our Earlham group, it also relies on tourism. Today, we enjoyed welcoming a group from a tour boat who came to hike a bit, take in the views of the fjord and the cliffs, and do some birding.

Tonight, several are enjoying the sauna before a full day of science tomorrow. I’m heading to the showers. I think it was the tern.


Day one on the Solheimajoekull glacier

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Today we drove from Reykjavik to the Solheimajoekull glacier on the south coast of Iceland to take soil samples and try-out flying our remote piloted aircraft (AKA drone). Groups of Earlham students & faculty have been working here for a couple of years measuring the shrinking extent of the glacier and taking soil samples on which we do 16S rRNA sequencing to characterize the development of soil microbes as the soil develops after being exposed by the receding glacier.

The red circle on the image is the area we work in, for a sense of scale the circle is about 2km in diameter.

Solheimajokull glacier, we work in the red circle (roughly).

This picture was taken from the ridge on the East side where we were sampling. We are almost always wet and cold when we are working here, but all a person needs to do is look around and take in the amazing view to feel pretty good about being there.

Panorama from the East side.

After finishing we piled back into our vehicles and drove to Vik where we will be staying for the next two days. Emi made a great dinner for us and now we are organizing the samples and data we collected today. Tomorrow we go to Heimaey, an island off the South coast to hike the two volcanoes located there and test our new elevation platform.

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