Archive for March, 2008

It Was Magical

Sunday, March 30th, 2008

rlbras.jpgRafael L. Bras
It was the last full day of the trip, and it was absolutely beautiful. After leaving very early in the morning we headed for Snaefellness Peninsula, northwest of Reykjavik. Our stops included a boat trip in the sparkling harbor of Stykkisholmur; a drive around the Snaefells Glacier, where Jules Verne imagined starting his voyage to the center of the Earth; a visit with a family dedicated to preparing shark meat that is essentially cured in the open air (and didn’t taste as bad as it sounds, although the ammonia did come through once in a while); a walk on a black sand beach within extraordinary lava flows; welcoming small fishermen to port and watching as they processed their daily catch; and taking a walk along spectacular cliffs full of nesting birds, which was somewhat nerve-wracking for some of us.

Twelve hours after departing, we were a hungry crowd descending on a small, isolated hotel by a river that caters to wild salmon fishermen during the summer. It was dusk; everybody was tired, yet awed by the sights we had seen.

But the students wanted more. “We don’t want to leave Iceland without seeing the northern lights,” they said. That is one spectacle we could not control. But as we walked back out into the darkness, there it was: the Aurora Borealis, at least a faint one. And 30 minutes later, the real show began. A cooperative—and extraordinarily good—bus driver pulled off the road so that 60 excited people could go out into the darkness to see the skies dance. The lights changed hues, appearing and disappearing in the starry night. At one point I looked and there were all the students in a circle, most standing, some lying down, all hypnotized by the overpowering sky that graciously answered their prayers.

Yes, the Icelandic gods were alive and well and provided a most fitting end to the adventures of our tribe. It was magical!

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Back to Reality

Sunday, March 30th, 2008

tracey.jpgTracey Hayse
We’re back in Cambridge now. I woke up at 7:10 this morning after going to bed at 10:30 last night; I might still be a bit on the Icelandic time schedule. I thought that one more blog entry might be a good idea, just to conclude the trip and to get me back in the swing of things at MIT.

After a week of cloudiness, the sky finally cleared up Friday night. As we drove back from dinner looking out the bus windows, we caught a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis. It was a wonderful gift for our last night in Iceland. Many of us had never seen the northern lights and this was such an awesome experience. The lights were beautiful. As they moved, they seemed to whisper a reminder about what awaited us when we got back, eight-oh-twooo.

After such an incredible evening, it was sad packing up to head back to Cambridge, but we had one last hoorah; we went to the Blue Lagoon to relax in the geothermal seawater. Although this is one of the more touristy places to go, it was a really nice way to say a warm goodbye-for-now to Iceland.

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Icelandic National Anthem: The Student Version

Friday, March 28th, 2008

adambockelie.jpgAdam Bockelie
Thursday night with a group of Reykjavik University students. Since the radio show we’re producing in Terrascope Radio is probably going to have content on Icelandic culture, we figured that we would interview some students. We also wanted a clip of the Icelandic National Anthem. The two ideas combined tonight, and we convinced a group of Reykjavik University students to sing us their national anthem.

A group of us cornered one student while a second was rounding up a larger group to sing for us. In those crucial moments, he forced us to strike a deal: we sing before they do. Not wanting to jeopardize our tape, we were forced to serenade our Icelandic friend with the “Star Spangled Banner.” Unfortunately for him, none of us can sing. Though we did remember the words, we were off-beat and out of tune for the whole song. I don’t think he will ever ask to hear it sung again.

With our end of the deal fulfilled, we waited for the other students. When they arrived, they arranged themselves into choir formation. They began to sing, and I began to record…

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Starstruck

Friday, March 28th, 2008

emilymoberg.jpgEmily Moberg
Yesterday we had the incredible opportunity to meet with and interview the Icelandic Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture. A group of us donned our best travel clothes (so…clean shirts) and trekked over to the ministry.

We were greeted by several secretaries and taken to an imposing office. Consequently, by the time we met the minister, I was incredibly nervous, especially when it came time to hold a microphone in front of him and ask questions of such an important person. However, I soon forgot about my nervousness as I listened to this incredibly intelligent man discuss the details of his ministry. He deftly and thoroughly answered all our questions about various aspects of the Icelandic fisheries; it was evident that he was aware of everything going on in his ministry.

The interview lasted an hour, despite our being allotted only half an hour, and we learned an enormous amount—ranging from the workings of the ministry to the minister’s personal history with fishing. It was an incredible experience for all of us, and a great opportunity to gather sound for our radio program (although I almost lost feeling in my arm from holding a mic so long).

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Almost Famous

Friday, March 28th, 2008

tracey.jpg Tracey Hayse
“MIT scientists learn about Iceland’s fisheries,” read the title of an article in an Icelandic newspaper this morning. We’re almost done with our freshman year of college, so I wouldn’t call us quite scientists, but we have been learning about fisheries. The article talked about our visit here and said something about energy (at least that’s what I gathered from an Icelandic college student’s attempt to translate). It was accompanied by a group photo. Yesterday, while at HB Grandi, Rodrigo and I were interviewed on speaker phone by a journalist whose questions were more leading than Mary to her little lamb.

Aside from getting in the Icelandic media, we had another unique experience today. After talking with the CFO of Hvalur, the only whaling company here, we got the chance to tour a whaling boat (unused for a decade or so because of the moratorium on whaling) and taste a bit of whale blubber. It had an interesting consistency, kind of like jello at four times the normal concentration of powder, and tasted a bit like cheese, because it is preserved in buttermilk. All in all it was very bizarre, especially considering the whale-hunting boats are kept on the opposite side of the same pier as the whale-watching boats.

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Sights, Sounds … and Smells

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

amanda.jpgAmanda Mok
I once heard that a culture can be described by its cuisine and language. I’ve discovered something else to add to that list: smell. The first thing that hit me as I walked out of the airport on Day 1 was the sulfurous smell. Reykjavik’s air has “rotten egg” fumes coming from the hot springs, which play a huge role in modern Icelandic culture. A majority of the country’s energy comes from these holes in the Earth. Their smell is in the air, in the water, even in the food.

A visit to Iceland, especially one focused on fisheries, would not be complete without visiting the Westman Islands, which are very important to the large fishing industry. In addition to the unique landscape of the islands (shaped by active volcanoes), there’s no mistaking the characteristic smell of fish. From the harbor to the fish factory, the heavy scent of raw fish follows you everywhere. There’s no escape.

So, next time you travel, smell the air!

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Iceland Air Traffic Control Center

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

adambockelie.jpgAdam Bockelie
Free time! That was Wednesday afternoon’s motto. Ten of us chose to spend the afternoon at the Iceland Air Traffic Control Center, which manages aircraft over a large part of the North Atlantic. Though it would never be permissible in the United States, we were given a full tour of the center, including the control room. We got to watch and listen as controllers directed aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean.

The controllers sit at stations with advanced computer software that allows them to track and visualize each aircraft. When an aircraft is in radar range, it can be tracked on screen. I was surprised to learn that a large part of the center’s airspace doesn’t have radar coverage. The airspace immediately surrounding Iceland is the only area over the northern Atlantic that does. Over the rest of the ocean, controllers have to rely on updates from pilots to keep track of the aircraft.

Though I knew a little bit about the aviation system before the visit, I learned a lot about how aircraft are managed during trans-Atlantic flights.

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Geology Tour

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

eva.jpgEva Cheung
This afternoon we were set free to do as we pleased, so while other Terrascopers slept or went shopping or did various other exciting activities (check out their blog posts), a group of us went on a excursion into the outskirts of Reykjavik. Led by our guides from Reykjavik University and Professor Sam Bowring (Course 12), we took a road trip to explore the geology of Iceland.

Located right along the mid-Atlantic ridge, Iceland is home to some really beautiful geological formations. We got to see stretches of land created by lava flows from volcanic eruptions hundreds of thousands of years ago. At another outcrop, our guide explained that the flow had covered a body of water, which then built up pressure under the rock as it was heated, until the rock burst. We also climbed a slope of pillow basalt, fragmented rocks that were the result of lava that had flowed under now-melted glaciers. It was simply amazing how a natural process that happened so long ago could be frozen in time—and rediscovered after so many years by scientists who can look at the shape and structure and composition of the rocks to piece together exactly what happened.

Even though I didn’t know very much about rocks or geology (definitely not nearly as much as the EAPS students did), I had a great time, and I definitely learned a lot. To add to the experience, the sky was clear for the first time this week, and we got to take some really nice photos.

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I Was Blown Away

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

tracey.jpgTracey Hayse
Hometown: Lexington, Ky.
We spent the day in Heimaey of Vestmannaeyjar (the Westman Islands). Upon arrival we were whisked away to a fish processing factory where we all got to dress in plastic scrubs and see fish heads chopped off. Mmm… when’s lunch? We then continued the tour by going into the bowels of a fishing boat, where I got to be the nerdy radio kid chasing down conversations with my microphone and hopping gaps in narrow walkways with my kit swinging wildly at my hip.

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Our next stop would give us a chance to climb a volcano that only 35 years ago almost destroyed Heimaey. (Check out “Stopping the Lava,” by John McPhee.) We all rush out of the bus and start hightailing it up the lava rock, when here comes the first high-speed gust of wind. This wind would put the MacGregor wind tunnel to shame. It knocked us into one another and onto the ground. To avoid being blown away we would lie down, then as soon as the wind would die down, we would all take off running as far as we could before the next gust. By the time we made it up and back down, I had bits of lava rock in my nose and ears and throat.

The beauty and the wind of Heimaey blew me away. Literally.

Whale’s Milk Ice Cream

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

adambockelie.jpgAdam Bockelie
Hometown: Salt Lake City, Utah
It’s Sunday night, our first dinner in Iceland. The ice cream dessert tastes a bit different from normal ice cream, and nobody but our fearless leader can come up with an interesting explanation. “Whale’s milk,” he says. He reasons that since Iceland has a whaling industry that’s severely restricted by international law, they’ve started to gather whale’s milk instead of whale meat. I don’t believe him at first, but he just keeps going, and I begin to think it might be possible…

Of course he was just making it up. But since I fell for it, I decided to help other Terrascopers fall for it as well. Emily and I roamed our hotel, searching for victims. We found a room full of them. Essentially, the conversation went like this:

Us: “How was dessert?”

Them: “Good.”

Us: “Did you know that the ice cream was made from whale milk?”

Them: Awkward silence and expletives.

After a few moments, we had to reveal the truth; we had duped them. Their collective sigh of relief meant only one thing: we had actually convinced them.

What did they learn? Don’t trust Adam and Emily when they talk about whale milk.

What did we learn? A well-crafted story will catch even the smartest students.

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Elves?

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

emilymoberg.jpgEmily Moberg
Hometown: Media, Penn.
So my personal mission for the Iceland trip has been to learn about the folk tales and mythology of Iceland; the Terrascope radio group is planning to include a section on the culture of Iceland and my personal fixation is on folk tales. As such, I’ve been asking around…and found something very interesting.

Iceland, in short, has elves. Apparently, they live all around and can be kind (if you appease them) or very wicked (if you mow their hills, for example). According to our tour guide, most Icelanders believe in the elves, and if they don’t, they’re at least respectful of them.

Seeing what Iceland looks like, you can understand why. We passed fields of rocky outcrops and mist-covered mountains—all full of wonderful hidey holes. At the divide between the continental plates (which we got to walk around in) there were crannies everywhere. While singing Lord of the Rings theme songs at the top of our lungs, several of us picked out our own elven caves, replete with icicle chandeliers. Hopefully, sometime later in the trip we’ll actually get to see a real elf. I’ll be looking!
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Food in Iceland

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

eva.jpgEva Cheung
Hometown: Boston, Mass.
We spent a very busy day traveling to various sites within a two-hour radius of Reykjavik. To conclude our adventures, we were treated to a buffet at the Hotel Geysir, where I got my first taste of Icelandic food. There was salmon in several different forms—smoked, baked and in salmon mousse—as well as chicken, pork and an assortment of vegetables. The food was fresh and colorful, and needless to say, I had a lot of it.

Though the population of Iceland is very homogenous, there’s a lot of diversity when it comes to restaurants in the area. On the street where our hotel is located in Reykjavik center, there is a Chinese restaurant, Italian restaurant, a pizza parlor and a Parisian cafe. Subway, Taco Bell, and KFC are nearby.

The dishes we eat in Iceland will definitely be featured in the museum exhibits we’re building this semester; our team’s exhibit is focused on food and restaurants in order to relate the food we eat to fisheries and the overfishing crisis. I’m excited to find out what else we’ll get to try on this trip. I hear rotten shark meat is on the menu later this week…

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First Time for Everything

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

amanda.jpgAmanda Mok
Hometown: Walnut Creek, Calif.
Today, I experienced my first religious service; the only times I have gone to church before were for a piano or violin recital. So when a couple students decided to attend an Easter Mass in Icelandic at the Hallsgrimskirkja, Reykjavik’s largest Lutheran church, I jumped on the opportunity to experience something new.

As we walked towards the top of the hill where the church is situated, my eyes were churchsteeple.jpgimmediately drawn to the building’s most impressive feature: the bell tower. The exterior of the church was completely made of concrete pillars that imitated the basalt formations found throughout the island.

Tall glass windows let in slivers of light into the interior of the church, infusing the vaulted ceiling with a soft, warm glow. As I sat in my pew, I watched the priest christen a baby girl with holy water, his deep voice infusing each corner of the hall with spiritual incantations. Between readings of passages and sermons, the choir would perform their musical selections, their majestic voices resonating throughout the church and sending chills up my spine. Even though I didn’t understand a word of the entire ceremony, it brought me peace, and insight into the culture of Iceland.

Why Iceland?

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

rlbras.jpgProfessor Rafael L. Bras
Some 40 freshmen, 15 upperclassmen teaching fellows and the faculty and staff associated with MIT’s Terrascope program are in Iceland for Spring Break (March 24-28) to study fisheries, the topic of study this year for this first-year program that focuses on learning about the Earth as a complex dynamical system. Iceland offers a perfect case study of a country with a large fishing industry and a culture with strong historical ties to that industry. An added attraction is Iceland’s geology and unique dependence on renewable energy.

Terrascope’s annual fieldtrip, although voluntary, is an integral element of the program. Over the past five years, destinations have included the Amazon rainforest, Alaska, the Galapagos Islands, the Pacific Coast of Chile, and New Orleans during the city’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

Students began the program last fall by analyzing the problem of global depletion of fishing stock and devising policies to solve it (course 12.000, Solving Complex problems). During the spring term, they’re enrolled in “Communicating Complex Environmental Issues: Designing and Building Interactive Museum Exhibits” (1.016). In this class they conceptualize, design and build a series of interactive museum exhibits. Their “museum” will be open to the public on the MIT campus in the Vannevar Bush Lobby (building 13) beginning May 12; it will remain open for several weeks. The Iceland trip will serve as a primary source of information for their exhibits. Several of the students enrolled in Terrascope Radio will use the trip to interview Icelanders and write and produce their own radio program that will be aired on MIT’s FM radio station.

The 2007-2008 Terrascope program and the Iceland trip are headed by Professor Rafael Bras of the Departments of Civil & Environmental Engineering and Earth, Atmospheric & Planetary Sciences.