Personal History Rises From Volcano’s Ashes

On New Year’s Eve heading into 2011, Sylvia Stengle, aged 72 and recently widowed, googled “International Volunteering” opportunities, looking for adventure. She discovered the Earthwatch Expedition: Volcanology in Iceland, and decided this would be a great fit for her. She was excited about reconnecting with her family history and about experiencing Iceland’s forbidding volcanic region as part of a research team, instead of as a tourist.

Volcanology in Iceland

Volcanology in Iceland

The Fury of Mount Askja
Askja is a volcano located in northeast Iceland, which was relatively unknown until a plinian eruption occurred on March 29, 1875 – spewing columns of gas and volcanic ash high into the stratosphere.

When Askja erupted, Sylvia’s great-grandparents lived on a farm near the coastal city Vopnafjordur. Fifteen family members and live-in workers shared this land. The ashfall from Askja was devastating to them and much of the country – burying hay and poisoning livestock. Ash was carried by wind all the way to Sweden and England, changing the landscape and climate, dropping temperature dramatically as a result of ash blocking the sun. These compounded effects triggered a mass exodus of emigration from Iceland. An estimated 25% of Icelanders were forced to leave their home country as a result of Askja’s aftermath, including Sylvia’s ancestors.

“I really wanted to do this volcano trip,” Sylvia shared. “My ancestors had come through Scotland by boat to New York and then, by 1878, to Minnesota by covered wagon. The Askja eruption is what caused me to be an American.”

Sylvia Stengle jogging within the Askja caldera, which is 5 km across

Sylvia Stengle jogging within the Askja caldera, which is 5 km across

Physical & Mental Preparation for the Volcano
“I was worried about not being fit enough for this trip, which requires you to be very fit. An Earthwatch representative put me in touch with the oldest woman who had gone on the previous year’s trip. We decided I should go for it. I trained for a year with a personal trainer. I did a year of steadily more difficult squats, planks and crunches, along with running up and down football stadium steps and clambering up and down a mountainside with a 20 pound pack on my back. It was good that I trained because the work in Iceland was both demanding and far off the beaten track. I am now more fit than I’ve ever been in my life and I intend to stay this way. I not only have more strength, I have better stamina and health. This is one way Earthwatch changed my life.”

In addition to the physical preparation, Sylvia also did her homework.

“I studied geology and volcanology off and on throughout 2012. Tectonic plates, magma chambers, magnetic field polarity, and especially the evolving ways we measure and understand the eons of geological history all were new to me and fascinate me. I now know, as I’m phrasing it, that ‘Civilization exists at the whim of geology.’ That part was also transformational.”

Sylvia joined a Volcanology in Iceland team in August 2012. She was teamed with 11 other volunteers from Great Britain, the U.S., Australia and Switzerland. There were 3 British team leaders, including Dave McGarvie, the lead scientist on this expedition. These volunteers were stationed at Iceland’s first geothermal power station in the center of the Krafla volcano caldera, just north of Askja . Many were geology or volcanology students. The project objective was to develop a detailed gravity map of the eastern volcanic zone of Iceland. This mapping helps geophysicists understand how magma is stored and transported, which helps with predicting and responding to future volcanic activity that can affect all of northern Europe.

“We hiked or were driven to multiple sites in unchartered territory that was difficult to trek. We took gravity and GPS readings at periodic intervals, every one to five kilometers.”

Standing within a fissure between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates

Standing within a fissure between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates

Sifting the Ashes of Iceland’s Past
Because of favorable weather in usually rainy Iceland, the team was ahead of schedule taking their readings. Even though most of the Askja measurements had been taken already by the previous week’s team, the team leader decided to let those who wanted to see the Askja caldera take the 100 kilometer trip along desolate one lane roads from Krafla to Askja. The caldera is 5 kilometers across, huge and forbidding. The region resembles the moon; so much so that the area was used during training for the U.S. Apollo program to prepare astronauts for lunar missions.

When Sylvia explained her Icelandic roots to her team, they urged her to find out exactly where her family farm was. She e-mailed her family back in The States who replied, connecting her with a relative back in Iceland. She was given exact directions to the farm, along with a warm invitation to visit.

I asked Sylvia about her emotions when she was able to reconnect with her family.

“I’m sitting in a lava field, and I’m just so happy. I was experiencing the same physical space of my family before me and how it ties to where I live now.  It was just very moving over the entire year I planned on coming until I got there. As a result of the connections with relatives I didn’t know I had, I plan to return to share this new relationship and this amazing landscape with my family. This expedition has been one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.”

Sitting in a lava field in Iceland

Sitting in a lava field in Iceland