A geologist's dream: professor studies in Iceland

Geysers, geothermal pools, glaciers, volcanoes, columnar basalt, tectonic plates, oh my! Iceland is a geologist's dream. Just ask Penn State Brandywine Associate Professor of Earth Sciences Laura Guertin, who spent five days studying the country's unique geological phenomena in early May.

Guertin traveled with 12 colleagues from across the United States as part of a short field study course hosted by the University of Texas Austin called "Exploring Iceland's Physical Geography and Geomorphology." Guertin said the experience was one of the highlights of her distinguished career and she can't wait to share with her students at Brandywine the treasures she uncovered during her trip.

"The best way to learn geology is to go out and do geology," Guertin said. "I teach my students about Iceland every semester. It's a unique geologic environment. To be able to go to a geologic setting with fellow geologists, led by an expert of Icelandic geology (Jim Wysong) was really exciting!" she said.

Guertin said she's most looking forward to bringing Iceland to life in the classroom now that she has seen and experienced its magnificence first-hand.

"It makes it real that I have visited and been there. It's not someone else's description, it's my authentic experience," she said.

"Instead of using someone's images I find online or the images in the textbooks, I can now speak more about the specific features in my own photos and I can explain the broader setting and the context. I've learned more than what an intro level textbook includes so I can frame it better and get my students to realize the bigger picture about why Iceland is a good environment for us to learn more about and study."

During her journey, which she documented on her blog, Journeys of Dr. G, Guertin visited volcanoes, glaciers, cinder cones, geysers, geothermal pools and other less-known geologic phenomena. She said the experience helped her better understand what's going on with the retreat of the ice sheets and climate change and how Icelanders have harnessed their country's natural energy sources. She was even able to stand on a glacier and see firsthand what is feeding the glaciers and causing them to melt. She said some of the waterfall systems are unique in Iceland compared to other places around the world, and she studied coastal erosion and cemetery stones, too. "There are several different components I can use in many different classroom discussions," she said.

Columnar basalt at Dyrhólaey

Columnar basalt at Dyrhólaey, a small peninsula located about 10 minutes from the village of Vik.

"Iceland is right on a plate boundary and I talk with my students about plate tectonics, the founding theory of geology, in my introductory geology courses. Iceland is so unique in its geologic setting because it straddles a boundary. There is no other place in the world like this particular one."

In fact, standing with one foot on the Eurasian Plate and the other on the North American Plate was "my geekiest moment," Guertin said with an excited laugh. Not only that, it was also the most terrifying. Where the two plates almost meet, there is a wide gap with a deep, never-ending abyss, which each of the geologists was eager to straddle, to the amusement of their non-geologist Icelandic tour guide, who claimed the experience was a first for her. "Looking down you couldn't see the bottom. We had no idea how far down it went. It could have been really dangerous," Guertin added.

Laura Guertin in Iceland

During her stay, home base was the capital city of Reykjavik, where Guertin said she hopes to return one day to sightsee, but the field studies were mostly conducted outside of the city, where she climbed a volcano, got dangerously close to a vent in a hydrothermal field that could "melt the soles of your hiking boots," visited the site of the assassination of politician Snorri Sturluson in 1231 and peered through the backside of a waterfall.

Notable stops on her tour included the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, Gulfoss waterfall, a volcanic crater called Kerið, Geysir and Strokku geysers, Hellisheiði Geothermal Plant, Eyjafjallajokull Visitor Center (as in the volcano whose eruption and subsequent ash cloud grounded flights around Europe in 2010) and the Solheimajokrull glacier snout, to name only a few.

To read more about Guertin's journey through Iceland and follow along as she continues to travel and study geology in the field, visit www.journeysofdrg.org.