I won’t lie, I was nervous, nervous to leave my 3-year-old for the longest I had yet (a whole week!), and nervous for my first real trip abroad since before I went on maternity leave in 2018 and the pandemic of course… !
On this occasion I was travelling out to Iceland alone, my fellow researchers, Dr Mark Fox-Powell, a Senior Fellow in AstrobiologyOU and Ben Stephens, our Microbiology Project Officer, had already been out there for a week. This trip was thanks to the Europlanet Transnational Access (TA) programme, a great scheme allowing international researchers to conduct research at accredited facilities or field sites.
Even with the stresses of travelling, I love getting to the airport early, checking in and just enjoying a bit of time before the flight where I don’t have to stress or rush. Sat eating my lunch (without being climbed on and actually able to eat my food! – Mums and Dad’s, you’ll know how amazing this is!), I surveyed my fellow travellers and thought about the week ahead….
Mark had already managed to get some good sampling done for his research - collecting geothermal aerosols, in order to understand if and how they can transport biosignatures. This also linked in nicely with my interest in Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). I was hoping to collect lots of gas samples from the geothermal areas in order to start building up a database of the volatile profiles I find in each environment. I was also looking forward to coring the soil of these areas too, so we could start to link local microbiology to the VOCs. I knew it wouldn’t be easy and this was just the start – I had a lot of work ahead if I wanted to try and differentiate or link any VOCs between environment and microbes! But with my background studying VOCs in medical diagnostics, and even though the start of my post-doc had been delayed by Covid, the thought of developing my repertoire into a relatively un-studied area of VOC research was super exciting!
As many who read this will know… coincidentally our trip coincided with the recent eruption of Fagradalsfjall volcano. Just days before I was set to travel, the eruption had occurred. As it was so near to Reykjavík, I’d hoped to get a glimpse as we landed… but no… the cloud gods – as for most of the week - decided against it.
Fagradalsfjall strangely offered me the biggest lesson I learned in regard to Iceland as a whole which was….
‘Do it while you can!’
Mark and Ben collected me from the airport, and they had already managed to go up to the Fagradalsfjall site a couple of days previous to my arrival. They kindly offered to take me there on the way to our accommodation, or we could do it later in the week. The afternoon was dry and dare I say it even a little bit sunny…… but……
Me… still in my jeans thought… hmmm no maybe another day when I have my proper walking clothes on…..! BIG mistake!!!!
As it would turn out, the rest of the week was mostly very windy and very wet, meaning they closed the pathway to the volcano for safety…..except on the day we were leaving which was beautifully dry and clear (for Iceland!)… but we didn’t have time to get there, hike up and back, and catch our flight. Was I disappointed? … Absolutely … I mean… who gets the opportunity that often to go to an actual erupting volcano safely!!!! But I was there to sample, and sample we did!
Even with all the rain and wind, the beauty of Iceland can’t be hidden. Some may find it ‘bleak’ but I found the way the basalt, a type of volcanic rock, was distributed in large black moss-covered waves bubbling across the landscape ethereal. All I could imagine was all the trolls living in those little gaps.
Considering how unpredictable the weather was, sampling was generally successful. It was kind to us on my first sampling day and aside from a barrage of flies, and carrying all our kit up to the site, we got to enjoy the geothermal landscape between rain clouds. A lot of what I was doing was trial and error, and gas sampling can be very unpredictable even at the best of times! But with Mark and Ben there, busy collecting aerosol and other microbiology samples (in spite of the flies) I felt confident we would have a good day. The coring was physically easier than expected, with the local ground being soft and malleable (Thor’s Hammer was not required to drive in the corer!!!). At times the heat emanating from the cores themselves was amazing! Those we took as close as we dared to the bubbling geothermal regions were in excess of 90°C, and a couple even started to make the core liners ‘melt’! What was even more fascinating was the variation in temperature. I certainly wasn’t expecting such large variations within such short distances. The cores also proved to make me feel hungry as they came out looking like (Mark’s description) toffee ripple ice cream!! The prospect however of what interesting microbes could be in that ‘ice cream’ and what the different colours could represent to the geochemistry or microbial communities was weirdly exciting (I know… I need more excitement in my life!!!)!
Site two proved slightly more elusive to us…. initially....! and was the site of one of the weirdest experiences of my life!
Here we were also collecting cores over different temperature gradients and subsequently taking coinciding gas samples from the ground. We had designed and had built special ‘probes’ that allowed me to collect VOC samples from the ground in-situ. They mainly revolved around placing them in the ground, and then waiting a good half hour to allow the gases to move from the ground and equilibrate inside the probe.
The weather was (predictably) wet and windy but started off reasonable. An amazing pool was at the site which was filled with a grey clay like liquid that bubbled and swirled but had some sort of other immiscible liquid with it, probably water…. I was mesmerised by the movement and bubbling… but I mention it mainly because it was the best visual representation of how the weather changed! Which I will come back to later!
As we were all scouting round with the temperature probe, we stood next to one of the hydrothermal systems ……. suddenly I heard and felt a rumbling and then a boom….. and I mean ‘felt’….
Like a human ground penetrating radar, I thought I could feel the chasm of space that existed under our feet as it ‘boomed’ – I can’t explain why but I was visualising a huge cave of nothing and my brain just went ‘jump onto something solid’ – at which point I remember just seeing Ben and I ‘jumping’ onto bigger rocks….!!!! Like somehow this would save us if the ground opened up into a huge sinkhole!! Mark however was perfectly calm as Ben and I swore and leaped like phrenetic cats…. I giggle about it now, but we were only about 2km from Fagradalsfjall…and I was imagining epic flows of volcanic magma appearing…. so, it’s not an experience I shall easily forget!
In what was actually seconds, it was all over, and it went quiet. The cloud came in further and the wind and rain increased in strength like nothing had happened…. We tried to wait out the weather on the site for a while…. But it continued to stay bad so we retreated back to the relative warmth of the car all still slightly in shock …… but still able to raise smiles!
Hot coffee was a go.. and we waited for my probes to equilibrate (hopefully), and in my mind I was also waiting for another earthquake to happen. It was definitely too windy for Mark’s aerosol sampling too. Probably an hour later, a break in the rain approached on the horizon so we took the opportunity to get out and go back to the site…. And now I can show you the pool and what it looked like an hour later!
As you can see… full to the brim…. As too were some of my sampling probes… Although still quite warm when I took the probes out of the ground, the water was cooler likely from rainwater runoff, not thankfully a water level rise from the seismic event! I was amazed at the volume of liquid it had taken to fill that pool as much as it had in about an hour…… No gases for me to collect from here today!
Not ones to waste any of our precious time, back we went to site one, where the cloud gods actually allowed us to see a bit of blue sky and collect some more samples, so we still felt like we’d actually managed a really productive day!
Later back at our accommodation, we looked up the earthquake record (I mean Iceland has hundreds of small ones every day) but the record showed that the one we had felt was a magnitude 4.1, nearest volcano Krýsuvík (epicentre 3km away from it - we were on part of Krýsuvík sampling!), and apparently 5.2km down… and I feel like I felt that whole 5.2km!
The remainder of the trip was great, we returned to the second site the next day, using our trusty weather app to predict the best times, and caught the weather perfectly with just enough time to get everything done before the rain came in again. My friendly sampling pump enjoyed posing for my photos!
We next ventured to Geysir… of which Ben and Mark had already sampled before I had arrived - having had permission to sample there in the middle of the night…. I could see why they chose that time… Gas sampling for my sample collection was impossible due to the sheer volume of tourists who were avidly awaiting a small pool of water to explode into life!
As you can imagine, when you are trying to sample gases that emanate from the environment, the last thing you want is many tourists who are also emanating gases from various orifices of their bodies!!! I would have instantly known which ones had eaten fermented shark!!
At this point we decided that for me, sampling two ‘good’ sites in the time we had/had left was much better than attempting a third (everywhere else we ventured to recce a site, was mostly amassed with tourists or we weren’t sure about getting access). Time for our last day to at least see a bit more of the Island.
The most spectacular part of that day was of course the Gullfoss Waterfall, which even though it was raging with water, was apparently at a lower point as it was summer! My main amazement however was at flocks of tourists (again! I know I’m obsessed with tourists!) in… jeans…. Thin plastic rain ponchos, and dare I say it with one person… even ….shorts!!!
The sheer volume of water was just epic even if it wasn’t at its peak, and of course (me being very camera happy) it was another ideal photo opportunity. If only you knew how many photos I could have added to this blog…….!
We had eaten self-catering the whole time we had been in Iceland, so we gave ourselves a little treat on the last night… a meal out in a Viking restaurant. Ingólfsskáli, a grass covered tavern of wonder, turned out to be a great last night with amazing food, and Viking music. Unfortunately, we couldn’t try out the axe throwing and they forgot to bring Mark his fermented shark to try (sorry not sorry to have missed that!!).
We had to be back in Reykjavík the next morning to catch our plane, so we spent our last hours wandering round Reykjavík shopping and sightseeing. I imagine Reykjavík looks quite beautiful in the winter with lots of snow, but I found it quite bleak (the one place in Iceland I did feel it!). When you grow up in the UK around many very old buildings, it’s easy to forget that many places have much more ‘modern’ or just changing history in their cities – where buildings come and go – rather than exert the sort of history we see in some parts of Europe. However, a good thing about the lack of snow was being able to see the beautiful rainbow filled Skólavörðustígur Street leading up to the Hallgrimskirkja Church. The street was previously ‘temporarily’ painted in rainbow colours as a celebration of Reykjavik Pride, but in 2019 the rainbow became a permanent fixture where residents, as well as the mayor participated in painting it themselves to create this memorable piece of art to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community. In the relatively dull grey day, it brightened our spirits.
Our flight back to the UK was uneventful, but luckily having a window seat, I noticed something I don’t think I’d ever seen before. Even though we had been a week in the rain… at the time the UK was going through its hottest driest summer for a while. From coming in over Scotland, all the way back to Heathrow everything was varying shades of … brown…. (Hello climate change). I’m not a ‘frequent’ flyer these days, but I have flow in and out of the UK enough to know it is usually a lot greener. Finally, as we flew over Dorney rowing lakes (Can you tell I go rowing as I’m musing about the wonder of a rectangular lake!), the dried, hazy landscape turned to runway. We all commented that getting off the plane was like it usually felt going abroad… hot and sweaty! Not the usual UK experience! But we were home and I couldn’t wait to return to my crazy, happy, smiling 3 year old!
As I reflected on the week and all the sampling and processing in the lab that was still to come, I thought how lucky I was. Lucky to have organisations like Europlanet and AstrobiologyOU, who allowed us the ability to go and do these trips, and lucky to have such great colleagues like Mark and Ben whose knowledge and skills in their job just makes my job feel easier and certainly less daunting when you are coming back from being ‘mummy’ to being ‘researcher’…