From Iceland — Why Iceland is Inhabitable

Why Iceland is Inhabitable

Published June 11, 2004

Why Iceland is Inhabitable

Opening the door one morning, considering the idea of going on a little walk, I stared out at the mountains through the snow that tore through the sky sideways and realised, for the first time, how it really is possible for someone to freeze to death in twenty minutes.

Summer is here and I´m excited. The grass is now the deepest green, migrating birds have ended their winter’s journeys and children play outside late into the evening where dusk replaces night. There´s a sense of ease on the streets, everyone is friendlier; a stranger might even smile at you on the street.
Traditionally it was believed that none of this would be possible without the the Gulf Stream. The unseen force that is responsible for some of Western Europe’s warmer weather, for making the winters livable and summers more summery. The Gulf Stream begins south of Florida, moves up the East Coast of America and finally much of it shimmies around Great Britain and the Faeroe Islands. The warmer water at the equator naturally moves towards colder water further north. It is helped on its way by the wind and the Earth’s rotation which move the stream in an arc, so it brushes against our southern shores.

Recently, Gulf Stream researchers at Columbia University discovered that it is only part of what makes Iceland’s climate more bearable. The ocean retains heat throughout the warmer months and slowly releases it during the winter. Winds drop down over the Rocky Mountains in the western United States and continue forcefully over the Atlantic Ocean, carrying the Atlantic’s heat with them, all the way over to us here in Iceland. The study suggests that this process is of much greater influence on the climate here than the Gulf Stream. So it is due to both of these factors that Icelanders can live happily through months of both ice and sun.

Iceland is famous for its long shimmering summer days but in retrospect I find the winter more perplexing, more fulfilling. It is during these dark months when I truly experience the grand sweep of nature: enduring, existing, fighting against whatever weather falls from the sky. It is winter that is the real heart of Iceland.

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