in iceland heat is just beneath our feet

Most Yukoners prefer wood to heat their houses, but in Iceland, where wood is scarce, we rely on the ground. Not the cold ground, mind you.

Most Yukoners prefer wood to heat their houses, but in Iceland, where wood is scarce, we rely on the ground.

Not the cold ground, mind you.

Geothermal heat.

Recently I received an e-mail from a Yukon friend, asking me, “Geothermal heat? What’s that? How does it smell? What does it feel? Do you prefer it to wood? Where does it come from?”

To answer the last question first: Iceland is a volcanic island, with a lot of activity still going on.

The term geothermal heat is primarily used in reference to locations where hot water and steam come up through the surface of the Earth, but the literal meaning is that the heat in the earth exceeds the heat on the surface of the earth.

For this to occur, the Earth’s crust must be hot enough, and there must be enough fissures, cracks and permeable rock to allow water to percolate and carry heat from the deeper warmer strata to the surface, according to Gudmundur Pálmason, former president of the Icelandic government’s institute of geothermal heat.

These conditions occur almost solely in countries where the Earth’s plates touch and form. (Incidentally, earthquakes also indicate that the Earth’s surface plates are breaking and moving.)

Geothermally active areas have different natural surface characteristics that are external indications of the movement of heat through the Earth’s crust.

Warm springs, pools, hot springs, fumaroles, mud pots, precipitations of calcium, silicates and sulphur, and colourful soil are all natural indications of geothermal activity.

Many of these areas are absolutely stunning in their otherworldly beauty.

Iceland’s most famous geyser — which gave the English language the word geyser — Geysir, is one of these places.

Haukadalur, where Geysir is found, has for centuries been studied both by Icelandic and foreign scientists. Though Geysir himself (the name is masculine in Icelandic) hardly erupts nowadays, except inn little spurts after large earthquakes, the area is very active.

Geysir’s brother, Strokkur, sends bursts of boiling water into the sky every four or five minutes.

In the olden days, Icelanders appear to have paid less attention to hot springs than we do today.

Though the springs were considered a handy thing to have on one’s farm, they were considered dangerous.

“The hot springs here mean that less firewood is needed, but on the other hand livestock dies in them from time to time,” says a passage in the Register of Estates, compiled in the early 18th century by Árni Magnússon and Páll Vídalín.

People who lived near hot springs always used the hot water for washing both themselves and other things, such as wool.

In the 19th century, women began using hot springs near Reykjavík for industrial laundry washing, generally for male sailors, or for the better-off Danes in the capital.

By the mid-19th century, potatoes were grown in geothermal areas, and some women discovered they could bake bread in the hot earth by placing wrapped dough in a small, covered hole by the spring at night and fetching warm bread in the morning.

But it was not until the 20th century that hot water was first piped into homes for heating.

In 1908, Stefán B. Jónsson of Sudur-Reykir (South Smokes) in Mosfellssveit north of Reykjavík started using the steam to heat houses, and three years later, another man, Erlendur Gunnarsson of Sturlureykir (Sturla’s Smokes) in West Iceland piped steam from a hot spring into his home.

In the 1930s, people began using geothermal energy for greenhouse horticulture in Reykjavík and at Reykir in Mosfellssveit.

This marked the beginning of the Icelanders’ intensive use of their geothermal resources, which today play a huge role in the nation’s energy consumption.

In Iceland’s 103,000 square kilometres, there is enough geothermal heat to supply most of the nation of 300,000 inhabitants with hot water straight from the ground, and very few places must heat their water by other means.

What’s more, this heating system is cheap, because of its simplicity and the abundance of hot water.

Hot water comes in pipes from the ground straight into one’s house, where it circles around through air-tight pipes in walls or floors.

Then the clean waste water goes out again and is dumped into the ocean along with treated sewage.

In nearly all new buildings, as well as in older ones where people have redone their piping, the waste water from the heating system is led out onto the pavement or parking lot.

There, thin pipes are laid in a zigzag pattern under the asphalt, resulting in ice-free parking lots and house entranceways year-round.

Though cools on the surface, the water remains quite hot.

The water from the tap is much hotter than in most other countries. It comes out at 80 to 90 degrees Celsius in Reykjavík, though the temperature varies a bit between geothermal heat plants throughout the country, and can be even hotter.

As a result, most hotels have big signs, warning foreign visitors of the heat in an attempt to prevent tourists from scalding themselves in the shower.

Minerals in this water turn silver black, so one can never shower wearing silver jewellery in Iceland.

The water also smells very faintly of sulphur, though the hot-water plants have various environmentally friendly ways of lessening the smell.

And, of course, in your enclosed pipes and the ovens on the wall, the water doesn’t smell at all.

So, though I love the smell of wood heat, I must say I prefer the scent-less geothermal heat for the simple reason that is much more convenient, cleaner and safer for children.