Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Outside Reykjavik

I spent my second day in Reykjavik outside Reykjavik.

That's because two scientists who arrived this morning – half of the group with whom I will travel to the interior to chronicle their research into findings by spacecraft orbiting Mars – decided to forego sleeping and go off on a merry, rock-hunting journey in the hills outside the capital.

I had no idea what was in store. But the planetary geologists wanted to find samples of a mineral called zeolite that a remote-sensing instrument had detected on Mars. So, we drove out to the general area where these zeolites are suspected to be hiding in the rocks, parked next to a picnic table alongside the highway, hopped a sheep fence and scrambled up a cut made by a waterfall alongside a long rock face. 

We looked at lots of rocks. We hammered some to check out what's inside. We bagged the most promising samples. They discussed the rocks' guts. I listened and tried to follow along.

We returned to the picnic table on the side of the road and they busted out spectroscopic equipment to do some serious analyzing. One of them shone what looked like a glorified flashlight at the exposed areas of the rock samples, and a computer "read" the rock and revealed its mineral breakdown based on signatures given off in the visible and near-infrared bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. It's amazing how instantaneous such readings can be made. Which is good, because it was windy and cold. 

How surprising, huh?

We visited two more sites, repeating the same steps as the first excursion (park, hop sheep fence, scramble up ravine, look and collect lots of rocks). This time, though, the spectroscopic analyses could wait. I think they were itching to do some sightseeing. So was I.

So, we ventured into southern Iceland. First stop was Geysir, home to a confab of geysers. The most impressive of these was one called Strokkur, which sent a plume of scalding water soaring into the sky about every eight minutes. You could smell the Earth's insides everywhere, and it smelled a lot like sulphur – pungent but not a turnoff.

You can see a photo gallery here.

Just down the road is Gulfoss, a double decker of a waterfall carved out in the gently undulating valley. Gulfoss cannot rival Niagara Falls in terms of volume of water cascading down its sides, but its setting with a complete lack of commercialism and kitsch just enhanced its beauty. Give the Icelanders lots of credit for letting this natural wonder speak for itself.

On the way back, we drove through a wide bowl of a valley where the sun shone brightly and scrubland that looked like what you'd see in west Texas. As we got closer to Reykjavik, we passed chains of hills, carpeted in such a rich green carpet that it looked like miles of carefully manicured putting greens. Waterfalls spouted from the countless crevices and cuts in these hills. At the foot of many of these hills spouted geysers. Viewing this scene panoramically, you'd see the green hills, laced by the waterfalls and the plumes from geysers that seemed as if the ground itself was smoking cigars. Simply beautiful. 

And the sun was shining. I can only hope for more of the same on the next leg.


Monday, August 25, 2008

Reykjavik - Day One

One day down in Reykjavik.

After about four hours' sleep, the roar of traffic outside my window was too much to fight, so I got up, stumbled out of my room and got some breakfast, compliments of the guesthouse at which I'm staying. The availability of breakfast was a key piece to my decision, because I know from traveling that "free" meals, or at least ones where you can eat as much as you want, are invaluable. That goes double when you haven't eaten since the afternoon before.

It was a typical continental breakfast: coffee, juice, bread and jam, cereal. However, the spread did include cold cuts, cheese, cucumbers and tomatoes. So, I made myself a sandwich and liked it so much I made another. Some cereal and a couple of coffee cups later, I was ready to greet the day.

Most of what I did on this first day was walk around. Mostly, it was through neighborhoods that loosely ring the city center, which itself kind of curves around a long spit of land that blesses Reykjavik with a natural shelter from the North Atlantic. No wonder the Vikings chose it as a natural harbor, naming the capital "smoky bay."

I imagine the nickname comes from the armada of clouds that sweep the sky. Today was no different. As you can see in this picture, the cloud cover was heavy and did not diminish.

Still, the view looking out from the city toward the ocean is beautiful. Imagine how it would look on a sunny day. One can only hope for the chance.

Reykjavik is a small city, and very compact, with skinny streets and small houses crammed together. It's charming, but I would imagine the close proximity, while providing physical warmth from ocean-borne winds, could get unnerving. Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was a Monday, but the people here weren't terribly friendly. They are not rude; they will help you if asked and will answer a question if you have one. But they won't offer anything more than exactly what you asked. Maybe that's just being efficient. In any event, they don't seem terribly happy to me.

I will say everything is terrifically expensive here. Manhattan's got nothing on Reykjavik. Postcards are a $1 a pop, a hot dog I bought at a great, and popular, stand was $3 (see picture), and my sandwich at a great cafe on the main shopping street was $7 (OK, not bad there). The latte was about $4, which is about what I'd pay stateside. I took a gander at the beer prices, and it appeared a pint started at $10. Ouch.

I read in the in-flight magazine that Icelanders make $55,000 yearly per capita. I was surprised, but having seen the prices, that salary more than evens out when compared to per capita wages in America vs. the cost of goods (and probably services, too).

After lounging around at the cafe, I returned to the guesthouse and changed for a run. The receptionist looked at me kind of funny as I emerged with shorts and a black stitch cap and asked her to hold my keys. I asked her where I should run; she looked at me with a blank expression. I started pumping my arms and mimicking a running motion. She murmured jogging, and then pointed me toward the ocean.

Now, I had seen a path that curved alongside the inlet, and it did look inviting, so I took off. After a few minutes, the path veered to where it ran right next to the highway. I still had the hills and the sea to my left, but the racing lanes of cars and trucks made it difficult to appreciate the view. And the view disappeared shortly thereafter as soon as I left the city proper. I was sucked into outskirt hell, rows of drab apartment blocks on my right that would rival the crummy Socialist living complexes I have tried to forget seeing in Eastern Europe and an endless row of low-slung office buildings and gas stations on my left. The path had veered from the bay's curve, and so I slogged on, seeing that most of Reykjavik looks about like the outskirts of any other European city. Except in Reykjavik there is much less of that sprawl, because there are simply fewer people.

I turned around and headed back toward the main part of the city. A blustery northwest wind slapped me around as if I were a bad child. I bent forward and retraced my steps, passed where I had gotten on the path and followed the ring as the rest of the city opened to my left. Unfortunately, most of Reykjavik with water views is occupied by high-rise commercial and residential buildings that add little to the aesthetics and indeed, mask the subtle beauty of the city center off the water. Too bad. Construction along other areas of the waterfront is going on in earnest, and I had to cross the highway a few times to reconnect with the path, or at least what I think was the path. I ran over cobblestone entrances to buildings, over gravel roadways and mostly on what passed as a sidewalk. Cars and trucks whizzed right by me. It was not scenic, and I must say I'm surprised nothing has bee done about what should be a beautiful area to exercise.

I'll look for another route on Wednesday.

Well, one half of the geology team arrives tomorrow, and I imagine we'll begin preparing for our trip to the interior. We've got two all-purpose vehicles to rent and food to buy. 

I'd go for another one of those hot dogs. Bill Clinton did!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Touchdown Iceland

Greetings from a very new place: Iceland.

Yes, I made it. Ready to start a new adventure in this island country that hugs the Arctic Circle.

Flew in around 11:30 local time tonight (actually last night now). Been here for about 3 hours so far.

Impressions: Clean, quiet, cool. 
No rain (so far). I've bee told this counts as a victory. Let's hope my luck holds.

More impressions: The duty-free shop is quite popular. As soon as we got off the plane, Icelanders and others made a beeline for the duty-free store. The store is conveniently located right off the baggage claim, with signs in bright, glaring lights. It doesn't need to advertise, however. People know it's there. And they loaded their carts with booze, chocolate, cigarettes and play animals, stuffing them just like we do at the grocery store for the July 4th cookout. It was an impressive orgy of shopping glee. Seeing how much fun everyone was having, I decided to take part. Two bottles of red wine: $25. 

In front of me were two young guys with bottles of Absolut, beer and at least two cartons of cigarettes. One of them picked up a carton and started reading the label, which I assume was in Icelandic. 

He read slowly, as if he was translating the words, which perhaps he was: "Smoking can hurt the health of you and everyone around you," he said in English.

He jettisoned that carton into the cart and picked up the other, Marlboro Lights. The label, in English, read: "Smoking can kill."

"This is much easier to understand," he said.

I like their sense of humor here.

In case you all missed a past post, I'm accompanying a group of planetary scientists from Brown who are trying to unravel a mystery about the depth of water on ancient Mars. Iceland, it turns out, offers a pretty good way to study that problem, because its terrain is considered to be a close equivalent to the surface on some areas of Mars. 

My job is to write about the scientists' work in the field and take photographs. If you're interested, you can follow my dispatches and photo galleries here.

Time for bed, and a day in Reykjavik tomorrow (later today). I'll have more on that.

Keep your fingers crossed about the rain.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Photography 101

As I'm preparing for my trip to Iceland, I've been getting a little photo training.

I'm no Jedi, no natural when it comes to understanding settings, composition and execution. I think I've got a good eye and can be patient to line up a good shot. But I'm weak in understanding the core principles that govern go
od photography.

I'm talking about film speed, shutter speed and aperture. Apparently, these all work together, or at least can work together, to create that amazing picture. But I can't quite understand how they all fit.

A good and very patient photographer at Brown gave me a crash course. He talked the photo lingo, and I tried to follow all he was talking about. I walked out of there after about an hour with a major headache.

I knew photography was involved, but I guess I didn't expect that it involved so much science – engineering, physics, even chemistry. Sure, the auto setting works just fine, especially with the more high-end cameras. But the more I hang out with photographers such as the gentleman who sat down with me the other day, the more I can appreciate the artistry and the technical expertise they bring to their work.

I took some pictures around the Brown campus today. I fiddled around with the settings, angles and all that. Some turned out pretty good, some better than I expected and others were just plain bad. Here is one that turned out better than I expected.

I wish I knew what I had done.

I may revert to that auto setting after all.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Wily Coyote

I was pumping along on a short, four-mile run last week when I saw a man peering intently through binoculars at something.

I had just come over a rise when I saw the guy. It was near sunset, and he was standing next to his truck, which he had pulled off on the side of the road. As I got closer, I got more and more curious what he was looking at. I knew he was looking out at a field. I looked out there, too, but I couldn't see anything.

Just as I was about to pass him, I called out to him. "What's out there?" I asked.

"A coyote," he said.

I thought about that for a split second. I tried to stamp out my curiosity and keep running, but I just couldn't. "I gotta stop," I told myself as I turned around and walked back to the guy.

Graciously, he handed me his binoculars, so I could take a look. Sure enough, out there in the field was a coyote. It was hard to distinguish amidst the bales of hay dotting the football-length field, but I could see it. The coyote was lying in the far reaches of the field, watching us calmly as we watched him.

The coyote seemed not to have a care in the world. I think we were more curious about him than he was about us.

I know coyotes have adapted well to encroachment by people, and they're pros at survival. They'll eat about anything, they keep themselves scarce when we people are most active and they're smart in their own way.

So, it's no big surprise to spy a coyote in our relatively populated area.

But it was still neat.

I resumed running with a big smile on my face.

Monday, August 4, 2008

An Oilman's Conversion

I never thought I'd see a lifelong oilman become a convert to renewable energy.

But then about three weeks ago, I was watching ABC News, and a commercial came on featuring T. Boone Pickens.

Pickens tells us he's a Texas oilman who has drilled for oil and gas his whole life and made a bushel of money in the business. He tells us America's dependence on oil and gas has made us dependent on others and weakened our standing to the point that it jeopardizes our national security. He tells us we have to stop.

Then he tells us America's future is not in oil. It's in alternative energy, such as the wind.

Well, I'll be. You know the push for renewable energy is getting some traction when an old industry stalwart like Pickens is talking it up. Granted, Pickens has his reasons, and one big chunk is financial: He's set to build the largest wind farm in north Texas. His plan envisions stringing wind farms up the spine of the United States, from Texas to the Dakotas.

No matter his profit motives, I applaud him for stepping forward and telling us what we need to hear. The days of cheap energy are over. Oil and gas are commodities, and finite ones at that. They're getting scarcer, and the reserves known to exist are more challenging to extract. Yes, there may be abundant reserves beneath the Arctic Ocean and even off Antarctica, but the world's demand for oil is growing far faster than these reserves can be tapped and would yield.

So, Pickens's idea is a good one. Renewable energy is a ticket to a more sustainable, and secure, energy supply. But his plan does have one big hitch: It's impractical.

What I mean is if you're going to go for wind, it doesn't make sense to plant fields of turbines hundreds, thousands of miles from the nation's urban centers. You then have to build the infrastructure to send those electrons to where the people live. And even if you build the infrastructure, you still lose energy as it travels from source to customer. The longer the distance, the more energy is lost in transit.

But you can have the wind if you build the turbines offshore. They'd be close to the major urban centers, and they run more efficiently than land-based wind farms, because there is less friction with wind traveling over water than on land. Also, you can build bigger, taller turbines, which can capture more wind and achieve higher economies of scale. I devoted my master's thesis to one project, called Cape Wind, which is a plan to build the nation's first offshore wind farm off Cape Cod. If it goes, I think you'll see more turbines erected in shallow offshore areas. Moreover, we're in the cusp of knowing how to put those turbines further out to sea, which would appease those who oppose wind farms because they don't want to look at them.

So, let's give Pickens a tip of the hat for getting the debate started. And let's hope our nation's next president advances it.