Volcano Power
Muse Science Magazine for Kids|February 2020
Iceland’s unlikely agricultural success
Daniela Weil

Iceland is appropriately named. Massive glaciers cover approximately 10 percent of the country. During its frigid winters, the sun peeks above the horizon for only about five hours a day. And if the cold and dark weren’t enough, rocky lava fields and a mountainous terrain stretch as far as the eye can see. Just under 20 percent of the land is used to grow crops or raise animals. Iceland seems to be one of the most unlikely places on Earth for farming. But bubbling just beneath the surface is a secret ingredient that has changed the country’s food landscape.

With a Little Help from Geysers

Pall Olafsson walks to work on his remote farm in northern Iceland. It is 11:00 a.m. in December, below freezing, and the sun has yet to rise. He opens the door to a long glass house, and steps into another world. A tropical jungle of towering vines hovers over him as bumblebees buzz all around. He’s in a bright and warm tomato greenhouse. Pall hangs his coat and walks along the rows of tomato plants, checking the plump red fruits that dot the bright green leaves. How are these greenhouse plants thriving?

Atop the hill just beyond the farm, a burbling geyser spews a tower of steam up into the dark sky. Geysers and hot springs happen when a hole or crack through Earth’s crust provides magma-heated water a path to the surface. The Olafsson family saw the potential for using the heat from the geyser for farming. “My great-grandfather started this farm. I am the fourth generation here,” he explains. “He had the hot water in the ground and wanted to do something with it. He didn’t know exactly what.” Pall Olafsson’s great-grandfather decided to plant potatoes. He piped the geyser’s boiling water along a ditch by the plants. The hot water melted the snow and prevented the delicate greens from freezing. Soon, the family began to rent their land to other farmers too.

In 1933, the Olafssons channeled hot water into their first greenhouse. It was a small space, and they planted some tomato seeds purchased in Holland. When they brought their first harvest to the market, curious neighbors stared at the mysterious red fruit, without the slightest idea what they were. The family saw a similar reaction in the 1950s, when they brought their first harvest of cucumbers to the market.

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