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Feature of the Week: Tales of the Earth Doctor

Magazine

Feature of the Week: Tales of the Earth Doctor

In his extraordinary 40-year career he has discovered a lost city, led research on legendary sites such as Pompeii and found the link between meteorites and the extinction of the dinosaurs. Living in tents, braving snakes, rainstorms and active volcanoes for many months a year, volcanologist and geochemist Haraldur Sigurdsson has lived adventures that would put Indiana Jones to shame. He has now returned to his home town of Stykkishólmur, situated near the legendary Snaefellsjökull glacier and volcano. And he has founded The Volcano Museum, the only one of its kind in the world.

Published in the 2009 summer issue of Iceland Review – IR 47.02. By Ásta Andrésdótir, photos by Páll Stefánsson.

When I meet Sigurdsson he jokes about serving gos (the Icelandic word for both soda pop and eruption) and hraun (lava-shaped chocolate treats) at his extraordinary museum, located at Stykkishólmur’s community center—built in 1901—which he and his team have restored to its original form. There is the smell of fresh paint and optimism in the air as carpenters add the finishing touches. To begin with, a sample of his collection of volcano art will be on display, along with a selection of rocks dating back millions of years from the earth’s core and his own archeological finds: tools from the Stone Age, pottery from the Bronze Age and pieces from Pompeii. Later, technological and scientific aspects will be added. He is clearly excited about this project which aims at making the museum into an international institution.

“Volcanoes are the most spectacular phenomena in nature. They are both threatening and beautiful and the best word to describe them is sublime,” muses Sigurdsson, whose passion was kindled growing up hiking around and exploring his native Snaefellsnes peninsula. “As a student I got a job in earth drilling and geological research. I was thrilled to discover that it was possible to make a living from that.”

Sigurdsson obtained a Ph.D. in geology and geochemistry in Britain in 1970. “I focus on Earth’s chemical composition,” he explains. “A blood sample enables a doctor to determine what’s going on inside a patient’s body. This is perfectly comparable to my work. The earth is an organism and the magma is its blood.”

After graduation, Sigurdsson began researching the volcanoes of the Caribbean. “Four years later and after an overdose of sun, sand, Calypso and rum, I got a case of the Nordic Negative: If anything is this much fun, something has got to be wrong with it. I just had to leave.”

He accepted a position as a professor at the University of Rhode Island and made it his base camp for the next 35 years. He contributes his success to his readiness to set off whenever exciting events occurred. “What I love about my job is the freedom to explore the Earth. I have dedicated my life to that and feel very blessed.” This involved sleeping in tents under extreme conditions many months a year. “Somebody had to do it. It’s not that bad,” he says casually. “Sure, heavy rainstorms can give you a hard time. So can snakes and other wild animals. But I suppose that the traveling itself is the most dangerous aspect of the job. Of course there is always the occupational hazard of getting caught in an eruption. That would be unfortunate. A good volcanologist is a living volcanologist,” he jokes.

Sigurdsson is perhaps best known for leading the research of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, which destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. “The magic of the volcano is the way it freezes everything in time, giving us insight into the everyday life of ancient civilizations. For example, in Pompeii there is lewd graffiti on the walls.”

Living under a volcano is like being a fly on an anvil, he says. “The hammer will strike once every 1,000 years and you’re lucky if you don’t get in its way. The thing about volcanic soil is that it is extraordinarily fertile, making it a highly valuable place to live. There is always a certain tension involved but amazingly all these different cultures see things the same way: there was an eruption once, and sure it will happen again. But not in my lifetime. People are surprisingly quick to forget.”

You can read the remainder of this article in the 2009 summer issue of Iceland Review – IR 47.02. Four times a year the print edition of Iceland Review brings you a wealth of articles on all aspects of life in Iceland including Páll Stefánsson's latest images of the country's majestic landscape. Click here to subscribe and here to browse through a selection of pages from the current issue.