What happens when Iceland, an island nation with 330,000 residents, starts welcoming 1.2 million tourists a year? Feargus O’Sullivan, of our sister site CityLab, explains:
This is raw-boned, hardscrabble country, both thinly populated and thinly served by public amenities. That’s much of its attraction, of course—the idea of having ancient lava fields, raging waterfalls, and mossy ravines more or less to yourself.
You’re far less likely to be alone nowadays, though, and many of the easier-to-access areas are groaning under the pressure of not being as unfrequented as they once were. Land at some beautiful spots is being trampled by too many feet, while basic facilities such as parking and toilets are limited. This has led to unfortunate incidents that include desperate tourists turning the graves of Iceland’s greatest poets into an impromptu bathroom. Less gross but also less forgivable are tourists who drive off-road, damaging fragile landscapes and thus partly ruining the wildernesses that they have traveled so far to witness.
An Atlantic reader feels the irony:
When I first went to Iceland in the ‘60s it was not unusual to find attractions like Gullfoss to be virtually free of visitors. In contrast, on my most recent visit, lines of people shuffled past key spots with just enough time to get their selfie. Now I am sorry that I kept telling everyone just how great Iceland is.
William Edward Mead, writing about Iceland’s literary culture, was shocked at the barrenness of the landscape, finding it distinctly “unfavorable … to literary fertility” and other scholarly pursuits. “The country is little better than a desert,” he wrote. “People with so little to make life attractive might be pardoned if they were to sink into a stolid indifference to everything but the struggle to keep alive.” Yet the beauty of such harsh, isolated country is also evident in his description:
The only inhabitable portion is a narrow strip of pasture land extending like a green girdle round the coast and up the deep, narrow fiords. The interior of the country is a howling waste of sand and ice, traversed by darting glacier rivers, and utterly incapable of supporting more than a few scattered inhabitants. […]
The farmhouse where I spent more than a fortnight [is] distant a day’s ride on horseback from Reykjavik. Behind the house rises a naked, precipitous ridge of basalt, a quarter of a mile high, sweeping in a magnificent unbroken curve from the bold headland that juts into the sea to the upper waters of the Laxá. Before the house stretches the long, narrow fiord, swarming with sea-birds that circle endlessly about the double cascade foaming down from the river into the sea.
It’s a place that takes its romance from its solitude—and Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden, who visited Iceland in 1936, captured that lonely beauty in his poem “Journey to Iceland.” Iceland, to Auden, with its “sterile immature mountains” and “abnormal day,” is a place for travelers who want to reject the world—a kind of alternate reality, whose purity rubs off on people.
For Europe is absent: this is an island and therefore
Unreal. And the steadfast affections of its dead may be bought
By those whose dreams accuse them of being
Spitefully alive, and the pale
From too much passion of kissing feel pure in its deserts.
Auden later revised that stanza to read “this is an island and therefore / A refuge”—a small change, but a telling one. After all the only truly solitary journeys are imaginary ones; the mind is the most isolated country of all; and the best place to get away from people, tourists or otherwise, may be the refuge of your own thoughts. As Auden closed his poem:
Again the writer
Runs howling to his art.
You can read the full text of “Journey to Iceland” (or listen to Auden reading it) here, and you can see some of its sights for yourself:
A reader, Dave, responds to Rosa’s note with some fond reflections on Iceland:
It is hard to capture just how big and beautiful it all is. We hiked, drove, and mountain biked (with an emphasis on mountains), around Iceland. We saw fields of basalt with sharp-edged mountain ridges that seemed to be made of a single solid rock, covered in moss. We saw tens of thousands of acres with a single tiny road in, one out, and no other sign of humanity: no telephone poles, lines, pavement, agriculture, litter. We came upon waterfalls that would be the wonder of any Colorado resort town but are unnamed, flowing over unnamed ridges into unnamed basins.
Coincidentally one of my friends is currently in Iceland and just posted several photos and videos of waterfalls, including this one:
Then there is the water. It is a force of nature, wonder, energy, and culture in Iceland. It rains, then pours down into rivers, makes up the glaciers, and is heated by ingenious people, then piped by above ground aqueducts into the towns, where it heats lovely, neat homes. And it heats public pools that make your college gym look like a swamp puddle. These heated pools and saunas were worth the trip entirely.
And the water tastes like water; in many places you can drink it from the basin of that waterfall. When we came home, our filtered water tasted of metal and chemicals.
Then there are the miscellaneous: A jewel of a city, Reykjavik, where you can eat fish, horse, shark, and whale. Or have great Pakistani, decent Ramen, and awesome bread, and go to bars, nightclubs, coffee shops, stores of all kids. It’s the smallest biggest city outside Reno, full of Brits, French, Germans, Japanese, and Americans. And the natives: fun and lighthearted, but intellectually curious and fearless. Seemingly they are all industrious, beautiful, individualist and possessing what I'd call an American spirit.
For these and other reasons, if you ever get the chance to go: go.
Another reader who went is Rebecca Zicarelli, and her dispatch and photos will make you want to follow in her wake:
We just got back from Iceland. It’s a beautiful place.
Iceland is the newest landscape; it’s where the North American and Eurasian continental plates recycle back to the raw stuff at the heart of our planet. It’s also the oldest modern culture (if the rule of law is your metric of modernity), based on an agreement in the year 930 that just happened to be signed where the walls of this continental-plate collision rear out of the ground.
This photo is in Þingvellir, a national park where that government of rule-of-law was formed, looking down through the wall of the North-Atlantic plate the to the crack between continents and the plain where modern culture was born:
It’s a landscape of rocks thinly covered by moss, lichen, and small shrubs and trees. Besides the lifting of continental plates into mountains, the dominate feature is the seabed floor and volcanic rock eroding back into the ocean. The delicate landscape won’t survive too many footsteps.
Antiquities won’t survive, either. At dinner one night, a man who makes his living as an Iceland-adventure guide entertained his clients at the next table, and he spoke of this and the Icelandic distaste of saying, “No, don’t do this.” It’s a national ethic of being good stewards of the land, and one I loved. It was certainly lacking in the sign pollution that litters our national treasures proclaiming drug-free zones and don’t litter and don’t park and no dogs allowed and gun-free zone and on and on …
Laugarvatnshellar, a protected cave dug into the sand-stone/basalt layers in the south, is on the road between Þingvellir and Laugarvaten, and a likely stop on a Golden Circle tour. While Laugarvatnshellar was mostly used as a shelter for sheep and their shepherd (the cave has two rooms), families have made it a home as recently as the 1940s. Being here unsettles the soul; it’s easy to imagine being here alone through the dark winter or isolated here in the brief summer. There appear to be centuries of carvings inside the cave, and the urge to leave your mark on the wall is powerful.
But tourists aren’t such good house guests; they don’t have the Icelandic stewardship ethic, and easily give in to temptation to leave a mark. The tender moss is often trampled. At Laugarvatnshellar, centuries of carved runes and the slow-growing lichen that covers the walls are being scrapped off and replace with English-alphabet letters, cute hearts, and smiley faces:
There’s also a wool shortage now, created by the high demands of knitting tourism. I admit to participating; I was drawn there because of the wool industry, and I brought back a suitcase full of wool.
Keldur, the Viking heart of Iceland that lies in the plain south of Mt. Hekla, the volcano that shut European airports down in 2010, you’ll find the oldest buildings. Equally obvious, if you stop at the forest nursery before Keldur, is the massive effort to repopulate the landscape with trees and and hold back the eroding basalt with stone walls, you can read the fascinating story here; a Google Books chapter called “Tackling the Ubiquitous Wind.”
There are still lambs here, jumping over the stone walls used to hold back the desert of eroding sandstone and crumbling basalt. But the wind and the water are winning, and I question how Iceland can hold both her plants and the weight of our footsteps without instilling a better sense stewardship her visitors.
My last image is a new lamb, just a few days old, and its mother in front of one of the newer buildings in ancient Keldur—the church (part of that 930 agreement made Iceland a Christian nation, and the churches of each village are supported by the government).
Rebecca has more photos on her Tumblr. If you have your own anecdote from Iceland to share, please let us know (especially if you have a good photo from an airplane). Update from another reader, Matt, with fond memories of proposing marriage in that magical land:
I don’t have any pictures to share, as my (now) wife and I were in Iceland in September of 2000 before the advent of digital photography. She is involved in genetics and was in Reykjavik for work, where I met her for a few days.
I was immediately struck by the drastic changes in landscape in Iceland. You land at Keflavik, in the middle of a wasteland of volcanic rock, and a golf course is the only oasis of green you’ll see between the airport and Reykjavik. But when you arrive in Reykjavik you get the quintessentially neat, multi-colored homes of Iceland. Travel just a bit further to the east and you’re treated to the greenest pastoral hills and valleys you can imagine, many with sheep and Icelandic ponies scampering over them to add to the Shire-esque feel.
Our first full day together we went to the Blue Lagoon, where I proposed and she accepted. Our second day we hiked up the Reykjadalur trail north of Hveragerdi, where we passed bubbling pools of gray mud along a steaming river. At the northern end we heard the sound of a freight train passing, only to finally round a bend and see that it was a column of steam issuing from the side of hill.
Seriously, it’s like wandering from one dreamscape to the next, all shepherded by the nicest, handsomest people on the planet.
We’ve spent some time in this space praising Iceland and its precious natural wonders. But it isn’t all fun and Northern lights up there: A reader named Ellen Girardeau Kempler sends over a hilarious satirical essay she wrote poking fun at the country’s tourism boom. Kempler spent some time in Iceland for a writer’s retreat, prompting her to provide “my reaction to the relentless marketing machine behind the branding of Iceland as a tourist destination.”
Author’s Disclaimer: Brand Iceland is a tame and tourist-friendly destination created purely for marketing purposes. Any resemblance to the actual country of Iceland—home to a UNESCO City of Literature; a parliamentary system over 1,000 years old; a written history (as told in the Icelandic sagas) marked by battles with the elements and each other; and some of the planet’s wildest and most dangerous landscapes (including scalding geysers, pools and rivers; deadly rip currents; active volcanoes; yawning crevasses; unstable glaciers; moving tectonic plates; sheer, windswept cliffs; slippery mountain trails; volatile weather; and violent waterfalls)—is purely coincidental.
The advertising onslaught begins as soon as you board an Icelandair jet and plug your own headset into the entertainment console (conveniently available for purchase, in case you forgot). Before every movie, television show or musical selection begins, you’ll learn about souvenirs and tours you MUST buy. To promote the airline’s winning strategy of letting visitors stay in Iceland for up to seven days on their way to other destinations, you’ll be asked to follow them and tag your photos #MyStopover for a chance to be featured in the in-flight magazine.
Landing at Keflavik, you’ll spot familiar faces staring seductively from walls and shop windows, like the breathless, pale siren who whispers in the video ads, “Gee-SSSyr” (geysir—both the Icelandic word for geyser and the name of a clothing company). You’ll see highly enhanced, billboard-sized images of the moss-covered lava fields, blue-white glaciers, steaming geysers and soaking pools, rainbow-draped waterfalls, black sand beaches, bird-inhabited cliffs, glistening ice lagoons, shaggy horses, comical puffins, turf-covered houses, elfin-sized doors, shimmering Auroras and glowing (but never threatening) volcanoes you probably already recognize from such movies and television shows as Game of Thrones, Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and many more.
Welcome to Brand Iceland, the destination marketing invention that powered a sparsely populated, mostly rural, rocky, windswept, northerly and geologically unstable island out of a paralyzing 2008 economic crisis. With a total population about the size of Cincinnati, Ohio, occupying an area about the size of the state of Kentucky, the island should have room for a high-powered tourist economy.
According to an April 2016 Businesswire report, tourism in Iceland has increased steadily over the last six years, and rose by 30 percent, to almost 1.3-million visitors, in 2015 alone. Visitation is projected to reach 1.7-million, or five times its resident population, in 2016. Tourism now nets more revenue for Iceland than fishing, its leading industry since Viking settlement over 1,000 years ago.
At about $1,000 Icelandic krona to every $8 U.S. dollars, bills add up fast. It’s not unusual to spend $50 for two beers and an appetizer during half-off happy hour pricing. In Brand Iceland’s capital city, my husband almost dropped his phone calculating the cost of a down jacket (cunningly crafted in the flattering, ultra-thin Icelandic style). It was $325.
If you opt to visit the tourist-mobbed Blue Lagoon resort, you’ll wait in line to pay about $40 for the standard, towel-free package, then receive an electronic wristband that opens and closes your locker and keeps track of extra-expensive charges throughout your visit (drinks, smoothies, food, massages). Even the wild, unpopulated and remote southern tip of the country is filled with shops hawking sweaters in traditional patterns, artfully loomed blankets, stylish bohemian knitwear and cosmetics made by a spa with a mysterious blend identified only as “Icelandic herbs.”
Over our ten-day stay for the Iceland Writer’s Retreat, we debated about what to bring back for dog sitters and family. We finally settled on bags and bars of licorice and chocolate, local porter (only available in six-packs), Brenivin (cumin-flavored Aquavit), a Viking-themed stainless steel cake cutter (made in China), lava earrings and photo books.
As we waited for our plane home, a young woman stood snapping price tags in the duty-free. “Now my sister will understand why I didn’t buy her anything,” she said. “She might even be proud of me for resisting.”
In case you don’t give in to touristic temptation as you tour the “Land of Fire and Ice,” most of the wildly expensive items you’ve seen along the way can be purchased online and delivered to your seat during your flight home. As is routine in this almost cashless society, an Icelandair flight attendant/salesperson will happily charge them to your credit card, along with the meal you are obliged to purchase en route. You won’t even think about the price for three weeks, until your shock-of-a-bill arrives.
When I spent two nights in Iceland last year on a unplanned layover, I could not believe the prices. Because it was such a short visit, I’d failed to do much research ahead of time, instead letting the exchange rate catch me off guard. At one point, I grabbed a bite at what seemed to be a middle-of-the-road restaurant in downtown Reykjavik, only to later find out the lunch entrée cost twice as much as I anticipated—$35. Ouch.
I’m glad I got the brief chance to see Iceland, despite the high prices. The country’s scenery is every bit as alien and incredible as the hype makes it out to be. Just beware, young travelers. I quickly filed Iceland on my list of “places to visit again when I am older and have more discretionary income.”
Have a similar experience? Say hello. This reader did: “Apparently you can take Iceland Air to London with a 48 hour Icelandic pass, enough time to see some cool stuff and drink moss schnapps.” Here’s something cool he did, hopefully not with moss schnapps:
The rumors began with a video depicting a black-clad figure in the group’s signature Guy Fawkes mask. “Greetings, citizens of the United States,” the figure said in a creepy, distorted voice. “This is a message from Anonymous to the Minneapolis Police Department.” The masked announcer addressed Floyd’s killing and the larger pattern of police misconduct, concluding, “We will be exposing your many crimes to the world. We are legion. Expect us.”
The clip generated a wave of renewed enthusiasm for Anonymous, particularly among young people. Twitter accounts associated with the group saw a surge of new followers, a couple of them by the millions.
Boris Johnson has faced his share of blame for the country’s death count. But the British system was failing long before the coronavirus struck.
Faced with the coronavirus pandemic, Britain’s leaders asked their people to do three things, captured in one pithy slogan: “Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.”
On the first of those edicts, Britons largely followed through. Main streets, town centers, and public spaces were mostly abandoned, and the government pulled together a far-reaching job-protection program, ensuring that those who feared losing their jobs felt safe enough to not go to work.
The second request was more unusual. During the pandemic, Britain was the only major country in the world to make protecting its National Health Service a central goal. Signs and placards went up outside people’s homes, declaring their appreciation. The words Thank You NHS can now be seen on sidewalks and soccer jerseys, in children’s bedrooms and even, until recently, the windows of 10 Downing Street. In part, this worked. The NHS adapted to the crisis at extraordinary speed, creating the emergency capacity required to deal with the surge of patients. When Prime Minister Boris Johnson was released from the hospital after contracting COVID-19, he said that Britain was winning its battle against the disease because the public had “formed a human shield around this country’s greatest national asset,” the NHS.
Biden’s running mate is two decades younger than he is; the potential vice presidency seems like merely a first step.
If Joe Biden is elected in November, his presidency will likely be defined by history-shaping decisions made after long, deliberative, some might say operatic processes. Biden’s selection of Senator Kamala Harris of California as his running mate—the first woman of color to appear on a major-party ticket—was precisely that sort of careful, drawn-out decision.
Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, says that Biden’s selection of a half-Indian, half-Jamaican woman shows that Biden is running a very different campaign than Donald Trump. “In the selection of a vice president, he’s created a deep contrast between the pettiest of men and a man who obviously has no pettiness within him,” Tanden told me, minutes after Harris was announced.
Which is too bad because we really need to understand how the immune system reacts to the coronavirus.
Updated at 10:36 a.m. ET on August 5, 2020.
There’s a joke about immunology, which Jessica Metcalf of Princeton recently told me. An immunologist and a cardiologist are kidnapped. The kidnappers threaten to shoot one of them, but promise to spare whoever has made the greater contribution to humanity. The cardiologist says, “Well, I’ve identified drugs that have saved the lives of millions of people.” Impressed, the kidnappers turn to the immunologist. “What have you done?” they ask. The immunologist says, “The thing is, the immune system is very complicated …” And the cardiologist says, “Just shoot me now.”
The thing is, the immune system is very complicated. Arguably the most complex part of the human body outside the brain, it’s an absurdly intricate network of cells and molecules that protect us from dangerous viruses and other microbes. These components summon, amplify, rile, calm, and transform one another: Picture a thousand Rube Goldberg machines, some of which are aggressively smashing things to pieces. Now imagine that their components are labeled with what looks like a string of highly secure passwords: CD8+, IL-1β, IFN-γ. Immunology confuses even biology professors who aren’t immunologists—hence Metcalf’s joke.
The senator from California seems like the obvious choice to be Joe Biden’s running mate. So why is she keeping mum about her thinking?
A few weeks ago, an adviser to Kamala Harris called me to talk through some polling data. “We understand that Joe Biden’s the nominee, but the party is so much different than a septuagenarian white male,” the adviser said. “Kamala Harris is more symbolic of that changing America—America coming together—than some of the other potential candidates” for vice president.
The adviser spoke on the condition of anonymity because, officially, Harris is pretending that she’s not campaigning to be Biden’s running mate.
In public, Harris has repeatedly insisted that she’s not talking about or thinking about her prospects of being picked. But judging from my conversations with people around Harris, she and her team use her prospects to book events and television hits that aim to show she’s neither overeager nor overambitious. She and her team are avoiding situations that could create stumbles. They’re hoping that her résumé, her background, and the force of her personality propel her. They’re picking specific moments for her to grab attention on the Senate floor or send a calibrated tweet. They’re tuning out political reporters who are stuck on their couches, looking to drum up content during the pandemic. They’re trying to ease concerns in Biden’s orbit that if she’s picked and they win, she’ll start running for president the morning after the inauguration. They want her on the ticket, and positioned to be the Democratic nominee in 2024.
In attacking her record on crime policy, her critics are ignoring how politics actually works.
The racial-justice movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd has had two quite different effects on Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. It has intensified the pressure on Biden to choose a Black woman as his running mate. And it has also intensified the pressure on him to choose a running mate with a history of challenging police brutality. Those two political imperatives are now colliding in the debate over whether Biden should pick Senator Kamala Harris—a former prosecutor whom some progressives in California have characterized as too deferential to police.
Biden had previously vowed to choose a female running mate, and the typical vice-presidential pick is a senator or governor. Harris is the sole Black woman in either category. In one sense, therefore, she clearly benefits from the new political reality that the Black Lives Matter movement has created. But that new political reality has also amplified criticism from progressives. In yesterday’s New York Times, the reporters Danny Hakim, Stephanie Saul, and Richard A. Oppel Jr. quoted David Campos, a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, who argues that when Harris “had the opportunity to do something about police accountability” as the city’s district attorney, “she was either not visible, or when she was, she was on the wrong side.” Criticisms like these, the Times notes, have led progressives to ask: “Is Ms. Harris essentially a political pragmatist, or has she in fact changed?”
A long obsession with Mars makes all the other worlds seem a little neglected.
Paul Byrne loves Mars. He wrote his doctoral thesis and several research papers about the planet. Most of his graduate students study Mars. And yet, earlier this year, he posed this question on Twitter: “If you could end the pandemic by destroying one of the planets, which one would you choose and why would it be Mars?”
What does Byrne, a planetary scientist at North Carolina State University, have against the red planet? Nothing, he told me. But everyone else loves Mars too, and maybe a little too much.
Aside from Earth and the moon, humankind has studied Mars more than any other world in the universe. In the United States, many planetary scientists are devoted, in one way or another, to the study of Mars. Since 1996, NASA has sent more than a dozen robots to orbit, rove, dig, and hop around the planet. The latest NASA rover, Perseverance, departed for Mars in July, days after China and the United Arab Emirates launched their own missions to the planet.
Short of an outright constitutional crisis, a lot could still go horribly wrong.
A brazen refusal by the president to leave office is surely a nightmare scenario. But even if President Donald Trump were to lose and accept the results on November 3 or soon thereafter, he could nevertheless wreak significant damage during the period between the election and the inauguration of Joe Biden—endangering the incoming administration, at best, and actively sabotaging it, at worst.
Presidential transitions are perilous even in normal times. With each inauguration of a new president every four to eight years, the executive branch undergoes a massive overhaul; more than 4,000 new political appointees flood into federal departments and agencies, including 1,200 senior officials who require Senate confirmation. The minute a new president is sworn in, his administration assumes responsibility for everything from nuclear launch codes to pandemic response, economic policy, and counterterrorism—at the very moment when the government’s capacity is most diminished. At the Defense Department alone, the nation’s largest employer and perhaps the world’s most complex organization, the top 59 senior civilian leaders, from the secretary of defense on down, are political appointees requiring Senate confirmation. A private-sector company would be crazy to emulate this approach, yet the security, the health, and the prosperity of Americans depend on its success.
No matter what happens now, the virus will continue to circulate around the world.
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has sickened more than 16.5 million people across six continents. It is raging in countries that never contained the virus. It is resurgingin manyof the ones that did. If there was ever a time when this coronavirus could be contained, it has probably passed. One outcome is now looking almost certain: This virus is never going away.
The coronavirus is simply too widespread and too transmissible. The most likely scenario, experts say, is that the pandemic ends at some point—because enough people have been either infected or vaccinated—but the virus continues to circulate in lower levels around the globe. Cases will wax and wane over time. Outbreaks will pop up here and there. Even when a much-anticipated vaccine arrives, it is likely to only suppress but never completely eradicate the virus. (For context, consider that vaccines exist for more than a dozen human viruses but only one, smallpox, has ever been eradicated from the planet, and that took 15 years of immense global coordination.) We will probably be living with this virus for the rest of our lives.
Saudi leaders have figured out what makes the president tick like few others have.
The joke, a throwaway quip, somehow captured the man and the moment—the end of one era, and the beginning of another. It was January 2017, and then–British Prime Minister Theresa May was in the White House, the first foreign leader to visit the new president of the United States, Donald Trump. For May, the trip had gone well: Pleasantries had been exchanged, faux pas avoided, commitments to NATO and the special relationship gleaned. Then came the press conference.
“Mr. President,” the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, called on by May, began, “you’ve said before that torture works; you’ve praised Russia; you’ve said you want to ban some Muslims from coming to America; you’ve suggested there should be punishment for abortion. For many people in Britain, those sound like alarming beliefs. What do you say to our viewers at home who are worried about some of your views and are worried about you becoming the leader of the free world?” A momentary silence followed. Smiling, Trump turned to his guest: “This was your choice of a question?” The room burst into laughter. Then came the punch line: “There goes that relationship.”