An Icelandic treasure hunt and a lesson in resilience

I went to Iceland in search of treasure. Not quite a pirate chest, but treasure of the scientific sort; rare granites in a country composed overwhelmingly of basalt. To help me in this I had a map, a geological one with orange dots in place of scrawled crosses to lead me to the granites. My hope was that tracking down these rocks and sampling them for analysis back at our cutting-edge labs would tell me whether the crust is juvenile and primitive throughout its depth or whether an ancient hidden continent lies underneath part of Iceland.

Organising the logistics took a lot of planning, but I started months in advance and encountered no major setbacks. So it was in high spirits that my field assistant and I flew out to Iceland, got hold of our hire car and set off along the route I had planned. We drove right across Iceland to my first orange dot, and lo and behold there was granite there and it was beautiful and everything was great.

Does it all sound a bit too good to be true?

Flash forward a few days to me standing in a windswept narrow gully in remote eastern Iceland. The stream frothed at my feet; the white heatless sun drew out vivid colours in the cliff that rose sheer and jagged from the churning water. I had travelled thousands of miles to see this granite, had crossed Iceland, had spent the morning edging our car across a gravel mountain pass and the afternoon hiking up a gully. I was finally standing in the right spot on my treasure map, with one thought painfully dawning on me as I looked at the rock.

It wasn’t granite.

A beautiful hike to some cool but unexpected rocks

This set the tone for the rest of the trip. Doggedly chasing the orange dots, I found myself standing in grassy fields with no rocks in sight; in a river looking at basalt; and perhaps most frustratingly at the bottom of half-kilometre high unstable scree slopes with rocks at the top which could well have been granite, but which were well out of my reach. I came up against chained gates festooned with warning signs; rocks so solid I could barely sample them, and others so crumbly they weren’t worth sampling; and a pack of very angry dogs.

In situations such as these it can be really hard to know what to do. And when you’re miles from civilisation, dripping wet, hungry, tired, and have already stumbled your way through a dozen misfortunes that day, it becomes even harder.

There isn’t a magic solution to all of this – or if there is, I haven’t found it yet. When the world doesn’t go along with your elegant research plans, your choices are to give up and cry or toughen up and laugh. I can safely say that my fieldwork in Iceland involved a lot of laughing!

What can you do when the road you wanted to follow is closed?

 

It didn’t stop with the fieldwork of course. For some reason I thought everything would just fall into place when I got my samples back to St Andrews, but I still had science to do. It seemed that every piece of equipment I needed broke just when I needed it, with a sad little beep or an impressive smoky bang. Several times through the summer it looked like, for all my hard work in the field, I might not get any quantitative data at all.

It’s amazing how things work out though. A chance encounter opened up the opportunity to use a different sort of analysis on my samples, and produced an intriguing, albeit inconclusive, dataset. A lot of persistence eventually did result my rocks getting powdered, so at the eleventh hour I did get some geochemical data. I also had the opportunity to melt some of my samples in the name of science, and making lava is, as you might expect, absolutely awesome.

I think the main thing I will take away from this research project is resilience to weather the low points of research, knowing that things can turn on a sixpence and opportunities can fly up from nowhere if you explore all avenues available to you, make the most of what you’ve got, and stick at it.

I would like to take the opportunity to thank Lord Laidlaw and everyone involved in organising this incredible scheme. It has been a very valuable experience and believe it or not, despite the bumps along the road (and the occasional lack of roads) I have enjoyed it immensely!

These guys decided to keep me company during one of my days in the field!

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