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Searching for Life in Iceland’s Frigid Fissures

Every day last summer, Jónína Ólafsdóttir did the same thing. Early in the morning, she’d haul about 300 pounds of Scuba diving equipment into her car, then she’d drive out to Thingvellir National Park, one of Iceland’s many untouched places, about an hour’s drive north of Reykjavik. With her waterproof wetsuit, she’d plunge into the frigid water and descend to scrape samples of dirt off the walls into small canisters. An hour later, she’d surface with numb hands and purple lips. Then she’d drive back south to bring the samples to the lab.

Ebullient and soft spoken, Jónína doesn’t look like the toughest person you’ve ever met. But Jónína is Icelandic and Icelanders have a strength in their genes. “Do you want me to carry your gear?” she asks repeatedly to her research colleagues, and to us, a pair of visiting reporters. It’s tempting to say yes.

Jónína is a diver first. She found science second. She tells us that she’s at her best when she’s wearing both hats at the same time. Earlier this year, she started working on a research project to map the animals in Iceland. Iceland is cold and covered with thermal pools, so it doesn’t have many land creatures. What it does have are small arthropods, tiny invertebrates that thrive in the cold water of the Icelandic fissures. She received a grant last year from National Geographic to assemble a list of Iceland’s freshwater species.

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Photograph by Spencer Millsap

“When I started doing this research, I was amazed that no one had ever done it before,” she said one morning earlier this week as we drove to her favorite dive site. Iceland has a lot of research questions related to biology and geology that have never been answered, let alone even asked. “Iceland is a really great place for a scientist with an explorer’s heart,” she says.

For three days, Jónína showed us her research and her country. We dove with her in the frigid fissures, donning dry wetsuits for the first time. The water is about 35° F (2° C), the temperature right above freezing. “Your gloves will fill with water in the first few seconds, that’s inevitable,” she said. Without thinking too deeply about it, we suited up. We wanted to go underwater to see how she collects her data and what she does with it.

Ecologists are often asked why they might study one particular animal, especially a small one that has little impact on humans. Jónína’s answer goes like this: humanity might never be dependent on microscopic arthropods but understanding how animals work together, how they depend on each other holds lots more clues about an area’s environmental history—and its future. At the top of the world, seeing how species change and adapt may indicate what happens as the climate changes around the world.

It’s a compelling answer that requires lengthy research. Jónína has found a few hundred different species of arthropod. Perhaps even more interesting, she has found ways species differ between fissures. That speaks to the animals’ adaptability and evolution in different environments.

No matter how many species she maps, Jónína doesn’t have the time to survey every fissure in Iceland. There are thousands, and they’re getting bigger every day. Iceland sits atop a plate boundary—the one that separates North America and Europe. Just as your jacket zipper  comes apart when you unzip, Iceland is slowly being pulled apart, right down the middle. Jónína acknowledges how nerdy it must sound to be excited about plate boundaries, but she’s with like-minded company. If you stand in the right spot, you can essentially touch North America with one arm and Europe with the other.

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Photograph by Daniel Stone

Underwater, it’s clear why she wanted to make a career out of diving in freshwater. The water is a rich blue, and crystal clear. The sides of the caves are like canyons. If you can forget how cold the water is, the feeling is a little like floating in space—untethered and with nowhere to be.

“Are you cold?” Jónína asks every person in our foursome. We’re underwater, so she doesn’t actually say it. She gives the hand motion of rubbing her shoulders and then shrugging to see if we need to ascend. Both Spencer and I are colder than we’ve ever been, unable to feel our hands, unaware of whether our cameras are still recording, and oblivious to whether hypothermia has already set in. For some reason, I wiggled two fingers at her, the signal that we should keep kicking forward.” A few more minutes, I tell her. She connects her thumb to her index finger to say “okay,” and turns around, kicking water behind her.

Later on the surface she’ll show us how she processes the sample she’s collected. She’ll clean them off with water, then kill the tiny creatures to preserve them in ethanol. Back at the lab, she’ll go through every small sample under a microscope. She keeps a tally of the arthropods she finds, many of them in a smaller group known as amphipods. She’ll add them to her master list of species. There are hundreds, and presumably thousands, more to be found.

After 45 minutes under water, we arrived at the end of the fissure, a rock cliff in front of us. We swam past the “easy” place to get out of the water, she told us, so we’ll have to take the hard route back to the car, a long hike up rocky boulders. With steel oxygen tanks on our backs and in dripping wetsuits, we started up the hill. By the time we got to the top, we could see that Jónína had reached the car and loaded her gear. She was on her way back to carry ours.

Jónína Ólafsdóttir’s work researching life in Iceland’s fissures was sponsored in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society.