Nearly iceless Iceland and an icy island

By Phil Plait | October 12, 2012 7:00 am

Sometimes, you have to leave a planet to appreciate it.

I love pictures of Earth from space. They provide a perspective you just cannot get from the ground, or even from the air. For example, have you ever seen a nearly iceless Iceland?

[Click to enbjörkenate.]

This picture was taken by the European Space Agency’s Envisat satellite in July 2010 and is a rare shot of the island nation completely cloud-free. Since it was summer it’s nearly ice free as well, though you can see glaciers dominating some parts of the landscape (contrast this with one of my all-time favorite pictures of Earth from space, also of Iceland).

The blue-green swirls to the north are phytoplankton blooms – another favorite of mine when seen from space.

Half a planet away is another island, far smaller, that was also cloudless but this time encased in ice: South Gerogia Island off the coasts of South America and Antarctica, seen by the Terra satellite:

This picture was taken in late September, 2012, and the island is locked in by ice. You can see large icebergs floating nearby too. To give a sense of scale, both bergs are about 35 kilometers (roughly 20 miles) across. South Georgia Island is pretty rugged, with quite a few peaks over 2000 meters high and one at nearly 3000 meters (impressive for an island only about 150 km long).

When I saw the picture, I knew I had heard of the island, and the caption at the Earth Observatory site reminded me of how I knew it: Antarctic explorer Shackleton went there with a small number of men on an ailing lifeboat after his ship Endurance was crushed by the ice of Antarctica. He left most of his crew on Elephant Island after a harrowing trek across the ice, went to South Georgia Island, hiked across those ridiculously difficult peaks, got to a whaling station and set up a rescue mission for his men… which took months to be completed.

And get this: he didn’t lose a single man. Not one.

The story of Shackleton, the Endurance, and his men, is in my opinion the single greatest tale of exploration and adventure that has ever been recorded. Even reading an abbreviated timeline will chill you. Trust me: go find a book about this, settle down in a comfortable (warm!) spot, and read it. There are instances in history where the human spirit is uncrushable, unstoppable. This is one of those times, and will inspire you.

It’s that same spirit, in fact, that put our telescopes in the sky so we can better look at ourselves.

Image credits: ESA; Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (31)

  1. Chris

    Iceland is green and Georgia is covered by ice. Makes sense.

  2. Tom

    Double-plus-one on the Shackleton awe: the book he wrote on it (“South”) keeps getting reprinted for a good reason – it’s still one of the most thrilling things you can put on your bookshelf.

    Also striking sensible is his remark upon failing to reach the pole in 1909 (by just 100km) – “Better a live donkey than a dead lion”. His rival Robert Falcon Scott of course later reached the pole successfully (but still too late to beat Amundsen) and needlessly died on the return journey, having pushed too far.

  3. Rob Huddleston

    The Shackleton story is indeed inspiring, but I think the story of how Captain Bligh sailed over 2000 miles in an open life raft, losing only one man along the way, is even more spectacular. If you haven’t read “Men Against the Sea”, you really should. (Although it’s the second book in a trilogy, so you really ought to start with “Mutiny on the Bounty”.)

  4. South Georgia through the South Sandwich Islands traces a region of intense volcanic activity, large scale mammal and avian biological activity, oceanic higgledy-piggledyness (130 sverdrups of Antarctic Circumpolar Current veering north, given bottom topography, mixing into warmer waters) and intense politics. The Antarctic Treaty System is exemplary: if you so much as fart south of -60 latitude without paying prior tribute, you’ll be eviscerated. The wind is ferocious and neverending. Why are we not building Brobdingnagian installations of wind generators to gigawatt power more studies? Electrolyze the ocean for the hydrogen economy!

  5. Iceland has more green and Greenland has more ice, to drive the pun even further.

    Awesome to see some features of iceland which I visited. Makes you appreciate the scale: I can hardly see traces of Reykjavik, but I can see the floodplains in the south.

  6. I could not help but notice the beautiful greenness of the terrain constituting Iceland. If that is due to chlorophyll, therefore some photosynthetic organism, its a measure of how well pervasively life is adapted to colonise new habitats when these become available.

  7. Gary Ansorge

    3. Andrew Planet

    …and all this life affects the color of our planet. Which gives us clues we can seek on other planets, far, far away…

    GAry 7

  8. Sheldonc

    The story of Shackleton is amazing. And Phil, you crack me up. “Click to enbjörkenate” indeed.

  9. Martin Bonner

    “went to South Georgia Island,” – that’s the executive summary. The longer version is “sailed in an open boat across nearly a 1000 miles of the stormiest ocean in the world, aiming at a target about 100 miles longs using nothing more than compass and sextant”.

    Shackleton is my hero. “For scientific discovery give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” — Sir Edmund Hillary

    The tragedy is that when they eventually got back to Britain, the majority of his team ended up dying in the trenches.

  10. WillN

    Endurance, by Alfred Lansing is the best telling of the tale, but The Endurance by Caroline Alexander has the Hurley photographs, which are stunning.

    Headed to Iceland next spring and I’m already excited for it!

  11. Jessica

    “enbjörkenate” is my new favorite

  12. Chris

    @3 Andrew Planet

    Yes Iceland has plants. It’s not a frozen wasteland. It is a small island surrounded by water and the gulf stream passes nearby, so the temperatures are not that bad. A quick look at the winter temperatures shows that the average is actually warmer than Chicago in January and February!

  13. Cletus

    The (e-)book on the trip is available free at

  14. F16 guy

    Greenland is full of ICE and,

    Iceland is full of GREEN.

    Here’s a description of how they got their names:

  15. Ray

    @6 Chris

    The name Iceland has an interesting history. In Old Norse it was Island and meant bascially ice+land, which is how many places were named in Old Norse; they named many places after what they saw. The Old Norse word for island was “ey” and you see that today in the Orkney Islands, which was named after the norse Orcn (seals) and ey (island).

    Similarly, most people think Greenland was named by Erik the Red to trick people into coming there. Greenland at the time really was green (along the coast and up the fjords), and in some ways nicer than Iceland.

  16. kat wagner

    In a geology class we learned Iceland is green and Greenland is icy. That’s how Iceland keeps the riffraff out. Kinda how living 5 miles off the hiway on a dirt road is. Was. The county paved the road with recycled asphalt from the airport and now all these 4-wheeler yahoos come out this way but without the dust cloud behind them.

  17. Janet Ward

    I have told the Shackleton story to many, many people, but you really need to sit down and read Endurance to appreciate what a singularly amazing feat that rescue was. He walked across those icy mountains without snowshoes or boots!

  18. As an afterthought, I hope someone is cataloguing all the new growth coming out where ice had a firm foothold before. We might find species that have lain dormant for thousands of years and might be useful to humans, including extremophiles.

  19. Mike

    Iceland gets its name from the Norse voyager Flóki Vilgerðarson, also known as Hrafna-Flóki which translates as Raven-Flóki. He settled in the North West of the island in the early summer and found excellent pasture, so he didn’t prepare for the very cold winter. When it arrived, he suffered greatly. Hiking up a nearby mountain he saw ice and snow in almost all directions and gave up in utter disgust. He returned back to Norway and said the place was worthless – so naming it Iceland (Ísland in modern Icelandic.

    Þórólfr, a fellow viking who travelled there with him in the same ship had a different impression. (Iceland). When he went back to Norway he talked about the rich pasture and how butter almost dripped off the grass. The vikings, being the sensitive folks they are, nicknamed him Þórólfr smjör (Thorolf Butter). He actually returned to the island with the first wave of settlers and lived there until his death.

    As for Iceland, in the summer months it may not get too warm (20-23C on a good day), but those long hours of daylight mean that almost all of the country is snow and ice free apart from the highest peaks and the glaciers. Which are in rapid retreat because of a rapidly warming climate. Within a couple of centuries the reason for Iceland getting its name might be something of a mystery to children.

  20. dessy

    There is an excellent recent book about the Golden Age of Antarctic Explorers called ‘Mawson and the Ice Men of the Heroic Age’ by Peter Fitzsimmons. It covers Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen and Mawson and the utterly outstanding feats of endurance they went through – especially as they were all there at the roughly same time.

    I HIGHLY recommend anyone with a passing interest in adventure or scientific discovery give it a read.

  21. James Harmer

    The reason for greenland getting it’s name will become more apparent as the climate warms back to what it was like a thousand years ago. The Viking colonies on Greenland were wiped out by the Little Ice Age, before that the valleys were green and fertile. Whether Greenland will become subtropical in a few years time remains to be seen…

  22. Dave Scruggs

    Shackelton had big brass balls that clanked when he walked. He’s the guy I would want when the chips were down.

    D. Scruggs
    Captain, Boulder Creek Fire

  23. I was fortunate to be able to visit South Georgia in 2009 as part of a trip wayyyyy down South – start here for a complete trip report with pictures –

    Antarctica is pretty cool (feeble pun attempted) to see … but if you ever get the chance to go, try real hard to do the “triangle” including the Falklands and South Georgia … as they are in many respects even more impressive.

    The Shackleton saga is truly amazing … perhaps men were just tougher back then. We actually do to hike the last part of it into the whaling station of Stromness – some pictures here –

    And Shackleton died (and was buried) in nearby Grytviken – we had a toast to “The Boss” at his grave … along with his great nephew Johnie Shackleton –

    Ditto what BA said … if you haven’t read one of the Shackleton books, DO IT … and it’s actually pretty cool to listen on books on tape which we checked out from the Boulder Library for a family road trip.

  24. Mark

    Phil, to say Shackelton didn’t lose a a single man on his expedition isn’t entirely correct. Read “Shackelton’s Forgotten Men” by Lennard Bickel for a true story of endurance and hardship of the crew that made the longest polar sledge (199 days) in history to resupply a party that would never come and waited on a rescue that took too long to come.

  25. Kristinn

    Great post, you can just barely make out my mother’s home town in northern Iceland. And Shackleton’s ‘South’ is one of the most amazing stories I’ve ever read.

    One extra bonus from the Endurance expedition is Frank Hurley’s photos from it, including some very early colour Paget plates. Some here:

  26. john

    @MatrinB most of Shackleton’s men survived the war
    Many of them signed on for his next expedition.
    I agree with all the book recommendations about the expedition and found the dramatization to be pretty decent too – though my reading of South suggests that they went through worse than the movie showed.
    The documentary is good too.
    The documentary includes the three mountaineers who traced Shackleton’s path with modern equipment but needed 3 days.

  27. Hedin

    Now try and do that with the Faroe Islands where I grew up. :) good luck Phil

  28. Hedin

    Og kvedjur til islendskar braedir fra Canada

  29. Jim

    just read it this year. Trust me – not a boring page. As usual, stories like this trump Hollywood every singe time. As I read the book, I just could not believe what these guys went through.

  30. Adrian Burd


    Mark (#24) is entirely correct. I’ve stood at the Cape Evans Hut and seen the anchor of the Aurora with its broken chain. Shackleton’s feats were definitely heroic, but he didn’t bring everyone home.


  31. Chris

    Wow… Am I the only one who sees a bear’s face in the phytoplankton bloom? 30 comments and nobody’s mentioned it! Maybe my imagination’s getting the better of me.


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