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Archive for the ‘Land of the Volcanoes’ Category

Iceland to keep hunting up to 2,130 whales over 5 years

February 23, 2019

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — Iceland’s whaling industry will be allowed to keep hunting whales for at least another five years, killing up to 2,130 baleen whales under a new quota issued by the government.

The five-year whaling policy was up for renewal when Fisheries Minister Kristjan Juliusson announced this week an annual quota of 209 fin whales and 217 minke whales for the next five years. While many Icelanders support whale hunting, a growing number of businessmen and politicians are against it due to the North Atlantic island nation’s dependence on tourism.

Whaling, they say, is bad for business and poses a threat to the country’s reputation and the expanding international tourism that has become a mainstay of Iceland’s national economy. “We risk damaging the tourism sector, our most important industry,” legislator Bjarkey Gunnarsdottir said, referring to the international criticism and diplomatic pressure that Iceland faces for allowing the commercial hunting of whales.

The Icelandic Travel Industry Association issued a statement Friday saying the government was damaging the nation’s “great interests” and the country’s reputation to benefit a small whaling sector that is struggling to sell its products.

“Their market for whale meat is Japan, Norway and the Republic of Palau,” the tourism statement said. “Our market is the entire globe.” Iceland’s Statistics Agency says tourism accounts for 8.6 percent of Iceland’s economic production. In 2016, tourism produced more revenue than Iceland’s fishing industry for the first time.

Iceland has four harpoon-equipped vessels, owned by three shipping companies reported to be running them at a loss or small profit. Last year, the industry killed 5 minke whales and 145 fin whales, according to the Directorate of Fisheries.

Since commercial whale hunting resumed in Iceland in 2006, whaling companies have never killed their full quota. As a result, it’s considered unlikely that all 2,130 whales will be killed under this policy.

The International Whaling Commission imposed a ban on commercial whaling in the 1980s due to dwindling stocks. Japan in December said it was pulling out of the IWC due to its disagreement with that policy. Iceland is still a member of the IWC.

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Iceland’s Northern Lights: Beautiful sight, risky drives

January 13, 2019

AKUREYRI, Iceland (AP) — Police in Iceland have a warning for visitors: Beware our roads in the winter. Spending a clear winter night under an Arctic sky lit up by spectacular streaks of color from the Northern Lights is an often-cited “bucket-list” experience among the reasons more people are visiting Iceland, especially its northern region.

The remote region on the edge of the Arctic Circle is one of the best places in the world to spot the colorful phenomenon. But police say many foreign visitors lack the experience and expertise to handle Iceland’s wintry road conditions. They are increasingly worried about visitors scanning the sky for the Northern Lights and not looking at the road, which may be icy, twisty or narrow — or all three conditions at once.

“The weather in Iceland changes every five minutes, so to speak, and road conditions change accordingly,” said superintendent Johannes Sigfusson of the Akureyri Police Department, the largest in the northern region. “In a matter of minutes, a dry road can turn icy and slippery.

“The risk is compounded in the middle of the night, when an inexperienced driver is deprived of sleep and with one eye on the sky.” Of the 18 people who died in traffic crashes in Iceland in 2018, half of them were foreigners, continuing a trend that started the year before, when more foreigners than residents died for the first time on this volcanic island in the North Atlantic.

The aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, occur when a magnetic solar wind slams into the Earth’s magnetic field and causes atoms in the upper atmosphere to glow. The lights appear quite suddenly and the intensity varies — the most amazing are bright green with streaks of purple and yellow.

Northern Lights sightings depend on a mix of luck and effort. The Icelandic Met Office operates a 9-scale Northern Lights forecast every day, based on solar winds in the past three days, that pinpoints the best spots in the country each night to try to see the lights. But traveling away from city lights is most often necessary, and that has led some drivers to take hazardous mountain roads.

Police say they have encountered sleep-deprived drivers cruising into the night, as well as vehicles driving without lights on to prevent light pollution. Police say some accidents even happen on main roads, when tourists hit the brakes quickly because of a sudden Northern Lights sighting and then get hit from behind.

It doesn’t help that, in Icelandic winters, the sun in Akureyri can rise as late as 11:39 a.m. and set as early as 2:43 p.m., meaning that tourists are spending most of their day driving in the dark. Authorities note that the capital, Reykjavik, Akureyri and other areas have tourism companies that offer nightly Northern Lights bus tours near-daily in the winter so tourists can leave the driving to professionals.

Iceland’s road infrastructure also lags behind its boom in international tourism. The national Road No. 1, which runs for 1,337 kilometers (830 miles) as it connects coastal towns and villages on this volcanic island of 350,000 people, still has narrow lanes and many one-lane bridges.

Last month, an SUV carrying seven British tourists plunged off a one-lane bridge on Road No. 1 in southern Iceland, killing three people and critically injuring the others. In the winter, tourists from warm countries — who may never have driven in snow and ice — have been more likely to get into accidents, according to the Icelandic Transport Authority.

“Driving on Icelandic winter roads it is tough. Definitely,” said Jeremy Tan, a financier from Singapore who was about driving his rental car half way around Iceland. “Dark roads and strong winds are something that I am not used to.”

He was parked at Godafoss, a landmark waterfall in northern Iceland, hoping that the clouds might pull the curtains on a winter Northern Lights show. The Icelandic Met Office’s Northern Lights forecast for that night listed their strength as “moderate” but Tan was prepared to wait, with warm cloths and snacks for the night.

But midnight passed without any signs of green, purple or yellow dancing lights above the horizon. The accuracy of aurora forecasting could soon improve, however. The Chinese Polar Research Institute is opening Iceland’s first-ever aurora research station in a remote valley about a half-hour drive from the northern town of Akureyri. The futuristic three-store building, set to go into operation later this year, is part of China’s broad ambitions in the Arctic.

Gunnlaugur Bjornsson, astrophysicist at the University of Iceland, is among the local scientists involved in project. Speaking to The Associated Press, he said much was still unknown about the Northern Lights and the vast electromagnetic system that unleashes them.

“Weather prediction is difficult. Aurora prediction is even more so,” he said. “We just have to wait and see, like with the earthquakes.”

Wired Icelanders seek to keep remote peninsula digital-free

September 06, 2018

HORNSTRANDIR, Iceland (AP) — The passenger boat arrives at the bottom of Veidileysufjordur, a short inlet with a long name, to drop off backpackers for a multi-day trek. A weather-beaten group that’s completed the trip waits to board, eager to get back to a part of Iceland where they can reconnect with the world via Wi-Fi.

By boat, that will take about a half-hour. No roads lead to the Nordic country’s northernmost peninsula, a rugged glacial horn that reaches for the Arctic Circle. Making a phone call requires walking up a mountain for a cell signal so weak, clouds seem capable of blocking it.

But internet service soon could be reaching the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, one of the last digital-free frontiers in what might be the world’s most-wired nation. The possibility has most hikers, park rangers and summer residents worried that email, news and social media will destroy a way of life that depends on the absence of all three.

“We see a growing appreciation for the lack of online connection,” Environment Agency of Iceland ranger Vesteinn Runarsson, who patrols the peninsula’s southern end on his own. “Looking to the future, we want to keep Hornstrandir special in that way.”

The area has long resisted cell towers, but commercial initiatives could take the decision out of Icelanders’ hands and push Hornstrandir across the digital divide. Companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX are racing to deliver high-speed internet service to every inch of the world by putting thousands of small satellites into low Earth orbit. Their success would have global implications, bringing the benefits and downsides of internet communication to places that are off the grid because of poverty or war, or where internet access is reserved for the wealthy.

That’s also true for sparsely populated communities and far-flung destinations in Canada, Russia, Alaska and elsewhere in the vast Arctic region, where broadband service generally is prohibitively expensive. Yet in Iceland, the prospect of constant connectivity has called up an old debate on whether Hornstrandir’s wilderness should stay unwired.

Despite or because of its remoteness, Iceland ranks first on a U.N. index comparing nations by information technology use, with roughly 98 percent of the population using the internet. Among adults, 93 percent report having Facebook accounts and two-thirds are Snapchat users, according to pollster MMR.

Many people who live in northwestern Iceland or visit as outdoor enthusiasts want Hornstrandir’s 570 square kilometers (220 square miles), which accounts for 0.6 percent of Iceland’s land mass, to be declared a “digital-free zone.” The idea hasn’t coalesced into a petition or formal campaign, so what it would require or prohibit hasn’t been fleshed out.

The last full-time resident of the rugged area moved away in 1952 — it never was an easy place to farm — but many descendants have turned family farmsteads into summer getaways. Alexander Gudmundsson, who vacations in the home where his great-grandmother grew up, doesn’t have to look far down the family tree to see the effect of digital devices: his teenage daughter refused to come to Hornstrandir this summer because it would mean not having online access.

“But once the kids are here, all they do is play outside,” Gudmundsson said. Northwest Iceland’s representative in parliament is less sentimental about the value of isolation. Since her election last year, Halla Signy Kristjansdottir has urged the Ministry of Transport to fund cell towers for the safety of sailors and travelers whose mobile devices currently are useless in and near Hornstrandir.

“I don’t see anything romantic about lying on the ground with a broken thigh bone and no cellphone signal,” Kristjansdottir said in an interview. In a written response to the lawmaker, Minister of Transport Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson noted that huts along the hiking trails are equipped with radiophones for emergencies. He defended the absence of digital connectivity in Hornstrandir as a factor in “advancing visitor’s experience.”

Police and rescue workers have suggested creating an illustrated map that marks the mountain summits with the strongest signals. The Environment Agency of Iceland estimates that 3,000 people trek through Hornstrandir every summer, moving from one fjord to the next. Some are rewarded with sightings of the arctic fox, Iceland’s only native land mammal. The few structures — abandoned farm houses and a decommissioned U.S. Air Force radar station — were abandoned decades ago.

When The Associated Press visited in August, the travelers interviewed there unanimously favored making the reserve a digital-free zone, though their notions of what that meant varied. “If phones worked here, I am sure many people would go as far as carrying battery packs to charge their devices,” said Mikko Ronkkonen, a hiker from Finland who had just completed an eight-day trip.

When Runarsson, who works as a police officer during the winter, wanted to ask the ferry captain about the next arrival, he took a short cairn-marked trail to the higher ground known locally as Telephone Mountain.

He walked in circles, as if searching for something on the ground. “One bar. Two bars,” he murmured with his eyes fixed on his phone. The bars quickly disappeared as the mountain shrugged off the faint signal.

“Maybe the clouds are interfering,” Runarsson said without a hint of frustration. “No phone calls today, I guess.”

Opposition erupts as Iceland eyes banning most circumcisions

February 25, 2018

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — Icelandic lawmakers are considering a law that would ban the circumcision of boys for non-medical reasons, making it the first European country to do so. Some religious leaders in Iceland and across Europe have called the bill an attack on religious freedom. It is seen as a particular threat by Jews and Muslims who traditionally embrace the practice.

Under the proposed law, the circumcision of boys — removing the foreskin of the penis, usually when the child is a newborn — would be viewed as equal to female genital mutilation and punishable by up to six years in prison.

“This is fundamentally about not causing unnecessary harm to a child,” said Silja Dogg Gunnarsdottir, lawmaker for the centrist Progressive Party, who introduced the bill this month. The proposed law calls circumcision a violation of human rights “since boys are not able to give an informed consent of an irreversible physical intervention.”

Circumcision is not common in Iceland, a small Atlantic Ocean island nation of 340,000 people that is overwhelmingly Lutheran or atheist, with an estimated 100 to 200 Jews and about 1,100 practicing Muslims.

The bill has eight co-sponsors but is considered unlikely to get a majority in the 63-seat Iceland parliament. It does not have the formal backing of any government ministers but has drawn the support of 422 Icelandic doctors who favor outlawing the 4,000-year-old religious practice.

They issued a joint statement Wednesday saying circumcision violates the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and also the physicians’ Hippocratic Oath that says: “First, do no harm.” “In Western societies, circumcision of healthy boys has no significant health benefits,” the doctors’ statement read, citing a 2013 paper in the American Academy of Pediatrics journal.

The American academy itself says the health benefits of the practice outweigh the risks but not by enough to recommend universal male circumcision. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says doctors should educate infant boys’ parents about the health benefits of circumcision, which it says reduces the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV.

Physician Eyjolfur Thorkelsson said the 422 signatures (a quarter of the country’s practicing physicians, based on numbers from the Icelandic Medical Association) were collected in just 48 hours. Since 2006, only 21 boys under the age of 18 have been circumcised at Icelandic hospitals or private clinics, according to Iceland’s Directorate of Health. The agency could not say how many were for religious reasons.

Thorkelsson said the surgical procedure is painful, and its possible complications are well known to Icelandic doctors since most go abroad for training at hospitals in northern Europe or the United States where circumcision is more common.

“For many doctors, it’s an uncomfortable request from parents,” he said. This view is not accepted in Jewish and Muslim communities. During Friday services at a prayer space above a home goods store, Imam Salmann Tamimi warned his multinational congregation about the proposed law.

“Circumcision is harmless if it’s done at a hospital,” he said. “This bill is appealing to people’s emotion, not evidence.” He said circumcision was important to Muslims but even more so to Jews. “This is an attack on all religion and especially Judaism,” he said.

Rabbi Avi Feldman of the Chabad Jewish Center, who last month became Iceland’s first permanent rabbi since World War II, says he hopes the bill does not become law. In a statement to the AP, he said circumcision is a core Jewish practice that serves as a bedrock of Jewish life.

He was hopeful that the “rights for people of all faiths will be preserved and respected.” Parliament is to continue the first reading of the bill in the next week. Legislator Gunnarsdottir said many male “victims” of circumcision had reached out to share their stories and seek support since she introduced the bill.

“It’s important for us as a society to discuss this,” she said. “The experience of many men who have had this done to their body without consent confirms that.”

New gold rush: Energy demands soar in Iceland for bitcoins

February 11, 2018

KEFLAVIK, Iceland (AP) — Iceland is expected to use more energy mining bitcoins and other virtual currencies this year than it uses to power its homes. With massive amounts of electricity needed to run the computers that create the precious bitcoins, large virtual currency mining companies have established a base in Iceland, a chilly North Atlantic island blessed with an abundance of renewable energy from geothermal and hydroelectric power plants.

The relatively sudden growth of the new industry has prompted Smari McCarthy, a lawmaker for Iceland’s Pirate Party, to suggest taxing the profits of bitcoin mines. The initiative is likely to be well received by Icelanders, who are skeptical of speculative financial ventures after suffering a catastrophic banking crash in 2008.

“Under normal circumstances, companies that are creating value in Iceland pay a certain amount of tax to the government,” McCarthy told The Associated Press. “These companies are not doing that and we might want to ask ourselves whether they should.”

The energy demand has developed because of the soaring cost of producing virtual currencies. Computers are used to make complex calculations that verify a running ledger of all the transactions in virtual currencies around the world. In return, the miners claim a fraction of a coin not yet in circulation. In the case of bitcoin, a total of 21 million can be mined, leaving about 4.2 million left to create. As more bitcoin enter circulation, computers need to get more powerful to keep up with the calculations — and that means more energy.

The serene coastal town of Keflavik on Iceland’s desolate southern peninsula has over the past months boomed as an international hub for mining bitcoins and other virtual currencies. Local fishermen, chatting over steaming cups of coffee at the harbor gas station, are puzzled by the phenomenon, which has spawned oversize construction sites on the outskirts of town.

Among the main attractions of setting up bitcoin mines here, at the edge of the Arctic Circle, is the natural cooling for the computer servers and the competitive prices for Iceland’s abundance of renewable energy.

Johann Snorri Sigurbergsson, a business development manager at the energy company Hitaveita Sudurnesja, said he expected Iceland’s virtual currency mining to double its energy consumption to about 100 megawatts this year. That is more than households use on the island nation of 340,000, according to Iceland’s National Energy Authority.

“Four months ago, I could not have predicted this trend — but then bitcoin skyrocketed and we got a lot more emails,” he said at the Svartsengi geothermal energy plant, which powers the southwestern peninsula where the mining takes place.

“Just today, I came from a meeting with a mining company seeking to buy 18 megawatts,” he said. At the largest of three bitcoin “farms” currently operating within Keflavik — called “Mjolnir” after the hammer of Thor, the Norse god of thunder — high metal fences surround 50 meter-long (164 foot) warehouse buildings stacked with computer rigs.

The data centers here are specially designed to utilize the constant wind on the bare peninsula. Walls are only partial on each side, allowing a draft of cold air to cool down the equipment. “What we are doing here is like gold mining,” said Helmut Rauth, who manages operations for Genesis Mining, a major bitcoin mining company. “We are mining on a large scale and getting the gold out to the people.”

Genesis Mining, founded in Germany, moved to Iceland in 2014 when the price of bitcoin fluctuated from $350 to $1000. Today, one bitcoin is valued at about $8,000, according to tracking site Coindesk, after peaking at almost $19,500 in December.

The currency took a hit in January when China announced it would move to wipe out its bitcoin mining industry, following concerns of excessive electricity consumption. Rauth said bitcoin should not be singled out as environmentally taxing. Computing power always demands energy, he argues.

“How much energy is needed for credit card transactions and internet research? Cryptocurrencies have the same global impact,” he said. In the capital, Reykjavik, some are more skeptical about bitcoin.

The last time Iceland was an international hub for finance, the venture ended with a giant bank crash, making the country one of the symbols of the 2008 global financial crisis. The political turmoil following the crash swept the upstart Pirate Party into Iceland’s parliament, where it currently holds 10 percent of seats.

Pirate Party legislator McCarthy has questioned the value of bitcoin mining for Icelandic society, saying residents should consider regulating and taxing the emerging industry. “We are spending tens or maybe hundreds of megawatts on producing something that has no tangible existence and no real use for humans outside the realm of financial speculation,” he said. “That can’t be good.”

Icelandic language at risk; robots, computers can’t grasp it

April 22, 2017

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — When an Icelander arrives at an office building and sees “Solarfri” posted, they need no further explanation for the empty premises: The word means “when staff get an unexpected afternoon off to enjoy good weather.”

The people of this rugged North Atlantic island settled by Norsemen some 1,100 years ago have a unique dialect of Old Norse that has adapted to life at the edge of the Artic. Hundslappadrifa, for example, means “heavy snowfall with large flakes occurring in calm wind.”

But the revered Icelandic language, seen by many as a source of identity and pride, is being undermined by the widespread use of English, both for mass tourism and in the voice-controlled artificial intelligence devices coming into vogue.

Linguistics experts, studying the future of a language spoken by fewer than 400,000 people in an increasingly globalized world, wonder if this is the beginning of the end for the Icelandic tongue. Former President Vigdis Finnbogadottir told The Associated Press that Iceland must take steps to protect its language. She is particularly concerned that programs be developed so the language can be easily used in digital technology.

“Otherwise, Icelandic will end in the Latin bin,” she warned. Teachers are already sensing a change among students in the scope of their Icelandic vocabulary and reading comprehension. Anna Jonsdottir, a teaching consultant, said she often hears teenagers speak English among themselves when she visits schools in Reykjavik, the capital.

She said 15-year-old students are no longer assigned a volume from the Sagas of Icelanders, the medieval literature chronicling the early settlers of Iceland. Icelanders have long prided themselves of being able to fluently read the epic tales originally penned on calfskin.

Most high schools are also waiting until senior year to read author Halldor Laxness, the 1955 winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, who rests in a small cemetery near his farm in West Iceland. A number of factors combine to make the future of the Icelandic language uncertain. Tourism has exploded in recent years, becoming the country’s single biggest employer, and analysts at Arion Bank say one in two new jobs is being filled by foreign labor.

That is increasing the use of English as a universal communicator and diminishing the role of Icelandic, experts say. “The less useful Icelandic becomes in people’s daily life, the closer we as a nation get to the threshold of giving up its use,” said Eirikur Rognvaldsson, a language professor at the University of Iceland.

He has embarked on a three-year study of 5,000 people that will be the largest inquiry ever into the use of the language. “Preliminary studies suggest children at their first-language acquisition are increasingly not exposed to enough Icelandic to foster a strong base for later years,” he said.

Concerns for the Icelandic language are by no means new. In the 19th century, when its vocabulary and syntax were heavily influenced by Danish, independence movements fought to revive Icelandic as the common tongue, central to the claim that Icelanders were a nation.

Since Iceland became fully independent from Denmark in 1944, its presidents have long championed the need to protect the language. Asgeir Jonsson, an economics professor at the University of Iceland, said without a unique language Iceland could experience a brain drain, particularly among certain professions.

“A British town with a population the size of Iceland has far fewer scientists and artists, for example,” he said. “They’ve simply moved to the metropolis.” The problem is compounded because many new computer devices are designed to recognize English but they do not understand Icelandic.

“Not being able to speak Icelandic to voice-activated fridges, interactive robots and similar devices would be yet another lost field,” Jonsson said. Icelandic ranks among the weakest and least-supported language in terms of digital technology — along with Irish Gaelic, Latvian, Maltese and Lithuanian — according to a report by the Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance assessing 30 European languages.

Iceland’s Ministry of Education estimates about 1 billion Icelandic krona, or $8.8 million, is needed for seed funding for an open-access database to help tech developers adapt Icelandic as a language option.

Svandis Svavarsdottir, a member of Iceland’s parliament for the Left-Green Movement, said the government should not be weighing costs when the nation’s cultural heritage is at stake. “If we wait, it may already be too late,” she said.

In world first, Iceland to require firms to prove equal pay

March 08, 2017

LONDON (AP) — Iceland will be the first country in the world to make employers prove they offer equal pay regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or nationality, the Nordic nation’s government said Wednesday — International Women’s Day.

The government said it will introduce legislation to parliament this month, requiring all employers with more than 25 staff members to obtain certification to prove they give equal pay for work of equal value.

While other countries, and the U.S. state of Minnesota, have equal-salary certificate policies, Iceland is thought to be the first to make it mandatory for both private and public firms. The North Atlantic island nation, which has a population of about 330,000, wants to eradicate the gender pay gap by 2022.

Social Affairs and Equality Minister Thorsteinn Viglundsson said “the time is right to do something radical about this issue.” “Equal rights are human rights,” he said. “We need to make sure that men and women enjoy equal opportunity in the workplace. It is our responsibility to take every measure to achieve that.”

Iceland has been ranked the best country in the world for gender equality by the World Economic Forum, but Icelandic women still earn, on average, 14 to 18 percent less than men. In October thousands of Icelandic women left work at 2:38 p.m. and demonstrated outside parliament to protest the gender pay gap. Women’s rights groups calculate that after that time each day, women are working for free.

The new legislation is expected to be approved by Iceland’s parliament because it has support from both the center-right government and opposition lawmakers. The government hopes to implement it by 2020.

Iceland has introduced other measures to boost women’s equality, including quotas for female participation on government committees and corporate boards. Such measures have proven controversial in some countries, but have wide support across Iceland’s political spectrum.

Viglundsson said some people had argued the equal-pay law imposes unneeded bureaucracy on firms, and is not necessary because the pay gap is closing. “It is a burden to put on companies to have to comply with a law like this,” he acknowledged. “But we put such burdens on companies all the time when it comes to auditing your annual accounts or turning in your tax report.

“You have to dare to take new steps, to be bold in the fight against injustice.”

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