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Join us in this summer for a life changing experience as we explore Iceland to study Arctic ecosystems and global change.  Iceland, referred to as the land of fire and ice, is situated on the edge of the Arctic Circle.  Despite its high latitude and being one of the eight Arctic Nations, the country has a relatively mild climate that is largely influenced by the Gulf Stream. Iceland’s awe-inspiring landscape is decorated with lava fields, geysers, jagged mountains, fjords, glaciers, and miles of rugged coastline that support diverse biological communities.  Large populations of seabirds, fish, and marine mammals are prolific along the coast, while the terrestrial environment is home to the Arctic Fox and hundreds of species of native plants.  Iceland also has a rich Nordic culture that dates back to the early 9th century with traditions and a language that have remained relatively intact for hundreds of years.  From learning about early Viking settlements to discussing how modern Icelandic society is pioneering renewable energy and sustainability, students will be immersed in a culture that will inspire them to engage in critical conversations about the importance of Arctic ecosystems to our global well-being.  By the end of the program, students will have gained a deep understanding of Iceland’s unique physical and biological characteristics, how the country is navigating the challenges associated with climate change, the importance of ecosystem monitoring to properly inform environmental policy, and depart with a lasting respect and deep appreciation for Iceland’s unique culture and environment.

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Background Information

Iceland has a dramatic landscape and fascinating culture that have been shaped by the island’s geographical location—directly on top of the mid Atlantic ridge at the edge of the Arctic Circle.  Due to its unique position on the ridge, Iceland is considered to be geologically young with an average of 20-25 volcanic eruptions per century.

 Iceland’s active geologic landscape has given rise to striking coastlines and cliffs that provide nesting grounds for numerous species of birds, recent lava flows that provide substrate for early colonizers, and geothermal features that are decorated with colorful bacteria.  In addition to Iceland’s impressive geology, the latitude of the country, just a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle, make this country a land of extremes.  Approximately 10% of the island is covered in glaciers, and the highlands and northern regions of the country are characterized by tundra.  Like the rest of the Arctic, Iceland is undergoing change at an unprecedented rate and the effects of warmer temperatures are already being felt.  As glaciers continue to melt and permafrost thaws, the unique flora and fauna that thrive in this incredible environment will likely be threatened.

The fragile nature of this Arctic Island highlight the importance of research and monitoring efforts that can establish ecological baselines for biological and physical parameters.  Students who participate in the Iceland program will become skilled at identifying the flora, fauna, and geological features that characterize the Icelandic landscape, and they will have the rare opportunity to assist in Arctic research as part of a coordinated effort among the Arctic Nations to understand how high latitude environments will respond to a rapidly changing world.

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Program Goals and Activities

We have multiple goals for our Iceland Program. We will circle the island to learn about coastal and terrestrial ecosystems, participate in research, and engage with local communities and various stakeholders to understand pressing environmental challenges, conservation success stories, the connection between science and policy, and Icelandic culture.  Students will have the opportunity to participate in ecosystem monitoring and they will complete individual and group research projects.  We will be based out of field stations, national parks, mountain huts, and remote farms as we hone our skills as naturalists and learn through observation, discussions, journaling, and lectures.  The overarching themes that will be covered during the program are described below.

1) High Latitude Environments, Climate, and a Changing Arctic  

What flora and fauna exist in Iceland, and how are high latitude environments being impacted by global change?  Students will explore this question by studying glaciers, trekking across the tundra, and participating in ecosystem monitoring and research.  Using Iceland as a natural laboratory, students will learn how high latitude environments play a critical role in regulating the planet’s climate, why these ecosystems are sensitive to change, and the global implications of melting ice and the loss of tundra and permafrost. 

2) The Importance of Monitoring, Research, Collaborations, and Critical Thinking

How are monitoring efforts being coordinated and implemented across the Arctic Nations?  Why is marine debris a central theme that Iceland plans to focus on while it assumes the chairmanship role of the Arctic Council? Students will have the opportunity to spend extended periods of time at field stations that are part of the International Network for Terrestrial Research and Monitoring in the Arctic (INTERACT) network of research bases that are scattered throughout the Arctic. Students will assist with monitoring efforts and work in small groups to develop their own research projects, ask their own question, collect data, analyze results, and consult scientific literature.  Through active participation in the scientific process, coupled with field observations, unique wildlife encounters, and engaging with experts, students will learn to think like a scientist and gain skills of critical analysis.  

3) Icelandic Culture and Society: Past, Present, and Future

Who were the first settlers in Iceland? How has regional geography inspired Icelandic cultural traditions and beliefs? How will increasing tourism impact Icelandic culture? From the early colonization of the country to modern Iceland, a society that is navigating the challenges associated with climate change and a booming tourism industry, students will gain an in depth understanding of Iceland’s culture and society. Students will engage with local communities, study historical sites and museums, and become familiar with Icelandic traditions and sagas. 

4) Environmental Policy, Sustainability, Conservation, and Social Science

Will Iceland be able to recover from severe deforestation that occurred when the country was first colonized?  Will whaling continue to persist in the future?  How did the cod fishing industry become a model for sustainability? Questions pertaining to conservation challenges, environmental pressures, and sustainability will be discussed and analyzed.  Students will engage with stakeholders, critically analyze environmental policy case studies, and investigate the human element of environmental science by completing a social science project.

5) Energy and the Environment

How is energy being revolutionized in Iceland?  Students will learn about Iceland’s innovative geothermal and hydropower energy solutions and the country’s ambitious goals to become global leaders in renewable energy. 

No prior field research experience is required. All field methods and skills for data acquisition will be taught on this course. We expect students to have a positive and engaging attitude throughout the course. In exchange, they will be rewarded with an incredible experience, exploring a country whose unique culture has touched those who visit the country and whose ecosystems remain largely unexplored.

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Academic Credit

Students will receive 15 quarter credits/10 semester credits from Western Washington University. Our staff will be happy to explain the program in further detail to the applicant’s advisor, if necessary. This field studies program gives credit in three courses: 

ESCI 437A, Environmental Wildlands Studies (5 quarter credits/3.35 semester credits)
ESCI 437B, Environmental Field Survey (5 quarter credits/3.35 semester credits)
ESCI 437C, Wildlands Environment and Culture (5 quarter credits/3.35 semester credits)

Students will be evaluated on the basis of: 1) active participation in our learning process and activities; 2) examinations and other graded assignments; and 3) implementation and presentation of an independent research project.

Team members are expected to conduct themselves in a mature and responsible manner. Wildlands Studies reserves the right to require any student to withdraw from the program if their conduct is detrimental to or incompatible with the interests, safety or welfare of any course participants.  We ask all students to read the Student Program Manual before joining the program on-site.

 

Team Logistics

Participants will fly into Reykjavik and meet at Reykjavik Airport. If you are traveling in advance of the program, you can arrange to join the group at Reykjavik Airport when the recommended flight arrives at the airport. At the end of the program, you can decide whether you want to fly home on the scheduled date or remain in Iceland to travel on your own. 

All reasonable efforts will be made to follow the activities outlined above. However, please understand that on our program in Iceland, travel arrangements can remain tentative until the traveling actually takes place. Weather conditions, road closures, and other environmental considerations may affect our plans. Wildlands Studies has put together an innovative, unique program in Iceland, and team members need to be flexible, patient, and prepared to adapt to unexpected situations. Being flexible also allows us to take advantage of unique opportunities that inadvertently arise during our journeys, often producing some of the program’s most memorable moments.

 

Accommodations

Primarily camping. Occasional hostel, rural lodge, mountain hut or field research station.

 

Official Documents/Visa

You will need a current passport that does not expire until three months after the end of the program. No visa is necessary for our stay during the program.

 

Language

The course will be taught in English. 

 

Pre-Program Mailings

Detailed information regarding travel and visa information, equipment requirements, food costs, meeting plans, group expenses payment, medical and vaccination recommendations and academic preparations will be sent to all team members in a logistics letter emailed about 10-12 weeks before the start of the program.