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In summer 2018, our team will embark on our first program in Iceland to investigate the unique ecosystems, and diverse coastal and terrestrial life of this amazing northern island. From the active volcanic zones that power geothermal systems to the glaciers and fjords, the diverse landscape of Iceland is breathtaking. Team members will learn firsthand about the wildlife of Iceland, the environmental processes and ecological importance of the various biomes found here, and the human dimensions of conservation and sustainability. We will also emphasize conservation and management of marine and terrestrial species found in Iceland and the role of tourism in sustaining Iceland’s economy. Our journey will take us from the capital of Reykjavik up to the fjords, to coastal regions teeming with seabirds and marine mammals, into the interior where we will visit the ruins of ancient settlements and to the rapidly disappearing glaciers. Wide-ranging field experiences and interaction with scientists, farmers, and conservation organizations will give us a deep understanding of the diversity and complexity of Iceland’s ecosystems, conservation strategies, relationship with nature and how ecosystem services can shape an economy.

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Background Information

Settled by Viking explorers in the early ninth century, Iceland is often referred to as the land of fire and ice. This seemingly inhospitable land is brimming with life while emerging as a global leader in renewable energy and sustainability. 

During our program, students will receive an intensive introduction to flora and fauna, geology, landforms and the cultural history of Iceland. Despite its role as a global leader in sustainability, climate change is altering this fragile landscape with rapidly melting glaciers threatening the tundra ecosystem and the hydropower the country relies on for energy. Through intensive hands-on exercises team members will acquire new field method skills, investigate the fascinating island biogeography, unique species, and examine both the government’s role in protecting and restoring wildlands, and the roles that sustainability plays in Iceland’s economy. We will focus a substantial portion of our efforts on exploring how Iceland’s conservation areas are sustainably managed, and their significance as both an environmental and cultural shrines.

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Project Goals and Activities

To study the ecological diversity of Iceland, we will spend time in several unique areas. We begin first in the north, deep in the fjiords and home of the artic fox. Here we will work with the researchers to explore the ecology and behavior of one of Iceland’s iconic species. Students will conduct wildlife transects, make scientific observations, generate GPS-based spatial maps, and investigate the threats and impacts on these populations as well as the management policies for endangered species. 

Iceland has a long and complicated history with marine mammals. By spending time at the Seal Center in Hvammstangi and Whale Museum in Husavik, students will explore pinniped and cetacean ecology, whaling, and its importance in Icelandic history and culture. Team members will gain valuable field experience with seals, explore cultural museums, and visit and interview local hunters.  

Just north west of Reykjavik is a unique locale named Snaefellsnes National Park. This area, teaming with a variety of species, will provide abundant opportunities to study tidal pool biodiversity and seabird behavioral ecology (e.g., puffins and kittiwakes). Another focus of the program will be to evaluate the success of Iceland’s birch reforestation project. Massive in scope, our team will visit a small area at the base of Hafnarfjall mountain that is part of this effort. Field techniques in habitat assessment, tree measurements, spatial dispersion, and mapping will give students the opportunity to collect and analyze data for this important conservation project. With its close proximity to the Glanni waterfall and the river Norðurá, we will have the chance to study salmon ecology and explore volcanic sand beaches. 

As we journey eastward we will spend time in Thingvellir, the historical and traditional seat of the Icelandic Parliament for almost 900 years. This area forms the rift zone where the American and Eurasian continental plates drift apart. Established as a national park and national shrine in 1928, here we will undertake a comprehensive study of local geology, tectonic activity, speciation, and lake ecology. Fieldwork will focus on quantifying biodiversity, habitat specialization (trout, charr and sticklebacks), calculating species area curves, documenting the nesting ecology of great northern divers, and continuing to develop our mapping skills. We will read seminal scientific articles on these topics and explore how these concepts pertain to the ecology of Thingvellir through discussion, guest lectures and our personal field study experience. 

Throughout this course we will visit geothermal plants, local geothermal farms, fishing and whaling communities, and natural history and cultural museums. Students will engage with small-scale local Icelandic farmers on a personal level, observe sustainably technologies and learn about the cultural histories of different communities. Lectures and discussions on the natural and cultural histories of Iceland will serve to enhance our understanding of modern Iceland and its role as a leader in sustainability.

While climate change is impacting Iceland in a variety of ways, it is increasingly evident as glaciers begin to melt and recede. To fully explore glacial ecology, geology, and geomorphology we will travel to Skaftafell. Here we will discuss and see evidence of climate change, ecological succession, and assess human impacts, including eco-tourism. 

Iceland offers students the unique opportunity to hike along the fjords and magnificent coast areas; study beside glacial lagoons; visit ancient Nordic ruins; explore the intersection between culture, nature, and sustainability; and study a variety of enigmatic species. 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 or rural lodge or 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.