From Canada, we head more than fifteen hundred miles away to Iceland, breaking up our journey back across the Atlantic, for the story of how one of the world’s most extraordinary geographical landmarks gave us a word for all other landmarks of that type.
Around fifty miles inland from the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik, in the far southwest of the island, is the Haukadalur valley, an area that includes some of Iceland’s – and indeed the world’s – most extraordinary geothermal activity. Among the valley’s most celebrated sites are hot thermal springs and bubbling pools of natural mud, while the world-renowned Gullfoss waterfall lies just a few miles away to the north.
Where is Geysir, Iceland? – Geysir, Iceland Map – Geysir, Iceland Map Download Free Photo Gallery
Two of the valley’s most popular and most impressive attractions, however, are two vast thermal geysers, one of which, named Strokkur, erupts regularly every five to ten minutes, while the other can lie dormant for several decades at a time. It is the second of this pair that concerns us here: described in geographical literature since the thirteenth century at least, it is known as the Great Geysir – and it is from it that all other geysers the world over have since taken their name.
Despite its international renown, however, this original Geysir is surprisingly temperamental. Geological research suggests that it has been active for a staggering ten thousand years – but that activity proves intermittent at best, and can often cease altogether, for many years at a time, before being revived by underground disturbance.
An earthquake in the Haukadalur area in 1896, for instance, caused Geysir to erupt with remarkable ferocity for the first time in many years. These eruptions lasted for many minutes at a time, several times a day, casting a vast plume of boiling water more than two hundred feet into the air. Geysir’s renewed activity continued long into the twentieth century, with research in 1910 showing that even by then Geysir was still active as regularly as every half-hour. But by 1915, that regularity had slowed to one eruption every five hours or so, and by the following year, the activity at Geysir stopped altogether.
Over the years that followed, eruptions at Geysir were occasionally artificially stimulated using chemical means, but it remained largely dormant again until another earthquake in the area in 2000. Again, within a matter of years, this renewed activity had subsided.
It may be temperamental, but Iceland’s Great Geysir nevertheless proved impressive enough to earn itself a lasting place in our language. The name Geysir literally means ‘gusher’ in Icelandic, and derives from the equivalent Old Norse verb, g0ysa, ‘to gush’. Quite when the name was attached to the Great Geysir of Haukadalur is unclear, but the earliest reference to it in English at least dates from the mid 1700s. So impressive was this Icelandic Geysir that it quickly set the template for all other geothermal jets of water, and by the turn of the nineteenth century geyser had become the go-to English word for this type of landmark.
Derived from the Icelandic for ‘churn’.
It is possible to prompt a geyser to erupt artificially by the addition of simple soap or detergent. The soap disrupts the surface tension of the water, allowing more water molecules held there to be released as steam, and as the tension is released, so too is the pressure from the heated water beneath. For a time, the Icelandic government permitted this to take place every 17 June, on Iceland’s National Day, before concerns over the impact to the environment of adding soap to the thermal waters led to the practice being stopped.