Iceland’s size helped it grabble the COVID-19 pandemic in a way that other nations couldn’t. The country was able to test half its population and keep a close eye on how the virus spread due to really good contact tracing. Like other countries which have successfully dealt with the pandemic, a robust response proved to be the solution. Iceland even went a step further and has collected their data not only for current protection and safety but also to make it easier for researchers to look back on 2020 to understand how the virus spread.
If the test is negative, the person receives an all-clear text. If the test is positive, it triggers two chains of action: one at the hospital and one at the lab.
At the hospital, the individual is registered in a centralized database and enrolled in a tele-health monitoring service at a COVID outpatient clinic for a 14-day isolation period. They will receive frequent phone calls from a nurse or physician who documents their medical and social history, and runs through a standardized checklist of 19 symptoms. All the data are logged in a national electronic medical record system. A team of clinician-scientists at the hospital created the collection system in mid-March with science in mind. “We decided to document clinical findings in a structured way that would be useful for research purposes,” says Palsson.
In the lab, each sample is tested for the amount of virus it contains, which has been used as an indicator for contagiousness and severity of illness. And the full RNA genome of the virus is sequenced to determine the strain of the virus and track its origin.
Inefficiently constructed housing is a problem for the planet and people. Poor insulation, intensive manufacturing process, and costs all have long term impacts on energy usage and people’s budgets. There is a solution to this that has been used the world over: building homes using dirt. Sod, adobe, and other materials have been used to make homes for millennia and perhaps it’s time we return to these natural methods. Iceland is one such country where the discussion of returning housing to its roots is alive and well.
Still, when discussing the contemporary benefits of turf homes to Sigurdardottir, she is largely positive about it. “Turf houses with their grassy green roofs are perfectly environmentally-friendly buildings and sustainable,” she says. “The material is taken from wetland areas where the grass root is thick and strong. It lasts for decades in dry weather and rots eventually like wood, just a little faster. [It] is then used as a filling in new walls or put into holes to smooth the meadow or spread it over it like fertilizer. Dry turf provides good insulation against cold weather.”
And there’s a growing coterie of people asking questions about the contemporary applications of turf homes. Last year, an exhibition in Seltjarnarnes called Earth Homing, Reinventing Turf Homes sought to explore the contemporary applications of turf houses.
Iceland already is one of the greenest places on the planet and they are going even further to try keep the whole planet green. The country is hosting a research project that has sucked 43,000 tons of CO2 out of the air and injected it into the ground. They’re capturing CO2 waste and then mixing it with water to decrease the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and the results are promising. This works well in Iceland due to the volcanic rock in the country (this doesn’t work as well with other types of rock).
Of course, the best thing to keep CO2 out of the atmosphere is to not generate it all by using sustainable energy and efficient energy use. Until we have a fully renewable grid and cut down consumer consumption we need to look into carbon capture.
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is a technology promoted by the United Nations that can capture up to 90 percent of CO2 emissions that come from fossil-fuel sources and send them to an underground storage site—usually an old oil and gas field or a saline aquifer formation—so they don’t enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
Researchers and engineers in Iceland, alongside experts from France and the United States, have been working on one project that applies such CCS methods called CarbFix. For years, they’ve been holed up at Hellisheidi, a massive geothermal plant on a volcano near Reykjavik. The plant is built on a layer of porous basalt rock formed from cooled lava and, crucially, has easy access to the endless water supply underneath the volcano.
Long ago, when the vikings first arrived in Iceland the land was forested. Something between 25-40% of the country was covered by trees and humans slowly cut down the trees to an extent that was harmful to local ecosystems. Efforts to replant trees in the country have failed since they brought seeds from outside the country and a warming planet hasn’t been friendly to those trees. Now they are using native species to grow their forests and it’s working.
Being a teenager is hard with all the chaos that is finding one’s identity and dealing with the incoming stresses of life. In many places around the world, teens react to these pressures by using illicit substances or otherwise “misbehaving”. Iceland was having a huge problem with teens drinking and smoking throughout the 90s, then they decided to do something about it. Today Iceland has pretty much eliminated smoking among teens and substance abuse is almost a rounding error on surveys.
The solution that Iceland discovered is to give teenagers something to do. It’s that simple. Instead of having bored kids trying to find something to kill time, give them something that they find enjoying.
“We didn’t say to them, you’re coming in for treatment. We said, we’ll teach you anything you want to learn: music, dance, hip hop, art, martial arts.” The idea was that these different classes could provide a variety of alterations in the kids’ brain chemistry, and give them what they needed to cope better with life: some might crave an experience that could help reduce anxiety, others may be after a rush.
At the same time, the recruits got life-skills training, which focused on improving their thoughts about themselves and their lives, and the way they interacted with other people. “The main principle was that drug education doesn’t work because nobody pays attention to it. What is needed are the life skills to act on that information,” Milkman says. Kids were told it was a three-month program. Some stayed five years.