Icelandic glaciers and volcanic landscapes have long been considered important ecotourism and educational locales. As these landscapes change dramatically with the melting of glaciers, seeing what is left of the glaciers becomes increasingly urgent.
I experienced a super jeep adventure in South Iceland during a spring break study program in March 2014. This activity was offered as part of the program for experiential learning in the field of energy and sustainability and I was able to see nature and be a part of it by visiting some of the retreating glaciers and experiencing the region around the active volcano of Eyjafjallajökull.
It can be difficult to explore the large, majestic glaciers, but “super jeeps,” specially adapted cars, allow tourists to explore the scenery. These super jeeps are not regular jeeps, but rather ones with strong traction for driving on the many different glacial terrains. They are tall and wide with thick tires, and can seat about seven to eight people. This experience, in addition to being educational, is thrilling, adventurous and enjoyable.
A number of companies in the country, such as Icelandic Mountain Guides, Discover Iceland and Glacier Jeeps, offer super jeep tours as part of day and night packages. These companies use ecotourism to attract more tourists and strive to maintain Iceland’s pristine landscapes.
Crossing glacier rivers, reaching sites for northern lights viewing, driving along the coasts of the black sand beaches and traversing rugged terrain of volcanoes such as Eyjafjallajökull are made convenient and exciting through these tours.
A study on auto-mobility in Iceland suggests that Iceland’s jeep culture has been around for a very long time. The first automobiles arrived in Iceland in the early years of the twentieth century, but there were virtually no jeeps or other four-wheel drive vehicles until the British and American military occupation of Iceland during World War II. Jeep ownership in the years after the war was limited largely to farmers and a few urban hobbyists, who used them as a means of transport around the island’s rough terrain. In the 1980s, some technological changes led to the rise of the superjeep. The extra-wide tires, inflated only to a low pressure, were initially used for agricultural purposes such as spreading manure, but proved to work well for driving on snow. Imports of jeeps and specialized tires increased in the late 1980s and even more in the 1990s. In order to reach the toughest, most challenging regions within their country they included modern technologies such as GPS, ultra-wide tires and electronics converting regular jeeps into super jeeps.
This 15 sec video shows how glacier river crossing is done in a super jeep
It was the most exciting adventure sport for me, as an environmental science student. But it is not always considered the most environmentally friendly sport. Most super jeeps are fuelled by imported petroleum or regular diesel – fossil fuels which contribute to the cause of melting glaciers. Experts from the adventure and travel agency South Iceland Adventure, founded in 2010, say the fuel efficiency with “regular diesel fuel is about 20-30L/100Km,” or about 9.5 miles per gallon.
Diesel combustion produces black carbon, which is a highly polluting form of particulate matter. Black carbon darkens the surface of glaciers and sea ice when it settles on them, leading to greater absorption of heat and more rapid melting. A study by Yale University researchers found that jeepneys – modified jeeps which are similar to super jeeps — in the Philippines release these black carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
One company, the Mountain Taxi, says its jeeps cause minimal to no environmental impact. The company’s website states, “All our super jeeps run on DIESEL fuel, not regular petrol = less pollution…Off road driving in Iceland is forbidden by law. You are only allowed to drive off road in the winter ON SNOW and frozen ground. So in fact the super jeep is not touching the ground at all = causing NO damage to the environment.” This company claims to promote sustainability by using local Icelandic products.
Iceland is a “green” nation that gets almost 100% of its electricity and heat from domestic renewable energy sources such as geothermal and hydropower. The environmentally conscious country makes strong efforts to keep its greenhouse gas emissions to a minimum. Given the harmful effects of diesel combustion, there are concerted efforts to make super jeeps more environmentally friendly by using alternatives to regular diesel fuel such as rapeseed biodiesel, in Iceland.
Researchers Huijbens and Benediktsson argue in their study that super jeeping in Iceland brings up the issue of sustainability on one hand and environmental hazard on the other. As Arneson et al. argued in a recent article, Icelanders initially saw super jeeping not for its potential in tourism or business, but as an expression of pride in their rich culture and natural environment. The shift to tourism picked up in the late 1990s, but super jeeping remains an important form of adventure leisure for Icelanders as well as a source of income through tourist enterprises.
Through my own experience on a super jeep tour in Iceland, I learned that super jeeps can have an important role in educating people about the environment. It can permit them to experience nature without disturbing it. Even though the super jeeps are moving towards greater fuel efficiency and shifting towards renewable fuels, the ecological conflict continues. More efforts are needed to assure that this wonderful experience can become more genuinely sustainable.