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Reykjavík’s dirty little secret

My country, Iceland, likes to market itself as a place with an endless stream of pure, clean air and pristine natural landscapes – all hyped up for the tourist brochures.

Reykjavík’s dirty little secret is its air pollution. In fact, on calm winter days, when the ubiquitous wind isn’t blowing our smog away to the big smog storage area in the sky, a thick, yellow cloud of pollution hangs over the capital area like a translucent veil.

So far this year, air pollution in Reykjavík has exceeded public health limits 12 times. According to Icelandic law, air pollution must not go over those limits more than 12 times per year [just how they arrived at that precise figure is beyond me]. So clearly we’ve filled our quota – and we will, no question, exceed it before the year is out.

[Read the rest of the post over on the TH!NK site.]

With a few scattered showers, enough to keep the smog at bay. Alas, I hardly went outside at all, although I would have liked to – was working at home, and then got in my car and drove [gasp!] to the gym. It’s 5°C [41F] right now. The sun came up at 8.34 and set at 5.38.



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • AAH October 21, 2009, 11:34 pm

    retro blog, minnir mig á þegar þú byrjaðir síðuna 😀

  • alda October 21, 2009, 11:40 pm

    Það er af því að þetta var skrifað fyrir aðra síðu …

  • James October 22, 2009, 12:25 am

    Reykjavik may translate as “Bay of Yellow Smog”, but at least its Congestion Charge Zone (2000 ISK to drive in 101 district during office hours) is funding improvements to the Reykjavik Underground.

  • idunn October 22, 2009, 2:23 am

    “pure, clean air and pristine natural landscapes” ‘Isn’t that true,’ I asked before finishing the first paragraph.

    ‘Oh,’ my response to the second paragraph.

    My third thought was aluminum smelters. That, and surely added to with vehicle emissions and the other debris of civilization. If Iceland surely isn’t alone in such things, she perhaps with less excuse. If one can’t find clean air on a small, largely pristine island in the north Atlantic, where can you?

    And why not?

  • Vikingisson October 22, 2009, 2:40 am

    That sounds like me going up the slopes of the escarpment in Ontario which is lovely but turning around toward the city you can often see a dome of ugly smog.
    But what is the level that is considered unsafe? And of what? Perhaps your standards are too high? 🙂 I’ll bet that there isn’t a universal standard.
    To me the health of the air and water in Iceland was a real treat. We should be so lucky over here. I envy the air and water of Iceland, even in the big city.

    But let this be a reminder that the goal of a fossil fuel free country should not be abandoned despite the rumors of a kreppa. Money always seems to trump common sense and good intentions. You can’t spend it if you can’t breath.
    keep it clean.
    (tip: make the buses free like they are in Akureyri. Then get more of them preferably clean burning).

  • Alexander E. October 22, 2009, 2:45 am

    The main reason of “smog” in Reykjavik – metal studs on tires. Just imagine how many tons of steel and stones (from road surface) are “milled” every day. And for what? For safety? BS! People just drive faster on ice cause they think they are “safe”. Keeping in mind that 99% of the time the main roads are clear – this really stupid system from the past just killing people. As those in the cars are breathing this fine steel-stone “smog”. Not saying about permanent work to repair roads.**

    As to cars vs public transport – LOL. Would you, Alda, recommend anyone to use Straeto (public bus system)? It’s the most ridiculous bus system I ever saw! And because people know this – they have to use cars. Do you know that until recently (2008?) there was no paths for pedestrians between Kopavogur and Gardabaer?

    But you right – the situation must be changed. The only problem I think is – no matter how many people will go for protests – it won’t change. For two reasons. Very unlikely people will be heard anyway (unless there is elections coming). If – IF! – they are heard – there is nobody in charge who has enough knowledge to fix the problems. Such experts don’t exists in Iceland – as simple as that (best proof – the latest changes to the bus system).

    PS. Bus driver has to keep schedule – or will loose money (and the job possibly).

    **I used to drive on ice/snow for six months (or more) every year. Never used studs – and never had accidents (but was hit a couple of times by those on “winter” tires)

  • Sonja October 22, 2009, 4:09 am

    Ég hélt að þú ætlaðir að tala um mansal þegar ég sá titilinn fyrst

  • TMCD October 22, 2009, 4:44 am

    Dear Alda,
    That is a shame about the air pollution.
    During 1977—80, I spent a few years in Iceland at the NATO base.

    Pristine air.
    Could almost see the other side of Iceland ,or so it seemed.
    It took me a while to take in air that clean and clear.
    Wow 🙁
    Guess those day are gone.
    Bless Bless.

  • Dumdad October 22, 2009, 7:30 am

    I agree with what AAH said!

    The site I used translated AAH’s comment as:

    retro blog , memory myself river ;st) you begin síðuna.


    Anyway, dense pollution isn’t an image Iceland wants to project for the tourist trade. Something ought to be done about it – and soon – before word gets out.

  • Schnee October 22, 2009, 9:17 am

    So what happens if/when the limit IS exceeded again?

    (And yeah, having a limit on the number of times the limit can be violated seems pretty strange. If it’s not OK to go beyond a certain level, then certainly, even doing so once should be too much.)

  • Joerg October 22, 2009, 9:46 am

    As you are writing in TH!NK about those problems being deliberately concealed from foreigners in the past, I wonder, how Iceland could it ever make to the top of the Press Freedom Index (from which they are supposed to have dropped down to the ninth place, even though my impression is, that the situation has actually improved):


    Apparently, if the press is censoring itself in secrecy, then on a cursory view there is no problem with press freedom evident.

  • Bromley86 October 22, 2009, 11:48 am

    >The site I used translated AAH’s comment as:

    Google translation is much better at translatingIcelandic than that. i.e.

    “Retro blog, reminds me of when you started the page ”

    “It is because this was written for another page … ”

    “I thought you intended to speak about human trafficking when I saw the title first”

    It works pretty well on the news sites as well.

  • Barry October 22, 2009, 11:49 am

    Idunn comments “My third thought was aluminum smelters”.
    It’s awfully convenient to use the wicked multinationals as scapegoats, but the simple fact is that virtually nothing in the form of airborne dust, smoke or other fine particles is discharged from modern aluminium smelters. The principle, almost sole, source of “mengun” – an Icelandic catch-all – is carbon dioxide, an inevitable by-product of aluminium smelting. Globally, Iceland is one of the cleanest producers of aluminium – alongside countries such as Norway, Brazil, Canada and New Zealand, all of which use largely or exclusively hydro-electricity for smelting alumina.
    The yellow-brown haze hanging over central Reykjavík on a still day is soley due to a combination of badly mantained vehicle exhaust systems, and microscopic tar particles from the use of steel-studded tyres in winter.

  • alda October 22, 2009, 11:59 am

    Thanks for the input, all.

    Bromley – yikes! I guess that means we have to stop assuming nobody understands us when we speak Icelandic. 😉

    Incidentally, this is one of the great perks of being Icelandic abroad – you can usually say whatever you feel like about whoever your feel like, and nobody understands you. It’s great for analyzing people on the subway, for example.

  • Vikingisson October 22, 2009, 12:21 pm

    Oh my, we’re a bit spoiled aren’t we? White people all over the planet (more or less) hate public transportation and have 100 excuses why they won’t use it. The Straeto indeed isn’t the best bus system I’ve seen but did the one thing I wanted, got me from one place to the other. Not a huge sacrifice and if people were truly willing to put action to their words they would drive less and bus more. Then perhaps ask big gov to make the system better and cheaper. Maybe a bit more walking and biking for practical reasons instead of just for exercise could replace trips (by car) to the gym.

    Encourage the use of studless tires, less road salt, more walking, etc. Attitudes combined with the power of lawyers and insurance companies will prevent any sensible changes I’m afraid. In north america the battle was lost decades ago and our pollution is criminal. Iceland still has a chance, don’t blow it.

  • Schnee October 22, 2009, 12:50 pm

    I’m not really sure if the Strætó is a good alternative to going by car – it’s OK if you have specific tours you have to do regularly (going to school/university/work, say, to the gym, or even to your saumaklúbbur ^_~), but for going (on a whim) to places you don’t usually go, it’s not that great.

    Personally, though, I’d put in a vote for going by bike more often. I saw surprisingly (to me) few Icelanders going by bike even this summer when it was warm, even though bikes are a great way of getting around that avoids all the unpleasant things – pollution, having to wait for busses, and so on.

    Oh, and alda – relying on people not understanding what you say when you speak Icelandic probably isn’t a good idea in general. 😉 Even without Google, I think there’s several people here who’ll understand what’s being said (as long as it’s not TOO complicated, anyway).

  • Bromley86 October 22, 2009, 12:56 pm

    >Attitudes combined with the power of lawyers and insurance companies will prevent any sensible changes I’m afraid.

    Pretty-much the one advantage that thr kreppa gives Iceland. Fuel/parts are going to be much more expensive and many households are simply not going to be able to afford to drive as often.

    Of course, the counter to that is that people will change many habits before they change their driving ones and there will be less money to maintain those vehicles. So maybe it’ll go the other way.

    Alda. And with Icelandic there’s almost no chance of the classic unexpected linguist story occurring 🙂 . Although would another Nordic be able to get the drift if they overheard?

  • LaTanya October 22, 2009, 1:19 pm

    What happens next.. after the limits are reached?

    That’s too bad! I still have fond memories of what it was like when I lived there.. When I close my eyes I can still smell the clean crisp air. AAHHH (minus the fish drying in the background) I’m sure it’s not as bad as the U.S.!

  • Vikingisson October 22, 2009, 2:40 pm

    @Schnee , those trips that *are* suitable for riding the bus is my point. The rides that aren’t practical are then done by car or walking. It isn’t all or nothing. Each little bit helps.

    If kreppa forces people to consider alternatives then that is a good thing in the long run. My own conditions have radically changed since Black October so I feel the pain too. Balance and compromise won’t kill us but stubborn pride might. However I prefer incentive motivation over penalty motivation.

    There is still the question of standards, what are they compared to a city of 5 million? I’d be thrilled to be living under Reykjavík’s dirty little secret vs the degrading conditions over here in N.A. I’ll bet our standards are lower and getting lower which is our kreppa legacy.

    @LaTanya, oh yes, that air and water in Iceland by comparison is a real treat. I noticed it most within 5 seconds of landing back in N.A. I think about it every day almost a year later. I hope that they do the right thing and not let conditions run away.

  • Joerg October 22, 2009, 3:20 pm

    I have the suspicion that the new power plant on Hellisheiði is adding to the pollution. This problem seems not to be restricted to the winter.

    And the Google translation from Icelandic to English seems to be improving. With a grain of salt and some common sense it is working fine in many fields. But you can be sure, that I won’t understand you when talking Icelandic, like in the subway. For this, I’m still waiting for the appropriate application for my Iphone 🙂 .

  • Masterthesis October 22, 2009, 5:30 pm

    @Vikingisson, since when did this become race debate on what each race prefers, I think you need to contain your dillusioned remarks.

    Having said that, I think Reykjavik has the cleanest air you could ever breath in anywhere, you couldn’t even start comparing its air, dirt & civilised pollution to cities like London,Berlin, or Paris. Everytime I’m over there am just amazed by it all and as is always the case, I just can’t adjust to life easily whenever I get back to London.

  • Bromley86 October 22, 2009, 5:37 pm

    >It works pretty well on the news sites as well.

    On the subject of which, and in no way an underhanded dig at Icelanders as we have our own incomprehesible judgements over here, can anyone flesh out exactly what the crime & sentence was in this case?

  • Vikingisson October 22, 2009, 6:52 pm

    @Masterthesis, it didn’t become a race issue however in general it is the spoiled white race that is last to jump on a bus. Even in Iceland. But I make no apologies for being white myself nor do I feel guilty about it. Sorry if I wasn’t clear.

    Agreed that Reykjavík has the cleanest urban air I’ve had the pleasure of breathing. I hope it stays that way and that they make it even cleaner. Good air is good PR.

  • Alexander E. October 23, 2009, 1:56 am

    Do not panic, people!
    Air in Iceland is still much less polluted then anywhere else (except Antarctic).
    As I used to walk or run a bike a lot I noticed this phenomena before reading about it. You can smell the road from 200-500 meters if you walk in “green zones” in the town. I mean there is changes in the air – from fresh to “smoggy”. But in other places the difference is not between fresh-dirty air but rather between breatheable and unbreatheable mixture of gases 🙂
    It’s easy to notice after landing abroad and leaving the plane – like oxygen almost disappeared from air. And same contrast on the way back to Iceland (after you body adjusted to whatever gas was available over there) – like you are breathing pure oxygen.

    As to bus system – it’s really the worst I met. Not the buses themselves but the routes “design” (OM*G!!!). It is simply insane. Made by persons who has NO IDEA about the subject (no matter how good their intentions were).
    So just by re-designing it the effectiveness could be boosted by 100-200% (I’m not joking – urban planning is something I’ve being doing for a couple of decades)
    In particular the travel time can be cut by 25-200% (depending on distance)
    Practical travel time – from door to door – is a major reason people don’t use buses here.
    The cost must be reduced. I don’t want to explain in detail all financial matters of this – but current prices just drive possible passengers away thus reducing so much needed revenue. Etc.
    The bus usage within certain downtown area must be FREE. With parking lots outside this area and bus routes connected to this parking lots. This will motivate people to drop their cars outside dense center.
    There are big number of possible improvements – as there is huge experience in public transportation in the world available. Why the heck “experts” at the city committee are inventing the bus all over again?

    PS. I never used studs in Iceland. Last year decided to try “Green Diamond” restored tires but didn’t test them really – couldn’t find much ice.
    ” Bites into ice better than a studded snow tire
    Superior wet road traction
    Environmentally friendly
    Always ready for ever-changing road conditions.
    45,000 suggested year round mileage.”.

  • Melvin Godfried October 23, 2009, 10:40 am

    Just because you can´t see it doesn´t mean that the pollution doesn´t exist. Emissions from the aluminum smelting process include hydrogen chloride, chlorine, hydrogen fluoride and dioxins.