Before four-wheel drive, Iceland’s interior was nearly inaccessible. Only ex-World War II Jeeps and later modified ‘Superjeeps’ connected Iceland’s people to their most stunning landscapes. Recent research, however, shows that these offroaders are damaging the very environment they opened up, and not in the way you think. It all has to do with diesel soot.

Up until the mid 20th century, even the people of Iceland saw next to none of their country’s interior. It was too rough and mountainous to cross on horseback, and people stopped going there not long after they initially settled the island. It was imagined to be a place full of outlaws and danger and trolls. (Yes, trolls. This is the outer reaches of Northern Europe we’re talking about here.)

Advertisement

The only people who went into the interior were farmers looking for lost sheep. The first efforts to reclaim the interior, and to understand it, happened in the Enlightenment. What changed things, Icelandic researchers Edward Huijbens and Karl Benediktsson explained in their 2007 paper Practising Highland Heterotopias: Automobility in the Interior of Iceland, was the automobile.

Expeditions were extremely difficult and extremely rare until the Second World War brought Jeeps (and later every other generic Land Rover, Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, GAZ, Chevrolet, or Ford that fits into the four-wheel drive ‘jeep’ generic — they’ve called them ‘jeppis’ since the 1940s) to the island. Jeeps could cross heavy rock fields. Jeeps could climb inclines in the snow. Jeeps could cross rivers.

After the war left Iceland, the jeeps stayed and the first adventurers started to regularly explore their country’s interior. More people got hooked, more people imported rugged utility vehicles, and for the first time ordinary Icelanders could experience their country’s wilderness. Trips started to become popular, even inspiring a hit song on the national radio in 1960 about a girl living in a city and daydreaming about adventuring into the countryside. Huijbens and Benediktsson called it “a kind of reversal of the ‘bright lights’ syndrome.”

Advertisement

This is the same sort of story of cars opening up the countryside you got in other parts of the world, only in Iceland the ‘country’ happened to be a jaw-dropping and car-killing volcanic alienscape, and the cars were ultra-tough jeeps.

As it turns out, while military jeeps introduced a new kind of off road capability to people of Iceland, it was the Icelanders themselves who ultimately built a vehicle tough enough to not just traverse their country, but do so regularly and reliably.

They’re called ‘superjeeps.’ Using technology pulled from agricultural vehicles, Icelanders figured out how to fit their jeeps with absolutely huge tires and raise up their jeeps’ suspension high enough to clear them. It’s a distinctive look, and it’s what makes regular tourist trips (rather than just irregular expeditions) feasible. Superjeeps took off with the rest of the international SUV boom in the ‘80s, and they are what brought about the modern global awareness of Iceland’s country.

What’s particularly nice about these superjeeps, or rather, what’s nice about the companies that run them, is that they are concerned for the environment that they’re showing off. Some advertise how their balloon-like tires leave little impression on the ground, for instance. Many more are keen to point to their use of diesel as being more environmental. They are more energy efficient, as this agency advertises, as well as less polluting, as pointed out by this service. That’s a real concern in Iceland, right up by the ice cap and covered in glaciers.

The problem is what the climate community calls “black carbon.” Those in the automotive field would likely call it “particulate matter.” I would be inclined just to call it soot.

A recent post on GlacierHub under the title Super-Jeeping: Immersive Learning or Disturbing Nature? goes into how black carbon creates a conflict of the kind ecotourism in Iceland that involves superjeeps. Diesel might not produce as much greenhouse emissions as burning gasoline, but it does release little particles in its exhaust. These particles, as GlacierHub’s Neha Ganesh explains, are exhaled by a superjeep and settle on top of sea and glacier ice.

Advertisement

It might sound like a good thing to cover glaciers and block them from the sun, but black carbon actually increases the ice’s absorption of heat and makes them melt faster. As a recent article on how black carbon melts glaciers in the Himalayas explains, the dark, soot-covered snow and ice gets hot faster than it would uncovered.

That’s not great, and it poses a philosophical dilemma for the industry of superjeeping — if superjeeps are specifically harming the environment of Iceland, how can they in clear conscience take people on tours of it?

There isn’t exactly a clear solution to the problem of soot. It’s very much in the nature of a diesel engine to produce particulate matter. There is some hope, as far as I can see it, brought on by new and increasingly strict standards on diesel emissions in Europe. These regulations have led to more common and more effective particulate filters, as well as more clean-running diesel engines.

Advertisement

The problem there is that this new technology isn’t exactly as cheap. Moreover, superjeeps are old vehicles. They’re all retrofitted versions of SUVs and trucks from five, 10, 20 years ago, and they remain in use for years. Any advances in diesel cleaning now take years to trickle down into actual superjeeps in use. It doesn’t look like we’re not dealing with an attitude problem, we’re dealing with money and time issues.

At least unlike greenhouse gases, black carbon doesn’t stay in the atmosphere long, it can be more easily cleaned, and its effects more swiftly reversed. If it’s possible to get cleaner-filtered diesel engines into superjeeps, the turnaround for getting glacial ice cleaner won’t be horrifically long.

It’s a question exactly how many of these old school superjeeps could be upgraded to run with clean new technology, but I don’t know what other option they might have to hold onto their environmentally-friendly image.

Advertisement

What I find interesting about this case of soot and superjeeps is that it speaks to the general crisis of cars and the environment as a whole. The automobile fundamentally harms the environment it was built to explore. Every time you road trip cross-country, every time you sunday drive to see the leaves change color, you’re chipping away at the view.

It seems that we have the technology to clear up the immediate trouble with superjeeps and Iceland, addressing their budding drama. Can we say the same of the automobile as a whole?

Photo Credits: Sergejf (top), Fréttablaðið (early Nissan superjeep newspaper advertisement) via Huijbens and Benediktsson

Click here to view this kinja-labs.com embed.


Contact the author at raphael@jalopnik.com.