Infrastructural Recursions: Volcanic Landscapes, Instability and Energy Production

By James Maguire, IT University of Copenhagen §

Walking through the Hengill volcanic zone (figure 1) with my geologist companions in the southwest of Iceland is a powerful experience. Dark basaltic lava-encrusted rocks are strewn all about us. Diminutive craggy structures blend together like multi-layered mobius strips such that it’s hard to distinguish where one rock ends and another begins. Thoughts of a fractal nature are provoked.

As we walk, the lava formations become creepingly encased in a wondrously green mossy canvas. It is a canvas of light atop a deep dark smouldering inner earth, a surprisingly lively combination that softly changes hue as the sun rolls back and forth between the clouds of a standard misfit day in Iceland. Our destination on this particular day: geothermal well number 28.

Hellisheiði Geothermal Power Plant, Hengill Volcanic Zone. Photo by author.

The well sits like a small silver igloo atop the blackened lava encrusted earth (figure 2), its pipes are thick and rusted, and they pulsate and screech as the geology team attempt to coax up 300 degree C fluid by sending compressed air into the well shaft; an attempt to ‘awaken’ the well as they put it.

The entire arrangement of well, igloo, and pipes shakes and roars, intermittently yet violently, as dense, thick steam billows out from the earth. This scene disabuses me of any notion I may have had of the earth as a singular entity, turning my attention instead to a whole series of differentiating intensities at work as heat and pressure boil and explode water and steam out of the subterranean rock matrix.

Geothermal well number 28. Photo by author.

The Hengill volcanic landscape is an area of 110km2 that lies within the western volcanic zone of Iceland, 25 kilometres east of Reykjavik. Stretching south from the well-known Þingvellir national park, it is a place of activity for many walkers and hikers, and in wintertime, the occasional skier. It is a landscape filled with lava flows from multiple eruptions over varying time scales, verdant green moss, sheep, spewing geysers and fumaroles, and hot-spring rivers with lush colours from micro organic activity. Displaying the highest level of continuous earthquake activity in a country predisposed to significantly high levels of tectonic events (Foulger 1988: 13493), earthquakes are a common feature of life on these lava plains, while sub-surface eruptions occur from time to time. As such Hengill is a site of intense liveliness: a bubbling, hissing, forming, and deforming, seismic landscape.

Drilling into such a tectonic landscape for the bounties within its subterranean rock matrix (steam and hot water) was always going to be a risky endeavour. By drilling over 50 of these 3 kilometre-deep wells, Reykjavik Energy has scaled up its tectonic intervention in new ways. Formerly, geothermal energy was mostly coveted for its hot water, providing heating to residents and businesses around Iceland. But this geothermal plant is based on the production of power, as an entire seismic landscape is calibrated to the rhythms of numerous steam guzzling turbines.[1]

Beyond the immediate effects of drilling, the environmental impact assessments (EIA) have paid particular attention to the possibility that extracted geothermal brine could destroy lava formations and moss, as well as contaminate local groundwater sources. The response was to insist that spent geothermal fluids be reinjected back into the rock matrix. However, the effects of this process are inducing further seismic responses as the colder pressurized reinjection water causes contractions and pressure flux in the rock matrix. Geologists refer to this as “induced seismicity,” while the local township in the vicinity of the geothermal power plant talk of disturbing man-made earthquakes. What I would like to explore in the remainder of this piece is not just the unintended consequences of well-intentioned environmental planning, but the more analytical idea that infrastructures, which, while generally predicated on stability, can retain moments of instability at their very heart.[2]

What we saw in the short vignette at the start of this piece was a geological response to recent earthquake activity; an awakening my field companions called it. However, in this setting, responses become somewhat recursive: the seismic response that the geologists were responding to was itself a partial response to geological work (reinjection). While such hybrid earthquakes (natural and man-made) are dangerous and unpredictable, they also have the potential to be generative, as vast quantities of water and steam are released through increasingly fractured rock. So as earthquakes continue, the geology team target their efforts towards these sites of instability, awakening dormant wells and rearranging the unstable forces around them for productive means.

Another way of putting this is to say that as geologists arrange the liveliness of volcanic sites for energy production, their work triggers seismic events, and these events are, in turn, generatively rearranged to become part of an ever-emerging seismic-energy infrastructure. Through a series of responses between the various actors (EIA, geologists, earth) an infrastructural recursion, or loop, emerges, as the unstable seismic landscape is continually rearranged.

But how does this add to thinking about the nature of infrastructure? While Geoff Bowker and Susan Leigh Star coined the term, ‘infrastructure as second nature’ (Bowker 1995, Bowker and Star 1999), it is Ashley Carse’s work that breaks with the notion of infrastructure as nature plus cultural additives, demonstrating “nature as infrastructure” in the provision of essential ecological systems services (2012). Yet even Carse’s interesting work still retains a residual understanding that infrastructure, or overlapping infrastructures (this pluralisation is of itself an important move) are what distribute, circulate, or move people, objects, ideas, and relations, and that they do so in rather stable and durable ways.

While Brian Larkin suggests that infrastructures are “matter that enable the movement of other matter” or “objects that create the grounds on which other objects operate” (2013: 2-3), the implication, as I read it, is that such grounds need to be stable enough to allow those other objects to operate. Yet what we are seeing in the Hengill volcanic zone is that stability is only ever partial, and that instability is a thriving, at times generative, component of emerging infrastructures.

The sets of recursive responses that are taking place in the volcanic zone are not between the earth’s capacities and geologists as such, they are among and within ‘arrangements of existence’ (Povinelli 2012b) that the concept infrastructure helps to elucidate. For Povinelli, the forces of the world are on-going processes of arranging, which install the possibility of their own derangements and rearrangements. What Povinelli is driving at here is to suggest that otherness, or the ‘otherwise’ as she phrases it, is not a putative outside, but emerges from within processes as they change and unfold.

On the lava plains of Hengill such arrangements encompass eruptive turbulent forces, technologies, knowledge practices, capital, sets of ideas and values on the proper use of seismic landscapes and so on. But they come with derangements (man-made earthquakes), which in turn are generatively rearranged through infrastructural means. There is, it seems, a constitutive alterity residing at the heart of Iceland’s energy infrastructures (Maguire and Winthereik 2016). As such one could call such infrastructures ontologically transformative (Jensen and Morita 2016b), sites where human and nonhumans act in response to one another, with one another, and through one another.

Living with such lively landscapes beyond relations of asymmetry (the earth destroys) or dominance (we utilize resources at will), requires cultivating multiple sets of capacities, not least of which is the capacity to respond to the plurality of forces and powers such liveliness entails. On the Hengill lava plains, such response-ability (Haraway 2008) is arranged infrastructurally. My geologist field companions are constantly trying to balance the desire to utilize geothermal energy as efficiently as they can for their citizen-owners (the city of Reykjavik), while at the same time being concerned for the recuperative capacities of the seismic landscape that they are infrastructuring. As they will readily admit, arranging the forces and intensities of the lively earth towards an arrangement of living-together under the constraining conditions of late capitalism is a perpetually tricky matter.

Works Cited

Bowker, G. C. (1995). “Second Nature once Removed Time, Space and Representations.” Time & Society 4(1): 47-66.
Bowker, G. C. and S. L. Star (1999). Sorting things out classification and its consequences. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press.
Carse, A. (2012). “Nature as infrastructure: Making and managing the Panama Canal watershed.” Social Studies of Science 42(4): 539-563.
Foulger, G. (1988). “Hengill Triple Junction, SW Iceland 1. Tectonic Structure and the Spatial and Temporal Distribution of Local Earthquakes.” Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth (1978–2012) 93(B11): 13493-13506.
Haraway, D. J. (2008). When species meet. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Jensen, C. B. and A. Morita (2016b) Infrastructures as Ontological Experiments. Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology. Special Edition, DOI: 10.1080/00141844.2015.1107607
Larkin, B. (2013). “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 327-343.
Maguire, J. and B. Winthereik (2016). Living with the Earth: More-than-Human Arrangements in Seismic Landscapes. Infrastructures and Social Complexity: A Routledge Companion. P. Harvey, C. B. Jensen and A. Morita.
Povinelli, E. (2012b). “The Will to be Othrwise/the Effort of Endurance.” South Atlantic Quarterly 111(no 3): 453-457.
Povinelli, E. (2016). Geontologies: A Requim to Late Liberalism. Durham, US, Duke University Press.

[1] The Hellisheiði geothermal power plant in the Hengill volcanic zone was completed in 2012. It provides 303 mega-watts of electricity to a large US Aluminium smelter located on the west coast of Iceland.
[2] This argument appears in a more extended form in Maguire & Winthereik 2016

James Maguire is an anthropologist pursuing his PhD in anthropology and science and technology studies at the ITUniversity of Copenhagen. Working as part of a broader research project, Alien Energy, James is conducting an ethnography of geothermal energy in Iceland. He is primarily interested in how energy landscapes emerge through the entanglement of socio-material, financial and political processes. James holds an MSc in anthropology from the University of Copenhagen.

This post is part of our thematic series: The Nature of Infrastructure.