The last manned lighthouse in Iceland is perched on the southernmost bluff of the Vestman Islands, the southernmost landmass in the nation. It’s quite possibly the windiest point on the windiest island off the coast of the windiest country on Earth. Upon her visit to the lighthouse, American ambassador to Iceland Carol van Voorst was astonished not only by the power of the wind, which made it difficult to stand, but by the manner in which the island’s third-generation lighthouse keeper, Oskar Sigurdsson, took it all in stride — literally. “He was standing there like a pillar, absolutely solid,” van Voorst said in a phone interview. “He is certainly an extraordinary human being.”
The 69-year-old Sigurdsson’s entire life has been spent looking out from his windy post, and while automation has nearly eclipsed the need for keeping the light on, there are certain things machines just can’t do. Research, for instance: Sigurdsson collects air samples for the Cooperative Global Air Sampling Network in Boulder, Colorado. He has provided samples every week since 1992, a remarkable effort that last summer earned him a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Environmental Hero Award.
Unlike most researchers, who spend years at a university preparing for their work, Sigurdsson fell into science by chance. In 1992, NOAA research chemist Tom Conway was looking for someone to monitor atmospheric composition in Iceland, a place of particular interest to climate scientists because it is so far removed from pollution sources. “Our contacts at the Iceland Meteorological Office had worked with Oskar,” Conway remembered. “It was through them that we got in touch.”
When NOAA came calling, Sigurdsson was busy setting the world record for tagging birds, a record that continues to grow. “It wasn’t until 2001, when I received a graph showing the CO2 increase in Iceland,” Sigurdsson said, “that I felt impressed that my data was really contributing something to an important matter.”
Conway says he knew last summer that the time had come to honor the steadfast Sigurdsson for his work. “I heard that Oskar would be retiring this year,” Conway said. “I thought he needed to be recognized for the contribution that he made.”
Sigurdsson has reached Iceland’s mandatory retirement age but hopes to continue his tour of duty. “For pollution research,” he said, “they need manual sampling. We are trying to reach an agreement so I can continue for as long I feel like it.”
Story by Adam Spangler. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2007.