Land of Fire and Ice

As glaciers melt, Ice­land watches its his­tory seep away

Global Times - Weekend - - FRONT PAGE -

The tourists come in droves, aboard buses, bi­cy­cles and camper vans. They stand at the wa­ter’s edge in awe of the ice­bergs float­ing be­fore them – some as white as snow, others ra­di­at­ing a deep blue. They gasp when a chunk breaks off and top­ples into the chilly turquoise wa­ter.

Jökul­sár­lón glacier la­goon in south­east Ice­land is one of the coun­try’s top at­trac­tions. It is also a vivid warn­ing of the glacier’s pre­dicted dis­ap­pear­ance, a dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quence of cli­mate change in a na­tion where these slow-mov­ing rivers of ice are a cul­tural and so­cial touch­stone.

It looks cen­turies old, but the la­goon only ap­peared in the mid-1930s when the Brei­damerkur­jokull glacier started to re­treat. De­clared a na­ture re­serve in July, it is now the coun­try’s deep­est lake and grow­ing big­ger ev­ery day.

Vat­na­jökull, Europe’s largest ice cap and the source of B reid amer k ur jo ku ll, is th in­ning rapidly due to ris­ing global tem­per­a­tures and could be com­pletely gone in 200 years, sci­en­tists say. Other glaciers may van­ish much ear­lier.

“All glaciers in Ice­land are re­treat­ing at an un­prece­dented pace,” said Od­dur Sig­urds­son, a ge­ol­o­gist at the Ice­landic Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal Of­fice (IMO) who has stud­ied them for 30 years.

Close to 10 glaciers with names, as well as many un­named ones, have al­ready dis­ap­peared, he said.

Their demise her­alds pro­found shifts in Ice­land’s weather pat­terns, wa­ter flows, flora and fauna, vol­canic ac­tiv­ity and land mass, ac­cord­ing to the IMO.

Ice­land is be­com­ing greener and some of its land mass is ris­ing as cli­mate change gathers pace, sci­en­tists say, bring­ing eco­nomic and other con­se­quences.

But for many Ice­landers – who like to call their na­tion the “Land of Fire and Ice” as a trib­ute to the glaciers and vol­ca­noes that forged its stun­ning, oth­er­worldly land­scape – the loss of their glaciers is deeply per­sonal.

“Just see­ing them dis­ap­pear­ing is very heart­break­ing,” said Agnes Gun­nars­dot­tir, CEO of Per­lan Mu­seum in the cap­i­tal Reyk­javik.

It is hold­ing a state-of-the-art ex­hi­bi­tion on glaciers and ice caves in a bid to ed­u­cate tourists and res­i­dents about the im­pact of cli­mate change on the en­vi­ron­ment.

Gun­nars­dot­tir re­mem­bers vis­it­ing her grand­par­ents’ home in the coun­try­side when Vat­na­jokull was much larger. “We are see­ing this in our life­time. It’s chang­ing so quickly – it’s very scary,” she said.

Gud­mundur Og­munds­son, man­ager of the Vat­na­jokull na­tional park’s north­ern ter­ri­tory, has pho­tographed Skaftafell­sjokull, an­other out­let glacier of Vat­na­jokull, from a view­point on its west­ern side for the past six years.

Part of the glacier was clearly vis­i­ble in the 2012 pic­ture, but it barely ap­pears in this year’s im­age. Og­munds­son fears it will van­ish com­pletely by next year.

“There’s some­thing so ma­jes­tic about [glaciers] and then you see them on the de­cline. It’s sad,” he said.

Ris­ing land

The loss of the coun­try’s ice is ac­cel­er­at­ing. Dur­ing the 20th cen­tury, about 10 per­cent van­ished, fol­lowed by a fur­ther 3 per­cent in the first decade of this cen­tury alone. Sci­en­tists say ris­ing tem­per­a­tures, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the sum­mer, are largely re­spon­si­ble for the ac­cel­er­a­tion .

Tem­per­a­ture data go­ing back 200 years shows episodic warm­ing pe­ri­ods. But this year is prob­a­bly the hottest in Ice­land since the coun­try was set­tled and be­longs to one of the warm­est decades, said Hall­dor Bjorns­son, cli­mate re­search group leader at the IMO.

Glaciers are Ice­land’s great­est wa­ter stor­age re­cep­ta­cles. Cov­er­ing at least 10 per­cent of its sur­face, they pro­vide the tiny na­tion – home to just 330,000 peo­ple be­low the Arc­tic Cir­cle – with abun­dant clean en­ergy and spec­tac­u­lar wa­ter­falls.

These draw in a ris­ing num­ber of tourists, who num­bered 1.3 mil­lion in 2015, up from 320,000 in 2005.

Some of Ice­land’s big­gest power plants rely on glacier-fed rivers. As the glaciers melt, more wa­ter is flow­ing to the hy­dro­elec­tric plants, but in the later part of this cen­tury, wa­ter vol­umes are pro­jected to start de­creas­ing, said Bjorns­son.

And while coun­tries fur­ther south fret over land loss due to sea level rise as glaciers melt, parts of Ice­land are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing sea level drop.

The thin­ning of large glaciers,

such as Vat­na­jök kull, re­duces the load on the Earth’s crust near the ice masses, caus­ing it to re­bound and lift up.

A 2015 study us­ing data from GPS re­ceivers found that parts of south-cen­tral Ice­land were ris­ing by about 3.5 cen­time­ters a year due to ac­cel­er­ated ice loss.

In Hofn, a port town in south­east Ice­land known as its lan­gous­tine cap­i­tal, the up­lift is 1 cen­time­ter per year, which trans­lates into 1 me­ter per cen­tury.

“There is hardly any rea­son­able amount of sea level rise that will catch up with those rates,” said Bjorns­son.

Hofn’s har­bor chan­nel has be­come shal­lower due to sed­i­ment de­posits, mak­ing it harder to reach the sea – and there may be other un­fore­seen com­pli­ca­tions, ex­perts said.

Unavoid­able im­pacts

Vol­canic ac­tiv­ity is also ex­pected to in­crease, as the melt­ing of glaciers re­lieves pres­sure on vol­canic sys­tems, sci­en­tists say.

The erup­tion of glacier-tipped vol­ca­noes can cause ma­jor melt­ing of ice, lead­ing to floods of his­toric pro­por­tions, Sig­urds­son said.

These “jokulh­laups, a type of glacial out­burst flood, al­ter land­scapes, dev­as­tate veg­e­ta­tion and threaten lives as well as in­fra­struc­ture, in­clud­ing hy­dro­elec­tric plants along glacier-fed rivers.

Yet Ice­land still has no na­tional strat­egy in place for adapt­ing to cli­mate change im­pacts, in­clud­ing melt­ing glaciers. The coun­try is work­ing on an adap­ta­tion pro­gram led by the IMO, the Min­istry for the En­vi­ron­ment and Nat­u­ral Re­sources said.

In the short term, the ef­fects of cli­mate change are ex­pected to bring some eco­nomic ben­e­fits for Ice­land, ex­perts say. Warmer tem­per­a­tures could en­able ce­real cul­ti­va­tion and boost en­ergy pro­duc­tion, while new fish species may flour­ish.

But Smari McCarthy, a par­lia­men­tar­ian for the Pi­rate Party rep­re­sent­ing the south­ern con­stituency in­clud­ing Hofn, said too lit­tle at­ten­tion has been paid to adap­ta­tion.

“Ice­land has rea­son­ably good plans around re­duc­ing CO2 emis­sions, but I’ve not seen any­thing about how to deal with the unavoid­able ef­fects of cli­mate change, or even a proper list­ing of an­tic­i­pated ef­fects,” he said.

For towns like Hofn that base their liveli­hoods on fish­ing, the prospect of the har­bor clos­ing down is “an ex­is­ten­tial risk” the gov­ern­ment has yet to ad­dress, he said.

Some adap­ta­tion ef­forts are un­der­way, how­ever. Ge­ol­o­gist Sig­urds­son said the IMO is work­ing on fore­cast­ing which rivers are li­able to change course in the near fu­ture so ad­just­ments in in­fra­struc­ture can be made.

Mean­while, na­tional power com­pany Landsvirkjun out­lined plans in 2015 to ex­pand stor­age ca­pac­ity in some reser­voirs to deal with in­creased wa­ter flow and cli­mate im­pacts.

Melt­ing his­tory

It may be dif­fi­cult to imag­ine Ice­land with­out its sig­na­ture glaciers, im­mor­tal­ized in me­di­ae­val sagas and lit­er­a­ture such as Jules Verne’s Jour­ney to the Cen­ter of the Earth. But their pass­ing is in­evitable, Sig­urds­son said.

Even if planet-warm­ing green­house gas emis­sions were halted im­me­di­ately, the glaciers would still dis­ap­pear – along with a wealth of in­for­ma­tion – as global tem­per­a­tures would con­tinue to rise, he said.

The ice con­tains “a thou­sand years of his­tory” about vol­ca­noes and the cli­mate, he noted, en­cap­su­lat­ing “the en­tire his­tory of Ice­landers.

“We ex­pect the glaciers will com­pletely dis­ap­pear within 200 years, so we are los­ing five years of his­tory ev­ery year,” he said.

“Their his­tory is some­thing we must retrieve be­fore they melt.”

Photo: IC

Ice­bergs float at the Jokul­sar­lon glacial la­goon in Jokul­sar­lon, Ice­land on June 13.

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