New Straits Times
School field trip documents shrinking glacier
VIK (Iceland): Seventh-grader Lilja Einarsdottir is on an unusual field trip with her class, measuring the Solheimajokull glacier to see how much it had shrunk in the past year and witnessing climate change first-hand.
“It is very beautiful but at the same time it is very sad to see how much it has melted,” said Lilja, bundled up against the autumn chill in a blue pompom hat.
Each October since 2010, nowretired schoolteacher Jon Stefansson has brought students aged 13 from a school in Hvolsvollur, a village about 60km away, to the glacier to record its evolution.
The results are chilling: nestled between two mountain slopes, Solheimajokull shrunk by an average of 40m per year in the past decade, according to the students’ measurements.
Youngsters armed with a GPS, a measuring tape and two yellow flags, calculate the distances on foot from various spots, struggling against strong winds
Once done, they hop in a dinghy and cross a lake of brown meltwater to reach an imposing wall of ice, the terminus, or front of the glacier.
Here, they determine the gap between the terminus and a handpainted sign at the end of a footpath, where previous students have recorded their measurements over the years.
The numbers on the sign indicate how many metres of ice have disappeared over the past years: “24”, “50”, “110”.
“When (the first students) started here, you couldn’t see any water. So it (the glacier) was very big at first,” said Lilja.
Glaciers cover 11 per cent of Iceland’s surface, including Vatnajokull, the largest ice cap in Europe.
But they have lost about 250 cubic kilometres of ice in the past 25 years, or the equivalent of seven per cent of their total volume.
“Now we have lakes that are forming in front of many of them,” said glaciologist Hrafnhildur Hannesdottir of the Icelandic Meteorological Office.
In August, Iceland unveiled a plaque commemorating the country’s Okjokull glacier, the first to be stripped of its glacier status in 2014.
The plaque was meant as a wake-up call to the effects of global warming as the island’s 400-plus glaciers could be gone by 2200.
Solheimajokull, where the students go, is a popular tourist spot as it is one of the closest to Reykjavik, only 150km away. Icelandic Mountain Guides, one of three operators that runs year-round visits, had 27,000 clients last year.
Solheimajokull, about 10km long and 2km wide, is an outlet glacier of Myrdalsjokull, the country’s fourth biggest ice cap.
Under the ice here lies Katla, one of Iceland’s most powerful volcanoes, which last erupted in 1901 and scientists say is long overdue to do so again.
The glacier receded by 11m this year, a significant amount but far from the record 110m registered last year.
“It depends more or less on the weather (and) how the glacier is breaking,” explains teacher Stefansson.
“Sometimes you get a big cliff falling into the water and then you get a very, very big measurement.”