Tourists on Thin Ice in Glacial Lagoon

In February, a group of nearly 50 tourists drew national attention in Iceland when, ignoring posted signs, they wandered onto a sheet of ice. Luckily they were called by back to shore by a tour guide who spotted them, according to Iceland Magazine. However, the event raised the question of tourist safety, which is a growing concern in the area.

The Glacial lagoon Cafe, which is open year round to provide meals to tourists. Courtesy of M Jackson.
The Glacial Lagoon Cafe, catering to tourists. Courtesy of M Jackson.

The event happened at the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, a popular destination in southeast Iceland and the terminus of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. The group, which included some parents with children, braved the ice in order to get a closer view of seals. They jumped over cracks between floating ice. Though the ice appeared stable, the tourists had placed themselves at risk of being stranded since the ice sheets could have drifted apart.

The Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon is a draw for tourists in the area, since it contains strikingly impressive icebergs and is conveniently situated on Iceland’s Ring Road.

Dr. Þorvarður Árnason, an environmental scientist at the University of Iceland, said that the lagoon’s ice is made complicated by its tidal connection with the Atlantic Ocean.

“Foreign tourists coming to Jökulsárlón during the winter are probably not aware of this,” he wrote in an email message. “They think this is a ‘normal’ frozen lake… and do not consider the danger of the incoming tide of warm oceanic water which can melt the surface ice and also causes the floating icebergs to start moving, so that the ice around them can crack.”

The incident has become known locally as “the stranding of the tourists,” according to M Jackson, a researcher in the area who spoke with GlacierHub.

Jackson is based near Jökulsárlón and is on a 9-month visit to Iceland to collect first-hand observations and accounts of glaciers’ impacts and relationships with humans. In Iceland, Jackson said that the problem of tourist safety is frequent and well-known.

The lagoon is a very popular destination for photography enthusiasts, who get to see icebergs up close.
Photographers get to see icebergs up close. Courtesy of M Jackson.

She spoke with tourists at Jökulsárlón in the days following the incident. When she went to the lagoon, tourists were again walking out onto the ice and she asked them about safety when they returned to shore. Some said they were following footprints in the snow, while others thought it was similar to walking on frozen lakes back home. Others said danger wasn’t a concern.

The responses indicated that tourists were both unfamiliar with the dangers of the lagoon ice and neglectful of “individual and community safety,” Jackson wrote via email. “There appears to be a disregard for the dangers foreign tourists are placing themselves in and the dangers they are placing others in—the rescuers who will volunteer to help them.”

Jackson lives in the town of Höfn, a fishing town of 1,700 near Jökulsárlón, and said that resident volunteers from the town are the first line of response for situations like the one that arose. Volunteer groups fit into a long tradition in Iceland, according to a recent article in the New Yorker. The Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue’s original goal was to save fishermen lost at sea. In 1950, they saved both the victims of a plane crash on a glacier as well as a team of first responders from the American military who got stranded. The work is seen as a form of community service, with employers allowing volunteers to take time off for for training and emergencies. The presence of this system has encouraged abuse, and tourists are seen as taking unnecessary risks because they count on it.

Though the tourist group at Jökulsárlón was able to walk back to shore and did not need saving, incidents such as this still ring alarm bells in Höfn. Jackson said that when the Search and Rescue (SAR) receives an alert, “it often takes them 1-2 hours, depending on weather, to even reach the scene of the emergency. Increasingly, this all volunteer force is being called out each day to respond to calls for help from foreign tourists—and many of the SAR members I spoke with are worn out from such an increased call volume.”

A bridge that spans the lagoon. Courtesy of M Jackson.
A bridge that spans the lagoon. Courtesy of M Jackson.

Jökulsárlón is not the only site where tourists have flouted warnings. Another article in Iceland Magazine shows pictures taken at Gullfoss waterfall, another nearby tourist draw, of tourists climbing over gated paths and ignoring warning signs. A tourist recently drowned off Reynisfjara Beach, leaving many wondering when the next major accident would occur.

Tourism is increasing in this part of Iceland and hundreds of visitors each day are visiting in the winter as well as the summer, which is different from the past. The winter conditions are more difficult, but the many people who visit do not fully appreciated the risks. According to the Iceland Tourist Board, foreign tourists doubled between 2010 and 2014, when they approached 1 million. That puts Iceland residents, who number at 323,000, at a three-to-one disadvantage compared to tourists.

The concern over safety contrasts with the publicity that some risk-takers are getting. In glacier boarding, extreme athletes ride down glacier liquid channels on boogie boards. Jackson said that  photographs going back to 2011 in popular media showing the stunning interior of an ice cave led to a surge in demand for tours of ice caves. Jackson said she has seen tour groups in ice caves where some members are wearing helmets and some are not, and some are wearing spiked shoes while others are wearing sneakers.

Tour operators have sprung up offering glacier walks and trips to ice caves, and some are less insistent on safety precautions. A study in Norway quoted one tour company stating that safety was their top priority, but another one stated, we have had no accidents, only bone fractures.”

Giant icebergs in the lagoon. Courtesy of M Jackson.
Giant icebergs in the lagoon. Courtesy of M Jackson.

Preventing incidents like the one at Jökulsárlón will require changes from tourists, the tourist industry, and the government. Jackson wrote that the area is an important one for tourists, who get to see icebergs close up, and the tourism industry, which is providing jobs for locals. However, while tourism has increased rapidly, a coordinated approach to the safety issue has lagged behind, she wrote, and while the government is ultimately responsible for leading a response, there is a feeling that this will not happen fast enough.

“Incidents such as what just happened out at the lagoon are likely to increase, and as many observe here, until there is a large scale tragedy, it is unlikely that anything will change,” Jackson wrote.

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