At Glacier’s End: Protecting Glacial Rivers in Iceland

Page after page of curving colorful rivers delight the eye in At Glacier’s End, a recently published book about Iceland’s glacial river systems. The images that lie behind its cover were created by Chris Burkard, a photographer and explorer, and the more than 8,000 words that tell their story were penned by Matt McDonald, a storyteller and traveller. 

“Our main goal with the book was to advocate for Iceland’s national parks and to try to create a voice for them from a visual perspective,” Burkard said in an interview with GlacierHub.  “In Iceland, it’s really surprising, many politicians who are the decision-makers haven’t had a chance to actually see [these places] because they are far away and really hard to access.”

The proposed boundaries of the national park. It would be the largest in Europe if created.
Source: Iceland Monitor

In between full page spreads of Burkard’s aerial photography––rich with saturated shades of all the blues and greens imaginable in the waters of glacial rivers––McDonald’s prose captures two main lines of thought feeding into the wider discourse on how to manage Iceland’s rivers; should the rivers be dammed and used to power highly energy consumptive industries, or should they be protected as part of a new national park? 

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Source: Chris Burkard

“To reach a broader audience, I wrote the book I’d want to read––a narrative that (I hope) gracefully weaves together tales of travel, history, culture, and these endangered glacial rivers,” McDonald told GlacierHub. As a result, At Glacier’s End is a well-rounded argument for why now is the time to create a national park in the Highland. 

The Highland (hálendið in Icleandic) is the sparsely populated, high elevation plateau covering Iceland’s interior. In total, it covers about 40 percent of the country. It is mostly uninhabitable volcanic desert dotted with large glaciers and the rivers they feed. Iceland also has a relatively flat, low elevation ring of land on its coasts which acts as the country’s major transportation route. 

Within the Highland reside brilliantly pigmented glacial rivers. The rivers get their color from the glacial flour suspended in their waters. Because of active volcanoes and a history of volcanism, Iceland has diverse rocks of varying colors that glaciers grind up as they move. Once the rock has been ground into flour, it can be carried by meltwater into rivers, giving the rivers their unique coloring. 

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Source: Chris Burkard

“I think the most challenging part of shooting these photos was being in the air, sticking my hand out of a plane, trying to give perspective by capturing every part of the entire river system from the glacier all the way to the ocean. Our prerogative was to give people the full perspective,” Burkard said. Photography, and art more broadly, can play an important role in broadening viewers’ perspectives on an issue. 

Inside the Book

The book opens with a prologue by Burkard. In it, he says he is hesitant to call himself an environmentalist––a surprising way to begin what is essentially a conservation story. “I grew up in a very conservative home and the concept of environmentalism was, in my head, I always pictured some 80-year old dude in a floppy khaki hat. I didn’t realize that anybody could protect and advocate for places they love simply by sharing them––I realized that my work can actually advocate for places I care about,” he explained.

The text and images flow together over the course of the book. “I ordered the text of the book in chronological order from the beginning (Iceland’s land formation) to today (the issues affecting these glacial rivers right now)” McDonald told GlacierHub. He added that “The text mirrors the flow of the images, from glacier to river mouth, beginning to end. Each chapter features an introduction in the form of a personal travel vignette from my time in Iceland, ordered from landing in the country to leaving the country. Then each chapter’s body text follows the history, science, and culture through time.”

In the third chapter, the conservation message at the book’s heart begins to peek through. McDonald explains how due to hydropower Iceland could offer low electricity rates that other energy producers in Europe couldn’t compete with, attracting the high energy use aluminum industry. To generate hydropower it is necessary to dam the rivers. 

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Source: Chris Burkard

One dam, Kárahnjúkar, was completed in 2008, and affected five percent of the Highland. It was constructed for an American company to smelt aluminum. 

After the 2008 financial crisis, which hit Iceland hard, it looked likely that more rivers would become power sources for industry to create much needed jobs. But, the 2010 volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull launched Iceland onto the tourism map, shifting its focus away from aluminum. Tourism boosted Iceland’s economy and by 2016 accounted for 10 percent of its GDP, creating a significant incentive to protect the wilderness that draws visitors to the country. 

The fourth and final chapter highlights the various benefits that would result from the creation of a Highland national park. Locally, glacial rivers help to maintain Iceland’s coastline by delivering glacial sediment to its edges. Building dams would disrupt this process.

Globally, glacial sediments are important as well. The sediments deposited into the ocean actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through a process of calcium in the rock binding with CO2. The sediment is also a food source for sea algae that many fish species eat, making it important to the fishing industry. 

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Source: Chris Burkard

Creating a New National Park

McDonald examines the hard choices that need to be made to ensure that rural communities have the jobs they need. He considers the consumption that most people partake in using products like cans and cars that contain aluminum. And he weighs the importance of the landscape and broader environment humans rely on. He then calls for readers to show their support for the creation of a Highland national park and includes a link to a petition readers can sign to show their support. He and Burkard believe that such a park would create jobs in rural communities, further increase tourism, and benefit the planet.

At the time of the book’s publication, the plan had the approval of 65 percent of Icelanders. A vote is meant to be held in late 2020. McDonald suggests that the park may need to make exceptions for activities that are not typically accepted on protected lands––but that compromising to ensure that farmers, hunters, herders, off road vehicle users, and hikers can all continue to use the land rather than converting it into a series of dams for industrial hydropower would be the better option. 

“There will certainly be challenges to overcome, like powerful energy lobbies and polarizing politics, but we are optimistic the park will happen by the end of the year,” McDonald said.

“I think one of the most important things to understand about Iceland is that real change can happen right now, and they value all of our voices,” McDonald stated. “So please use your voice by whatever means necessary to support this national park in Iceland. We have an opportunity––as a worldwide community––to say that even though these are Iceland’s glaciers and rivers, we support their preservation as one of the planet’s greatest works of art.”

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Source: Chris Burkard

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