Super-Jeeping: Immersive Learning or Disturbing Nature?

Icelandic glaciers and volcanic landscapes have long been considered important ecotourism and educational locales. As these landscapes change dramatically with the melting of glaciers, seeing what is left of the glaciers becomes increasingly urgent.

I experienced a super jeep adventure in South Iceland during a spring break study program in March 2014. This activity was offered as part of the program for experiential learning in the field of energy and sustainability and I was able to see nature and be a part of it by visiting some of the retreating glaciers and experiencing the region around the active volcano of Eyjafjallajökull.

Super Jeeps are designed to drive through glacier river waters [Photo: Sigudur, SiAdv]
 It can be difficult to explore the large, majestic glaciers, but “super jeeps,” specially adapted cars, allow tourists to explore the scenery. These super jeeps are not regular jeeps, but rather ones with strong traction for driving on the many different glacial terrains. They are tall and wide with thick tires, and can seat about seven to eight people. This experience, in addition to being educational, is thrilling, adventurous and enjoyable.

Night tour in a Super Jeep with Northern Lights view (Photo:

A number of companies in the country, such as Icelandic Mountain Guides, Discover Iceland and Glacier Jeeps, offer super jeep tours as part of day and night packages. These companies use ecotourism to attract more tourists and strive to maintain Iceland’s pristine landscapes.

Crossing glacier rivers, reaching sites for northern lights viewing,  driving along the coasts of the black sand beaches and traversing rugged terrain of volcanoes such as Eyjafjallajökull are made convenient and exciting through these tours.

"Adventure in mountains" An advertisement oriented to local users. (Source: Huijbens and Benediktsson)
“Adventure in mountains” A 1980s advertisement of a super jeep, oriented to local users. (Source: Huijbens and Benediktsson)

A study on auto-mobility in Iceland suggests that Iceland’s jeep culture has been around for a very long time. The first automobiles arrived in Iceland in the early years of the twentieth century, but there were virtually no jeeps or other four-wheel drive vehicles until the British and American military occupation of Iceland during World War II. Jeep ownership in the years after the war was limited largely to farmers and a few urban hobbyists, who used them as a means of transport around the island’s rough terrain.  In the 1980s, some technological changes led to the rise of the superjeep. The extra-wide tires, inflated only to a low pressure, were initially used for agricultural purposes such as spreading manure, but proved to work well for driving on snow. Imports of jeeps and specialized tires increased in the late 1980s and even more in the 1990s.  In order to reach the toughest, most challenging regions within their country they included modern technologies such as GPS, ultra-wide tires and electronics converting regular jeeps into super jeeps.


This 15 sec video shows how glacier river crossing is done in a super jeep


It was the most exciting adventure sport for me, as an environmental science student. But it is not always considered the most environmentally friendly sport. Most super jeeps are fuelled by imported petroleum or regular diesel – fossil fuels which contribute to the cause of melting glaciers. Experts from the adventure and travel agency South Iceland Adventure, founded in 2010, say the fuel efficiency with “regular diesel fuel is about 20-30L/100Km,” or about 9.5 miles per gallon.

Diesel combustion produces black carbon, which is a highly polluting form of particulate matter. Black carbon darkens the surface of glaciers and sea ice when it settles on them, leading to greater absorption of heat and more rapid melting. A study by Yale University researchers found that jeepneys – modified jeeps which are similar to super jeeps — in the Philippines release these black carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

One company, the Mountain Taxi, says its jeeps cause minimal to no environmental impact. The company’s website states, “All our super jeeps run on DIESEL fuel, not regular petrol = less pollution…Off road driving in Iceland is forbidden by law. You are only allowed to drive off road in the winter ON SNOW and frozen ground. So in fact the super jeep is not touching the ground at all = causing NO damage to the environment.” This company claims to promote sustainability by using local Icelandic products.

Rapeseed oil used as Biodiesel in Super Jeeps [Photo: Neha Ganesh]
Iceland is a “green” nation that gets almost 100% of its electricity and heat from domestic renewable energy sources such as geothermal and hydropower. The environmentally conscious country makes strong efforts to keep its greenhouse gas emissions to a minimum. Given the harmful effects of diesel combustion, there are concerted efforts to make super jeeps more environmentally friendly by using alternatives to regular diesel fuel such as rapeseed biodiesel, in Iceland.

Researchers Huijbens and Benediktsson argue in their study that super jeeping in Iceland brings up the issue of sustainability on one hand and environmental hazard on the other.  As Arneson et al. argued in a recent article, Icelanders initially saw super jeeping not for its potential in tourism or business, but as an expression  of pride in their rich culture and natural environment. The shift to tourism picked up in the late 1990s, but super jeeping remains an important form of adventure leisure for Icelanders as well as a source of income through tourist enterprises.

Through my own experience on a super jeep tour in Iceland, I learned that super jeeps can have an important role in educating people about the environment. It can permit them to experience nature without disturbing it. Even though the super jeeps are moving towards greater fuel efficiency and shifting towards renewable fuels, the ecological conflict continues. More efforts are needed to assure that this wonderful experience can become more genuinely sustainable.

GlacierHub has also published posts about the impacts of glacier tourism in Peru and Nepal.


Photo Friday: Glacier Crevasses

When glaciers retreat under rocky terrain, they form cracks which vary in width, depth and length. These cracks are called crevasses. A person who encounters a crevasse may appreciate nature’s beauty and form, or find the crevasse very frightening. Glacier climbers often explore crevasses along their way and scientists descend down a crevasse to study and observe glacial features.

For this week’s Photo Friday, we present photos of glacier crevasses, courtesy of Flickr users Jono Hay, Clay Junell, daveonhols, Vern, Andrew. E. Larsen and Dan Zelazo.

For more information on how glacier crevasses are formed in Iceland, read here.

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Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at

Participation: The Key to Water Governance in Glacier Regions

To conserve dwindling water resources, government policies will need to ensure that communities which live near main water sources are involved in water management, according to a new study by Margot Hurlbert and Joyeet Gupta.

This year, 2015, is marked by a global focus on sustainable development and climate change. Currently, a new set of universal goals, named the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is being negotiated, building off the expiring Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Access to clean water and water security remains a top goal and is integrated into all 17 SDGs.

The new study suggests that effective stakeholder participation in water management and climate change requires organizational learning and social trust, as well as appropriate policy structures and levels of consensus among stakeholders.

A number of questions emerge from a review of successful cases in which stakeholders have been part of effective policy making. For example, how can stakeholder participation be promoted within regional policy making,  and under which circumstances the stakeholder participation will be important for policy making? The researchers use what they term a “split-ladder participation model” to study stakeholder participation and policy under different settings in South America (Mendoza, Argentina and Coquimbo, Chile) and Canada (Alberta and Saskatchewan). They build on an influential 1969 paper by Sherry Arnstein, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” which has been cited over 1600 times.  They follow Arnstein’s image of a ladder which ascends from lower ground (less participation) to higher ground (more participation), and amend it by suggesting that the ladder has two split, or partially separated, sides, one with more tightly structured organizaitonal frameworks and one with less tightly structured frameworks. They draw on a set of case studies to document that both sides allow the climb upward to higher levels of participation, though with varying degrees of trust and social learning. The authors propose that this split-ladder approach can serve as a means to examine stakeholder participation in the formulation or implementation of  regional water policy.

Clear waters of lake and Andes Mountains in Mendoza, Argentine
Clear waters and mountains, Mendoza, Argentina (Photo: Flickr)

In the Mendoza region of the Argentine Andes (one of the four case studies presented in the study), local residents depend on glaciers for water supply. Many small communities manage water resources locally and independently in Mendoza. Access to water in this region is closely tied to land ownership, so individuals whose lands are close to the glacier control the meltwater. The authors argue that this control by local landowners allows residents to create sustainable policies and regulations, avoiding the domination of narrow special interest groups. This management, in turns, led to the creation of a Glacier Preservation Law to conserve glaciers as a valued resource. This law has gained public trust over the last couple of years, according to the study

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This image depicts the split- ladder model. (source: Hurlbert & Gupta 2015)

Water governance varies in the four cases. In Coquimbo, Chile, water is bought through a water market while in in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada, water is licensed through government institutions.

In Coquimbo, a region also fed by Andean glaciers, water markets and water privatization structure current water management practices. Participation and water governance are monitored via involvement of The Chilean national government, regional government bodies and civil society organizations support participation, though privatization has limited water rights for some stakeholders, and the building of dams  has caused further problems for management of water resources.

Water management and participation are handled slightly differently in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, through the provision of government licensing and availability of limited water markets and through water policies in which technical experts and criteria are highly influential. Canada manages drinking water quality standards through a combination of legislation, monitoring and reporting. In Alberta, where glacier meltwater from the Rocky Mountains is an important resource, water conservation efforts are undertaken through the Alberta Water Act 2000 while the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency governs water in Saskatchewan. The levels and forms of participation influence the patterns of effectiveness of water governance in these provinces.

The Oldman River Dam (shown here is its reservoir) in Alberta, Canada is categorized as a successful example of quadrant 1 of the split-ladder model. (Photo: Flickr)
The Oldman River Dam (shown here is a glimpse of its reservoir) in Alberta, Canada is categorized as a successful example of the split-ladder model. (Photo: Flickr)

Elsewhere in the world, organizations such as ICIMOD and the Mountain Partnership have categorically found that stakeholder participation and development of local scale solutions are critically needed for long term sustainability of water resources in mountain regions, where glaciers are melting as a result of climate change. The use of water resources could range from drinking supply to hydroelectric power and provision of ecological services. The split-ladder model framework could be potentially used in these areas as well for assessing importance of local participation in policy making.

In sum, this study offers the split ladder approach as a promising avenue to assess the role of stakeholder participation in water resource governance.  Its broad scope invites researchers, managers and community members around the world to apply it in sustainable management of this critical resource.

For more details on water governance in these areas, visit these posts on Canada and Chile.










Roundup: Mars Habitat, Peru Drought, Wildfires

Terrestrial fluvial-lacustrine environments suggest past habitability in Mars

Vatnajökull Ice Cap, Iceland (Photo: Flickr)
Vatnajökull Ice Cap region, Iceland (Photo: Flickr)

“The search for once-habitable locations on Mars is increasingly focused on environments dominated by fluvial and lacustrine processes, such as those investigated by the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover. The availability of liquid water coupled with the potential longevity of such systems renders these localities prime targets for the future exploration of Martian biosignatures. Fluvial-lacustrine environments associated with basaltic volcanism are highly relevant to Mars, but their terrestrial counterparts have been largely overlooked as a field analogue. Such environments are common in Iceland, where basaltic volcanism interacts with glacial ice and surface snow to produce large volumes of meltwater within an otherwise cold and dry environment”

Read more here.

New community-based adaptation to drought in Peru

Communities in Peru suffer from drought (Photo: Flickr)

“The livelihoods of people in the Andes are expected to be affected by climate change due to their dependence on glacier water. The observed decrease in glacier volume over the last few decades is likely to accelerate during the current century, which will affect water availability in the region. This paper presents an approach for participatory development of community-based adaptation measures to cope with the projected impacts of climate change. It combines in an innovative manner participatory design with physical measurements, modeling and a vulnerability analysis.”

Read more here.

Mineral dust and black carbon from wildfires melt Washington’s glaciers

Mount Olympus in  Washington (Photo: Flickr)
Mount Olympus in Washington (Photo: Flickr)

“Assessing the potential for black carbon (BC) and dust deposition to reduce albedo and accelerate glacier melt is of interest in Washington because snow and glacier melt are an important source of water resources, and glaciers are retreating. In August 2012 on Snow Dome, Mount Olympus, Washington, we measured snow surface spectral albedo and collected surface snow samples and a 7 m ice core. The snow and ice samples were analyzed for iron (Fe, used as a dust proxy) via inductively coupled plasma sector field mass spectrometry, total impurity content gravimetrically, BC using a single-particle soot photometer (SP2), and charcoal through microscopy……The Big Hump forest fire is the likely source for the higher concentrations”

Read more here.


New Report Addresses Mountain Sustainability

A major new report provides a thorough summary of research and an innovative discussion of development efforts in mountain regions. This report, titled ‘Mountains and Climate Change: A Global Concern,’ was published in December 2014 by the Mountain Partnership as part of the UN Sustainable Mountain Development Series. The Mountain Partnership is an international organization, dedicated to sustainable mountain development, which partners with the United Nations.

Sheep grazing below Mt. Huantsán in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen
Tropical Andes: Sheep grazing below Mt. Huantsán in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen

The report was developed for the 20th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP20), which was held in Lima, Peru, in December 2014. Integrating a variety of perspectives from researchers and practitioners, the report synthesizes and analyzes adaptation-mitigation strategies and relevant policy recommendations about climate change vulnerabilities in the mountain regions in order to understand problems and solutions. These together seek to define and understand both the problem space and the solution space for sustainable mountain development globally world-wide. Case studies on glaciers presented in the report cover the mountains of the Alps, the tropical Andes, the Himalayas, the Carpathians of Eastern Europe and Kyrgyzstan.

One of these case studies reports on historical and current changes in the tropical Andes. It finds that smaller glaciers have been retreating relatively faster than larger glaciers. It includes projections for the 0°C mean annual isotherm (the altitude at which the average temperature is at the freezing point of water) so that glaciers may be maintained. This isotherm, also known as the freezing level, may move upslope by hundreds of meters by the year 2100, leading to increased melting and glacier retreat. The report suggests that precipitation patterns over the Andes are stable and will not raise water scarcity concerns, but rising temperatures at higher altitudes will increase evaporation and lead to water deficiencies.

This short 2012 World Bank Video ‘Melting glaciers: The Slow Disaster in the Andes’ provides an overview of impacts of changing climate on Andean water

The Carpathian region in Europe, discussed in a second case study, is home to a long mountain range with relatively fewer and smaller glaciers. These mountains are also facing impacts from climatic changes. At the Fourth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Carpathian Convention (COP4) in 2014, strategies for adaptation to climate change in this region was adopted. Some of these recommendations include developing funding mechanisms including a plan for compensating mountain areas for the service and goods they provide, building  knowledge hubs and platforms for sharing information.

A glacial peak in Tatra National Park, Slovakia, in the highest section of the Carpathians (Source: Peter Fenďa/ Flickr)
A glacial peak in Tatra National Park, Slovakia, in the highest section of the Carpathians (Source: Peter Fenďa/ Flickr)

Temperatures during the summer have shown an increase in the Carpathian region, contributing to melting, even though winter temperatures remained relatively unchanged. The report suggests that in the last 50 years, precipitation over this mountain region has overall been more intensified and displays a spatially varying “mosaic pattern” which has anomalous increase in few locations and decrease in others. These changes have been attributed to the effects of a pattern of increasing localization of storms. The report calls for further studies to describe processes that affect glacier retreat and to reduce the uncertainties in projections, and it places high priority on the regional capacity building and financial investment in the region.

A Himalayan Avalanche (Photo:Flickr)
A Himalayan avalanche (Source: Pavel Matejicek/Flickr)

This report reasserts with higher confidence findings in earlier documents such as “Mountain glaciers are key indicators of climate change” and “Glacier changes are the most visible evidence of global climate change we have.” It underscores that retreating glaciers are modifying the regions’ hydro-climatology, and this change is in turn causing a cascade of hazards such as landslides, glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), and rock falls. The report recommends sustaining mountain economies through integrated risk management and water management approaches incorporate participatory governance and decision making. It stresses that most mountain ranges are found in developing countries, but that the bulk of the responsibility for climate change lies with developed countries. Finally, the report highlights the importance of including glaciers and mountain climate change in the United Nation Development Programme’s Post-2015 Development Agenda and in Sustainable Development Goals which will orient global development efforts in coming decades. In this way, the report serves not only as a synthesis of prior research but as a guide for future action.




Roundup: Calving, ‘Record grooves’ and Story Maps

Calved Greenland Iceberg 

A calved iceberg in Greenland (Photo: Flickr)

“Iceberg calving is ultimately related to the mechanical failure of ice. However, predicting mass loss from calving events remains challenging because calving takes on diferent forms under different conditions. For example, large tabular icebergs sporadically detach from freely foating ice tongues with many years of quiescence between major calving events”

Read more on the physics of iceberg calving here.


Telling a Glacier Story through Maps

Advancing Harvard Glacier (Photo: Flickr)


Alaska Ice: Documenting Glaciers on the Move is an Esri Story Map which uses satellite imagery and comparisons of modern & vintage photographs to document Alaska’a glaciers.”

Read more on ESRI’s Story Maps and Time-lapse here.


Linking Earth’s Ice Ages to Ocean Floor topography

Ocean Floor topography/Abyssal Hills (
Ocean Floor topography/Abyssal Hills (

“The evidence comes from seafloor spreading centers: sites throughout the ocean where plates of ocean crust move apart and magma erupts in between, building new crust onto the plates’ trailing edges. Parallel to these spreading centers are “abyssal hills”: long, 100-meter-high ridges on the diverging plates, separated by valleys. On bathymetric maps of seafloor topography, they look like grooves on a record. These grooves, it now turns out, play the tune of Earth’s ice ages.”

Read more on ‘Record grooves’ at Science.







Photo Friday: Iceland’s Black Sand Beaches

When a volcano erupts from underneath a glacier, pulses of meltwater deposit materials in outwash plains. The 1918 subglacial Katla volcano eruption in southern Iceland formed the Mýrdalssandur glacial outwash plain. This plain, which covers hundreds of square kilometers, includes a number of striking  black sand beaches, including a particularly well-known one in the town of Vík í Mýrdal.

Here is a selection of photos of Iceland’s black sand beaches with large ice fragments and sand dunes,  set against the backdrop of glacial ice caps. Photos are courtesy of Neha Ganesh and Flickr users James West, Ade Russell and Oliver Rich.

For more information about Iceland’s volcanoes and glaciers, look here and here.


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Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at


Mapping South Asia’s Glaciers

Recent research has provided valuable information on glacier processes in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) mountains of South Asia, a region often called the “Third Pole” because it contains the largest area of ice outside the Arctic and Antarctic. Glacier retreat in this region has attracted considerable scientific and media attention. The 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that Himalayan glaciers were shrinking faster than those in other parts of the world, and would likely be gone by the year 2035. This comment became controversial in 2009 because of its inaccuracy and weak basis in scientific research, and because glacier retreat in this region has major consequences for water supplies in one of the most densely-populated regions of the world. The IPCC made subsequent corrections in 2010.

This video from 2010, ‘Himalayan Glaciers Melting Faster Than Anywhere Else in World,’ conveys the tone of concern during the period of the controversy.


Stemming from this controversy, documenting the glacier coverage in the HKH has become a topic of critical importance. A recent study by Bajracharya et al. (2015) helps establish the extent of glacier coverage in the HKH region and the rate of glacier change in several basins in this region.

The rugged topography and the poor road networks in the HKH region have limited ground-based data collection. Remote sensing is therefore an attractive alternative. Bajracharya, a researcher at ICIMOD in Kathmandu, and his colleagues utilized satellite images, combining them in some cases with available ground-based data.

The Imja Valley, filled with glacier ice in 1950, contained meltwater lakes by 2000.
Views of the Imja Valley filled with ice in 1950 (top photo), which has been replaced by lakes by  2000 (bottom photo) (Photo: )

The study maps glacial coverage and retreat for a period extending from about 1980 (the precise date varies from location to location) through 2010. They map the decadal glacial change for the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s  for four large representative basins which span the HKH region from west to east. The study basins are the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan, the Shyok Basin in Pakistan, the Imja Valley in Nepal, and the Lunana region in Bhutan. Glacier melt is a critical source of  drinking and irrigation water for large populations in the regiona and critical to hydropower generation as well; glacial processes are also important because of the associated risks of glacier lake outburst floods (recap Imja Lake in Nepal).

So what can be learned from these newly assembled and analyzed data? First, the study reports, that despite the importance of glaciers in the HKH  region, they cover only 1.4% of the region. In addition, it finds that glacier retreat is proceeding at different rates in different places. The most rapidly retreating glaciers are the ones located below 5000 m above sea level and the ones that are smallest in area. Combining these factors, the most impacted basin in the study is the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan.

The Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan, one of the four basins studied in the study. (Photo:
The Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan (Photo:

The contributions of this study notwithstanding, scientific challenges in the HKH remain. The researchers note that there is continued uncertainty about glacier retreat and downstream impacts, because of uncertainties about future climate change and about the responses of glaciers to this change in this region, for which research remains incomplete.  This study sets the stage for future research, looking to past data and suggesting directions of future work.

This prize-winning video from UNDP, the ‘Himalayan Meltdown,’ provides a thorough overview of the region and shows the need for ongoing research.