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? 

Untitled
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. 

Untitled 
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. 

Untitled
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. 

Untitled
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.”

Untitled
Source: Chris Burkard

Roundup: Effects of High Latitude Dust, The First Proglacial Sediment Inventory, Glaciers and New Zealand’s Paleoclimate

The Effects of High Latitude Dust on Arctic Atmosphere

Science Reports published a study on November 6, which profiles the vertical distribution of dusts in the Arctic atmosphere. Read the full study here. From the abstract:

“High Latitude Dust (HLD) contributes 5% to the global dust budget, but HLD measurements are sparse. Dust observations from Iceland provide dust aerosol distributions during the Arctic winter for the first time, profiling dust storms as well as clean air conditions. Five winter dust storms were captured during harsh conditions…Dust sources in the Arctic are active during the winter and produce large amounts of particulate matter dispersed over long distances and high altitudes. HLD contributes to Arctic air pollution and has the potential to influence ice nucleation in mixed-phase clouds and Arctic amplification.”

For more on high latitude dust impacts on GlacierHub, read How Dust From Receding Glaciers Is Affecting the Climate.

Launch of LOAC during strong winds in Hvalfjordur bay, West Iceland, on 12th January 2016 (Source RAX/Ragnar Axelsson).

The First Proglacial River Sediment Inventory

Sediments are being exposed as glaciers retreat, making proglacial rivers one of the most sediment-rich areas in the world. From the abstract of a study published in the 2019 book Geomorphology of Proglacial Systems:

“Deglaciation since the Little Ice Age has exposed only a small areal proportion of alpine catchments, but these proglacial systems are disproportionately important as sediment sources. Indeed sediment yields from proglacial rivers are amongst the highest measured anywhere in the World. Motivated by a desire to understand where exactly within catchments this sediment is coming from and how it might evolve, this chapter presents the first digital inventories of proglacial systems and the first comparative inter- and intra-catchment comparison of their geometry, topography and geomorphology.”

The e-book by Springer is available here.

Tasman River between Tasman Lake (proglacial) and Lake Pukaki in the distance (Source: Fabian Rindler/WikiCommons).

Glacier Fluctuations Key to New Zealand Paleoclimate Record

A new study, published in Science Direct on November 1, traces the fluctuations in some New Zealand glaciers over the last 10,000-plus years, showing the significance for contemporary issues of climate change. From the abstract:

“Geological records of past glacier extent can yield important constraints on the timing and magnitude of pre-historic climate change. Here we present a cosmogenic Helium-3 moraine chronology from Mt. Ruapehu in central North Island, New Zealand that records fluctuations of New Zealand’s northernmost glaciers over the last 14,000 years.”

Read the full study here.

The upper southern flank of Mt. Ruapehu with cosmogenic Helium-3 exposure ages on moraines in the foreland of Mangaehuehu Glacier (Source: Eaves et al/Science Direct).

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New Research Reveals How Megafloods Shaped Greenland And Iceland

Greenland and Iceland have been periodically reshaped by megafloods over thousands of years, a new paper in the journal Earth-Science Reviews has revealed.

British research duo Jonathan Carrivick and Fiona Tweed have provided the first evidence of gargantuan Greenlandic floods and extensively reviewed the record of comparable events in Iceland. The researchers set out to better understand what constituted a megaflood and find traces of them recorded in the landscapes of these icy islands.

In media stories and even within the scientific literature the authors found that terms like “catastrophic flood,” “cataclysmic flood,” and “super flood” have been used indiscriminately and interchangeably. There are, however, strict definitions associated with each. A “catastrophic flood,” for instance, occurs when peak discharge exceeds 100,000 cubic meters per second — more than 18 times greater than the flow over Niagara Falls. Multiply that by ten (i.e. 1,000,000 cubic meters per second) and you get a sense of what constitutes a true megaflood.

Despite expressly seeking records of megafloods in the landscape and literature, Carrivick and Tweed found that a more practical approach was to identify events with “megaflood attributes.” Scientists have recorded very few true megafloods since those that cascaded off the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which once mantled much of North America in the aftermath of the Last Glacial Maximum. While there have been few recent floods that exceed one million cubic meters per second, there have been several with comparable erosive power and lasting landscape impacts.

Shaped by water

In Greenland, Carrivick and Tweed found 14 sites where huge floods had rampaged down fjords and across expansive “sandur,” or outwash plains. These have typically been outbursts from ice-dammed lakes, which have periodically unleashed inconceivably vast volumes. The glacial lake Iluliallup Tasersua empties every five to seven years and has a capacity of more than six cubic kilometers of water. At its peak, that flow would drown New York City’s Central Park in a column of water deeper than four Empire States Buildings.

Iceland, too, has experienced its fair share of monstrous floods. Many of them have were triggered by volcanic eruptions. Due to the unique setting of Iceland, where the active fire-breathing mountains of the Mid-Atlantic island are blanketed with ice caps and glaciers, erupting magma invariably explodes into the underside of a quenching ice mass. This interaction, more often than not, results in an outburst flood known locally as a “jökulhlaup,” which produces tremendous amounts of power that is capable of reshaping and inundating the island’s plains.

The region surrounding Öræfajökull, one of the most active volcanoes in Iceland, is infamous for having suffered from devastation wrought by both fire and ice.

“After it erupted in 1362, the whole area was renamed as ‘Öræfi,’ which means ‘The Wasteland,” Tweed told GlacierHub. “They renamed the area because it had been inundated by a grey sludge, hyper-concentrated flow deposits and volcanic ash which had eradicated the farmland and rendered it unusable.”

The eruption was the largest in Europe since Vesuvius immortalised the communities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD79. The floodwaters rushed out at over 100,000 cubic meters per second — qualifying as a “catastrophic flood.” The torrent was so powerful that it was able to transport rocks weighing 500 metric tons, each equivalent to four and a half blue whales. Despite not strictly meeting the definition of a megaflood, the event certainly bore many of the hallmarks of one.

Vast plumes of sediment flow into the Labrador Sea (Credit: NASA)

But the impacts of such deluges are not limited to their power to remold centuries-old landforms, toss about house-sized chunks of ice, or transport a beach-worth of sediment in a matter of hours.

Outbursts in Greenland can release as much as six billion metric tons of water within a matter of 7-10 days. This rapid draining of a glacier-lake basin radically changes the pressure atop the ice sheets, causing isostatic rebound, which can result in fractured shorelines, as localized sections of coast re-expand.

Water from an outburst flood often passes through a highly pressurized network of conduits within, beneath, and alongside ice. This can trigger a “seismic tremor.” So-called “glacier-derived seismicity” has been measured via seismometers since the early 2000s and experienced by eye-witnesses in the vicinity of Grænalón, one of the most famous jökulhlaup systems in Iceland. The authors note that while these events can be detected and felt, there is negligible impact from them.

Consequences for communities and corporations

Glacier floods also impact the communities living in the shadow of ice. Carrivick and Tweed’s previous work revealed that Iceland has experienced at least 270 glacier outburst floods across 32 sites, killing at least seven people. This makes Iceland among “the most susceptible regions to glacier floods” — and the economic costs that often result.  

Icelanders are well acquainted with the natural dangers. Volcanic eruptions, floods, and other geohazards are signature characteristics of their homeland.

Looking to the future, Tweed said: “We can expect to have jökulhlaups for another 200 years, until the ice is gone.”

Such dire flood predictions are unlikely to rattle the stoic Icelanders, who are more liable to fear the prospect of an Iceland bereft of its namesake.

In even less populous Greenland, with people rarely situating themselves in known flood paths, the impacts appear to be less disastrous. That said, Carrivick noted: “When these big outburst floods go into the fjords, and move out of the fjords and up and down the coasts, you get these visible sediment plumes.”

The influx of sediment and freshwater changes the temperature, salinity, and turbidity of the water in a fjord and the nearby ocean, which can drive fish out the region. “It basically shuts down the fishing industry for a couple of days at least,” Carrivick said.

This has potentially massive economic consequences, as 95 percent of Greenland’s exports are fish and fishery products, not to mention that the fishery industry provides employment to approximately 12 percent of the population and puts 87 kilograms of fish on every Greenlander’s table each year.

The Ilulissat Hydroelectric Project, located in Disco Bay, West Greenland, provides energy to 4,500 inhabitants of the town of Ilulissat (Source: Verkís)

Yet longstanding industries are not the only ones exposed to the fickleness of Greenland’s glacier outbursts. As the ice sheet melts, a number of resources are being eyed by extractive industries. Carrivick recounted meeting teams of Swiss experts who had been commissioned by Australian mining companies to set up rigs and conduct mineralogical investigations in deglaciating regions.

He also remarked on the prospects of the hydropower industry, which has taken advantage of booms in other nations, like Nepal. “It might be an exaggeration, but I think it’s goldrush time,” he said. Regulators, he added, might struggle to keep up with monitoring and mitigating environmental impacts.

Whatever the future holds for Iceland and Greenland, Carrivick and Tweed’s research advances significantly scientific knowledge of the history of flooding on these two islands and makes a strong case for remaining attentive to the changes occurring on their diminishing ice masses.

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The Funeral for Iceland’s OK Glacier Attracts International Attention

On August 18, about 100 people, including Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir and former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, hiked for two hours to attend a somber event. The gathering was in memory of OK Glacier, which had melted so extensively that, in 2014, scientists pronounced it dead. It is the first Icelandic glacier lost to climate change. 

To be considered a glacier, an ice mass needs to have movement. OK melted so significantly that it no longer had the mass to move under its own weight and so no longer met the criteria of a glacier.

The event received international coverage, appearing in Time, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, and the BBC, among other major publications. In a New York Times opinion piece, PM Jakobsdottir called the gathering “a local ceremony but a global story.”

“Glaciers are melting all across the world, contributing enormously to rising sea levels,” she wrote. “Himalayan glaciers help regulate the water supply of a quarter of humankind. Natural systems will be disrupted.”

Funeral attendees gathered around a rock on which a commemorative plaque was installed.
(Source: Gisli Palsson)

Two researchers, Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, first proposed commemorating the loss of OK Glacier. The Rice University scientists produced a documentary called “Not Okin order to draw attention to the plight of the glacier. In the process of making the film, Howe and Boyer had the idea to hold a kind of memorial for OK, which is shorthand for Okjökull.

Howe and Boyer attended the August 18 commemoration.

Rice University researchers Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer produced a documentary film about OK Glacier. They pose next to a plaque commemorating the glacier’s demise. 
(Source: Rice University/Amy McCaig)

“As we neared the site of the lost glacier, we followed an Icelandic hiking tradition where you walk in silence, think of three wishes, and never look back,” Howe told GlacierHub in an email. “Completing that last 100 meters in silence was exceptionally poignant. We were stepping forward, to be sure, but also reflecting on what it means to say goodbye to the world that we have known.”

Rice University researcher Dominic Boyer holds the plaque commemorating OK Glacier before it is installed. 
(Source: Rice University/Amy McCaig)

Once the participants reached OK, they reflected on the tragedy of OK’s disappearance and on the need to protect existing glaciers.

“At the site of the memorial we had words of recognition, remorse, and— more than anything—calls to action,” Howe said.

Echoing the sentiment, Robinson told the Associated Press: “The symbolic death of a glacier is a warning to us, and we need action.”

OK’s demise and the commemoration in Iceland has already had ripple effect. On September 22, mourners will gather at a funeral for the Pizol Glacier in eastern Switzerland.

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Iceland to Commemorate the Demise of Okjökull Glacier

Iceland is home to hundreds of glaciers, but in 2014 the number fell by one: the former Okjökull glacier was the first Icelandic glacier to melt due to human-caused climate change. 

Ok in August 2018.
Source: Gísli Pálsson

On August 18, 2019, an event will be held to install a monument to the lost glacier. It was organized primarily by a group of researchers from Rice University in Houston. Participants will include geologists, authors, members of the Icelandic Hiking Society and the general public. In a press release from Rice University, anthropologist Cymene Howe who produced a documentary about Ok said, “by marking Ok’s passing, we hope to draw attention to what is being lost as Earth’s glaciers expire. These bodies of ice are the largest freshwater reserves on the planet and frozen within them are histories of the atmosphere. They are also often important cultural forms that are full of significance.”

During the event, which the organizers have termed an Un-glacier Tour, a metal plaque will be installed which reads “Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.” The words were written by Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason who will be present at the ceremony. Howe also said that it is the first monument to be installed for a glacier lost to climate change.

The plaque that will be installed on August 18. 
Source: Rice University

The plaque also lists the carbon dioxide concentration “415 ppm,” referring to the concentration recorded in May 2019 at Mauna Loa Observatory. 

Ok is now considered dead ice. Director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project, Mauri Pelto told GlacierHub that “stagnant ice that no longer moves is dead ice; a glacier by definition has movement.” In other words, glaciers continuously build up new ice and flow as a result of that process. When an ice mass loses has those qualities it can no longer be called a glacier and is instead dead ice.

“Iceland is not the first country on our planet to lose a glacier due to increasing climatic changes, and it is not the last,” geographer M Jackson told GlacierHub. She continued, saying “we are losing glaciers worldwide at unprecedented rates.” Other countries that have already lost glaciers include Bolivia, the United States, and Venezuela and many other places are on their way to losing their glaciers.

Despite the unfortunate prevalence of glacial retreat, the loss of a glacier in Iceland is particularly poignant because of the country’s relationship to its ice and glaciers. Icelandic anthropologist Gísli Pálsson told GlacierHub he thinks glaciers “have strong significance in Icelandic culture and history.” He elaborated saying, “there is a slogan about Iceland, ‘it is the land of fire and ice,’ the name ‘Iceland’ of course highlights the ice connection, and, historically, there have been scholars on glaciers, some glaciers have been travel routes and have been located between communities without any other connections so there were frequent travels across them for trading.”

Pálsson was a member of the first Un-Glacier tour in the summer of 2018. He described the day, saying “it was a long ride into the highlands and once we got there the mountain was covered with fog and it was a bit spooky. We started to walk uphill and soon the sky cleared. Once we got up there it was stunning scenery of the nearby mountains and we walked around the crater almost in a complete circle and could soon see the remains of the sleet and ice in the bottom of the crater.”  He said the tour was composed of about 20 people and they “talked about the climate, glaciers, and the history of this particular one, and plans for an event a year later which is now coming up.”

Pálsson explained that the person in the green coat is marking the GPS location of the stone so that when they returned a year later they would know precisely which stone was chosen for the installation of the plaque.
Source: Gísli Pálsson

With regard to the Un-Glacier Tour II, Pálsson said “I am unsure if I will be able to go this time, but I wish I could. I’m sure this first symbolic event of paying tribute to a gone glacier will be a well attended and significant event that will later on, with more glaciers under threat, be on record and flagged repeatedly.” M Jackson also had a positive response to the event and said “I’m grateful this memorial has been created, and hope such a stunt will encourage more social and political action to meet climatic changes in the days, months, and years to come.” 

The melting of Ok takes on one meaning for Icelanders and another in the broader context of climate change, but in both circumstances helps to increase awareness of the challenges that climate change will bring about as time goes on.

Video of the Week: Iceland’s Okjökull Glacier Is Gone But Not Forgotten

Located in western Iceland, Okjökull Glacier covered 15 square kilometers and was 50 meters thick a century ago, according to the Guardian. But, due to climate change, it has shrunk to a 15-meter-thick patch of ice that covers only about a square kilometer.

Researchers from Houston’s Rice University, Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason, and geologist Oddur Sigurðsson, who first asserted that Okjökull’s decline means it can no longer can be considered a glacier, will be among those dedicating a plaque to it on August 18, according to a Rice University press release.

Okjökull, also referred to as “OK Glacier,” is the first of Iceland’s 400 glaciers to disappear due to climate change. Rice University anthropologists Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer expect all of the island nation’s 400-plus glaciers to disappear by 2200.

Howe said the monument will be the first dedicated to a glacier lost to climate change anywhere in the world. “By marking Ok’s passing, we hope to draw attention to what is being lost as Earth’s glaciers expire,” Howe said. “These bodies of ice are the largest freshwater reserves on the planet and frozen within them are histories of the atmosphere. They are also often important cultural forms that are full of significance.”

Howe and Boyer produced a 2018 documentary “Not OK” about the glacier. The film is narrated by former Reykjavík Mayor Jón Gnarr.

“We created this film about a small glacier in a small country in order to bring the huge and often abstract problem of climate change back down to a human scale so that we can better understand how it touches our everyday lives,” Howe said in 2018 when the film premiered.

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Video of the Week: A Stroll Through Myvatnsjokull Glacier

In this installment of GlacierHub’s Video of the Week, tour guide Halldor Sigurdsson walks through an ice tunnel inside the Myvatnsjokull Glacier, which is located in southern Iceland and is a well-known snowmobiling and hiking destination.

In the short video, Sigurdsson’s whistling and singing echoes throughout the tunnel, while a stream of melt water trickles over the tunnel floor.

On Twitter, one of his followers commented, “Your voice sounded like folk art … like it belongs in the glaciers. It just touched me in a way that felt real. Leaves me wanting to make a quick jaunt up to the glaciers where I live.”

Sigurdsson’s video provides a glance at the inside of Myvatnsjokull. The tunnel walls appear wavy and course; their color, blackish and dark blue. Water can be seen dripping from the top of the ice tunnel.

Overall, the video provides viewers with a glimpse of the beautiful and rarely seen interior of an Icelandic glacier.

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Glacier Lessons as a Glacier Lessens

In the south of Iceland, just inland from the main ring road that circles the country, sits the Sólheimajökull glacier—a mass of ice that stands stark against the black volcanic landscape. Several hundred meters away from the base of the glacier’s tongue, at the far end of the meltwater lake is a modest and unofficial-looking sign: jöklamælingar it reads in handwritten letters—glacier measurements. Below is a list of numbers, also added by hand.

The sign has been here since 2010. That year, and every October since, Jón Stefánsson has brought his grade-seven students to Sólheimajökull from their school in Hvolsvöllur, a town about 60 kilometers west, to track the glacier’s retreat.

To prepare for their field trip, Stefánsson’s students learn how to use GPS devices to carry out their measurements. They chart the distance from the sign to the glacier, providing a reliable measure of its steady disappearance. Since 2010, the school has seen the glacier retreat by more than 350 meters. This past year accounted for almost a third of that. The students also determine the depth of the glacial lake by lowering a sounding weight from a small boat. The fieldwork can be dangerous, Stefánsson says, “because there is a geothermal area beneath the glacier. There is a lot of hot water there, and sometimes it comes out.” Just in case, an expert rescue team is on hand.

A handwritten sign, maintained by Jón Stefánsson’s grade-seven students, charts how the glacier has changed over time. (Source: Eva Amsen)

Continue reading on hakaimagazine.com.

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Ragnar Axelsson Documents Iceland’s Disappearing Glaciers

GlacierHub founder and managing editor Ben Orlove recently sat down with Icelandic photographer Ragnar Axelsson, whose “Glacier” (“Jokull” in Icelandic) depicts the disappearing glaciers of his homeland. His monochromatic images were recently displayed during a solo show at Reykjavik’s Asmundarsalur Museum.

Scale. With the exception of some images in the section “Caves,” most of the photographs seem to be of a large scale, showing areas hundreds or thousands of meters across. This relative uniformity gives a unity to the book. Did you plan this scale, or did it emerge as you took the photographs?

I worked with Einar Geir Ingvarsson, the designer of the book and the exhibition, to ping-pong ideas how the book should look like. We decided to give the readers their own ideas and view the surface of the glacier with an open mind and imagine the scale of the glacier. On the first pages in the book, one can see small people, who give a hunch of how big everything is from the air.

 

The ice caves are different as the caves are not very big and in the photographs, the faces in the ice walls are from the two-meter-wall up to 20 meters long. It was planned when photographing inside the ice caves to look into the walls of ice and see all the figures or figurative forms in the 1,000-year-old ice, not just showing an ice cave as a cave. The ice that is melting in those caves fell on the glacier as snow at the time when the first settlers came to Iceland. The book is thought of as an ode to the Icelandic glaciers—like a poem in photographs.

Orientation: The majority of the photographs are entirely filled with the glacier, though some (especially in “Peaks”) include a bit of sky. And most of them are at a medium oblique angle, rather than being taken directly from above, or shot at a low angle. What are the strengths of this angle and framing?

It was a decision in the beginning not to have a horizon in most of the photographs. The first photograph in the book showing Snæfellsjökull, which will disappear in a few decades, is the only one with a horizon. That photograph is thought of as showing a glacier as it is today and make people think when flipping through the book what will be the fate of the Icelandic glaciers. They are all going to melt to the ocean. The photographs were taken from all kind of different angles to show the different states and the diversity of the glaciers.

Human presence 1: People are absent from your photographs, though one section titled “Runes” signals the long presence of Icelanders in the country. What do you see as the effects of this focus on uninhabited spaces, without even any humans as temporary visitors?

There are small figures in two photographs in the book. It is on the first pages and it is to show as a scale how overwhelming and huge the glaciers are. We wanted to take the readers on a journey over the glaciers. The readers have to dream and solve the riddle or just imagine how huge the glaciers are. In “Runes,” one can find all kinds of figures and faces on the surface of the glacier. Those runes come from volcano ash from past eruptions in Iceland. There are very few places on earth where it can be seen. I wanted to show those figures forming a story where the glacier is talking to us. If you look for some time on a certain photograph you can find all kind of figures, like on the front page of the book you can make out a bird. All those figures are melting to the ocean.

Human presence 2: Perhaps it is my imagination, but I see a human figure, leaning forward and tilted a bit to the right, in the first image in “Caves” (p. 130), and a huge face, with high cheekbones and a narrow mouth, in the second (p. 131). With these in mind, faces can been in two others (p. 134-135), and rows of figures as well (p. 133, 137). Does this mention of resemblances to human faces and figures strike any echoes with you?

You are right, there are faces in the 1,000-year ice walls in the caves. When I was photographing the ice caves it was on purpose to find those figures in the ice. You just have to move a few inches left or right then everything is changing in the ice walls. All kind of figures pops up. I want people to think about the glaciers as something alive, and the figures and faces in the glaciers are talking to us. What are they saying? They are all fading away to the ocean where circulation of water continues around the planet.

Climate change: The titles of the four final sections of the book (“Terminus,” “Lagoons,” “Rivers,” and “The Sea”) could be read as a narrative of glacier retreat, showing how glaciers are melting and contributing to sea level rise. But the photographs themselves offer striking, beautiful images of surfaces, much like the ones in earlier sections of the book. They seem to avoid a simple, scientific, didactic presentation of glacier melting. What choices did you make to compose these four sections and to select images for them? Do you wish the book to engage with issues of climate change?

All those chapters are showing the glaciers from the peak to the ocean. It is an abstract view of what is happening. Not many are really thinking about it, that this is really happening. We will not be around to see it, but the next generations will have to face something that is or might be a hard task to follow. All the glaciers in Iceland will melt in 150-200 years. Yes, we want the book to take a place as a little puzzle in a bigger picture showing what we will be facing in the future to come. We want people to think, the glaciers will all be gone at the speed of sound in the context to the age of Earth. We don’t want to preach, it is just a fact, as scientists tell us.


Relation to your other work. You are known for your work as a photographer for the leading Icelandic newspaper Morgunbladid and for your books “Faces of the North” (2005) and “Last Days of the Arctic” (2010), which present changing human cultures in a changing environment. How does this book Glacier connect with your earlier work?

It does not connect to my earlier work, it is totally different from the other books, more of an abstract landscape book, with a message.

Hopes for the future. What hopes do you have for this book? Has its reception to date met these hopes?

We have high hopes for this book. The exhibition where the book was launched went well. Around 1,2000 people came to see the photographs in Ásmundarsalur museum in Reykjavik.  The book is in limited editions and will be, in the future, a collector’s item.

Additional comments: Are there any other thoughts that you would like to add?

Science is important and opens people’s eyes to what is happening. We think it is also very important to document the changes in the Arctic in photographs and make books about life and the changes that are happening extremely fast.  Films and photography books support science and can open eyes to what is happening. Making a book about life in the Arctic is like a little puzzle in a bigger picture and it can open eyes to what is happening and for new ideas.

Click here to purchase a copy of Ragnar Axelsson’s “Glaciers.”

Read More on GlacierHub:

Fire, Ice, and Climate Change in Iceland

Ash from Iceland’s Glacier Volcano Threatens Health of Local Children

Photo Friday: Kevin Lyons Captures Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier

Photo Friday: Glacial Surfers in Iceland

Typically surfing brings to mind sandy beaches, warm water, and blue waves. The Arctic Surfers, however, put surfing in a new light. The group provides stand-up paddle board and surf retreats in Iceland, including in the Glacier Lagoon and on the Reykjanes Peninsula.

Surfers wait for the perfect moment to ride the waves that occur when part of a glacier calves into the ocean, creating Arctic-style big-wave conditions. Garett McNamara and Kealii Mamala, two surfers, set to be the first people to surf a glacier.

This photo Friday enjoy some photos from the Arctic Surfers’s adventures in Iceland.

Two stand up paddle boarders adventure in Iceland’s Glacier Lagoon (Source: Arctic Surfers/Instagram).

 

Surfer gets ready to paddle out in the cold in hopes for some waves (Source: Arctic Surfers/Instagram)

 

Surfers get ready to paddle out in freezing conditions (Source: Arctic Surfers/Instagram).

 

Check out more stories from GlacierHub:

Going to Extremes: Glacier Boarding, a New Sport

Exception or Rule? The Case of Katla, One of Iceland’s Subglacial Volcanoes

Horn Signaling at a Medieval Icelandic Monastery

 

 

Roundup: Glacier Thickness, Hydropower, and Mountain Communities

Measuring Glacier Thickness in Svalbard

From American Geophysical Union: “To this day, the ice volume stored in the many glaciers on Svalbard is not well known… This surprises because of the long research activity in this area. A large record of more than 1 million thickness measurements exists, making Svalbard an ideal study area for the application of a state‐of‐the‐art mapping approach for glacier ice thickness….we provide the first well‐informed estimate of the ice front thickness of all marine‐terminating glaciers that loose icebergs to the ocean.”

Read more about scientific advancements in measuring glacier thickness here.

Monacobreen glacier Svalbard on GlacierHub
The Monacobreen glacier, in Svalbard, calves into the Arctic Ocean (Source: Gary Bembridge/Flickr).

 

Hydropower in Iceland: Opinions of Visitors and Operators

From Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism: “The majority of visitors are against the development of hydropower in Skagafjarðardalir. They believe that the associated infrastructure would reduce the quality of their experience in the region that they value for perceived notions of it being untouched and undeveloped. If the quality of their experience is reduced, so would their satisfaction with that experience.”

Read more about the views regarding the impact of a proposed hydroelectric plant on the tourist experience in Skagafjarðardalir here.

Skagafjörður, Iceland on GlacierHub
A picturesque view of Skagafjörður, one of the sites where the hydroelectric power plant has been proposed (Source: James Stringer/Flickr).

 

8 Experts Explain What Mountain Communities Need Most

From National Science Review:

“What happens [in the Third Pole] can affect over 1.4 billion people and have regional and global ramifications.” – Tandong Yao

“Researchers and the media tend to focus on big glaciers, but it’s the much smaller and much less glamorous glaciers and ice fields that are going to affect mountain communities the most.” – Anil Kulkarni

Read more about future difficulties mountain communities will face, and how they should be addressed here.

Tibetan village in the Himalayas on GlacierHub
A Tibetan village sits at the foot of the Himalayas, with Cho Oyo to the left. Mountain communities like this one are extremely vulnerable to climate change (Source: Erik Törner/Flickr).

Exception or Rule? The Case of Katla, One of Iceland’s Subglacial Volcanoes

Katla Volcano in Iceland on GlacierHub
Grasslands in the foreground, with Katla covered by clouds in the background (Source: Inga Vitola/Flickr).

A recent study in Geophysical Research Letters about Katla, a subglacial volcano in Iceland, revealed that Katla emits CO2 at a globally important level. Previously, Katla’s CO2 emissions were assumed to be negligible on a global scale.

In this study, conducted by Evgenia Ilyinskaya, a volcanologist at the University of Leeds, and her associate researchers, airborne measurements were carried out using gas sensors to obtain CO2 source and emission rates for Katla. In addition, the researchers used atmospheric dispersion modeling to identify the source of gas emissions and calculate gas emission rates.

A CO2 emission rate of 12-24 kilotons per day is considered significant on a global level. Ilyinskaya and coauthors’ measurements taken on the western side of Katla indicated significant CO2 flux levels in both 2016 and 2017. Also in 2017, the researchers identified another significant source of CO2 emissions, Katla’s central caldera.

Katla 1918 eruption on GlacierHub
Katla’s last eruption was in 1918 (Source: Creative Commons).

Emissions estimates that are both accurate and representative for subglacial volcanoes are challenging to obtain. According to the study, this is because these volcanoes are hard to access and “lack a visible gas plume.” The researchers noted that CO2 flux measurements are available for just two of Iceland’s 16 subglacial volcanoes, and these measurements indicate only modest emissions estimates. Further, these measurements were obtained by analyzing gas content dissolved in water, a method which likely underestimates CO2 flux. Ilyinskaya and her coauthors used a more precise estimate in this study than previous methods, such as the one discussed above.

Total CO2 emissions from passively degassing subaerial volcanoes are currently estimated at 1,500 kt/d, and CO2 flux is currently estimated at 540 kt/d. The results Ilyinskaya and the other researchers found indicate that Katla’s CO2 emissions would account for 2-4 percent of that total. However, they stipulated that subglacial volcanoes were underrepresented in the data collected to create this estimate. Measurements from 33 volcanoes were extrapolated to cover CO2 emissions of 150 volcanoes, but only three of the 33 were subglacial volcanoes.

Myrdalsjokull glacier covering Katla volcano on GlacierHub
View of the Myrdalsjokull glacier, which covers Katla (Source: Zaldun Urdina/Flickr).

Regarding Katla, Ilyinskaya and coauthors identified two possible implications of this information. First, Katla could be an exceptional emitter. Katla’s large size and recent heightened seismic activity make this possibility more plausible. But the researchers pointed out that measurements must be conducted at other subglacial volcanoes before this possibility can be corroborated.

A second possibility is that Katla’s CO2 emissions are representative of what other subglacial volcanoes emit. If this is true, estimates of CO2 emissions from subglacial volcanoes are grossly underestimated at present. Once measured properly, these volcanoes would make a much more significant contribution to global volcanic CO2 emissions. Currently, subaerial volcano CO2 emissions are assumed to be just 2 percent of anthropogenic CO2 emissions totals, but this could change with improved measurement practices.

Myrdalsjokull glacier above Katla volcano on GlacierHub
Atop the Myrdalsjokull glacier, with Katla beneath it (Source: Adam Russell/Flickr).

In the context of climate change, it is important that CO2 emissions from natural sources are adequately quantified alongside anthropogenic sources. As the results of this study suggest, subglacial volcanoes such as Katla could have emissions contributions that are more significant than originally thought. Ilyinskaya and her fellow researchers stressed the vital importance of conducting similar measurements at other subglacial volcanoes to ensure that their CO2 emissions are properly quantified in global estimates.