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.
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 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
8 Experts Explain What Mountain Communities Need Most
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A 16th century ceramic horn fragment was discovered at a former monastery site in Iceland. This object attracted attention as Iceland did not produce ceramics during the Middle Ages. Researchers of a recent study examine archaeological and written records of the region to build an understanding of how this horn traveled to Iceland, and its role in monasticism in medieval times.
Site Details, Findings, and Observations
The ruins of the Skriðuklaustur monastery in eastern Iceland were excavated between 2000 and 2012. The monastery operated for about 60 years from 1493 to 1554. It was abolished as a consequence of the Protestant Reformation, in which religious reform was imposed on the Icelanders. It had at least 13 rooms and a cloister garden. Roughly 300 graves were found at the monastery cemetery. This was a large institution, and traces of human habitation indicate that the monastery was very active.
Skriðuklaustur was also a pilgrimage destination. The monastery was a stopover for pilgrims traveling across the glacier Vatna from southern to northern Iceland. A shift to colder climate led to the growth of glaciers, which covered the route, rendering it unusable. Documents from 1496 reveal that the cemetery was also a burial site for the pilgrims who died along their journeys.
The study indicates that the horn appears to have been relatively small compared to horns found in Germany and Central Europe. Vertical scars on the fragment suggests that the horn consisted of at least two loops, and it shows traces of heavy wear, indicating that it might have been used frequently. Ceramic is also a very fragile material. The user of the horn must have handled it with care for it not to break. These findings suggest that the horn could have held some importance at the church.
Trade and Movement
A chemical analysis of the horn further revealed that the clay came from the Duingen area of northern Germany. This region was an important producer of ceramics during the late Middle Ages and early modern period. Ceramics were very widely distributed as well. These items were transported by ship to Bremen and Hamburg in northern Germany, which were important trading hubs at the time.
Natascha Mehler, one of the authors and a senior researcher at the German Maritime Museum, told GlacierHub about trade and movement of people during this time. She explained that 16th century Iceland was close in trade with merchants from Bremen and Hamburg. “They came to Iceland with their ships each spring, to remain there for the summer in their own trading stations, and in late summer they returned home” she said. Germans mainly conducted business in southwest and west of Iceland, around what is present-day Djúpivogur in Berufjörður. “This fjord is relatively close to the monastery at Skriðuklaustur and the monastery was surely provided with goods from abroad through this fjord,” added Mehler.
European goods were available at three trading stations located near Skriðuklaustur, where people from the region bought and sold their goods. People also traveled to Hamburg in northern Germany from Skriðuklaustur. One example from a historic text describes a sheriff and farm owner travelling to Hamburg via a ship from Hamburg. Some Icelandic clerics were educated at universities in Germany, and they used Hamburg and Bremen ships for their travels.
What Was The Purpose Of The Horn?
The lack of written history makes it difficult to build conclusions on how the horn reached the monastery. Researchers are, however, able to build some possibilities with observations and historical records. One possibility is that the horn was carried by a merchant from one of the trading stations. It is also possible that a traveler acquired it from areas in Germany such as Hamburg and Bremen and brought it back as a souvenir. The third possibility is that a pilgrim carried the horn to the site.
Although there remains uncertainty about how the horn arrived to the site, the use of the horn is better understood. Observations allow researchers to propose that is was used for signaling in the monastery. The length and coarse material would allow only one or two high notes. This limited range suggests that the horn was used for signaling rather than for music. Ceramic horn fragments were also found in German monasteries, and these also appeared to be signaling instruments.
This horn was found in what appears to be the guesthouse area of the monastery site, near the main entrance. Historical sources show that the entrance was once guarded by a man named Jón Jónsson, sacristan to the monastery. Some of his duties were to prepare the church for Mass, and opening and closing the alter screen. The sacristan was also responsible for sounding signals to wake the monks in the morning, and to sound the call to prayer. The horn would’ve been the perfect device for Jónsson to perform these tasks.
The horn that has been silent for centuries has recently come to the world’s attention. Observations and historical records indicate the horn’s use and origin, and gives us a glimpse of monastic life in medieval Iceland.
Click here to learn more about activities at the Skriðuklaustur monastery and the glacier route!
The GlacierHub News Report is a bi-monthly video news report that features some of our website’s top stories. This week’s newscast is special because managing editor Ben Orlove is joining our newscast. We will be presenting stories ranging from the IPCC to glaciers in Russia to a tradition of citizen climate science and even controversial lands in India.
This week’s news report features:
Glacier Researchers Gather at IPCC Meeting in China
By: Ben Orlove
The authors of a major IPCC report on oceans and the cryosphere gathered in Lanzhou, China, in July 2018. They discussed the reviews which the first draft of the report had received. They also planned the next steps to advance the report.
Debris-Covered Glaciers Advance in Remote Kamchatka
By: Andrew Angle
Summary: On the remote Kamchatka Penisula in Eastern Russia, most glaciers are retreating due to climate change. However, in one area, some glaciers have advanced due to volcanic debris on top of the ice that has limited melting.
Amid High-Tech Alternatives, a Reckoning for Iceland’s Glacier Keepers
By: Gloria Dickie
Summary: It may be one of the longest-running examples of citizen climate science in the world. With Iceland’s glaciers at their melting point, these men and women— farmers, schoolchildren, a plastic surgeon, even a Supreme Court judge— serve not only as the glaciers’ guardians, but also their messengers.
War Against Natural Disasters: A Fight the Indian Military Can’t Win
By: Sabrina Ho
Summary: Ladakh is frequently exposed to floods and landslides when snow and glaciers melt. A recent paper warns of the current nature of a military-led disaster governance, including heavy military presence, in disaster risk reduction.
A 30-meter, Komelon-branded measuring tape, a pencil, and a yellow paper form are all Hallsteinn Haraldsson carries with him when he travels to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in western Iceland. But unfurling the measuring tape before me at his home in Mosfellsbaer, a town just outside of Reykjavik, he says it is a significant upgrade from the piece of marked rope he used to take with him.
With 11 percent of the landmass covered in ice, rapidly ebbing glaciers are threatening to reshape Iceland’s landscape, and Haraldsson, 74, is part of a contingent of volunteer glacier monitors who are at the frontlines of tracking the retreat. Every autumn, Haraldsson, often accompanied by his wife and son, sets off on foot to measure the changes in his assigned glacier.
Their rudimentary tools are a far cry from the satellites and time-lapse photography deployed around the world in recent decades to track ice loss, and lately there’s been talk of disbanding this nearly century-old, low-tech network of monitors. But this sort of ground-truthing work has more than one purpose: With Iceland’s glaciers at their melting point, these men and women— farmers, schoolchildren, a plastic surgeon, even a Supreme Court judge— serve not only as the glaciers’ guardians, but also their messengers.
Today, some 35 volunteers monitor 64 measurement sites around the country. The numbers they collect are published in the Icelandic scientific journal Jokull, and submitted to the World Glacier Monitoring Service database. Vacancies for glacier monitors are rare and highly sought-after, and many glaciers have been in the same family for generations, passed down to sons and daughters, like Haraldsson, when the journey becomes too arduous for their aging watchmen.
It’s very likely one of the longest-running examples of citizen climate science in the world. But in an age when precision glacier tracking can be conducted from afar, it remains unclear whether, or for how long, this sort of heirloom monitoring will continue into the future. It’s a question even some of the network’s own members have been asking.
As Haraldsson tells it, his father was raised in a modest yellow farmhouse on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. As an adult, he spent his days tending his fields and teaching at the local school, and in his free time, he studied the geology of the region, walking miles through the lava beds that lay in the shadow of the crown gem of the region: Snaefellsjokull, a 700,000-year-old glacier-capped volcano.
It was a quiet life, unremarkable to those who passed through, until the arrival in 1932 of Jon Eythorsson— a young man who had recently returned to Iceland after studying meteorology, first in Oslo, and then in Bergen, Norway.
Eythorsson was now working for the Meteorological Office in Reykjavik, and in his spare time he had established the first program to monitor the growth and retreat of Iceland’s glaciers— but getting around the country to check up on them was troublesome and time-consuming. For the scientific record, every glacier needed to be measured in the same month, and travel was slow, often complicated by fierce, unpredictable storms. If his project was going to succeed, he needed new recruits, ideally farmers who need not travel far.
That, says Haraldsson, is how his family came to inherit Snaefellsjokull. At the time, there was no sense of scientific urgency to glacier monitoring; glaciers had always expanded and deflated naturally in modest increments. But that was decades ago. The world’s glaciers now serve as harbingers of human-caused climate change, providing powerful visual evidence of how people have changed the planet.
Inside Haraldsson’s home, portraits of Snaefellsjokull adorn the white walls in a way often reserved for close family members. Some are rendered in pastels and watercolor, while others are more abstract, etched in black and white. To Haraldsson, his wife Jenny (who painted many of them), and their son, Haraldur, it’s the family glacier.
Haraldsson began accompanying his father on his hikes to the glacier around 1962. Back then, the journey to the terminus was 10 to 15 kilometers by foot through steep, rocky terrain. The glacier itself spanned some 11 square kilometers— tiny as glaciers go. When they arrived, they would pull a long piece of thin rope with meter marks taut to measure the distance between the last icy bit and a metal rod, jotting down the observations they would send to the Society. When his father passed away 14 years later, Haraldsson took over the task full time.
From 1975 to 1995, the glacier actually advanced 270 meters, according to Haraldsson’s records. Such findings weren’t uncommon during that period: In the 1930s, many of the country’s glaciers had retreated significantly due to an unusually warm climate, but beginning in 1970, they advanced once more until human-caused climate change beat them back again.
Eventually his wife, and then his son, joined him in his annual glacial pilgrimage. By then a road had been built, passing within one meter of the glacier. From 1995 to 2017, their records suggest that Snaefellsjokull retreated 354 meters— a net loss of 84 meters from its position in 1975.
Most local people are upset to see the glacier disappearing, Haraldsson says. Everyone on the peninsula uses the glacier as their key landmark; in casual conversation, distance is defined by how far away something is from Snaefellsjokull. Others describe feeling a supernatural pull toward it. Perhaps Jules Verne felt the same: Snaefellsjokull served as the setting for his book “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”When the glacier began its retreat in the 1990s, the family thought of it as a natural fluctuation. But since then, almost all of Iceland’s monitored glaciers have entered a state of decline. Now, they understand, their glacier is disappearing because of global warming. In 2016, scientists announced they expected Snaefellsjokull to vanish entirely by the end of the century.
Lost data contained within the World Glacier Monitoring Service database, which includes more than 100,000 glaciers worldwide, has been created via aerial photograph comparisons. Each glacier inventory includes the location of the glacier, length, orientation, and elevation. “Entries are based on a single observation in time,” reads the WGMS website— a snapshot of a glacier in a particular moment. About half of all glaciers in the authoritative database are measured via a comparison of aerial photographs from year to year and maps.
In 2005, the WGMS and the National Snow and Ice Data Centerlaunched the Global Land Ice Measurements from Spaceprogram. Rather than rely solely on photographs and in-person observations, glacier inventories can now be collected via a remote sensing instrument on NASA’s Terra satellite. The benefits of such increasingly sophisticated remote monitoring are substantial in terms efficiency. But if even aerial photography is going the way of the dinosaurs, what’s to become of Iceland’s glacier monitors?
It’s something that even Jon Eythorsson’s granddaughter, Kristjana Eythorsdottir, thinks about. She was only 10 years old when the elder Eythorsson, who formally established the Iceland Glaciological Society in 1950, passed away, but she followed his vocation and today works at the Iceland Meteorological Office. Her grey hair is shorn into a spiky pixie cut, and her hiking pants and running shoes suggest she’s ready to set out into the field at a moment’s notice.
“The [Glaciological] Society has a lot of written songs and texts,” she says, recalling the impact her grandfather’s volunteer network had on her life. “One saying goes that my grandfather loved the glaciers so much they were shrinking.”
When traveling together to examine the glaciers, the society’s members and scientists would sing songs written by Sigurdur Thorarinsson, an Icelandic geologist, volcanologist, glaciologist— and lyricist. They would write new ones, too; sometime before 1970, the Society published a book of glacier songs.
Since 2000, Eythorsdottir has been monitoring a terminus at Langjokull, a large glacier in the south of Iceland 100 times the size of Snaefellsjokull. (She didn’t inherit her glacier, but rather applied when one became available.) Each September, she sets out on the roughly five-hour round-trip hike to the glacier with her husband. “There is a river that goes here,” she says, tracing its path carefully on a map. “It’s kind of a bad smelling, geothermal river— the white-tempered river. We have to take our clothes off, or put on waders,” to get across.
Sometimes they’ll look for different routes, passing through grazing sheep and their herders. The landscape is ever-changing. Already, the glacier has retreated more than 500 meters.
Unlike Haraldsson, Eythorsdottir is using more modern technology. “We used to use measuring tape, but now we are tracking with GPS,” she says. “There are more possibilities to represent the data…but I think we will always go there anyway until it’s gone.”
Whenever he runs into friends, Hallsteinn Haraldsson, the keeper of Snaefellsjokull, says they first they ask how he and his family is doing. And then, he says, they ask, “How is the glacier?”
It’s a question that was intimately familiar to all of Iceland’s volunteer glacier monitors as they gathered in 2016 at the natural sciences building at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. Most had never met each other before, and they were there to discuss how the glaciers were changing and what tools would be best to measure the glacier fronts moving forward— mainly whether or not volunteers should increase their use of handheld GPS devices over reference points and measuring tapes.
“There’s been [internal] discussion as to whether we should keep doing this or not since it can now be done with remote sensing,” says Bergur Einarsson, a glacial hydrologist who recently took over management of the network from geologist Oddur Sigurdsson. Though some might see the crude nature of pen and paper measurements as a hindrance, Einarsson argues it’s actually an asset. “One of the strengths is that these measurements have not evolved. They’re done more or less in the same way they were done in the 1930s.”
That means that while scientists can now use remote sensing to gather precise images and coordinates, that record is much shorter and often lacks the same specificity as ground-level measurements. Moreover, complex technological projects require significant funding that often comes with a sunset clause: Time-lapse photography and remote sensors aren’t nearly as cheap— or as dependable— as a few dozen volunteers armed with measuring tapes.
(The strength of Iceland’s program was underscored last year when scientists from around the globe met at the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C., to discuss the fate of NASA’s Terra satellite. After 18 years in orbit, the satellite was beginning to run low on fuel— jeopardizing the scientific record.)
But for Einarsson, there’s an even bigger reason to keep it going— one that the Haraldssons and Eythorsdottir and some 33 other volunteer glacier monitors would likely share. “People are going out there, going to the glacier front, [where] they see the changes,” he says. “Then they are going back into society and they are almost like ambassadors of climate change, infiltrating information into different branches of society.”
“It is very important to engage with people in some way,” his predecessor Sigurdsson says, “and keep them interested in their surroundings.”
The endless expanse of white snow atop a glacier, framed by Icelandic mountains, served as the set for the new movie “Arctic,” which premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival in France. The film, a solo-survival thriller shot in 2017, is director and screenwriter Joe Penna’s feature film debut.
The only survivor of a plane crash in the highlands of Iceland, researcher and explorer Overgård must brave the frigid environment during his decision to either stay with the relative safety of the plane wreckage or venture into the unknown in search of help.
“Arctic” is the man versus nature genre in its purest form, with the story and imagery speaking in place of the film’s lack of dialogue. Mads Mikkelsen, who portrays Overgård, told Variety that the landscape “is the main character in many ways.”
The environment is more than just visually striking, as its physical challenges are not an easy hurdle. About 11 percent of Iceland is covered by glaciers, and the winter temperatures average around 14 degrees Fahrenheit but can drop well into the negatives. This climate, paired with sustained high winds made for a difficult shoot, but an intense portrayal.
Despite these challenges, Penna maintains that “the tundra is the precise place where ‘Arctic’ was to be shot— the harshest environment on Earth.”
The juxtaposition of a solitary human against the vastness of the Arctic allows the courage and determination of Overgård to shine through.
“Nothing represents as much the fragility of a human as the sight of a simple silhouette crossing an endless sea of snow,” he states. This scene, shot from above, specifically proved difficult when shooting in a snow-covered landscape. “With virgin snow everywhere you look, it was difficult to manage the sets so that they do not look like a construction site where 30 people came and went,” stated director of photography Tómas Örn Tómasson.
With winds 30 to 40 knots throughout the 20-day winter shoot, continuity was difficult with the weather in Iceland’s highlands, where the largest ice caps are located.
“Throughout the filming, weather conditions changed every hour, destroying the continuity of our catch,” said Penna in an interview.
The film, with a 97-minute run-time, was a “Golden Camera” nominee at Cannes. It claimed one of the midnight showings where it received an extended standing ovation. Reviews overall have been favorable. It received a 7.3 out of 10 on IMDB and a 100 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes by critics.
The film will be released in the United States in 2019 by studio Bleeker Street where a wider audience will have the chance to witness the frozen, glacial world of “Arctic.”
Penna encourages the audience to “admire our main character’s silent performance,” which allows them to “take something different away from the film than the person sitting next to [them] in the theatre.”
Glaciers are an excellent way to achieve this effect, and filmmakers have taken notice of glacial settings for many years. Glaciers are able to stimulate the imagination of all those involved by providing a truly unique and striking environment sure to capture the attention of the audience.