Iceland’s highest volcano, Öræfajökull, recently showed signs of life with the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) reporting the formation of a new ice cauldron. Ice cauldrons form when ice is melted from below during times of increased volcanic activity. The volcano last erupted in 1727 and also erupted in 1362, the largest eruption in recorded Icelandic history. The IMO has increased its monitoring of the volcano and issued a yellow aviation warning, signaling an increase in volcanic activity above background levels. Back in 2010, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted, grounding thousands of flights. However, there are currently no signs of an impending eruption of Öræfajökull. Check out images of Öræfajökull below.
From Grist: “Petermann is one of the largest and most important glaciers in the world, with a direct connection to the core of the Greenland ice sheet. That means that even though this week’s new iceberg at Petermann is just 1/500th the size of the massive one that broke off the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica earlier this month, it could eventually have a much bigger effect on global sea levels. Scientists believe that if Petermann collapses completely, it could raise the seas by about a foot.”
Read more about the potential collapse of the Petermann here.
Glacial Outburst Flood Rages in Iceland
From The Watchers: “A glacial outburst flood started in Iceland’s Múlakvísl river around midnight UTC on July 29, 2017. Electrical conductivity is now measured around 580µS/cm and has increased rapidly the last hour, Icelandic Met Office (IMO) reported 10:14 UTC on July 29. Increasing water levels of this river are an important indicator of Katla’s upcoming volcanic eruptions.”
Read about safety concerns associated with the flood here.
Conflict in the Himalayas
From The New York Times: “The road stands on territory at the point where China, India and Bhutan meet…The standoff began last month when Bhutan, a close ally of India, discovered Chinese workers trying to extend the road. Now soldiers from the two powers are squaring off, separated by only a few hundred feet. The conflict shows no sign of abating, and it reflects the swelling ambition— and nationalism— of both countries. Each is governed by a muscular leader eager to bolster his domestic standing while asserting his country’s place on the world stage as the United States recedes from a leading role.”
Learn more about the geopolitics of this standoff here.
The beauty and grandeur of glaciers inspire some people to get tattoos of these natural wonders on their skin. Despite the vastness of glaciers, their presence on Earth may be less permanent than those tattoos, due to increased melting caused by global warming. The ways in which people choose to immortalize glaciers also vary. Some designs capture the simple beauty, while others focus on memories or experiences on glaciers.
This Week’s Roundup: Glaciers are being collected in Antarctica, “quietly transforming the Earth’s surface” and causing floods
A team of scientists, aware of the need to obtain ice cores from threatened glaciers, are working to create a glacier archive bank in Antarctica
From CNRS News: “By capturing various components of the atmosphere, ice constitutes an invaluable source of information with which to examine our past environment, to analyze climate change, and, above all, to understand our future. Today, the science of ice cores lets us study dozens of chemical components trapped in ice, such as gases, acids, heavy metals, radioactivity, and water isotopes, to name but a few…”
“We plan to store the boxes in containers at a depth of 10 meters below the surface in order to maintain the glacier cores at an ambient temperature of – 54°C. The Antarctic is in fact an immense freezer with an ice sheet up to 4 kilometers thick, and is far removed from everything; in addition, it is not subject to any territorial disputes. The subterranean chamber will be large enough to house samples taken from between 15 and 20 glaciers.”
Study finds that ancient melting glaciers are causing sea levels to drop in some places
From Smithsonian Magazine: “But a new study out in the Journal of Geophysical Research shows that in places like Juneau, Alaska, the opposite is happening: sea levels are dropping about half an inch every year. How could this be? The answer lies in a phenomenon of melting glaciers and seesawing weight across the earth called ‘glacial isostatic adjustment.’ You may not know it, but the Last Ice Age is still quietly transforming the Earth’s surface and affecting everything from the length of our days to the topography of our countries.”
Glacial flood emerges along Iceland’s Skaftá river
From Iceland Magazine: “A small glacial flood is under way in Skaftá river in South Iceland. The Icelandic Met Office (IMO) warns travelers to stay away from the edge of the water as the flood water is carrying with it geothermal gases which can be dangerous….The discharge of Skaftá at Sveinstindur is presently 270 cubic metres per second. The flood is not expected to cause any downstream disruption.”
A new scientific studyinvestigates the interactions between the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull’s lava flow and the overlaying ice cap, revealing previously unknown subglacial lava-ice interactions.
Six years after the eruption, the volcano is revisited by the author of the study, Björn Oddsson, a geophysicist with Iceland’sDepartment of Civil Protection and Emergency Management.He and his team present the most up-to-date chronology of the events, reverse engineer the heat transfer processes involved, and discover a phenomenon which may invalidate previous studies of “prehistoric subglacial lava fields.”
Eyjafjallajökull (‘jökull’ is Icelandic for ‘glacier’) hitheadlines in April 2010, as it spewed250 million tonnes of ash into the atmosphere. The explosive event shook the West, as it took an unprecedented toll on trans-Atlantic and European travel, disrupting the journeys of an estimated10 million passengers. It is only known to have erupted four times in the last two millennia.
The first hint that something major was about to happen in 2010 came as a nearby fissure — Fimmvörðuhálsa — to the northeast, began spouting lava in March and April 2010. Just as Fimmvörðuhálsa quieted, a “swarm of earthquakes” rocked the Eyjafjalla range, on April 13. Thenext day, Eyjafjallajökull started its39-day eruption.
Over four and a half billion cubic feet (130 million m3) of ice was liquefied and vaporized as six billion gallons of lava spewed forth from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull stratovolcano. Flowing at distances up to 1,640 feet (500 m) each day, the lava poured down the northern slopes of the Eyjafjalla range, nearly halving the mass of the glacier Gígjökull, as it bored a channel underneath the ice.
Oddsson and co-authors Eyjólfur Magnússon and Magnus Gudmundsson have been on the leading edge of Eyjafjallajökull research, developing a comprehensive chronology of the subglacial processes at work in 2010. To complement their timeline, they developed a model demonstrating the probable interactions and volumes involved.
The eruption was exceptionally well-documented and studied in real-time by the world-class volcanologists and glaciologists who populate Iceland. Oddsson’s et al. paper relied on a previously uncombined series of datasets (i.e. synthetic aperture radar (SAR), tephra sampling, seismic readings, webcam footage) to develop an holistic model to explain the subglacial formation of the 3.2 km lava field.
Over two billion gallons of meltwater was generated. Dammed by the surrounding glacier and rock, the water pooled within thecaldera (a large cauldron-shaped volcanic crater). There, it was rapidly heated, building up the subglacial pressure under Eyjafjallajökull’s ice cap over two hours — mimicking apressure cooker.
In the early hours of April 14, a “white eruption plume” broke through the overlying ice, ultimately ascending 3.1-6.2 (5-10 km) into the atmosphere. During the first three days of the eruption, a series of vast floods — “hyperconcentrated jökulhlaup[s]” — pulsed from under Gígjökull. The first jökulhlaup completely evacuated within half an hour, at up to 1.45 million gallons (5,500 m3) per second, according to Eyjólfur Magnússon of the University of Iceland.
The outpouring of this vast volume was the first indication of an enormous transfer of energy taking place beneath the Eyjafjallajökull ice cap. Oddsson and his team determined that over 45 percent of the heat from the eruption was expended melting the ice, based on inferences of the outflowing steam, tephra, water, and other materials.
Their paper presents a culmination of several decades-worth of research, providing a substantive advance on earlier research. For instance, in 1997 Stephen Matthews’s team estimated mass fluxes in ice, water, and lava based on steam plumes, and in 2002John Smellie made inferences on the progress of a subglacial eruption on Deception Island, Antarctica. In 2015, Duncan Woodcock and his team provided a theoretical model for the processes, but Oddsson and his colleagues have succeeded in making firmer estimates of heat flux, at a far higher temporal resolution than ever before. It is an evolution of the working group’s 2012 study of Fimmvörðuhálsa, where similar approaches were applied.
Historically, jökulhlaups have directly claimed the lives of only seven Icelanders in the past 600 years. This rate is low, due to the preparedness of local emergency services, as well as the low population density and high level of understanding within the Icelandic population. According to a study led by Magnus Gudmunsson, most fatalities occurred nearGrímsvötn — Iceland’s largest subglacial lake, situated in an active volcanic caldera.
Eight-hundred people were evacuated the day before the floodwaters barrelled down the Jökulsá and Markarfljót rivers.
Around 28 percent of the lava breached the northern caldera wall, and escaped under Gígjökull. Over one-and-a-half billion cubic feet (46 million m3) of Gígjökull’s ice mass was liquefied and evaporated as the lava flowed beneath the glacier.
As the lava was wasting the ice, it was being quenched by the ensuing meltwater. Four percent of the heat was lost to this water. A “lava crust” formed rapidly, insulating the rest of the lava, and preserving a high core temperature of over 1,832°F (1,000°C). This encrusted lava continued to flow nearly two miles (3.2 km) from the summit, underneath Gígjökull, melting the overlaying ice as it descended over the following two weeks.
Oddsson’s team explored the resultant lava field, characterised by a “rough, jagged and clinkery” surface, in August 2011 and 2012. Two distinct lava morphologies had formed on the northern slopes. The longer lava field extends of 1.6 miles (2.7 km). It formed as the lava was rapidly quenched by its interaction with the ice, and ensuing meltwater. It accounts for 90 percent of the lava which poured out under Gígjökull. A second layer poured out over the top. It formed a distinctly different rock-type as it cooled, as the overlaying ice had melted, and the water had all evaporated, or flowed downriver. Accordingly, the second lava layer cooled more slowly, losing its heat to the air.
This finding is important as it unveils the processes at work in 2010, as well as having implications for studies of “prehistoric subglacial lava fields.” Dr Kate Smith of the University of Exeter commented, “It is possible that lava-ice interaction in prehistoric eruptions has been underestimated,” as the evidence was obscured by successive layers of lava from the same event, which cooled in the air, rather than interacting with ice and meltwater.
Smith noted that this new observation is a “useful contribution to the body of work on volcano-ice interaction.” The investigation has affirmed and updated earlier glaciovolcanic investigations by David Lescinsky and Jonathan Fink of Arizona State University, outline in a seminal piece in 2000. Oddsson’s et al. findings corroborate the processes Lescinsky and Fink described, though their evidence for successive layering ”partly conceal[ing]” the record is a revelation.
This latest publication by Oddsson and his team establishes a comprehensive chronology of subglacial interactions, and reliable calculations of the heat transfer processes during the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption. The paper emphasises the value of field observations of volcanic eruptions, especially from ice-capped calderas. It has shone a light on previously little-considered interactions, which has consequences for palaeoenvironmental and palaeoclimatic reconstructions. Overall, it is a valuable contribution to the ever-growing database of glaciovolcanic events, and emphasises the continued need for investigations of present and historic eruptions.
For the last fifteen years, British photographer Dan Holdsworth has been blending nature, science, and technology into large-scale photographs and digital art. Much of his work focuses on glacial landscapes.
Holdsworth’s major solo exhibition, “Dan Holdsworth: A Future Archaeology,” is currently premiering at the Scheublein + Bak Gallery in Zurich as part of his Continuous Topography series through September 2. Using high-end 3D imaging software ordinarily only used in scientific or military capacities, Holdsworth renders glacial landscapes in the Alps with extraordinary, unprecedented 3D precision.
Holdsworth spoke with GlacierHub about his early childhood influences, “the sublime,” and his efforts to capture Icelandic glaciers.
GlacierHub: What fieldwork did you conduct to create the images featured in this exhibit?
Dan Holdsworth: For the last three years, I’ve been working with a PhD researcher named Mark Allen from Northumbria University in Newcastle [in the United Kingdom]. The first fieldwork we undertook together, three years ago now, was in the Mont Blanc massif, working on glaciers around Mont Blanc, on both the French and Italian sides. I spent initially two months there, surveying both terrestrially, with drones and by a helicopter using GPS recordings on the ground and data sampling, [and using] a huge sampling of photography surveying–usually several hundred photographs for each location.
GH: What drew you to glaciers as a subject?
DH: My interest in landscape and interest in technology and human impacts on our environment. I’ve always been drawn to areas that have a tension, an edge. In my very early work, it was focused on city edges, where you see this view of humanity and nature kind of hitting each other. For me, obviously glacial landscapes have a similar aspect in terms of this edge of the human traction on glaciers. The images of glaciers are transmitted all around the globe as a symbol of climate change.
In 2000, I went to Iceland for the first time, and I visited glacial landscapes in Iceland. In 2001, I started photographing a glacier called Solheimajökull, which was predominately, at that time, black, with volcanic debris melting out from the glacier. It appeared to have a very interesting tension with the industrial. This object is a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution.
I went back every year for almost ten years and photographed the same location, not to document it exactly that precisely, but to more explore my relationship with it and my responses as it was changing and melting. I then subsequently made prints, which I made digital inversions of. When I made the photographs, I would always make them on a completely white-out day, and you’d see this black object in this white space. In the final work, I made this circular realization by inverting the photograph and restoring the glacier to white. The sky becomes the black of space, so you have this immediate planetary transformation in the image.
GH: Your art blends technology with nature and science very seamlessly. What inspired this connection in your work?
DH: My father was a physicist who studied in Bristol and then at the Max Planck Institute. He was a polymer physicist, and developed processes to metalize plastics. One of the companies he worked with was based in the States and he was developing coatings for space shuttles. So there were always these interesting sides of technology that I was being brought up with. Often you’d see these kinds of developments of technology, like a ghost of my dad’s work [like] some kind of metalized plastic in some food packaging, and back in the 1980s, you’d think, ‘There’s no way this is going to catch on.’ But everything is made with this stuff now, in terms of packaging, like CDs, laser storage, lots of things.
My mother is a ceramicist and a fanatical gardener. My father was also really into mountain walking and climbing, as well. So we always liked going to the middle of nowhere in nature, in Scotland mostly, sometimes Switzerland.
The area where I was born is a very industrial area – it’s a kind of industrial heartland in Britain. I was brought up on the edge of a natural park. So if you look one way, you’re looking across the park, across nature. If you look the other way, it’s just pure industry. I was always brought up with all these tensions and kinds of relationships throughout both my family and the landscapes around me. It was always something that was always very, very present. I was always drawn to exploring these ideas through a kind of landscape.
GH: How would you describe the relationship of your work to climate change?
DH: My interest in [my] work is centrally dealing with perception, and obviously photography is key to this cybernetic extension of our visual perceptions. We’re communicating so much more to each other almost using pure imagery, and I think in my work I’ve felt that we really need to deal with how we mediate the world through these cybernetic extensions through our photographic eyes. We need to deal with that while dealing with our relationship to nature. Our relationship to nature is always mediated by our relationship to technology. So we need to really understand our relationship to technology to understand our relationship to nature. My work is about trying to deal with that.
I’ve always had this feeling that the “sublime” – which is this feeling of this archaic or this “other” aspect of our human emotion, which is a kind of irrational response to a certain encounter in the world, and perhaps an encounter with nature…with technology, is fundamentally driven by our experiences of science. Science is broadening and deepening our understanding of the world, and it continually challenges our perception of the world. That cements itself and finds itself expressed through this emotion, this feeling of the sublime. [It] is either an archaic response, and …something that we have no use for, but is somehow still there, so we have this kind of irrational response, or we have this human response that is actually developing as science develops.
GH: How do you hope that your work is going to impact the human perception of climate change?
DH: I really concur with the artist Robert Irwin when he says that “Perception is political.” What he means by that is, I think, that at a base level we really need to fundamentally understand what defines our perceptual senses in order to organize our relationship to the world. With our new digitally mediated perceptual senses, this perhaps becomes more complex. We need to understand and feel comfortable with our newly developing perceptual capabilities in order to make the correct decisions about the way that we move forward with, just to give one example, issues around developments of future energy production..
GH: Could you briefly explain the concept behind “A Future Archaeology?”
DH: The idea of “A Future Archaeology” is this sense of both looking at the nature of the landscape and the nature of technology. It’s looking at the substructures of technologies, which are basically underpinning much of the virtual infrastructure that we’re interfacing with in our daily lives now, like, for example, Google Maps.
In a sense, “A Future Archeology” is exploring those materials in their raw form, in their data, in the models I’m working with. There’s also a sense of “A Future Archaeology” in the nature of this recording of geological formations over a period of time. It’s a digital archive of this particular moment. Of course, the materials of the digital are underpinned by the geological, so there’s a kind of interwoven history and trajectory [between the materials of the digital and the materials of the geological]. It’s very elemental, both in in its material and geological nature, in terms of the resources that underpin physically the technology we’re using and the machines we’re using.
There’s also an aspect of a digital archive. There are two depths throughout space: there’s a depth to the digital space and there’s a depth to the geological space, and they kind of mirror each other.
We’re obviously now documenting ourselves and are aware of the human nature of our own physical archive and material archive in terms of our sense of the emergence of this new era of the Anthropocene, where we see human activity defining it. It’s certainly a new geological epoch. It’s about all of those things.
From The Daily Beast: “Sure enough, there he was: a man dressed in a head-to-toe panda costume running toward the bus and waving his hands, a sweaty tornado of furry stress, desperate not to miss the bus that would transport him to the Langjökull Glacier—and the 500-meter tunnel that will take him to the party held 25 meters beneath the icy surface.
“This is the second year that the Secret Solstice festival has held the special event. Whispers of last year’s party—not to mention the insane photos—helped land not just the excursion, but Iceland’s four-day music marathon itself, on the top of the must-attend list in the world’s festival circuit.”
From Business Standard: “The second International Day of Yoga was celebrated by Army’s Fire and Fury Corps today at the Siachen Glacier, along with several other high-altitude forward locations in Leh and Kargil.
“The Indian Army has incorporated Yoga Asanas into the daily routine of the soldier in High Altitude Areas deployed in harsh climatic conditions.
“Practice of Yoga by soldiers in such an environment helps them to combat various diseases such as high altitude sickness, hypoxia, pulmonary oedema and the psychological stresses of isolation and fatigue.”
Tour guides play an important role in visitors’ interactions with the natural world. Harald Schaller, a graduate student at the University of Iceland studying geography, argues in a chapter in the book, Tour guides in nature-based tourism: Perceptions of nature and governance of protected areas, that the tour guide is a key stakeholder in protected areas.
Schaller shows in this chapter that tour guides not only translate, or help visitors find their path, but also shape visitors’ perception of nature. Furthermore, they guard fragile natural tourist sites, like glacial areas.
“Tour guides are important in understanding the dynamics of the interaction of humans with nature and with each other,” Schaller wrote. Understanding the interaction between humans and nature helps decision-makers get insight into visitors’ perception of nature’s vulnerability and the way nature changes over time. For instance, tour guides working in many areas in Iceland areas have the opportunity to witness glacier retreat.
Schaller provides insight into the position of tour guides in vulnerable tourist sites. He shows how they play a role in visitors’ perception of the environment, and concludes that tour guides should be seen as stakeholders in the decision-making process of protecting vulnerable tourist areas.
His chapter begins with the author’s journey to Iceland, talking with local tour guides and exploring how other tour guides view the environment in which they are guiding the tourists. Tour guides have a long history. They are both pathfinders and mentors; they interpret information. The information they provide for people make their journey more safe and interesting. With the boom of tourism industry, the need for tour guides is also increasing.
The individual concept of the environment is often linked to someone’s personal background, such as culture, experience, and beliefs. Therefore tour guides’ personal background could affect the guiding service they provide.
According to World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), 2013, tourism creates one out of eleven jobs globally. The tourism industry in Iceland is expanding, so there is tremendous need for guides. However, in Iceland the quantity and stability of the labor supply is fluctuating, because many of the tour guides are migrants and seasonal workers. This poses risks for the sustainability of Iceland’s tourism industry, since the quality and consistency of guiding service suffers when there are not enough professional and experienced tour guides.
As the growth of tourism continues, the expanding number of visitors threaten the future of this nature-based tourist industry. “[P]eople are more concerned with ticking Iceland off their bucket list and with sharing more of their experience online, rather than caring for the delicate environment,” Schaller writes in his article. In an email message to GlacierHub, he mentioned his concern for what he terms “the fragility of Icelandic environments.” He added, “Due to the increased visitation (beyond expectation for many), degradation of the natural environment happens. This, in turn, threatens the future of tourism, since the image of a wild and untouched environment is affected by this increase.”
Human cognition of the environment is not merely influenced by the physical existence of surroundings, such as lakes, mountains or animals, but also through their interaction with these natural surroundings. Schaller cites other sources who share this view. Lund (2013) and Ingold (2011) agreed that the environment is not a passive being. Instead, as one engages with the environment, it appears more clearly, and changes as physical interactions with it continue. So the natural environment could be seen as part of the personal experience within us as well as the objective existence of the environment.
A person’s conception of an environment is shaped by the visitors’ own memories, values and cultural background before they even step foot on the ground. Thus, there are two forces intertwining with each other: nature shapes the experience of the visitors and their understanding of it, and the visitors’ prior experiences also influence their thoughts. This tangled relation shows that tour guides are key stakeholders in understanding how visitors’ perception of nature-based sites, such as glacial areas, shape visitors’ perceptions. Schaller’s work demonstrates the centality of these guides to research on glacier tourism and, more broadly, on environmental perceptions.
A number of images of glacier tours in Iceland are available here.
Like many other people, I was affected by the eruption of Mt. Eyjafjallajökull six years ago. I have begun a project which focuses on the mountain, a glacier-covered volcano in southern Iceland, and its dramatic eruption. I am writing to invite you and others to contribute stories about this event to the project, which is titled Volcanologues.
The eruption began on 20 March 2010. The interaction of magma with water during the second phase of the eruption, beginning on 14 April, created a plume of volcanic ash that covered large areas of northern Europe, blocking air traffic over most of Europe for six days. About twenty countries closed their airspace to commercial jet traffic. Approximately ten million people had their travel schedules interrupted without any warning, and had to scramble to adjust their plans.
Eyjafjallajökull and the glacier which covers it have always had a significant presence for me. Not only did some of my ancestors live on a small farm right under the glacier, but also I could see the mountain from Heimaey, the island I was born and raised, as well as more recently from my summer home in southern Iceland.
In Reykjavik, I followed news on the levels of toxic gases which were emitted, and I measured the amount of ash that fell by my house. I also had to cancel a trip for a major conference in Poland. Most importantly, later on I was stranded in Norway due to one of the last clouds of volcanic ash. The trip home, which ordinarily would require only three hours, lasted 26 hours–a strange experience, one that remained in my mind longer than I anticipated.
During the months following the eruption, I kept meeting many people who described similar experiences, often in far more dramatic terms than I had used in speaking to my family and friends. It occurred to me that it would be interesting to collect eruption stories. I hesitated, perhaps because I somehow felt guilty that a volcano in my backyard was causing all these troubles! Recently, however, such a project has appealed to me, partly because I have been organizing a research project, “Domesticating Volcanoes” at the Center for Advanced Study in Oslo and partly because I have been developing the notion of “geosociality,” along with anthropologist Heather Anne Swanson, focusing on the commingling of humans and the earth “itself.”
Hosted at the University of Iceland, the Volcanologues project will document the complex impacts of the eruption on people from different parts of the world. Anyone who has a story to tell is inviteded to share their experience. Collectively, these stories will illuminate personal dramas in the wake of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, providing an engaging window into unprecedented natural events and their aftermaths.
I ask those who are interested in contributing to submit a short essay, possibly along with a related image (a photo, a drawing, or a document), to firstname.lastname@example.org. The average text should be between 500 and 1000 words. It should include a title, name and email address of the author, and a statement of consent: “I hereby grant Gisli Palsson permission to publish my essay on his Volcanologues website and in a printed collection of essays.”
I would like to thank my friend Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson for the permission to use his striking photographs of the eruption. His work can be viewed at Arctic Images.
In February, a group of nearly 50 tourists drew national attention in Iceland when, ignoring posted signs, they wandered onto a sheet of ice. Luckily they were called by back to shore by a tour guide who spotted them, according to Iceland Magazine. However, the event raised the question of tourist safety, which is a growing concern in the area.
The event happened at the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, a popular destination in southeast Iceland and the terminus of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. The group, which included some parents with children, braved the ice in order to get a closer view of seals. They jumped over cracks between floating ice. Though the ice appeared stable, the tourists had placed themselves at risk of being stranded since the ice sheets could have drifted apart.
The Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon is a draw for tourists in the area, since it contains strikingly impressive icebergs and is conveniently situated on Iceland’s Ring Road.
Dr. Þorvarður Árnason, an environmental scientist at the University of Iceland, said that the lagoon’s ice is made complicated by its tidal connection with the Atlantic Ocean.
“Foreign tourists coming to Jökulsárlón during the winter are probably not aware of this,” he wrote in an email message. “They think this is a ‘normal’ frozen lake… and do not consider the danger of the incoming tide of warm oceanic water which can melt the surface ice and also causes the floating icebergs to start moving, so that the ice around them can crack.”
The incident has become known locally as “the stranding of the tourists,” according to M Jackson, a researcher in the area who spoke with GlacierHub.
Jackson is based near Jökulsárlón and is on a 9-month visit to Iceland to collect first-hand observations and accounts of glaciers’ impacts and relationships with humans. In Iceland, Jackson said that the problem of tourist safety is frequent and well-known.
She spoke with tourists at Jökulsárlón in the days following the incident. When she went to the lagoon, tourists were again walking out onto the ice and she asked them about safety when they returned to shore. Some said they were following footprints in the snow, while others thought it was similar to walking on frozen lakes back home. Others said danger wasn’t a concern.
The responses indicated that tourists were both unfamiliar with the dangers of the lagoon ice and neglectful of “individual and community safety,” Jackson wrote via email. “There appears to be a disregard for the dangers foreign tourists are placing themselves in and the dangers they are placing others in—the rescuers who will volunteer to help them.”
Jackson lives in the town of Höfn, a fishing town of 1,700 near Jökulsárlón, and said that resident volunteers from the town are the first line of response for situations like the one that arose. Volunteer groups fit into a long tradition in Iceland, according to a recent article in the New Yorker. The Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue’s original goal was to save fishermen lost at sea. In 1950, they saved both the victims of a plane crash on a glacier as well as a team of first responders from the American military who got stranded. The work is seen as a form of community service, with employers allowing volunteers to take time off for for training and emergencies. The presence of this system has encouraged abuse, and tourists are seen as taking unnecessary risks because they count on it.
Though the tourist group at Jökulsárlón was able to walk back to shore and did not need saving, incidents such as this still ring alarm bells in Höfn. Jackson said that when the Search and Rescue (SAR) receives an alert, “it often takes them 1-2 hours, depending on weather, to even reach the scene of the emergency. Increasingly, this all volunteer force is being called out each day to respond to calls for help from foreign tourists—and many of the SAR members I spoke with are worn out from such an increased call volume.”
Jökulsárlón is not the only site where tourists have flouted warnings. Another article in Iceland Magazineshows pictures taken at Gullfoss waterfall, another nearby tourist draw, of tourists climbing over gated paths and ignoring warning signs. A tourist recently drowned off Reynisfjara Beach, leaving many wondering when the next major accident would occur.
Tourism is increasing in this part of Iceland and hundreds of visitors each day are visiting in the winter as well as the summer, which is different from the past. The winter conditions are more difficult, but the many people who visit do not fully appreciated the risks. According to the Iceland Tourist Board, foreign tourists doubled between 2010 and 2014, when they approached 1 million. That puts Iceland residents, who number at 323,000, at a three-to-one disadvantage compared to tourists.
The concern over safety contrasts with the publicity that some risk-takers are getting. In glacier boarding, extreme athletes ride down glacier liquid channels on boogie boards. Jackson said that photographs going back to 2011 in popular media showing the stunning interior of an ice cave led to a surge in demand for tours of ice caves. Jackson said she has seen tour groups in ice caves where some members are wearing helmets and some are not, and some are wearing spiked shoes while others are wearing sneakers.
Tour operators have sprung up offering glacier walks and trips to ice caves, and some are less insistent on safety precautions. A study in Norway quoted one tour company stating that safety was their top priority, but another one stated, “we have had no accidents, only bone fractures.”
Preventing incidents like the one at Jökulsárlón will require changes from tourists, the tourist industry, and the government. Jackson wrote that the area is an important one for tourists, who get to see icebergs close up, and the tourism industry, which is providing jobs for locals. However, while tourism has increased rapidly, a coordinated approach to the safety issue has lagged behind, she wrote, and while the government is ultimately responsible for leading a response, there is a feeling that this will not happen fast enough.
“Incidents such as what just happened out at the lagoon are likely to increase, and as many observe here, until there is a large scale tragedy, it is unlikely that anything will change,” Jackson wrote.
Each week, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news.
Hockey Warms Up Village in Kyrgyzstan
From Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:
“In the mountains of northern Kyrgyzstan, winters can be long and cold. So people in the tiny village of Kenesh have come up with a healthy way to keep active and fit. Each day, almost all of the villagers lace up their skates, and grab a stick to play ice hockey.”
Watch the video to find out more about this unique practice.
Tourists on Frozen Lagoons Test Limits of Safety
From Iceland Magazine:
“Tour guides and visitors at Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon in South East Iceland watched in shock and disbelief as a large group of people had managed to get themselves near the centre of the lagoon by jumping between ice floats and walking on the frozen lagoon.”
Poor Diet Limits Microbial Growth on Debris-Covered Glaciers
From Soil Biology and Biochemistry:
“Photosynthetic microbial communities are important to the functioning of early successional ecosystems, but we know very little about the factors that limit the growth of these communities, especially in remote glacial and periglacial environments. The goal of the present study was to gain insight into the degree to which nutrients limit the growth of photosynthetic microbes in sediments from the surface of the Toklat Glacier in central Alaska.”
Read more about how nutrient availability is affecting life on glaciers.
This week, Fulbright scholar and researcher M Jackson shares a glimpse of her work and travel in Höfn, Iceland, which she deems “cryosphere paradise,” as captured through Instagram.
M Jackson is a U.S. Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oregon. She’s currently based in Höfn, Iceland, through a U.S. Fulbright-National Science Foundation Arctic Research Grant, where she’s researching glacier/society relationships. The images here are all within an hour’s drive of Jackson’s home in Artbjarg, Höfn, and show the outlet glaciers pouring from the largest ice cap in Europe, Vatnajökull. Jackson will spend the winter exploring these glaciers and getting to know the Icelandic people who live near their peripheries.
Many thanks to M Jackson for sharing her photos with us. You can follow her on Instagram at @mlejackson. This is her second appearance in GlacierHub, following an an earlier post on her previous research.