Hardangerjøkulen: The Real-Life Hoth is Disappearing

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An image from the set of the Empire Strikes Back (Source: Brickset/Flickr).

Any Star Wars fan will recognize the remote ice planet Hoth, the location of some of the most iconic scenes from Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, including the attack on the Rebel Alliance’s Echo Base by Imperial Walkers and Han Solo’s daring rescue of Luke Skywalker after his tauntaun was attacked by a wampa. Not many people, however, would know that those legendary scenes were filmed on a Norwegian ice cap called Hardangerjøkulen.

When the movie was filmed in 1980, the crew had to cope with subzero temperatures and freezing winds. However, nearly forty years later, the real-life Hoth is disappearing. According to a recent paper by Henning Akesson et al., published in The Cryosphere, the ice cap is extremely sensitive to small changes in temperature, and therefore vulnerable to climate change as global temperatures continue to increase.

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An edge of the Hardangerjøkulen ice cap (Source: Ingolf/Flickr).

Akesson explains in an article for ScienceDirect that due to increasing temperatures, it is feasible that Hardangerjøkulen could fully melt by 2100 if the trends continue. Once it melts, he and his team maintain that the ice cap will never return.

As the authors of the study explain, Hardangerjøkulen is located in southern Norway and measured 73 square kilometers as of 2012. It is generally flat in the interior and has several steeper glaciers along the edge of the ice cap that drain the plateau. Two of these glaciers, Midtdalsbreen and Rembesdalsskaka, have retreated 150 meters and 1386 meters respectively since 1982. Akesson et al. base their study of Hardangerjøkulen on modeling, as opposed to measurements or observations.

The team used a numerical ice flow model to produce a plausible ice cap history of Hardangerjøkulen thousands of years before the Little Ice Age. Using a modelled history of the ice cap, they examined the sensitivity to different parameters. They found that it is “exceptionally sensitive” to changes in temperature. These changes in temperature impact the ice cap’s surface mass balance, which is the gain and loss of ice from a glacier system.

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A sunny view near the summit of Hardangerjøkulen (Source: Martin Talbot/Flickr).

The possible disappearance of Hardangerjøkulen has many implications, including impacting Norway’s tourism and hydropower industries. 99 percent of all power production in Norway comes from hydropower, which depends on glaciers’ water storage and seasonal water flow. Glaciers help contribute to water reservoirs used for the hydropower, and Norway itself contains nearly half of the reservoir capacity in Europe.

The ice cap is also a popular destination for hiking and glacier walking, as well as for Star Wars fans hoping to visit the location of Hoth scenes.

Local residents have remarked on noticeable differences in Hardangerjøkulen. Grete Hovelsrud, a senior researcher at the Nordland Research Institute and vice-president of the Norwegian Scientific Academy for Polar Research, told GlacierHub that the potential loss of Hardangerjøkulen is “very sad.” She added, “It is such a beautiful place. I skied across it last spring, and it really feels like being on top of the world.”

When glaciers appeared in a galaxy far, far away

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Star Wars fans gather (in Imperial Snowtrooper costumes) in Finse, Norway in 2010 for the 30th anniversary of the filming of the Empire Strikes Back. (source: kimncris.com)

Rabid Star Wars and glaciologists share at least one thing in common. They both know about the Hardangerjøkulen Glacier in Norway, where scenes set snow planet of Hoth were shot for The Empire Strikes Back.

The possibility of returning to Hoth in the new Star Wars movie has been circulating the Internet rumor mill for a few months now, and even in the age of blue screen and CGI effects, there’s something to be said about shooting on location, on a glacier itself, as the first of the series’ sequels did in 1979.

Norway’s claim to fame dates to March of that year when crews shooting The Empire Strikes Back were based in the town of Finse during the filming of scenes set on the frozen planet Hoth. The nearby Hardangerjøkulen Glacier was used near the beginning of the film during the battle scene between Luke Skywalker’s Rebel Alliance and Darth Vader’s Imperial forces.

The film crew for the Empire Strikes Back prepares to film a scene with Harrison Ford  in Norway. (film still from documentary "Empire of Dreams - The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy)
The film crew for the Empire Strikes Back prepares to film a scene with Harrison Ford in Norway. (film still from documentary “Empire of Dreams – The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy’)

Filming during Norwegian wintertime wasn’t the easiest. When the worst winter storm in 50 years hit the area, it trapped the production crew in their hotel in Finse. Not to lose any time, they shot a scene of Luke Skywalker escaping from an ice monster’s cave by sending actor Mark Hamill out the hotel door into the cold, while the cameras and crew remained warmly inside.

The village of Finse is so remote that no public roads connect it to the rest of Norway, only a railway. The glacier itself is located in a national park and tourists must travel there not only with special permission, but also a guide that can help them avoid dangerous crevasses.

There is a small group of superfans who make the trek out to whatever Earth-related locations stood in for the galaxy far, far away.

Brandon Alinger, who has visited several other Star Wars filming sites, recently made the trip up to Finse, but not before stopping in London to chat with Empire Strikes Back location manager Phillip Kohler.

“We went up [on these trails] when we were on the recce (film slang for reconnaissance trip), on snow cats,” Brandon recalls Kohler telling him. “We told the driver in front, ‘If you don’t know the way, don’t leave the route, don’t let the guys tell you they want to go to the left’, because it looks safe! So what do they do? We see the snow-cat turn left, turn right, and it suddenly stopped. And the director got out and went straight down on his right leg. We said, ‘told ya, it’s all crevasses.’”

Star Wars tourism sometimes brings fans to the ends of the earth (in this case Fense, Norway) to visit filming locations. (source: PropStore.com)
Star Wars tourism sometimes brings fans to the ends of the earth (in this case Fense, Norway) to visit filming locations. (source: PropStore.com)

The Hardangerjøkulen Glacier isn’t the only Star Wars location difficult for tourists to visit. Production crews have used Tunisa multiple times as the setting for Luke Skywalker’s desert homeworld Tatooine. Recently shifting Saharan sands threaten to cover old filming sets, and the Arab Spring uprisings have scared tourists away.

Those looking to travel to Hoth without leaving their front door can find plenty of glacier-inspired Star Wars work. Artist James W. Rook, for example, imagined what it might be like if melting ice revealed a long-missing prop, in this case a crashed rebel snowspeeder. The elements from the Norwegian glacier and surrounding area are even incorporated into Angry Birds Star Wars.

As long as Star Wars exists, in some form or another, so will Norway’s glaciers.