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What is Iceland without ice?

The sea Jökúlsarlón did not exist ninety years ago. Now it grows bigger and bigger every year. Photo: Olivia Runsala

For a thousand years Icelanders have lived side by side with the glaciers. Within two centuries, they will have melted, to never come back again. 

The ice block left by the glacier lies as a backdrop. The icebergs that have broken loose rest scattered in the deep blue water. Only the peaks appear as white islands in the lake. Tourists leave their cars in the cramped parking lot with their cameras held high. In front of them lies Iceland’s deepest lake. A natural phenomenon without comparison. But also the ultimate proof of what is happening.

Xiao Juan has just photographed her friend on the shore of the lake. They have traveled from China to Iceland as a part of a student trip and didn’t want to miss this place.

“It’s so beautiful, but at the same time so sad to see this beautiful place melt away.” says Xiao Juan.

The glacier lake Jökulsárlón is a result of the melting glaciers on Iceland. Once there was only ice to be seen here. Only ninety years ago, the 300-meter-deep lake was part of Breidamerkurjökull, a glacier that has steadily withdrawn. The masses of water from the melting ice have created one of Iceland’s largest tourist attractions. A change that is particularly noticeable right here, but in no way unique.

The first Icelandic glacier to be declared dead was Ókjökull in 2014. It was also the first to be given a funeral. Oddur Sigurdsson attended the ceremony held in August this year. He is a glaciologist at the meteorological office in Reykjavík. It was his job to issue a death certificate for Ókjökull.

“We walked the last five hundred meters in silence. We were not necessarily mourning, the atmosphere was slightly lighter” says Oddur Sigurdsson.

It is hard to miss Oddur Sigurdsson’s fascination with glaciers. In his professional role, he has studied the huge blocks of ice for many years – during the past twenty years, only to see them melt.

“The main reason that the glaciers melt is the increased summer heat on Iceland. Which is in turn, a consequence of global warming.”

Oddur Sigurdsson is a glaciologist, not surprisingly, the fabric of his pillows have glacier motives. Photo: Olivia Runsala

The glaciers’ mass is affected by the snowfall during winter and the melting during summer. In order for a glacier to maintain the same mass, the melting cannot exceed the amount of snow falling on the glacier – which is the case for Iceland’s glaciers over the last century. Within two hundred years, all glaciers on Iceland are expected to be gone.

“They are magnificent. It will feel like big mountains have suddenly disappeared from the landscape, says Oddur Sigurdsson.”

As large mountains disappear from the Icelandic landscape, others will appear. Many of the glaciers are located on top of volcanoes, which are likely to become more active as the ice mass on top of them melt. The natural volcanic eruptions on Iceland will become more frequent, but exactly how this change will affect Iceland and other surrounding countries is currently impossible to say.

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On top of Europe’s largest glacier Vatnajökull, there is a muffled rumble. It is reminiscent of a distant thunderstorm that is about to roll in, but the sound is coming from below. An ice wall or block of ice has just collapsed somewhere inside the glacier. A deafening sound down there, but up here only a dull murmur is heard. With each step, the crampons must be pressed hard into the barren surface. The black stripes on the ice is reminiscent of the black-colored snow that accumulates on the side of the road during wintertime, but here the pollution is made of volcanic ash.

“Keep your gloves on at all times. If you break your fall without gloves on, there will be red ice, calls the guide.”

Ash from volcanic eruptions can be seen in several places on the glacier Falljökull. Photo: Olivia Runsala

The ice of the glacier is sharp and the group is moving slowly over the slippery surface, surrounded by deep crevasses on all sides. Some of them more than ten meters deep. It is like the glacier is an unpredictable creature that requires constant caution and respect.

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But the glaciers play no function in nature. Nothing grows on them and they are not home to any animal species. However, their melting causes problems. An increased amount of water in the seas affects the currents. Exactly how they are affected, scientists find hard to predict, but a change of direction, or a slowdown of the Gulf Stream, would have devastating consequences for northern Europe. An increased sea level might flood many densely populated cities in the world. Changing weather patterns will cause dry places in the world to become drier, and wet places wetter. All of them are disasters which researchers have warned about for a long time. For the Icelanders there are other problems.

“We will lose a thousand years of Icelandic history frozen in the ice,” says Oddur Sigurdsson.

By analyzing the layers of ash that have fallen on the glacier over the years, one can determine a large part of Iceland’s history. This technology has, among other things, been able to determine with certainty when the first settlement took place on the island. Now valuable historical information is melting away.

On top of and inside the glacier, small streams are formed by meltwater. Photo: Olivia Runsala

In a clubhouse in Reykjavík, about twenty young people mingle by the coffee pots. Tomorrow is “Fridays for future” and school strike for the climate, followed by a whole week of demonstrations. There is a break in the meeting and Sigurdur Loftur Thorlacius sits in the front of the dark room, looking over his Powerpoint. He is the president of the organization for young environmental activists on Iceland. He believes that the disappearance of the glaciers will affect many Icelanders.

Sigurdur Loftur Thorlacius believes that many are greatly affected by the glaciers melting. Photo: Olivia Runsala

“Imagine that you have a landmark near your home, which you see every day and that you experience as permanent, in the same way as a mountain. Then imagine seeing the mountain disappear, faster and faster each year, knowing that it is because of the impact of humanity.” 

Sigurdur Loftur Thorlacius was one of the hundred who attended the ceremony for Ókjökull a month earlier. He feels a great sadness that the glaciers are melting.

“When you live in one place, or in one country, you are generally bad at exploring the nature right there. You know that the opportunity to do so always comes. Walking on a glacier is a typical thing we Icelanders plan to do someday. Soon it might be too late.” Says Sigurdur Loftur Thorlacius.

But the glaciers have not always been looked upon favorably. Icelanders only 150 years ago would have difficulty understanding today’s concerns about their melting. To them, they were a dangerous natural phenomenon that grew rapidly and swallowed whole villages and farms. They were also a source of devastating floods. The last time a farm was buried by a glacier was in the 1710’s, in the same location where the glacier lake Jökulsárlón is today. How the first Icelanders felt about the glaciers is hard to know for sure. But the fact that the Vikings named the new island Iceland is testament to the fact that ice was a natural and present phenomenon at the time.

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Tryggví Gudmundsson runs across the glacier as if he were moving in his own living room, without a thought of the metal spikes under his feet. The rope is tightly wound around his hip, ready to be used if something goes wrong.

Tryggví Gudmundsson runs out of an ice cave at the glacier Falljökull. For five years he has visited the glacier daily. Photo: Olivia Runsala

“They are so powerful. At any time, large blocks of ice can break loose and fall down the mountain side. We would not stand a chance. We have our security ropes, but we are still completely powerless before them. That is what makes it so special to be here” says Tryggví Gudmundsson.

For five years the ice has been Tryggví Gudmundsson’s office. He visited a glacier for the first time when he was 22 and fell in love.

“I try to explain it to my friends in Reykjavík. But they have to visit one to really understand. Still, I think many Icelanders will feel that they lose some of their identity when the glaciers melt. I mean, they have been such a big part of our history and our entire settlement on this island.” 

The rain has started to color the surface of the glacier crystal blue. If you stand still, you can hear the porpoise from all the streams that flow under the ice. We are making our way down the iceberg. The sun is also making its way down into the Atlantic ocean in front of us. Its rays shine over a pool of water at the foot of the glacier. Water that once was frozen.

“It will be Iceland without ice. I think we might have to come up with a new name. When all the ice is gone maybe we should use Niceland instead” says Tryggví Gudmundsson.

On the way down from the glacier. Once, the glacier stretched as far as the water below. Photo: Olivia Runsala

Iceland’s glaciers were created during the ice ages. The dead glacier Ókjökull was likely created in the late 1600’s, then grew for two hundred years, and melted in a hundred. Due to the expected global warming of four degrees and the large amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, there will never be an ice age again. We will most likely never see new glaciers being created.

But during the two hundred years in which the last Icelandic glaciers are melting, there are still financial benefits to draw from it.

“When glaciers melt, the amount of water in the rivers increase, which will benefit Iceland’s electricity production” says Oddur Sigurdsson.

On the other hand, the rivers will gather in fewer grooves as the glaciers retreat. The water will then change direction and flow to other places than before. Ten years ago, the river under Iceland’s longest bridge disappeared. These types of changes have given Iceland infrastructural problems. As the large masses of ice melt, Iceland’s land mass will increase when the weight of the glaciers no longer press against the crust of the earth. This will offset the elevated sea level. Iceland’s largest port also risks becoming too shallow for the cargo vessels as the crust rises. A problem which is solved by digging out the sea bottom.

But in order to save the glacier, no solutions have been found. It is already too late.

The river beneath Iceland’s longest bridge has changed direction as a result of the glacier melting. Today the one kilometer long bridge crosses bare ground. Photo: Olivia Runsala

Oddur Sigurdsson glances over the computer screen. Outside his window, Mount Esja is towering. A view that the residents of Reykjavík see daily, but which would make every office clerk in Stockholm jealous.

“There is a saying among us Icelanders, ‘Everything the glacier takes, it gives back”’ he says.

He flips through the pictures on his computer and stops at one of a small bird lying dead and frozen on the ice.

“It fell on the glacier a hundred years ago.”

The saying is based on a movement within the glacier. The top layer of the ice is pressed down while the bottom layer is pressed up. The rotation means that the glacier is constantly moving in a rolling movement. Early settlers seem to have understood this movement of the glacier. An early writing from the 13th century describes how a man fell into a crevasse. His body was found several years later on the top of the glacier.
Many tourists visit Lake Jökulsárlón daily. Today it has grown so much that a bridge has been built over the delta that leads into the Atlantic ocean. Photo: Olivia Runsala

A loud bang followed by a dull rumble is heard from the glacier on the other side of the lake. Everyone’s gazes shift and are greeted by the sight of a giant block of ice that has loosened and is plunging into the deep lake. An impressed murmur spreads among the tourists. But the magnificent sight is tragic, as yet another piece has been torn from the glacier. In just a few years the lake Jökulsárlón will have grown further and the lake between the beach and the glacier will hold even more water. Water that the glacier has taken, but gives back.

Long Read from The Perspective Magazine – Olivia Runsala

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