Melting Glaciers Threaten Iceland’s Water, Power & Tourism

More than 10% of Iceland is covered by some 300 glaciers, but this may not be the case for long. Every year, the Solheimajokull glacier loses about 11 billion tons of ice a year, making it a key focal point of environmental wellness experts. For the past two decades, the tongue of ice reaching toward Iceland’s southeast coast has retreated an average of one Olympic pool-length every year. This is thanks to, and indicative of, the planet’s wellbeing as a whole, as climbing temperatures, warming ocean currents and disrupted seasons are the culprits behind Iceland’s glacier loss.


Lying just below the Arctic Circle, Iceland is one of the fastest-warming countries on the planet, as much as four times the average warming rate in the Northern Hemisphere. The amount of ice carried away from Iceland’s glaciers and not replaced by new snow annually would fill 50 of the world’s largest trucks every minute for the entire year. According to during an interview in his office at the University of Iceland’s Institute of Earth Sciences, pioneering glaciologist Helgi Bjornsson commented, ‘It is among the highest losses on the Earth.’ The majestic white mountains – jökull in Icelandic – aren’t only the subject of ancient myth and a proud literary tradition; they’re also a lucrative draw for tourists and, as a result, crucial to the nation today. The glaciers stores water for its 320,000 residents, and their rivers provide most of the country’s electricity through hydropower.


According to Bjornsson, who is one of the leading scientists to quantify the link between glacial loss and greenhouse gas-induced warming, some of the Iceland’s glaciers have vanished already and several others will be gone within a decade or two. In one generation’s time, the water and electricity provided by the ice mountains will be gone, dust storms will swirl over dry glacier beds while huge expanses of exposed earth erode. However, this isn’t a problem for the near-future; the effects are happening now. Iceland’s longest bridge spans half-a-mile over the Skeidara River, which is responsible for draining from the massive Vatnajokull ice cap down to the island’s south coast. Bjornsson notes, ‘A few years ago, the river disappeared and now this bridge, the longest bridge in Iceland, is just standing there, and there’s no water underneath it. So it looks like we are crazy here in Iceland.’


Magnus Hallgrimsson, vice-president of the Iceland Glaciological Society (a group of volunteers who have conducted annual surveys of the island’s glaciers since 1950) has been assisting Iceland Search and Rescue since 1948. The avid sportsman has made a number of glacial assents, but some of the mountains he frequents have begun to disappear in the past few years. Hallgrimsson first noticed the melt in the mid-1980s, but he says it is accelerating: ‘In the last years in the lower areas of the Tindfjallajokull (a glacier in the southern highlands) all the snow is gone.’ In fact, Hallgrimsson has measured retreats of as much as one third of a mile: ‘The tail of the glacier goes back and leaves just gravel.’


As early as the mid-2100s, Iceland’s glaciers may be no more than small ‘ice museums’ atop the highest peaks, says Hallgrimsson, but what do the residents think? Artist Vigdis Bjarnadottir, who spent her childhood in the village of Olafsvik at the foot of the rising glacier, was inspired to create a painting of the Snaefellsjokull Glacier, with tacks and strings crossing its glacial peaks. ‘As we do not want the Snaefellsjokull Glacier to disappear, I have nailed and tied it down,’ she declared. After all, as another resident quipped, without glaciers, Iceland is ‘just land.’

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