The Okjökull glacier died in 2014. It wasn’t the first Icelandic glacier to pass away. Some estimates say that up to ten named bodies of ice have previously expired, along with countless more that were unnamed. But Okjökull was the biggest, so far.
Over a period of years, Okjökull melted faster than snowfall could accumulate into new ice. The glacier became thinner each year until, eventually, the ice in the bowl of the shield volcano stopped moving. No longer shifting under its own weight to create glacial currents, Okjökull became still—a once-living mass that glaciologists refer to as “dead ice.”
The “jökull” was stripped from its name accordingly—today, the 1200m peak in Borgarfjörður is now known simply as “Ok.”
Standing at the foot of the snowbound mountain as the sun starts to set on a freezing January evening, I turn and scan the landscape. In the distance, some of Ok’s surviving siblings can be seen. The dizzying protrusion of Eiríksjökull mingles with the clouds way up at 1672m, glowing bright against the amber sky. Closer by, the graceful 1360m sweep of Langjökull blushes pink in the sunset as it slides away to the horizon like a giant frozen wall.
In the frigid midwinter, these peaks seem unassailable. It’s hard to imagine that such vast bodies of ice could melt away entirely, becoming seabound meltwater rivers, revealing the gnarled and naked rock beneath. But that’s exactly what the scientific community tells us is already happening. It’s also, I think to myself, what people probably once thought about Ok.
Iceland has 269 named glaciers, from the vast ice cap of Vatnajökull with its many tongues and outlets, to the towering, famously volcanic Eyjafjallajökull overlooking the south coast, and the much-admired snow-hooded Snæfellsjökull, perched on the western Snæefellsnes peninsula. They’re studied and monitored by a variety of organisations who funnel their data to the Icelandic Met Office, Veðurstofa.
Tómas Jóhannesson is the head of Veðurstófa’s glacier group and one of the people who collates the flood of information, and examines the complex ramifications. “Ok is the largest named glacier to officially disappear,” he says, in his Reykjavík office. “Some snow patches remain, but a glacier is by definition a mass of ice so heavy that it flows under its own weight, and has some dynamics. The patches around Ok have become so thin that they sit there without movement, and therefore no longer qualify as a glacier.”
Since the mid-1990s, rapid thinning has been a near universal trend in Iceland’s glaciers, with an overwhelming majority of Iceland’s glaciers decreasing in volume almost every year. One of the most well-known cases is Sólheimajökull, a long and serpentine glacier tongue of Mýrdalsjökull that winds its way down to within a few kilometres of Route One.
“The overall retreat there since 1930 is around 1.5 km, and this is a typical magnitude of the retreat,” says Tómas. “Iceland’s total glacier-covered area has shrunk by roughly 2000 square kilometres since the end of the 19th Century. We now lose about 40 square kilometres annually, which is quite a remarkable area to become deglaciated each year.”
I remark that it sounds like Sólheimajökull could be headed for the same fate as Ok. “It’s a part of the larger Mýrdalsjökull ice cap,” says Tómas. “So the outlet will retreat to higher elevations, closer to the accumulation area. But this entire valley will be ice-free, in the end.”
Iceland’s glaciers have always gone through the annual cycle of winter accumulation—when snowfall adds new ice to the glacier—and summer ablation, when the rate of melt exceeds the production of new ice. The sum of the accumulation and the ablation is known as the glacier’s mass balance, which fluctuates naturally from year-to-year and over decades and longer periods.
“The history of Iceland shows alternating cool and warm periods,” says Tómas. “This has always been the case. But anthropogenic, man-made global warming is now of such a magnitude that it’s pulling our climate outside of the natural variations. We’ve had ice ages, and warmer periods than now, which demonstrates that the Earth’s climate goes through large changes. We know that Iceland was completely ice covered during the ice age. We know roughly the causes that led to the ice age, and what forcing in the energy flux from the sun was required to create an ice age, or an ice-free Iceland. The forcings that humans are creating through emissions of greenhouse gasses are of a similar magnitude. And so, we expect similar results. We can expect very serious consequences from our disruption of the climate.”
The list of projected consequences includes isostasy—a process whereby reduced ice removes weight from the earth’s crust, causing the land to slowly rise. Around Vatnajökull, this will have considerable consequences for local people.
“We can already see a substantial rise in the land around Höfn,” says Tómas. “It’s rising by one or two centimetres a year. Over a whole century this rise is substantial—a metre, or even several metres. This means the harbour will become worse as the ocean near the coast becomes shallower. In most countries, people are worried about sea level rise, but in this region, the land is rising faster than the ocean, so the sea is retreating.
Eruptions for all
Deglaciation can also lead to increased volcanic activity, which is expected to result in more eruptions. “When the weight of ice is reduced, there’s a change in the melting point of magma in the upper mantle, and a somewhat increased production of magma,” says Tómas. “In the end, this is likely to increase the volume of magma that comes to the surface. We expect that the reduction of glaciers will lead to a noticeable increase in the eruption of Icelandic volcanoes. You’d never expect this, but people driving cars could indirectly lead to an increase of volcanic eruptions in Iceland!”
If the projections hold true, these effects will intensify over the coming decades and centuries. “It’s safe to say that if things continue as they are now developing,” says Tómas, “the glaciers will be mostly gone in a couple of hundred years. I view the current reduction in size as a sign of a much bigger problem to come. In that sense, it’s something that should wake people up.”
A few days later, I crunch up the icy path into the Sólheimajökull valley with a couple of companions. Cresting the hill over a bed of ashen snow, I’m taken aback by the view. Since my last visit, just a couple of years ago, the gentle ice slope up towards the jagged blue snout of the glacier has been replaced by a wide, iceberg-strewn meltwater lagoon.
We wander along the shore to the base of the ice, where giant, viscerally blue glacier fragments stand dripping in black sand. Embedded in a solid surface at ground level, it’s safe to mill around between the shards. A welcome, familiar feeling returns as my initial shock is replaced by wonder at the sheer sensory overload of the arterial blue ice. Beyond their rhythmically rippled surfaces, endless seams and patterns vanish into the depths of each crystalline boulder.
A well known appreciator and documentor of glaciers is renowned photographer Ragnar Axelsson, also known as Rax, who recently published a book of glacier pictures entitled, simply, “JÖKULL.”
He was brought up in the foothills of Vatnajökull. “I grew up for six years near glaciers in the South East of Iceland, and fell in love with the glaciers from the minute I saw them,” he recalls. “I always enjoyed walking on the glacier. We would go into the valleys and mountains inside the glacier to collect sheep, and go into the ice caves.”
Faces in the ice
Ragnar found early inspiration in the ice that continues to this day. “I would look for faces and figures in the ice,” he says. “It changed the way I think. You don’t know what you’re learning as you grow up, but it stays with you and informs how you think about nature and the world.”
Rax has first-hand memories of the shifting glaciers. “The ice came down much farther back then,” he says. “We had to walk over it to get between farms. I took pictures of it from the beach, and you can compare them to now, and see how much lower the glaciers are today.”
The melting book
Icelanders haven’t always thought of glaciers as something to treasure and protect. Just a generation or two ago, they were seen as a threatening, invasive presence. “People certainly used to think of the glaciers as hostile,” says Ragnar. “They didn’t go there, and didn’t want to. When they first climbed Snæfellsjökull, they took breathing apparatus because it looked so high. It was the same in Greenland: I was once sledding past a tall mountain and I asked my hunter friend: ‘Have you been up there?’ He replied: ‘Why should I? There is nothing there.’
“I don’t think anyone in old times thought glaciers would be an attraction in the future. But today, glaciers are a huge part of the beauty of this country.”
There’s also irreplaceable information in the ice, says Ragnar. “When there is ash in the glacier, we can tell what eruption it was from. There is history in the glaciers. When you drill into the ice, you can get information about weather patterns over the centuries. The glacier is like a book full of information—and we are losing pages every year. This book is melting.”
Solid ground again
Einar Öræfingur is a mountain climber and tour guide who grew up not far from Rax. He was the first guide to take people into the ice caves of Vatnajökull, and spends much of his life on the ice. His work has led him to summit Hvannadalshnúkur—Iceland’s highest mountain, and the peak of the Vatnajökull glacier—over 300 times.
We meet Einar in his café, in the shadow of the glacier. He was born on the next farm over. “The glacier was just there when I was a boy,” he says. “I remember the feeling when I first dared to walk on it a little: I felt like it was going to swallow me whole. Somehow it was not normal to be walking on a glacier. Soon after, I started guiding people on the glacier, but today I still have the feeling when I step off the ice of coming back from the sea onto dry land, onto solid ground again.”
The endless crack
Einar says that he’s still continually learning to respect the glaciers. Even after decades of venturing onto the ice many times a week in all kinds of conditions, Vatnajökull is full of surprises.
“A year and a half ago, in October, there was suddenly a huge, endless crack in the middle of the plateau of the crater on the highest mountain of Vatnajökull,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘This is impossible! There can’t be a crevasse here, on the flat ground.’ I stood looking down into it, and my stomach rolled. It had happened because of volcanic activity: suddenly there was a depression, and the crack opened up, going down maybe 500 metres into the caldera. In a whiteout, it would have put me in danger. Things like that teach you to always show respect for the glaciers.”
A forest under ice
For Einar, the glaciers have always been a fact of life. His knowledge and experience of them runs generations deep. Seeing the hulking mass of Europe’s largest glacier on a day-to-day basis gives him a local perspective of the wider questions surrounding the glaciers.
“I have homegrown theories,” he says. “I’m no Donald Trump, but there was climate change before human influence. Iceland has been a barometer of climate change for centuries. When I go to the ice cave behind Jökulsárlón, we drive past the homestead of the first settler of southern Iceland, Hrollaugur of Fell. At the time he lived there, this whole area was covered with trees and vegetation—it was a first called Breiðamörk, or ‘big forest.’ Today it’s all barren riverbeds and moss, and it’s called Sandur.”
Based on the name of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, Einar has long been telling his guests that there used to be a forest where Jökulsárlón is now. “Two years ago, I started going to an ice cave on the east side of Jökulsárlón that I call the Treasure Island cave—because I found a treasure there,” he says. “I found a piece of old tree that’s actually from the time when it was a forest. Now, instead of just saying ‘This used to be forest,’ I have proof. We sent it for carbon dating, and it was 3,000 years old.”
He brings out the chunk of fossilised wood. It feels as light as air. “So back then, the glacier was much smaller than it is today, and it grew over the forest,” he says, carefully turning the log over in his hands. “That’s the situation my forefathers came to live in, in the year 900. These farmers would be shocked to see how much ice there is today, and how little vegetation. I take a little comfort in that—knowing that although the glaciers are getting smaller, they’re so much bigger than they used to be.”
Einar does, however, remain open to the idea of anthropogenic climate change. “I do worry that we might tip the balance with our human pollution,” he finishes. “We should do what we can do, even if the pollution from big eruptions is much larger in scale. It’s something new we’re adding to the equation. It’s not good for people to live with pollution anyway, like the cities in India where people are dying just from being there. It’s not about saving the whole planet, but just trying to think about what kind of place we want to live in.”
Are glaciers alive?
U.S. geographer and glaciologist M Jackson has been visiting Iceland and the Vatnajökull region for almost a decade. Her recently released book, “The Secret Lives of Glaciers,” mixes climate science with an examination of what glaciers mean to us as individuals, communities, and as a species.
The research proved to be an interesting challenge. M designed her methodology as she went, coming back to Höfn for repeat visits and forming close connections with the community. “I started showing up and spent two summers getting my feet on the ground, learning a bit of Icelandic and understanding the geography of this place,” she says. “I tested different methods to see if they were appropriate. A lot of them weren’t. Glaciers don’t push back if you measure them, but when you speak to people, a typical analytical approach isn’t going to work. You need to have a series of open ended conversations. It’s long term, slow-as-ice research. But I love it.”
M spent several long periods in Iceland, the longest of which was nine months. Her careful approach allowed for some surprising viewpoints to emerge by combining physical and human geography. “There’s immense complexity in ice and how people relate to ice,” she says. “That’s what I wanted to show—the different ways that Icelanders think about ice. There’s no one way. There’s no right.”
Short term benefits
One thing that struck her is that the people of Höfn are, in the short term, benefitting from the shrinking glaciers. “Outside of Iceland, people are having this conversation that the glaciers are melting, and that’s the very worst thing,” she says. “That’s the global narrative. But in Iceland, something that struck me as gold is that you can have real conversations about what’s happening, which includes short-term advantages.”
One example of this is the increase in glacier-related tourism. “People are coming to see this ice before it’s gone,” M continues. “Ten years ago, living in Höfn was a pretty hard time. There weren’t a lot of jobs, or kids. It didn’t feel prosperous. Every year I’d go back to the glaciers and be stunned by the change—but where you don’t see a lot of success with the ice, you see a lot of success in society.”
M also discovered diverse opinions between age groups. “Older people had longer memories of the ice—generational memories,” says M. “They’d say, ‘I’ll miss the glaciers, but I’ll be kind of glad they’re gone. They’re no longer gonna destroy our farms, our families, our future.’ On the other hand, young Icelanders say that they’re losing their landscape and identity. So you get this very authentic complexity. Too often we tend to reduce things into one simple narrative.”
Smells like glacier
In addition to recording the thoughts of others, M had time to deepen her own relationship with the glacier tongues of Vatnajökull. She spent time working on glaciers like Breiðamerkurjökull, Heinabergsjökull and Skálafellsjökull, finding that each glacier has distinctive characteristics.
“Glaciers are so vastly different from one another,” she says. “They each respond differently to the stresses of changing climate. But it’s more than that—they’ve created their own landscapes, and responded in different ways; they have different sediments, and different movements, and they move around mountains differently. They have different sounds. You know when you’re on Breiðamerkurjökull: it has a whole different soundset and smell set than if you’re in the enclosed space of Fláajökull. Over time I’ve gotten to know them and become friends with them. I know we’re not supposed to say that in science—but these glaciers flow down into our lives in really amazing ways, and it enriches who we are.”
This is what matters
New glacier technologies are also emerging that could possibly be put to good use, were the will there to explore them. “In Pakistan there’s technology to breed and make glaciers,” says M. “But that doesn’t fit with the Western scientific model of how we think about ice. We could take this indigenous glacier-making ability to drought-stricken regions of the world. But we’re not having those conversations.”
M’s enthusiasm is infectious. We finish by discussing Iceland’s climate policy—which includes the aim of becoming a carbon neutral country by 2040—and whether anything can be done to preserve the glaciers, and our symbiotic relationship with them.
Even as a small country, Iceland’s climate policy is worth celebrating, according to M. “Iceland creating and enacting a climate policy is not necessarily about Iceland,” she says. “So to have a small country say ‘This is what’s important to us, these are our values, and this is what future we want to move into’ is actually a message to the world. That goes around the globe. Iceland creating a policy about climate that puts a real strong emphasis on how we engage with those big issues is a way forward for everyone. Iceland can be a leader here. It’s a chance to say to the world: ‘This is what matters.’”
Read more from our glacier issue here.