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Face-to-face with climate change atop an Iceland glacier

By Mark HayJuly 27, 2015

Mark Hay In Iceland
The author, Mark Hay, in Iceland

When I first caught a glimpse of Sólheimajökull, cresting a hill a few miles northwest of the 300-strong town of Vík í Mýrdal in southern Iceland, I was shocked to realize how grimy it was. 

Sólheimajökull glacier

A five-mile tongue of ice jutting off Mýrdalsjökull, Iceland’s fourth-largest glacier, Sólheimajökull is not a pristine stretch of whites and blues cut with discrete veins of black stone like Himalayan icecaps. Instead, thanks to the churning geological chaos of the nearby Eyjafjallajökull and Katla volcanoes, it’s smeared in whorls of black grit, collecting here and there into sludgy mounds, which my guide, Tryg, affectionately refers to as troll poops. 

Yet while Sólheimajökull may not be the glacier I envisioned, it is beautiful in the stark, commonly Icelandic way — a land of gray skies, mossy fields, and seething vents, making it look like the otherworldly abode of slumbering giants. Sólheimajökull’s beauty is tragic as well: Looking out over its landscape it’s eminently clear that, thanks to the forces of climate change, which have never seemed more immediate and real to me, the glacier won’t last much longer. 

I can’t pretend to feel the threat of climate change as deeply as a local, whose existence ultimately depends on resources like the glaciers, but it suddenly became very real to me

According to Tryg, Sólheimajökull should be growing deeper into the valley with each passing year. However, rising temperatures across the country now push the glacier backwards twice as fast as it grows forward. Thanks to this rapid erosion, locals have, within their lifetimes, seen the ice cap, which once towered up to the tops of the nearby Jokulhaus hills, shrink down about a hundred feet below its summits. (The loss of this ice bridge between hilltops has, they say, made foraging for the renowned wild blueberries atop the slopes a real pain.) Even week-by-week, Tryg finds new crevasses, moulins and stones emerging from within the rapidly eroding ice. 

Tryg at the Sólheimajökull glacier in Iceland
Tryg at the Sólheimajökull glacier in Iceland

This isn’t a story unique to Sólheimajökull. Across Iceland, glaciers recede at alarming rates. Some even fear that Snæfellsjökull, the smallest of Iceland’s 13 glaciers — and the gem of perhaps the west coast’s most beautiful national park — will vanish within decades. As the glaciers vanish, they will take with them Iceland’s beloved waters, the heart of the nation’s environmental security, and a hunk of the its tourist appeal, the heart of its modern economy.

I have never been a climate-change doubter. But I think that, for many of us, the effects of this global threat are too abstract to elicit emotion. For some, they are far enough removed from reality as to foster disbelief, emboldened by casual observations about the weather around them. 

Icelanders don’t have the luxury of remove. Constantly butted up against ice and fire, they always have some metric of nature’s slow, futile battle with modernity to fixate on.

iceland climate change 1

Standing up on Sólheimajökull, I suddenly had a metric of my own. I can’t pretend to feel the threat of climate change as deeply as a local, whose existence ultimately depends on resources like the glaciers, but it suddenly became very real to me. It touched me in the sad beauty of decay. 

Denial is an easy thing, especially from within the insulation of urban America. But I wonder how easy it would be if every denier were to stand on top of a shrinking glacier, watch the encroaching sands of a growing desert, or feel the lapping waves of a sinking island. Denial grows harder, when threats become real — that is why jaunts up glaciers and into the back of beyond are more than a luxury; they’re visceral education. Sometimes, I wonder if that kind of gut-punch experience shouldn’t be mandatory for someone choosing to speak on the subject.  

All photographs by Mark Hay