Image: Milan Nykodym [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Snæfellsjökull Could be Gone in Thirty Years

 In Nature, News, Sci & Tech

Scientists think it likely that Snæfellsjökull glacier will be mostly gone by the middle of this century. This prediction was borne out by new measurements taken for the first time by the Icelandic Met Office last week. Snæfellsjökull now covers an area of less than 10 sq km [3.86 sq mi], as compared to the 22 sq km [8.49 sq mi] it occupied in 1910. The warming climate has caused the glacier to deteriorate considerably in recent decades.

On April 22, seven scientists collaborating on behalf of the Icelandic Met Office, the Snæfellsnes National Park, and the tourism company Summit Guides made their way to the apex of the glacier, Jökulþúfur, which towers at 1,446 m [4,744 ft] above sea level. There, for the first time ever, they measured the mass of the glacier by taking ice core samples. One such sample was taken by drilling 1,350 m [4,429 ft] down. The scientists then weighed the ice core, determined its specific gravity, and recorded its stratification. The snow temperature was also taken and showed to have been under 2°C [35.6°F] all winter long.

Scientists use the visible stratification in ice core samples to measure winter precipitation on a glacier—that is, how much snow has fallen on it over the course of the fall and winter. The top layer of winter snow is rather fine-grained and undefined, while the next layer—snow that fell in the fall—will be a sheet of ice 1-10 mm [.039 – .39 in] thick. This ice sheeting is formed when the fall snow alternately thaws on warmer days and then refreezes on colder ones. Below this middle layer is a crusted layer of snow that fell during the previous winter.

Visible stratification in the Snæfellsjökull ice core sample taken in April.

The measurements showed that the top of Snæfellsjökull received 2,600 mm [102 in] of precipitation this winter. This is more than three times the precipitation that occurred in the surrounding areas at sea level.

Winter precipitation at Hofsjökull, which is taller than Snæfellsjökull by roughly 350 m [1,148 ft], measured 3,000 mm [118 in]. Average winter precipitation at Mýrdalsjökull, which is roughly the same height at Snæfellsjökull, is 5,600 mm [220 in]. Winter precipitation at Öræfajökull, which, at 2,000 m [6,562 ft], is taller than all of the mentioned glaciers, was measured as 5,700 mm [224 in] in 2018.

Winter precipitation levels and mass are regularly measured at many glaciers in Iceland, but this is the first time this has been done for Snæfellsjökull. “The results of these measurements didn’t exactly surprise us,” said Þorsteinn Þorsteinsson, a specialist in glacial research, but he noted that being able to compare them to the same measurements from other glaciers is very useful. “There’s every reason to try and regularly fund mass measurements at Snæfellsjökull so that we can increase our knowledge of how Icelandic glaciers are reacting to climate change and no less because the glacier has gained fame in both words and images.”

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