A Vanishing Act
It’s a spectacularly beautiful August day and I’m standing on Sólheimajökull glacier. With me is Ryan, a glacier guide and one of the founders of the tour operator Hidden Iceland. Ryan, who was born in Scotland, has been living in Iceland for two and a half years. He exudes the sort of gentle enthusiasm that makes you think that if people could love anything as much as he loves glaciers, humanity would be saved.
Our subject today, Sólheimajökull, is an outlet glacier of Mýrdalsjökull, jökull meaning glacier in Icelandic. Since its majestic beauty can be found a mere 158km from Reykjavík, it’s an ideal tourist attraction – for now. “This glacier is what we could call unhealthy,” Ryan offers, with a tinge of sadness in his voice. “In the last 15 years or so it has melted more than it did in the preceding 150 years.” Indeed, as we approached the rough glacier cap, I saw a sign which marked where its edge was located in 2010. It was hundreds of metres back from where we ascended now, ice axes in hand and crampons firmly attached to our feet.
The relationship Icelanders have to glaciers is a complex one. It has evolved from the fear and distrust of early settlers to the fascination we see exemplified by the modern tourist industry. Today, I’m attempting to conquer Sólheimajökull alongside dozens of travellers, and although Ryan is pointing out its weaknesses, the glacier still exudes a strength that is quite humbling. Its slopes are otherworldly, and its constant state of flux serves as a reminder and a warning to humans.
Tricks on ice
Despite Sólheimajökull’s problems, it’s still a living thing. Huge swaths of its surface are covered in ash from the infamous volcanic eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, with the black carpet giving way to the luminous blue and white hues of the glacier itself. And although it’s imperceptible to me, it is constantly moving. “Every time I come back, the landscape has changed,” Ryan says. He then points to a pool of water that has gathered between peaks of black-clad ice. “We should keep an eye out for this pool when we walk back later, by then it might have been emptied out by tunnels in the ice.”
By human standards, the glacier is hostile terrain, and to mount it demands every bit of one’s attention and respect. Its shape is constantly shifting, and new crevasses and water tunnels are formed every day. If it weren’t for Ryan’s watchful eye and the crampons (an assortment of metal knives attached to my shoes), I can picture myself losing my footing and sliding into a crevasse or tunnel, forever vanishing into the blue abyss of the glacier. Indeed, there are many such stories. In the 1950s, a couple of British hikers disappeared on an Icelandic glacier, their tattered gear only appearing at its base in 2006, with no trace of their bodies.
The death of Okjökull
Glaciers are arguably one of the defining features of Iceland’s nature, luring many people to these shores every year with their majesty. Glacier tours are a big draw for travellers, and the enigmatic and gorgeous Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, with its floating icebergs, has become a must-see for those interested in Iceland’s geographical splendour. As our planet is heating up, however, the glaciers are receding at an ever-increasing rate. Indeed, scientist suggest that all bets are off on whether they’ll still be around by the year 2200.
The first ever glacier in Iceland’s history to be demoted from a glacier to a pile of snow is Okjökull, which once proudly sat atop the mountain Ok, situated west of Langjökull. The former glacier suffered this humiliation in 2014 after scientists deemed its ice cap to have become too thin to satisfy the requirements of a true glacier: namely, that it is thick enough to move under its own weight, becoming like a living thing in the process.
Okjökull was a relatively small glacier to begin with, and as such it was no match for the earth’s rising temperatures. But its lack of size also meant that few people in Iceland knew that it existed. Therefore, its death, despite marking the beginning of an important transformational phase in Iceland’s history and geography, went largely unnoticed.
Man vs. nature
In fact, Icelandic scholars didn’t start seriously studying the country’s glaciers until the 15th and 16th century. Before that time, superstition largely caused people to shy away from entering the highlands fearing encounters with ghosts and monsters. Glaciers were rightly considered dangerous, capable of causing snow blindness, with deep crevasses that could swallow people whole. Add to this the looming dangers of geothermal eruptions under the ice caps, which regularly cause flooding, and you might start to appreciate why early Icelanders’ intimate relationship with glaciers was one of fearful respect.
Keep it glacial
Back on Sólheimajökull, the talk turns to the health of glaciers, which Ryan says is of the utmost importance to civilisation. “They are the air conditioning units of the world, and they bind and release freshwater on all continents. If we lose them that could lead to all sorts of disruptions, mass migration and so on.” In that sense the future is very much determined by how aware we’ll become of our carbon footprint in the 21st century, something Ryan and company are keenly aware of. In fact, Hidden Iceland makes sure to offset its own carbon footprint by donating money to various environmental projects.
Whatever happens, now is the time to witness the grandeur of Icelandic glaciers. “Sólheimajökull is my happy place,” Ryan tells me with a smile as we descend its magnificent slopes. “Hiking here and discussing glaciers and climate change is my favourite thing in the whole world, so I’ve had a great time today.” The feeling is mutual.
“Look,” Ryan says suddenly, pointing to the pool of water we walked past earlier. “It wasn’t sucked into an ice tunnel, in fact it’s grown considerably.” He points to what is now the far side of the growing pool. “That’s where we were walking earlier.” We’re going to have to improvise another route to safety.
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Iceland Review is the longest running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature since 1963.