Skeiðarárjökull Fastest Retreating Glacier of Last Year

iceland glaciers

In a newsletter from the Melting Glaciers project, Skeiðarárjökull was singled out as the fastest-retreating glacier last year, having lost some 400m of its eastern tail.

In their 2021 overview of the state of Icelandic glaciers, the Meteorological Office of Iceland stated that glaciers in Iceland have been receding for at least a quarter of a century and that this pattern is one of the clearest forms of evidence for climate change in Iceland. The only significant exception to this trend was in 2015, when Icelandic glaciers were either in equilibrium, or even experienced slight growth.

Since 1995, Icelandic glaciers are estimated to have lost a total of 8% of their total volume.

Breiðamerkurjökull, the glacier that terminates in the popular tourist attraction Jökulsárlón, also experienced significant loss last year, shrinking around 150m.

Melting Glaciers is a cooperative project between the Icelandic Meteorological Office, Vatnajökull National Park, the Ministry of Environment, Energy, and Climate, the University of Iceland’s Institute of Earth Sciences Glaciology Group, and the Southeast Iceland Natural History Museum.

Iceland’s Glaciers Lose Four Billion Tonnes of Ice Per Year

The Glaciological Society's spring trip to Grímsvötn on Vatnajökull glacier.

Iceland’s glaciers have lost about four billion tonnes of ice on average for the past 130 years. They’re the planet’s fastest-shrinking glaciers outside the polar ice caps, and about half the loss of volume has occurred in the past 25 years, according to a new article published in Frontiers in Earth Science.

Scientists from the University of Iceland’s Institute of Earth Sciences, the Icelandic Meteorological Office, National Land Survey of Iceland, and the National Power Company of Iceland have collected measurements and research of Icelandic glaciers for the past decades and published an article in Frontiers in Earth Science. They trace the glaciers’ development from their largest at the end of the 19th century to now. In total, the glaciers have lost between 410-670 billion tonnes of ice from 1890-2019. The glaciers receded quickly during the first part of the 20. century but natural climate pattern fluctuations slowed their recession from the sixties to the nineties. Since then, they’ve receded quicker than before due to global warming.

The Glaciological Society's spring trip to Grímsvötn on Vatnajökull glacier.
Golli. The Glaciological Society’s spring research trip to Grímsvötn on Vatnajökull glacier.

About half of the ice mass loss happened from autumn 1994 to the autumn of 2019, about 220-260 billion tonnes of ice, which amounts to about 10 billion tonnes per year. The glaciers have lost close to 16% of their volume in this period. “So we’re seeing swift changes now, due to climate change. Since 1995, all the glaciers have had a negative mass-balance and have been shrinking,” Guðfinna Th. Aðalgeirsdóttir, professor of geophysics the University of Iceland and the article’s primary author, told Vísir.

The research is based on size, volume, and glacier surface measurements gathered over the past decades. Based on that data, scientists extrapolated the likely development of glaciers in the preceding decades. The result of the research is that on average, Icelandic glaciers shrink faster than most glacial areas in the world, outside of the polar ice caps.

According to Guðfinna, glaciers melting is one of the most evident results of global warming in the world. Even if people managed to contain their emission of greenhouse gasses and prevent further global warming, glaciers would continue to melt for decades while they acclimatised to the new conditions.

Golli. The Glaciological Society’s spring research trip to Grímsvötn on Vatnajökull glacier.

Global warming is not the only factor in Icelandic glaciers melting. Scientists found that Vatnajökull glacier lost 3.7 billion tonnes of ice during the Gjálp volcanic eruption in October 1996 and over the summer of 2010, twice the usual amount of ice melted due to the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. Geothermal activity, glacial lagoon calving, and ice cap friction with bedrock also added to the loss of ice mass.

Individual glaciers have gotten thinner by dozens of metres in the last century. Vatnajökull has lost 45 meters, Langjökull 66 metres, and Höfsjökull 56 metres for the past 130 years. During that time, Vatnajökull has lost 12% of its volume, Langjökull 29% and Höfsjökull 25%.

The glaciers don’t shrink linearly, and their volume fluctuates every year. Despite an overall recession in the past decades, glaciers gained mass in the winter of 2014-2015. That winter saw several low-pressure systems arriving one after the other, bringing large amounts of precipitation and was followed by a relatively cool summer. That was the last time Iceland’s glaciers gained mass over winter and the only such winter for the past 25 years.

Guðfinna told Vísir this trend could continue and even grow clearer on a planet that’s heating up. “we see the weather extremes grow bigger each year due to climate change and that increases the yearly variation in the glaciers.”

The science committee of the Icelandic Science and Technology Council’s 2018 report on how climate change would affect Iceland forecasted that Icelandic glaciers would disappear in the coming centuries if the emission of greenhouse gasses continues the way it has. Vatnajökull might last the longest, especially its highest peaks.

Globally, melting glaciers might raise ocean levels, on average, one metre in this century. The development in Iceland is less clear. Due to factors such as land rising when the weight of glaciers is lifted, ocean levels might rise less, even drop in some places. Land rise due to glaciers melting might make volcanic eruptions more frequent. How exactly the ocean levels might change around Iceland is unknown because it depends on how quickly the polar ice caps melt, especially the south pole.

The Glaciological Society's spring trip to Grímsvötn on Vatnajökull glacier.
The Glaciological Society’s spring research trip to Grímsvötn on Vatnajökull glacier.

Iceland’s Glaciers Shrunk by 800 Square Kilometres in 20 Years

In the past 20 years, the surface area of Iceland’s glaciers has decreased by around 800km2, an area roughly the size of the Reykjanes peninsula. The data comes from a report by Iceland’s foremost glacier researchers that presents an overview of the country’s glaciers at the end of 2019. The report shows that glaciers in Iceland have been retreating rapidly for 25 years, what its authors assert is “one of the most obvious consequences of a warming climate.”

Iceland’s glaciers reached their maximum area since the island’s settlement at the end of the 19th century. Since then, their surface area has decreased by almost 2,200km2 (849mi2). In recent years, the glaciers have been shrinking at a rate of 40km2 each year, equivalent to around 7,500 American football fields. When it comes to the retreat of their edges, Hagafellsjökull eystri in Langjökull ice cap and Síðujökull and Tungnárjökull in Vatnajökull ice cap hold the 2019 record, retreating by 150m (492ft) last year alone.

Glacier lagoons grow as glaciers retreat

Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, a popular tourist site, started to form in the mid-1930s because of the retreat of Vatnajökull glacier. The Breiðamerkurjökull outlet glacier retreats rapidly where it calves into the lagoon, as much as 150-400m (492-1,312ft) in 2019. On average, Jökulsárlón and Breiðárlón, as well as some smaller lagoons in the area, have grown by 0.5-1km2 (0.2-0.4mi2) annually in recent years.

The report was based on measurements done by The Institute of Earth Sciences, University of Iceland, the Icelandic Meteorological Office, the National Power Company of Iceland, the South East Iceland Nature Research Center, and the Iceland Glaciological Society.

The full report is available in Icelandic and English.

“Iceland Almost Ice-free” Within 200 Years

A ceremony took place on Ok mountain to mourn the now gone Okjökull glacier yesterday. The former glacier was the first Icelandic glacier to officially lose its glacier status, which took place in 2014. A hike onto Ok mountain was organized scientist and scholars from Rice University, who made the documentary ‘Not Ok’, highlighting the glacier’s disappearance. The ceremony was attended by around 100 nature lovers. Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason, who wrote the text on Ok’s memorial plaque, joined the service, along with Minister of the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson.

“I said goodbye to Ok today by vowing to do what I can to prevent the disappearance of more Icelandic glaciers.” – Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson.

Okjökull was the subject of a 2018 documentary called Not Ok, made by Rice anthropologists Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer. Narrated by former Reykjavík mayor and comedian Jón Gnarr According to the filmmakers, scientists fear that all of Iceland’s 400-plus glaciers will be gone by 2200.

Ice-free Iceland
Oddur Sigurðsson, a geologist from the Icelandic Met Institute, was part of the ceremony. According to him, Iceland will largely be ice-free within 200 years. “My co-workers, both at the Icelandic Met Institute and the University of Iceland, have calculated with projections that the expected climate in the next two centuries will lead to all of the glaciers in Iceland melting, more or less. There will maybe be some miniature glaciers on the highest mountain tops but they will disappear within 200 years. So Iceland will then become an almost ice-free country,” Oddur said.

More to follow
A number of glaciers are in severe risk of disappearing in the next couple of years, including Hofsjökull eystri glacier which will disappear within a decade. When asked what other glaciers are in danger of melting completely, Oddur painted a grim picture. “Kaldaklofsjökull, which is ‘behind’ Landmannalaugar if I can say so, Torfajökull, and Þrándarjökull in the East fjords don’t have long left. Then in the wake of those three, Tindfjallajökull and Snæfellsjökull will not handle the warming.” The glaciers on Tröllaskagi peninsula in North Iceland are expected to last a langer as they are largely situated in shadows.

The worldwide attention brought on by Okjökull glacier’s disappearance has not been missed by Icelandic scientists. “Of course it doesn’t matter for the world population, and Iceland neither, whether one small glacier melts completely or not. But it is, however, a clue about this massive event which is taking place in the whole world. And where one disappears, others will follow,” Oddur stated. “Larger glaciers than Okjökull will melt in the near future. I don’t expect us to be able to save them, as things currently stand,” he said in an interview with www.ruv.is

Letter to the future
[media-credit name=”Rice University Press Release” align=”alignnone” width=”860″][/media-credit]

The monument put in place is styled as a “Letter to the future,” and reads:

Ok is the first glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years, all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it. August 2019, 415ppm CO2

More information: www.notokmovie.com

NASA Higlights Ok Glacier’s Disappearance on Satellite Photos

Nasa Earth has released a video which showcases the difference in the ice cover of Okjökull glacier between 1986 and 2019 using satellite photos. Okjökull is the first Icelandic glacier to officially lose its status as a glacier.

A memorial service will be held on August 18 to remember the former glacier, which officially lost its glacier status in 2014. A hike onto Ok mountain, where Okjökull glacier previously sat, will be organized scientist and scholars from Rice University. Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason, who wrote the text on Ok’s memorial plaque, will be joining the service.

[media-credit name=”Rice University Press Release” align=”alignnone” width=”860″][/media-credit]

The monument is styled as a “Letter to the future,” and reads:

Ok is the first glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years, all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it. August 2019, 415ppm CO2

Oddur Sigurðsson, an Icelandic glaciologist, was the first to declare that Okjökull glacier was no longer a glacier. Since 2014, 56 of the 300 total small glaciers have been lost in North Iceland.

Okjökull was the subject of a 2018 documentary called Not Ok, made by Rice anthropologists Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer. Narrated by former Reykjavík mayor and comedian Jón Gnarr According to the filmmakers, scientists fear that all of Iceland’s 400-plus glaciers will be gone by 2200.

“By marking Ok’s passing, we hope to draw attention to what is being lost as Earth’s glaciers expire,” Cymene remarked in the press release. “These bodies of ice are the largest freshwater reserves on the planet and frozen within them are histories of the atmosphere. They are also often important cultural forms that are full of significance.” The monument is said to be the first of its kind in the world.

You can find more information about the documentary and RSVP to take part in the monument ceremony at https://www.notokmovie.com.