Year in Review 2019: Nature

Vatnajökull

Spanning across glaciers, whales, and extreme weather, here’s a summary of Iceland’s biggest nature news stories of 2019.

Glacier goodbye

Iceland made international headlines this August when a memorial ceremony was held for Ok glacier, the country’s first glacier lost to climate change. The monument installed at the site of the former glacier is styled as a letter to the future, reading in part “This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

Early in the year, many Icelanders said they had changed some of their behaviour due to climate change, while Icelandic youth started a weekly climate strike in February. The government hasn’t been inactive on the issue, instituting small changes like a ban on plastic bags and larger ones like a new ISK 140 million ($1.1 million/€1 million) climate fund.

Whale beachings

While there was no whaling conducted in Iceland this summer for the first time in 17 years, the gentle giants seem to be facing other threats. A large number of beached whales were found in the country throughout the summer, either as individuals or in groups as large as 50 whales. An international investigation is now looking into whether navy sonar devices could be causing whales (which use sonar to navigate) to become disoriented.

Animal ailments

In spring, the first cases of acquired equine polyneuropathy (AEP) were confirmed in Icelandic horses this year. The disease, which affects the animals’ nervous system, first appeared in Scandinavia 25 years ago. AEP is not contagious, and most horses recover fully from the disease, though in Sweden and Norway up to 30% must be put down as a result of it.

A much smaller animal made headlines in the summertime: the sandfly, also known as biting midge. Though the insect is not new to Iceland, it has been accosting locals in South and Southwest Iceland earlier in the year and in greater numbers than usual. Sandflies are tiny and not easily seen, but their bites are said to be more painful than those of mosquitoes (of which Iceland luckily still has none).

Geology

While Iceland’s volcanoes remained calm in 2019, earthquakes let themselves be felt, most notably in an earthquake swarm in Northeast Iceland in late March and on the Reykjanes peninsula in Southwest Iceland in December. For a geologically active country these events, just like this year’s glacial flood in South Iceland, are nothing out of the ordinary.

Weather

As usual, Iceland had its fair share of notable weather in 2019. While in 2018 most of the country experienced a cold, rainy summer, this year rewarded residents with an unusually warm spring, with temperatures in April and May well above average, as well as more sunny, dry weather than usual in most parts of the country. The spring was a bit too dry, in fact, putting pressure on South Iceland’s water systems and putting farmers’ hay harvest at risk. In July, Iceland felt the effects of the heatwave hitting mainland Europe (admittedly milder than elsewhere), with temperatures of 25.9°C (78.6°F) recorded in North Iceland and 26.9°C (80.4°F) in South Iceland. High temperatures led to a thunderstorm in the same month, a rare occurrence in Iceland’s cool climate.

Winter storm

The year’s weather ended with a bang, bringing the worst winter storm the country has seen in years. Hurricane-force winds, snow, and ice made travel in Iceland virtually impossible between December 9 and 10. The storm also caused widespread power outages in North Iceland, some of which lasted up to a week. One tragic casualty resulted from the weather when a 16-year-old who was helping clear ice from a power station fell into a river and died. Local authorities in the worst-affected regions criticised the government’s failure to update the region’s infrastructure and ensure reserve power.

“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.

‘First Glacier Lost to Climate Change’ to be Memorialised

The former Okjökull glacier will be memorialised with a monument recognising its status as “the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier.” A press release from Rice University announced that Researchers from Rice University in Houston, Texas (US), author Andri Snær Magnason, and geologist Oddur Sigurðsson will join members of the Icelandic Hiking Society and the general public to install the monument to the former glacier in Borgarfjörður, West Iceland on August 18, 2019.

 

[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. Ágúst 2019, 415ppm CO2

Okjökull, or Ok Glacier, 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, Not Ok tells how in 2014, Ok became the first glacier in Iceland to melt and thereby “lose its title” as a glacier. Scientists credit Ok’s melting to global warming. 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.

“One of our Icelandic colleagues put it very wisely when he said, ‘Memorials are not for the dead; they are for the living,'” Cymene continued. “With this memorial, we want to underscore that it is up to us, the living, to collectively respond to the rapid loss of glaciers and the ongoing impacts of climate change. For Ok glacier it is already too late; it is now what scientists call ‘dead ice.'”

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

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.

This content is only visible under subscription. Subscribe here or log in.

Continue reading