‘Blue Blob’ Is Slowing Icelandic Glacier Melt — For Now

Snæfellsjökull National Park

Icelandic glaciers have been losing mass since the Little Ice Age, but that process has slowed over the last decade thanks to the influence of what scientists have dubbed the Blue Blob, “an area of regional cooling in the North Atlantic Ocean to the south of Greenland,” Euronews reports. This was among the findings in a new study authored by Icelandic and Dutch scientists, who also project that the slowdown is only temporary.

When less snow accumulates on glaciers in the winter than melts in the summer, this is called Negative Surface Mass Balance, or SMB, which in turn, causes sea levels to rise. In Iceland, this process accelerated at the start of the 21st century but has slowed down considerably since 2011. This is particularly surprising because loss of mass has not slowed down for glaciers in nearby Arctic areas—most notably the Greenland Ice Sheet, which has been identified as the single greatest contributor to rising sea levels. In the span of 12 months alone, from August 2020 to August 2021, the Greenland Ice Sheet lost close to 166 billion tonnes of ice.

In the course of their research, the Icelandic-Dutch team noted that the slower rate at which Icelandic glaciers have been losing mass coincided with the emergence of the Blue Blob. As Iceland is “more exposed to the ocean and maritime influences than Greenland,” the scientists say that it now “appears that a cooler convection of air from the blue blob has kept [Icelandic] glaciers more intact.

The mystery of the Blue Blob

GISS Surface Temperature Analysis Map, via NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies

The Blue Blob is a mystery in and of itself, and one which scientists have sought to explain for years. Over the last 100 years, global temperatures have risen by an average of 1°C, but at the same time, the temperature of the Blue Blob has dropped, in almost direct proportion, by .9°C. One hypothesis for this is that the North Atlantic current has gotten weaker, which means that Nordic waters are getting less of an infusion of warm water from the tropics. Back in 2016, Norwegian climate researcher Peter Langen offered quite a simple explanation: the blob came into being during a very cold winter, he said, “and the cold actually resulted in an increased mixing of surface water with the deeper levels.” Most recently, in 2020, it was postulated that human-created factors caused the cold spot, namely low-level clouds that deflect sunlight.

Whatever its origin, the Blue Blob’s effect on Icelandic glaciers is clear. But while it has slowed SMB in Iceland’s glaciers for now, scientists say this won’t last forever. The research team conducted climate modeling that took into account both satellite images and fieldwork findings. Their model showed that there will be a short window in the 2040s when Icelandic glaciers “actually go back to an SMB of zero,” but by the 2050s, “global warming will flip the narrative.”

Icelandic glaciers could lose up to a third of their volume by end of 21st century

The Blue Blob will eventually stop cooling, the scientists say, and at that point, Icelandic glacier ice will begin to melt even faster. If there is no intervention to curb climate change, by the end of the 21st century, Icelandic glaciers will have lost a third of their total volume. And this could easily have “disastrous consequences around the world.” The projections are not entirely without hope, however.

“The Arctic is warming fast, and it can be difficult to live with” lead author Brice Noël, a post-doc researcher at the Institute for Marine and Atmospheric research in Utrecht, told Euronews. “But climate projections give us trajectories that enable us to see what needs to be done to try and mitigate glacier melt.”

See the full study (in English) here.






Best Practices for Saving Beached Whales

Two separate pods of pilot whales have gotten beached on Icelandic shores this summer, RÚV reports, leading experts to apprise locals of how best they can respond to such situations. Marine biologist Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir says that such beachings are becoming a yearly occurrence – an indirect result of warming ocean temperatures – and likely happen when whales pursue their prey too close to the shoreline.

In mid-July, 50 pilot whales were found dead on the shore of Löngufjörur in a sparsely populated part of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in West Iceland. Edda Elísabet assessed the situation at the time, saying that there were many reasons the animals could have gotten stranded. For one thing, she explained, pilot whales are pack animals with strong social bonds, and do not easily abandon members of their pod. Moreover, strong tidal and seabed currents in the Löngufjörur area could have made it harder for the whales to get back out to sea. Pilot whales depend on sonar for navigation, but sonar would have been quite limited in the area, which also could account for the whales getting stranded when the tide went out.

Only last week, however, 50 more pilot whales beached in front of the Útskálakirkja seaside church in Garður, on the Reykjanes peninsula in Southwest Iceland. This time, the outcome was far more positive. Rescuers worked through the night and were able to save 30 whales.

Keep them wet, keep them calm

Edda Elísabet has important advice for anyone who encounters beached whales in Iceland. First and foremost, she said, the police should be contacted immediately. Police will then take care to notify the right people, the better to move rescue efforts in the right direction.

Next, she said, you should attend to the animals, albeit with extreme care. “One of the most important things you can do if the whale is alive,” she said, “is to keep it damp.” Whales are poorly suited to dry environments and unable to control their body temperatures on land, which means they overheat easily. Beached whales also need to be protected from the sun, to prevent burning.

Beached whales will be under an enormous amount of strain and distress, says Edda Elísabet, and easily disturbed by loud noises and abrupt movements, such as people just splashing water on them without them being able to see where it’s coming from. “We’ve seen that if there is someone with each whale, placing their hands on it and speaking gently to it or humming or creating a calm environment, that they seem to relax,” she explained.

There have been instances abroad of people contracting illnesses from dolphins and other related species, and so Edda Elísabet says it’s also important that rescuers wear gloves and be sure that the animals do not breathe in their faces. Professional responders don’t take such risks, she noted, and the public shouldn’t either.

Edda Elísabet said that the rescue efforts in Garði were so successful because they focused first on saving the adult females. “If a calf is released first, it’s likely that it will beach itself again because it’s chasing its mother. So it’s important to prioritise healthy females.” However, if a female is not in good condition, it can be dangerous to release her, because she may not be able to lead the pod to safety.

Following the food

Asked about what is causing whales to beach at this rate, Edda Elísabet said that research is still ongoing, but that there is evidence that whale migration patterns around Iceland are changing. They are increasingly traveling around the western and southwestern coasts of the country, most likely following their prey to unfamiliar hunting grounds.

“It’s very likely that their prey is leading this. Their food sources are more sensitive to sea temperatures. In this instance, we’re probably seeing them chasing mackerel and it’s possible that they’re pursuing mackerel more often [because] they’ve had a bad season for squid,” she explained. “Mackerel comes in very close to land, and that could explain why we’ve got a lot of them just off the country’s southwestern and western coasts.”