Icelanders ponder a glacier free future

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Vatnajökull ice cap is Iceland’s largest glacier – and the largest ice cap by volume in Europe.

It covers about 8% of Iceland and melt water from it contributes to the country’s longest and most powerful rivers.

Vatnajökull National Park covers the Vatnajökull ice cap (glacier) and ten active volcanoes, seven of them underneath the ice cap.

Accroding to the park’s website, at its thickest the ice cap is 950 meters (a little more than half a mile) thick in the valley between Kverkfjöll and Öræfajökull.

The park was inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage in 2019.

But the ice here is rapidly disappearing says Snaevarr Gudmundsson of Icelandic Glaciological Society

“It’s devastating. It’s surprising to see how fast this happened.”

It is thought that around 150,000 litres (over 39,000 gallons) of ice now melts from the ice cap every second, that’s almost 13 billion litres (34 billion gallons) of ice per day.

In under five years the ice on which Gudmundsson is standing will be gone he predicts.

“The surface is low and moves rapidly. The retreat is about, at this place, is about 100 metres per year. And so in three year, four years, yes, you will stand on the soil”

He says the explanation is simple, a warming climate.

” We know the the climate has been warming. So it is just simple physics. Just go to a shop and buy an ice cream and tell us what happens when you go into heat. It melts.”

Iceland has seen a huge boom in tourism in the last decade.

But this year, like elsewhere, business has been damaged by the coronavirus pandemic explains tour guide Haukur Einarsson :

“Gone from, let’s say, half normal in March to none. Throughout April, May, June. But then the island opened up again. That’s July, August, and it was back to almost normal.”

A recent tightening of COVID-19 restrictions has affected tourism again he says.

He is hopeful that business will return to normal once the pandemic is over.  

“We had to lay everyone off (make redundant) . And that’s probably the thing that you sort of regret the most, seeing the jobs disappearing. But we believe that this will change at some point. We’ll be able to recruit again.”

Ice bergs float in the lagoon and an ice cave collapses before the camera.

Iceland has an abundance of renewable energy from geothermal and hydroelectric power plants, which are dependant on Iceland’s abundant water reserves, which in turn are dependant on the country’s glaciers.

Andri Gunnarsson, a glaciologist with the Iceland National Power Company predicts that Iceland will be glacier free in two hundred years.

“Hundred and fifty, two hundred years, more or less, all glaciers will have disappeared. Iceland will more or less be glacier free.”

Changing sea temperatures means that fishing boats are now catching new types of fish.

Kristjan Davidsson, Chief Executive, Brim Seafood says the coronavirus pandemic has not distracted Iceland from the challenge of climate change.

“I don’t think it has distracted us, no. I really don’t think so. I think it has made us more aware of how vulnerable we are, how vulnerable the whole ecosystem is. So on the contrary, I think it has made us more aware. It has also shown us how resilient people are.”

A decade ago Icelandic geologist Oddur Sigurðsson pronounced the Okjokull glacier extinct.

Now the people of Iceland are facing a future without glaciers and a changing world to which they must adapt.

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