Trends and Consequences
This background text provides a short introduction to deglaciation trends in Iceland. The rapid loss of Iceland’s glaciers has been a nearly universal trend since the mid-1990s, with most glaciers decreasing in volume almost every year. It is estimated that Iceland’s glacier-covered area has shrunk by about 2000 km3 since the end of the 19th century. Every year, an additional 40 km2 are deglaciated, which is a remarkable amount.
Over a few decades, Iceland’s Okjökull glacier melted faster than snowfall could accumulate into new ice. With each passing year, the glacier grew thinner. Eventually, the ice in the bowl of the shield volcano no longer shifted under its own weight to create a glacial current, and Okjökull became still. Glaciologists refer to this phenomenon, when a once-living ice mass no longer moves, as dead ice. “Jökull” (the term for glacier in Icelandic) was officially removed from the name of this 1200m peak in 2014, when the glacier was pronounced dead. It is now just called “Ok.”
Ok’s sibling peak, Eiríksjökull, still towers at 1672 m, as does its sister glacier, Langjökull, at 1360 m. In midwinter, it’s difficult to imagine how these vast masses of ice could completely melt away to reveal nothing but chunks of pulverised black rock beneath. Summer, however, makes that clearer.
In terms of size, Ok is the largest glacier to have officially disappeared, but it has not been the only one. Up to ten named bodies of ice, along with countless unnamed ones, have melted throughout Iceland to date. Sólheimajökull, the serpentine glacial tongue of the larger Mýrdalsjökull ice cap, is also in imminent danger of being lost. Sometime in the not so distant future, the entire valley is expected to become ice-free due to the outlet retreating to higher elevations.
Throughout Iceland’s history, glaciers have accumulated ice in winter when snowfall adds new ice. Conversely, they ablate ice in summer when melt exceeds production. During decades or longer periods, the glacier’s mass balance fluctuates naturally based on the accumulation and ablation of snow and ice.
Iceland has experienced cool and warm periods throughout its history. It has experienced warmer periods than the current one, and it was completely covered by ice during the Ice Age. Its climate has changed dramatically over millennia. Anthopogenic global warming, however, has now reached such a magnitude that it is pulling the climate outside its natural range.
As a consequence of global warming, isostasy, a process whereby reduced ice removes weight from the earth’s crust causing the land to slowly rise, is occurring throughout many regions of Iceland. In much of its interior, as well as on the southeast and southern coasts, around 1.4 inches of land is gained per year as the result of isostasy relating to deglaciation. As glaciers melt, the downward force exerted by them on underlying land diminishes, causing land to rise.
As climate change accelerates, land rise will continue to occur, causing infrastructure damage and negative economic effects. Those living around Iceland’s Vatnajökull glacier, the second largest ice cap in Europe (with a volume about 3,000 km), will be particularly affected by this phenomenon. The land around Höfn is already rising by one or two centimeters every year. Over the coming century, the cumulative rise will be substantial, with the potential for several meters of land to rise. Some of the pipes that transfer wastewater in the smaller regional towns in the area are already warping due to the rising of land. And as the land is rising faster than the ocean in this region, the sea is also retreating. Sea level rise is a big concern in most countries, but it’s the inverse in this region. As a result, the harbor is slowly becoming less accessible as the ocean near the coast becomes shallower.
There are several volcanoes under the ice cap of Vatnajökull, as there are with many other glaciers in Iceland. Volcanic eruptions have created large pockets of water underneath the ice, which can burst and cause a jökulhlaup (glacial lake outburst flooding). A number of volcanic eruptions occurred under Vatnajökull during the last ice age, causing many subglacial eruptions. Since that time, eruptions have continued to cause many documented floods. Deglaciation can also increase volcanic activity, resulting in more, and more frequent eruptions. As ice weight decreases, the melting point of magma in the upper mantle changes, and magma production increases, causing more magma to be pushed to the surface.
An enormous crevasse has already opened up in the middle of the crater plateau of the highest mountain of the Vatnajökull ice cap due to increased volcanic activity. This crack, reaching possibly as deep as 500 m into the caldera, would have been inconceivable to scientists just a decade or two ago. During the next decades, these effects will become more pronounced. In a few hundred years, most glaciers will be gone. The current size reduction foreshadows impending problems of much greater magnitude. It is possible that in the future, the area around Höfn could become so volatile that even modest pressure changes on the landscape could increase the possibility of volcanic eruptions.
The glaciers of Iceland are an important part of the country’s geography, culture, and economy. They hold irreplaceable environmental data about past climatic conditions, weather, and seismic events. This information is vanishing at an alarming rate. Glaciers have lost an astounding four billion tons of ice during the past 130 years, making them the fastest-shrinking glaciers outside of the polar ice caps. Most of this loss—accounting for 16 percent of their total volume—has occurred in the last 25 years. As 11 percent of Iceland is covered by glaciers, this level of retreat poses serious threats to livelihoods and the economy.
As the country gains land due to melting ice, land ownership and use, conservation, and resource governance must also be reconsidered. Icelandic policymakers, scientists, and those whose livelihoods are at risk (such as those in the tourism industry), are beginning to look toward adaptation strategies—how to cope with the negative effects of climate change and adapt to a warmer climate—as opposed to mitigation, which involves more directly tackling the causes of climate change.
Researchers Kieran Baxter and Þorvarður Árnason from the University of Iceland Research Centre in Hornafjörður near Höfn have been studying and documenting the deglaciation of Vatnajökull for several years. They are now monitoring ecological change and watching for new sprouting life on lands that are appearing due to glacial retreat via a virtual field station that has been installed at Vatnajökull. This may be a precursor to initiating an afforestation project in the region. Afforestation involves planting trees on new, rising land, and it is one such adaptation strategy under consideration in Iceland.
Receding glaciers severely affect the tourism industry, a sector that is critical to the country’s economy. On average, more than two million tourists visit this small country of 340,000 annually. Many spend substantial money to briefly walk on a glacier or visit an ice cave. Now, however, Iceland’s glaciers are melting so fast that guides must constantly reassess and adjust how they carry out such tours.
Iceland’s fishing industry, another key economic sector, is also affected by deglaciation. As land rises near important harbors, large trawlers will experience increasing difficulty entering and leaving ports. Further, as glaciers retreat, steep slopes that were once supported by ice become destabilized, resulting in land and mud slides. If these slides run into glacial lakes, flooding may trigger tsunamis and cause severe damage to the surrounding areas.
Though deglaciation is revealing new, potentially usable land, there is yet no framework in place to determine ownership of that land or how it can be used. There have been few discussions in Iceland about this emerging problem to date, however one property rights paradigm might offer some guidance. Glaciers and newly exposed lands may be considered a common pool resource in that they cannot be owned privately, as their size makes it costly to exclude beneficiaries from gaining access to them. Resources such as fisheries, timber, or bodies of water are generally considered accessible and therefore regulated to prevent overuse. Therefore, Iceland could consider a policy that protects glaciers, and the lands emerging from them, as common pool resources that can be utilized for afforestation, and thus, carbon sequestration.
Glacial resource management in Iceland is currently not in dispute, and there are already institutional structures and conservation protections that help manage glaciers and surrounding lands. Large glaciers in two of the country’s three national parks are classified as Category II by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This regulation sets aside the parks for the protection of biodiversity, ecological processes, and ecosystem support, but also allows recreation, education, and rural development. Rural development, however, might pose an environmental threat if the future energy projects are sanctioned and result in conservation areas being reduced in size, as has occurred in the past.
Developing guidelines for managing the impacts of melting glaciers will eventually become necessary. Iceland might consider developing new governance frameworks for glaciers and new lands by looking at laws being enacted internationally. For example, Argentina passed a law in 2010 establishing minimum standards for glacier preservation and declaring glaciers to be public goods.
According to the Icelandic government’s 2020 Climate Action Plan (CAP), 48 actions are planned to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon capture. Despite not explicitly mentioning melting glaciers, the plan is the most comprehensive domestic climate change response to date. Iceland anticipates spending $372 million (or 1.5 percent of GDP) between 2020 and 2024 on climate change adaptation and mitigation measures. Some of this funding will be directed towards afforestation.
Afforestation, the process of establishing trees on lands that have never been wooded, is an important strategy of Iceland’s CAP as they are an effective method of mitigating climate change. For example, in Shandong Province, China, this approach was used to rehabilitate 67,000 hectares of degraded lands and sequestered an estimated 12 million metric tons of CO2 over a 30-year period as a result. Afforestation also create productive ecosystems with increased biodiversity and resilience.
Since glaciers serve as a traditional carbon capture resource in Iceland, this strategy is particularly significant. From 2015 to 2018, the government planted between three and four million trees nationwide, and in 2019 planted four million trees in a single year. It’s expected that the government will continue to increase funding to the Forestry Service, and that money will continue to be directed towards planting trees on bare glacial slopes. As a result of additional forest cover, Iceland could capture a significant amount of future CO2 emissions and put new land to good use in a way that benefits residents, the economy, and the environment.
Iceland’s glacier-related tourism industry is growing. There is a rush to see them before they disappear. Höfn’s economy was in decline a decade ago and the population of this rural community was steadily dwindling due to lack of industry or jobs. Today, tourism is booming.
Glacial retreat also presents a complex social dichotomy replete with paradoxes and contradictions. Traditionally, older generations have held negative views of glaciers, seeing them as a threat to their farms, families, and futures. In contrast, younger Icelanders worry that their landscape and identity are being lost as the glaciers retreat.
Indigenous technology is being used to breed and make glaciers in Pakistan. The approach doesn’t fit with the Western scientific paradigm, yet this effective glacier-making technology, used in drought-stricken regions of the world, might still be utilized in the future in places like Iceland. A suite of adaptation and mitigation strategies will be needed to lead the country through the changes in climate they will see throughout the 21st century and beyond.
Þorvarður Árnason and Kieran Baxter, New digital media methods demonstrate the effects of climate change
Kieran Baxter and Alice Watterson, Designing Digital Engagements – Approaches to creative mapping and visualization practices in relation to glacial retreat.
M Jackson, The Secret Lives of Glaciers
Andri S. Magnason, On Time and Water
Jorge Daniel Taillant, Glaciers: The Politics of Ice
Andri S. Magnason, On Time and Water (London: Open Letter Press, 2020)
Andri S. Magnason, “Ok-Glacier in Memoriam // A Letter to the Future.” Andrimagnason.com, July 22, 2019, https://www.andrimagnason.com/tag/iceland/
M. Jackson, The Secret Lives of Glaciers (Brattleboro: Green Writers Press, 2019).
Helgi Björnsson, The Glaciers of Iceland: A Historical, Cultural and Scientific Overview (Atlantis Advances in Quaternary Science, 2) trans. Julian Meldon D’Arcy (Reykjavík: Atlantis Press, 2017).
John, Rogers, “Iceland Thaws: The Glaciers Are Melting – What Does It Mean for Iceland?” The Reykjavik Grapevine, January 31, 2019. https://grapevine.is/mag/feature/2019/01/31/on-thin-ice-the-glaciers-are-melting-what-does-it-mean-for-iceland/
Gabriella Gricius-Abbott, “If We Can’t Stop Iceland’s Glaciers from Melting, Let’s Replace Them with Forests.” New America, July 22, 2021. https://www.newamerica.org/future-land-housing/blog/if-we-cant-stop-icelands-glaciers-from-melting-lets-replace-them-with-forests/