Photograph by Jan Michael Hosan, fotogloria/LUZ/Redux
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Iceland's glacier Breiðamerkurjökull is melting. And local people stand to lose more than some even know.

Photograph by Jan Michael Hosan, fotogloria/LUZ/Redux

As glaciers disappear, humans lose a lot more than ice

A warming world is profoundly changing human culture and history—and it may just be the beginning.

This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society.

For a couple of years I was living on the south coast of Iceland, and one day, a man knocked on the door of my home.

He asked if I wanted to see something. No adjectives. Just, did I want to see something?

I almost didn’t hear his knock. My house was on the extreme southeastern coast of the island—literally twenty feet from the sea—and strong winds were bashing the concrete walls and making the tin roof shriek with each gust.

I considered. It was cold, the wintery light was growing dim, I was a foreigner in the area, and if I went missing, no one would go looking for me for days. But then again, it was Iceland, one of the safest places in the world. And my curiosity was piqued.

I agreed and grabbed my nine-hundred-fill down jacket, gloves, and a hat. I ran outside and stepped high up into his Icelandic super jeep—the type that requires a little ladder to climb into the cab—and we drove slowly through the orderly, windblown streets of the village of Höfn.

Höfn [pronounced Hhh-Uphn], my home for several months by that point, is a small, low-lying village of about seventeen hundred people built on a jagged spur of land jutting south off the island’s coast like a hitchhiker’s thumb. Höfn is the primary village within the Municipality of Hornafjörður, a 127-mile-long region encompassing a swath of Iceland’s southeastern coast.

Matching glacial lagoons fan out east and west on either side of Höfn, resembling murky butterfly wings from the air. Directly south, the storm-laden North Atlantic Ocean edges the town, and to the north, glaciers pour down out of the encircling coastal mountains. Höfn—and all of Hornafjörður—is Iceland’s glacier central.

And those glaciers are rapidly disappearing—not just in Iceland, but all around the world. That’s why as a geographer and glaciologist I was living in such a remote place. But what I was learning was about much more than rising temperatures and receding ice. As glaciers retreat they are altering the human story in profound ways, and I was about to get a front-row seat.

Frigid vigil

A lone road led north out of Höfn and connected to Hringvegurinn, the Ring Road, the single highway encircling the entire island. We drove for an hour west on the Hringvegurinn, then turned off the road and parked at a random moss-covered pull-off.

We both hopped out, pulled on packs and extra layers, and headed away from the road across loose rocks and thick vegetation. My host didn’t say much, and wind wrapped us into quietly murmuring cocoons. Just a few clouds dotted the sky, and the light angled low, matte-gray, matching the surrounding rocky landscape and rising mountains ahead. Winter sunlight in Iceland tends to be low and weak but highly valued.

We gradually gained elevation over the pitted terrain as we moved away from the coast, rough loose debris bulldozed into place by decades of glaciers seesawing along the low aprons of the mountains that were once the island’s coastal sea cliffs. At the top of one ridge, abruptly, the glacier Breiðamerkurjökull rose up right in front of us.

The man beside me sighed audibly in appreciation. Breiðamerkurjökull’s face—the terminus—was miles across, white but not pure white, gray and black and blue collectively impersonating white. The body of the glacier itself was lashed with thick, uneven dark moraines, ridges running tip to toe like icy tiger stripes. In the low light, the parent ice cap feeding all thirty miles of Breiðamerkurjökull, Vatanjökull, dissolved in the distance into the sky. For a moment, I was disorientated. It felt like the ice just kept sweeping vertically up into the horizon.

That’s one of the hardest things about interacting with glaciers. They are often so large that atmospheric perspective—the effect where objects appear to merge into their backgrounds over large distances—distorts our abilities to accurately assess distances, scales, change. Breiðamerkurjökull is the third-largest glacier in Iceland, with a perimeter stretching over nine miles from east to west. But it is difficult to assess the entirety of a glacier nine miles by thirty, so instead, you’re left with a feeling that the glacier just dominates.

The man and I kept a steady pace hiking towards the ice, up rocky scree slopes, and down, and back up, covering terrain in constant flux. Eventually we reached the land-ice edge and stopped briefly to put on helmets, harnesses, and crampons—spiked metal devices that strap over boots and provide traction on ice.

Moving from land to ice is tricky, as often that is where the glacier is most fragmented, brittle, and quick to break and roll in on itself, but we transitioned with little fanfare and slowly worked our way up. We wove around deep crevasses, sharp drop- offs, rock piles of debris, and stacks of wind-blown snow that had frozen into oddly-shaped pale hills. The surface of a glacier is rarely smooth; often a glacier hide is populated with shallow cuts and dips and depressions and tubes and tunnels that plummet the entire depth of the ice.

I knew we had arrived at the destination my host had in mind when he paused at the rim of a wide, shallow bowled area on the surface of the glacier. Once we reached the bottom of the depression, large seracs—towers of ice that tend to stick up like shark’s fins from the surface of the glacier—rose up on the far edge of the bowled area, and jagged pillars teetered to the west and cast deep shadows over us. Chilled, I pulled on more layers from my pack. Glacier work is all about layers.

The man removed two foam mats from his pack, handed one to me, and gestured for me to sit down. He passed me a thermos of thick coffee and a plastic adventure cup, and then he started to speak. He told me we were going to sit right there at the bottom of the ice bowl on top of the third largest glacier in Iceland right before night fell and we were going to wait.

And that’s what we did. We sipped coffee, listened to the wind blow and the ice pop and crack, and watched the light grow darker and darker. We waited and he told me a little about himself and growing up in the area, and twenty minutes went by, and then another twenty minutes, and then, right when I thought I was going to be too cold to stick it out, it started.

It was dark one minute in the cloudless Icelandic sky, and then the next minute it wasn’t, and the northern lights, the aurora borealis, appeared in the sky above us. First a dull glow, and then, like a light switch flipped on, blazing yellows, purples, greens, swirls of pinks and whites, and—wait—the glacier we were sitting on, Breiðamerkurjökull, it began picking up, internalizing, swallowing, containing the lights in the sky. The northern lights pulsed through the ice at the rim of the bowl, through the thin seracs, transforming them into icy Jedi lightsabers smoldering in kaleidoscopic concentrations. And the bowl of the glacier itself, it was whirling, throwing light like a candle-lit chandelier, like a phosphorescent ocean wave, like a field at midnight populated with hundreds of summertime fireflies.

I was engulfed. I’d never witnessed a glacier aglow with the aurora—I’d never even seen a picture of it—and standing there I felt innate companionship, as I too was as lit up as the sky.

And so we sat there on that glacier in Iceland in the middle of winter and watched. We stayed as long as we could before the clouds rolled in and obscured the sky and the lights. In the last minutes, as the ice and sky grew dim, the man turned to me and said, “This is why glaciers are worth fighting for.”

A global melt-down

Glaciology models predict Icelandic glaciers will lose 25-35 percent of present volume over the next fifty years, largely as a result of global climatic changes. How Icelandic glaciers appear today is likely to be unrecognizable to you and me in a few decades, and simply incomprehensible to ensuing generations looking through your old vacation photographs.

Iceland isn’t alone: glaciers worldwide that have existed for centuries are disappearing in human timescales—our lifetimes.

Disappearing ice holds staggering consequences—after all, glaciers are found worldwide, in the Arctic and Antarctica, along the Equator, in the Middle East and central Africa. Today, we have over 400,000 glaciers and ice caps scattered across Earth, over 5.8 million square miles of ice. Each glacier is exceptionally diverse, each fluctuating in multitudes of complex ways to local, regional, and global environmental dynamics.

Glaciers have always fluctuated, but never at the rates experienced today. Yes, there have been times when the planet has had less ice, and times when the planet has had more ice, but—and this is a huge but—never before in human history has ice worldwide decreased as quickly as it has over the last several decades.

What’s fascinating is that everywhere glaciers are located on this planet, they are located within inhabited and historic environments. Where there are glaciers, there are people (even in Antarctica!), and the two have been interacting for the entirety of human history.

For instance, Breiðamerkurjökull has receded over four miles since 1890. Since the 1970s, Breiðamerkurjökull’s recession rate has increased, and approximately two miles of ice length at the glacier’s terminus has vanished, leaving behind a sizeable glacial outwash plain, Breiðamerkursandur.

The human toll

But that’s just part of the story. The place where I sat watching the aurora borealis set the glacier aglow was once, upon Iceland’s settlement well over a thousand years ago, vegetated meadow and birch forest. Early Norse settlers built farms in the area, raised turf buildings and sheep and goats and children until around 1600 or so, when Breiðamerkurjökull began advancing over those homes and families and futures.

As Icelandic families fled before the oncoming ice, elsewhere in the world colonists were establishing Jamestown in Virginia, Galileo Galilei was doubting Earth’s centrality in the solar system, and the final touches were put in place on the Taj Mahal. Once Breiðamerkurjökull started to surge, the glacier crept so far forward it nearly reached the sea, stopping only 300 meters short of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Breiðamerkurjökull oscillated back and forth, and as it moved, it contoured the lives of those who lived in its shadow. As early as the 13th and 14th centuries, Icelanders were writing about their glaciers in the Sagas of the Icelanders, stories of glaciers that gave ice human emotion and destiny and Icelanders a sense of their own identity as Icelanders.

That’s all part of the history of this glacier. Fast-forward to 1890, and Breiðamerkurjökull began to recede, and Icelanders started repopulating the area, releasing sheep to graze newly exposed pastures. Off-island, the Wounded Knee Massacre unfolded in South Dakota, automobiles and planes were assembled for the first time, Wilhelm Röntgen uncovered X-Rays, and Arthur Conan Doyle brought Sherlock Holmes to life.

And now, another century is gone, the planet has fully entered the Anthropocene—where humanity’s impact on Earth is so serious that scientists have declared a new geological epoch—and the glacier maintains a backward march, dissolving so quickly local Icelanders fear it might never stop and Breiðamerkurjökull will disappear completely down to the last snowflake.

There are diverse stories stretching across human history with this glacier—just as there are with every other glacier and people worldwide.

This book offers another way of looking at glaciers and people, of rediscovering what has been recognizable to Icelanders living with glaciers over the last thousand years. Paraphrasing historian Simon Schama, this is not another explanation of the ice we are losing; rather, it is an exploration of what we may yet find with ice.

My intent here is to shift the narrative needle on how people worldwide think about glaciers, and to arouse greater consideration of the complexity and richness amongst ice and people that varies by place and time. I want to bring meaning to why a quiet Icelandic man would knock on my door and take me several hours to his favorite place on the south coast in freezing temperatures to explain to me what he was fighting for—what to him was at stake as we hurdle forward into an unknown, warming future.

Years ago, Canadian anthropologist Julie Cruikshank asked, after decades researching indigenous people and glaciers in Alaska and Western Canada, if glaciers were “good to think with.” This book answers Cruikshank’s question, emphatically responding with a “yes!” grounded in distinct glaciers, individuals, communities, cultures, scales, geographies, and place. A “yes!” supported by the belief that in order for all of us and our environments to make it through this time of immense transformation—the Anthropocene—we need to begin thinking with our glaciers, our rivers, our local landscapes, and our environments.

I believe the time has come for new ways of telling stories about glaciers—and for listening to the stories glaciers tell us.

This story was excerpted from the new book The Secret Lives of Glaciers by Dr. M Jackson, which comes out January 8, 2019. Jackson is a geographer and glaciologist, National Geographic Explorer, TED Fellow, three-time U.S. Fulbright Scholar, and author of While Glaciers Slept: Being Human in a Time of Climate Change. Jackson researches glaciers and people worldwide and lives outside of Eugene, Oregon. Learn more at www.drmjackson.com or follow her work on Instagram @mlejackson