Can Glaciers Change Cultures? Researcher M Jackson Seeks Scientific Proof in Iceland

Glaciologist and 2017 National Geographic Emerging Explorer M Jackson researches how glacial environments are responding to climate change. She recently spent a year in Iceland studying how rising temperatures are affecting communities near the fishing village of Höfn. We asked M a few questions about her research and her fascination with Iceland.

How would you characterize Icelandic landscapes and the Icelandic people?

Both the landscapes and people of Iceland have incredible breadth! Nowhere else in the world can you see glaciers, volcanoes, geysers, fjords, hots springs, black-sand beaches, deserts and more in one single place—and often, in a single afternoon! I find that same characteristic in Icelandic people. For many of my friends, one minute they’re writing a book, the next, they’re rounding up sheep—or painting, or hiking a mountain, or re-building a super jeep, or whipping up a meal for fifteen people.

Is it true that everyone who lives in Iceland knows everyone else who lives there?

Not all Icelanders know each other, but it certainly feels that way sometimes. When I was living on the south coast of the island, it was quite common for me to introduce myself to an Icelander and for them to tell me they’d already heard about me from their sister, neighbor, or second cousin. When I travel to a new part of Iceland, everyone has a friend or family member I should meet. Once, I was taking a commercial flight, and the pilots invited me up to the cockpit to photograph the glaciers we were flying over. One of the pilot’s sisters was friends with my landlord and told him I would be on the flight that day! It certainly feels like a tight community spread out over a big island.

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The unprecedented loss of glaciers across the island is having profound—and at times contradictory—effects on Icelandic society.

Your research has focused on Iceland’s glaciers and the many ways people perceive them. What were some of your key findings?

My research found that glaciers have worked themselves into Icelanders’ lives and society in all sorts of complex ways since the island was settled over a thousand years ago. Consequently, the unprecedented loss of glaciers across the island is having profound—and at times contradictory—effects on Icelandic society. While some people are losing part of their identity, heritage, and culture, others are finding economic gain, stability, and safety.

What keeps you coming back to Iceland?

I’ve been going to Iceland for nine years, and every time I am there everything has changed and is different and unexpected. The light and weather are always shifting. You can go back to the same glacier, or waterfall, or lava field time and time again, and each time it is an entirely new place. I love the magic and freshness of the unexpected in Iceland’s landscapes.

How do you hope the experience of visiting Iceland will change visitors to the country?

I hope the experience of visiting Iceland helps people to see the complexity of place. For example, the landscape is remarkably dynamic and tough. There are places where the tectonic plates are tearing the Earth’s crust apart, volcanoes have made entirely new land, and glaciers have ploughed down entire mountains! Yet at the same time, the landscape is exceptionally vulnerable and fragile. There are places where entire glaciers have dissolved away at unbelievable speeds, where it has taken decades for a single birch tree to grow two feet, where a single mislaid footstep stays imprinted in the moss for years.

Travelers can step into an ice cave with M for an up-close look at glacial ice during a National Geographic expedition to Iceland.