TravelTraveler Magazine

Licking a Glacier

Glaciers taste good, as I discovered in Norway.

When it’s 85°F outside and you’ve been hiking for an hour, a big mouthful of ancient icepack tastes better than any Slurpee ever could. The diamond, sparkling ice is cold, wet, clean, and delicious–not to mention endless and all-U-can-eat. (Almost.)

My journey through Norway continues to be blessed with fine weather and the day I went hiking in Jostedal Glacier National Park was no exception: the air was hot, the sky was blue, and I was sweating heavily. In fact, it got so warm in the afternoon, I found myself sunbathing at the base of a glacier, basking shirtless beneath the blatant sun and wondering once again if I was really in Norway.

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At Nigardsbreen, Norway (Photo by AE, NGT)

Luckily, the air blowing across the big blue ice felt like a giant air-conditioner sending cooling breezes across my back and beyond to the valley below–a textbook U-shaped valley gouged out by the glacier over the past few millennia.

The super blue Nigardsbreen is part of the larger ice cap of Jostedalsbreen–the largest glacier in Norway and perhaps one of the most accessible chunks of ice on the planet. For all the famous glaciers I have known (i.e. Greenland, Antarctica, and Eyjafjallajökull), none let you simply drive up, park your car, and then hike to the base in under an hour.

The beauty of Nigardsbreen rests in the soft blue translucence of the ice, the gushing green-milk glacial river that pours from under its base, and the turquoise lagoon in the valley below. To hike Nigardsbreen is to get up-close and personal with such an old and near-permanent part of the planet, to appreciate the size and life of a glacier and also to get a bit worried about how quickly they are going, going . . . and gone.

I know that I am worried. I have read the facts in National Geographic and feel I have an academic appreciation for the critical situation we are in with climate change. However, for me to actually sit sunbathing before a giant glacier and watch it dripping away like a time-lapse Popsicle was unnerving.

For the past two weeks I’ve enjoyed drinking Norway’s incredibly pure water. It’s the same wonderful water you pay a fortune for in New York City restaurants, but in Norway it’s free and sans bottle. With such a small population and so much water gushing from the mountains, it’s hard to comprehend that this is not a renewable resource. Someday, these glaciers could simply vanish.

In 2010, Nigardsbreen glacier retreated 39 meters (128 feet), which follows a consistent trend of Norway’s ice slowly shrinking away. Of 31 Norwegian glaciers monitored by the World Glacial Monitoring Service, 27 are retreating, at an average of 190 meters (623 feet) per glacier in the past decade.

Even the US Geological Survey has chimed in, reporting that, “Norway has 1,627 glaciers . . .  [and] these glaciers (most commonly ice caps, outlet, cirque, and valley glaciers) have been receding since about 1750.”

Norway is melting, which although part of the natural glacial process in the month of June, is rather alarming when reviewing the past century. In 1899, Nigardsbreen glacier was nearly a mile (1.6 km) closer to the parking lot than it is today.

Today, the ice continues to retreat farther back, while the overall surface area of Jostedalsbreen decreases annually.

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Nigardsbreen glacier in 2012 (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

What that means is that someday, perhaps sooner than later, Norway’s glaciers will be gone, and with them, the most precious resource in Norway: water.

I hiked Nigardsbreen and took a bite out of the glacier because I could. It was hot outside and the ice seemed endless and free. But that is likely to change in my own lifetime, and when it does, your fancy bottled water will cost a lot more than it does today.

Someday I hope the world will see Norway’s real wealth: not in oil, but in glaciers. There are many different ways to make energy, but as far as I know, there is no substitute for water . . . especially on a hot day.