The Heat Is Online

Icelandic Glacier, Biggest in Europe, is Disintegrating


The Observer-UK, Oct. 22, 2000

Europe's biggest glacier is about to disintegrate. The mighty Breidamerkurjökull in southern Iceland is breaking apart and will slide into the north Atlantic in the next few years.

Researchers' discovery of the imminent destruction of this gigantic river of ice demonstrates starkly that global warming is now making a serious impact on the northern hemisphere, threatening to melt ice caps and raise sea levels round the world. The grim revelation will be seized upon by green activists who believe that industrial gas emissions are responsible for heating the planet's atmosphere. If the continent's biggest glacier is falling apart, they ask, what further catastrophes await us?

The break-up of Breidamerkurjökull also threatens to destroy a key Icelandic beauty spot. Each year hordes of visitors take boat trips around the dozens of icebergs that regularly 'calve' from the glacier and festoon the lake at its base. Moviemakers have used the breathtaking location for a host of films, including the James Bond adventure A View to a Kill, and the forthcoming Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie. But now silt and sediment - which have already started to pour from the melting glacier - are likely to fill up the lake, destroying this remarkable beauty spot.

"The glacier has been shrinking for most of the twentieth century,' said Dr David Evans, of Glasgow University. "However it is clear it is now approaching the point where a great mass of it will break up, and pour down to the sea. When it does, Jökulsarlon will probably fill up with sediment."

Breidamerkurjökull is the main glacier emanating from the massive Vatnajökull ice sheet that covers much of southern Iceland, and has been studied intensively for the past century, beginning in 1903 when map makers recorded that its icy snout rested only a few hundred yards from the sea. By 1945 United States military cartographers had found it had receded a further few hundred yards from the coast.

Then, in 1965, Glasgow University surveyors arrived to make new maps of Breidamerkurjökull and found the glacier had slipped back from the sea by a couple of miles. This survey was followed up in 1998 when another team from Glasgow began a new survey using global positioning satellite equipment and other high-precision devices.

For the past two years researchers Yvonne Finlayson and Mike Shand, from the university's geography department, have been collating this data. They have completed a detailed topographic map of the region.

The results are startling. They show the great river of ice has dwindled dramatically over the past 30 years. This recession has revealed a giant portion of the huge fjord - once covered completely by the glacier - has retreated more than five miles from the sea.

But detailed analysis of the glacier has revealed an even more disturbing picture. The Glasgow team - working with Loughborough University researchers led by David Twigg - says a huge depression has formed over the glacier's frozen heart. This hole rests over the portion of the inland fjord still covered by ice. 'Effectively, the glacier is breaking up around that hole and is slipping into the fjord,' said Evans. "It is beginning to disintegrate and in the next few years will collapse into the water."

The disappearance of a massive ice floe that once coated a large area of the Icelandic coast is a stark demonstration of the increasing impact global warming is having on the planet. The question is: to what extent is humanity responsible for this heating, and what further impact will it have on Earth?

Many environmentalists point out that industrial emissions have allowed carbon dioxide to build up in the atmosphere to dangerous levels. Sunlight is being trapped by this carbon dioxide and causing the planet to warm. One estimate suggests the Arctic has warmed by 6°C in the past 30 years, while its ice covering has dropped from 10ft to 6ft. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have doubled in the past century, just as global temperatures have risen. The effects can be seen everywhere, green activists say, including Breidamerkurjökull.

But such alarmist visions have to be tempered with knowledge about the past behaviour of Iceland's glaciers. In the seventeenth century the coastal land around Breidamerkurjökull was ice-free and farmed quite intensively by local people. Cattle and sheep grazed, and barley and wheat were grown. Then, in the early decades of the eighteenth century, the climate grew colder and giant tongues of ice emerged from the Vatnajökull sheet, including the Breidamerkurjökull glacier. These moved inexorably down to the coast, covering pastures and crushing farmhouses that lay in their path. 'This period is known as the Little Ice Age and it lasted almost 200 years, reaching its peak, in Iceland, in 1890, when Breidamerkurjökull got closest to the sea,' said Evans.

'That mini-ice age is over now, and the climate has been getting warmer for the past 100 years. Hence the shrinking and disintegration of the glacier.' In the past 30 years, old farmlands have reappeared around Breidamerkurjökull - most of it pockmarked with holes gouged by receding glaciers. Local people have already moved on to this land and begun cropping grass and grazing sheep. "The land is simply being returned to its old use," said Evans. Whether this restoration of agricultural land and the loss of the glacier is being triggered solely by natural climatic variation, or is being speeded up by the effects of man pumping industrial gases into the atmosphere, has yet to be determined.

Either way, the fate of Breidamerkurjökull is our starkest warning that global warming now has a direct impact on our continent. The heat is on, whether we like it or not.