Posts Tagged 'Iceland'

Tell us again, Granddad, about ice

Today is Climate Impact Day, set up to connect the dots between climate change and extreme weather, effects felt from diatoms to humanity.

What is past is prologue, and I think of two years ago when we flew back from Iceland. Our plane crossed over Greenland, and I took a few photographs through the jet’s window. It was a clear summer day and the view was absolutely breath-taking. The jet’s contrail, meanwhile, was adding its contribution to the atmospheric greenhouse that is melting that ice.

There was a point, deep inland over the ice, where everything visible below was white. I wondered if we were flying upside-down, so cloud-like was the vista. But then there were these huge patches of blue.Recently, I stumbled upon Extreme Ice, a PBS Nova episode, which explained what was going on. These are lakes that form atop the ice mass during the summer melt season. They have a tendency to disappear very quickly, and for a while it was thought that the water just refroze. But actually, the water cuts its way into the ice, hydrofracking deep vertical channels, and draining deep down to the bedrock. There the water acts as lubrication for the ice, making it move towards the coasts faster. Here are more details. There’s a feedback loop here, for the more the ice melts, the more it melts. Similarly, water at the calving face of a glacier acts like water does on the road, expanding cracks, and makes calving, the shearing off of icebergs from the glacial face, happen more quickly. Think potholes three miles long, the width of Manhattan at its fattest. Meanwhile, warmer, denser sea water, below the face of the glacier, undermines it from below.The documentary follows a photographer to Alaska, Iceland, and Greenland, where the ice is all retreating much faster than it is being replenished by snowfall. The reason for this is that the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is at record highs, and we know – regardless of what the stupid or willfully wrong say or try to obscure — that during the last 400,000 years this pattern has held true: high CO2 levels correspond to high temperatures which correspond to high sea levels. It’s simple, really: the atmosphere gets warmer because the heat radiating from the earth is trapped, like heat in a greenhouse, and the temperature rises. As the temperature rises, the oceans both expand because of the heat, and all the water pouring into them from the melting ice. Most of the world’s population lives on sea coasts. Meanwhile, as the ice melts, albedo lessens, which means there’s less reflection off of the white ice and more absorption by the dark earth; another factor heating things up. And as the ice goes so too goes the permafrost, which, in thawing, releases methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

Sure, someday the ice will return, but so far in the future that it’s irrelevant to humanity. The relevancy is now and the short distance to your children’s children, who will live in a world without mountain glaciers. In a hundred years, the roof of the world, the Himalayas, will have lost its great ice cap. If a billion people depend on the melt-water from there now, what will they drink in a century? We already live in a world crowded with refugees, political instability, and conflict over resources. Global climate change is going to make these problems infinity worse. Many people say they “don’t believe” in either global warming, or, if they have any sense of nuance, anthropomorphic global warming. But it is not a question of belief. Belief is for the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny. This is a question of science. That some people don’t understand the difference is a both a failure of our education system and a moral crisis.

Do Santorum, Gingrich, and Romney actually believe what they say when they belittle, deny, and even counter-attack the reality of global warming? Many politicians will say just about anything to get elected, of course, and the “Republican base” seems to be composed of angry, deluded fools — little different from the average Salem witch-hunting mob — who feed off demagoguery, but this trio of dangerous clowns are being particularly egregious in trumpeting pseudo-science and ignorance. (My take is that Santorum seems authentically a religious fanatic, a Christian jihadi perverting his children to his twisted notions and wanting to drag the entire nation down his twisted little rabbit hole; Gingrich and Romney, on the other hand, are just profoundly malignant hacks.)

I’m no partisan: the corporate moderate currently in the White House has shown little to no leadership on the issue of global warming. The fabled moderates he’s supposed to court evidently aren’t interested in the issue. We know that the Pentagon is thinking about the instability radical global climate change is causing, as are the insurance giants, so there can’t be any doubt Obama isn’t aware the issues. Of course, we’re silly to think that he or any President should be leading us. In fact, they are followers, of the money, which is shorthand for the power structures in our oligarchic kabuki democracy; and, on a day-to-day calculus, the facile polls. We need to lead, and to light fires behind the followers’ sorry asses. The effort to kill the Keystone Pipeline disaster was one such fire, but we need thousands more of them, since that’s already being undermined by Obama’s fast-tracking of the southern route.The ice calved off of into the Jökulsárlón lagoon in Iceland is pulled out a narrow channel by the tide into the North Atlantic. Then it is pushed back onto the black sand beach by the waves, and battered and whittled away by the water.

Iceland should have really been named Greenland and Greenland really Iceland a millennium ago when the Norse steered their ships west. Although the Little Ice Age turned cold and grim in the north, for the last century and a half both these lands have been warming with the planet. Iceland is losing its ice. Greenland is finally turning green.

The effects are like a three-dimensional game of dominoes.

Everybody talks about the climate

…(except the President) but nobody does anything about it, as Mark Twain almost said.
A lot more snow than we’ve seen for a while and a brief snap of the Arctic chilly-willies means you must have heard the new cliché in the media stream, if not in person: “So much for global warming.” Meanwhile, the know-nothings and their carbon industry paymasters smirk, sure that their regional weather anecdotes trump climate science (and physics, chemistry, etc.), which they see as part of a conspiracy so vast it boggles the mind with its insidiousness.

But the fact of Earth’s rising temperature doesn’t mean we won’t have winter, not for a long while. A warmer world is a wetter one, and that moisture can come as snow in season. Indeed, Europe, for one, now seems to be battered by both hotter summers and colder winters. Meanwhile, storms (hurricanes, monsoons), floods, and droughts, and the starvation, migration, violence, and political crises that follow these things, all of which we’re already familiar with, suggest that “global warming” may not be the best description for our reality. Better is radical climate change, climate instability, climate disruption, “climate destabilization,” the latter suggesting both the climatological and geopolitical effects.

Reading about the history of the Caribbean lately makes me think of this analogy: slavery was once at the heart of capitalism as hydrocarbons are now. Great fortunes were made, tens of thousands were employed, entire cities and nations depended on the Triangular Trade. This was globalism avant la lettre. The sugar, rum, cotton industries; boat builders, dock workers, and shipping companies; insurance companies, banks, and lawyers. Civilization, you’ll pardon the term, was predicated on slavery, as it is now on hydrocarbons. To be rid of it meant to destroy jobs and ruin economies, yadda-yadda, you know the script. And those depending on it struggled furiously to maintain it, regardless of its barbarism, or, if your prefer your political economy amoral, its gross inefficiency.

Transatlantic African slavery lasted for 350 years; the age of carbon is about 250 years old.
Pictures from last July. Top is the glacial lagoon at Jökulsárlón, Iceland, which means you just learned some Icelandic since that name means “glacial lagoon.” Next is Skaftafellsjökull, a retreating tongue of the great Vatnajökull, the world’s largest glacier outside of Greenland and Antarctica. Some of that dust is from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

On the way back, our plane passed over Greenland:

Geological Ruminations II

A trip to Iceland concentrates the mind on the subject of volcanism. Split between the separating-at-two-centimeters-a-year North American and Eurasian plates, Iceland is astride a tremendously deep plume of magma known as a hot spot. It has some major volcanoes, including Grimsvotn, Katla, Hekla, Krafla, and Laki. In 1963, a whole new island, Surtsey, named after the fire giant Surtur, emerged bubbling hot out of the water off the southern coast. (Cf. John McPhee’s two-part article on Heimaey, Surtsey’s neighbor.) This year’s smoker, Eyjafjallajökull, paralyzed Europe during the spring, but that’s nothing in comparison to blasts from the past.
This is Hverfell, east of Myvatn, a tephra or ash cone. It is about 460m high and 1040m across.

This volcanism does wonders for geothermal power, which lights up most of the country; natural hot tubs (ahhhhhh); geyser-steamed bread (tasty), and volcano tourism; it bodes ill for the future, though, and the inevitable cataclysms, which will not just be local. It was the Laki eruptions, the Skafka Fires, of 1783-84, in fact, which suggested to Ben Franklin — minding the store/impressing the ladies in Paris as our ambassador — that volcanoes could influence the climate; his thought — that the dry blue funk shrouding the City of Light was due to a volcanic eruption on Iceland — was the first documented making of that connection. Alas, nobody was reading him during the infamous “year without a summer,” 1816, when, following the eruption of Indonesia’s Tambora, the East Coast of the U.S. shivered through July and August (“ice made in pails”), and Mary Shelley, holed up in a damp, dank bust-of-a-holiday on Lake Geneva, started writing Frankenstein. The less literary effects were drought, crop failure, starvation, immigration, political upheaval, and huge numbers of dead around the world (hmm, sounds just like Planet Climate Change).

Tambora 1815 was a 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, described as “Colossal”; Krakatau 1883 a 6, “Huge”; in comparison Mount St. Helens 1980 was a 5, “Very Large.” Indonesia can also claim Toba, c. 74,000 years ago, which was an 8, “Humongous”; it’s thought to have ejected 1000 times the material St. Helens did.

Our own metropolis occasionally feels a little tickle of a tremor from deep earthquakes in the St. Lawrence and Hudson valleys. It will probably come as a surprise to most, but the region has historically been subject to several 5 on-the-Richter scale quakes; the strongest was in 1836, an estimated 5.5, still rather moderate, under Gravesend Bay. That’s several miles from where I write, so quite local.

However, our great reminder of the hot power of the earth is the purple majesty of the Palisades.
From the Hudson River, Fall 2009.

This cliff stretches from Jersey City to Haverstraw, about 35 miles, along the west coast of the Hudson. The column-like diabase was formed when a surge of magma intruded into weaker material, sandstone, underground. This sill eventually cooled and hardened. Over time, the material above the sill eroded away, exposing the sill’s flank to the hammer of time, air, water, and ice.

Similar basalt forms were the subject of heated debate starting in the late 18th century, when the Neptunists — who thought such rock formed out of solution, after the great universal flood of the Bible — battled the Plutonists, who said it was volcanic in origin. The earliest field geologists pretty much had to become Plutonists; just look at Vesuvius, spewing lava like froth from a rabid dog; you could practically watch it cool into basalt. One of these was William Hamilton, English ambassador to Naples (technically, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies). Hamilton was all over Vesuvius and the Campi Phlegraei (which is where Pozzuoli is), leaving the Mrs. at home with fires of her own to attend to (cf. Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover).

A few months ago, I wrote a little about Pozzuoli’s importance in the history of geology. Spelunking into the literature of volcanoes, I learned that the town’s name in Roman times was Puteoli, and that it was long known as a source of volcanic ash, which, when mixed with lime, made an excellent hydraulic (water-resistant) cement, called pozzolana. Pozzolana was the foundation of Rome’s port at Ostia; it still holds up the Pantheon and Colosseum. This reminded me of tufa, a constant in my Italian childhood just north of Pozzuoli and Lago d’ Averno, the gateway to Hades. (What neighbors! Plus, you really had to watch out for the ornery three-headed junk yard dog down there). More generally called tuff, tufa is hardened ash; it was a popular building material. Soft enough to scrap with a fingernail, it was also rather lightweight: I vividly remember the tufa wall at Pinetamare Elementary School (Fifth grade; Miss Smith’s class; the school was then brand spanking new and right on the beach, which we were not allowed anywhere near), collapsing along one side of the playground during recess. A workman was toppled beneath the big color-TV-sized blocks, but he and his fellows pushed them off without much trouble or evident personal damage.

Final words on Iceland?

You really should go.
Jawbone, vertebrae, and rib of a large toothed whale, probably a sperm whale.
Exhortation at Vogafjos in Myvatn.

A most excellent saga of an adventure.


In Arnarstapi harbor.

I was introduced to the northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) some years ago in the Scottish Highlands. They spend most of their decades-long lives at sea, but breed on far northern cliffs, of which there are many in Iceland. So they were a constant presence on our Iceland trip, a welcome return to old friends. At Hofdabrekka, we could hear them on the cliff above our room: they sounded a little like heavily breathing dogs approaching; in fact, we did double takes more than once, expecting a big sloppy hound to be approaching.
At Vatnsnes.

Fulmars look superficially like gulls but are actually tubenoses, pelagic birds with a special nasal adaption for drinking seawater; they excrete the salt from tubes above their bills.
Details of the bill and nasal tubes, from a dead bird on the black sand beach at Vik i Myrdal.
Like albatrosses, fulmars soar on their long stiff wings, rarely flapping. At sea, they can go for miles like this. Along their breeding cliffs, they catch the updrafts to zoom by, seemingly effortlessly. They seem to be inquisitive, too, watching you, returning to take another look. To watch them coast along the edge of a cliff, at eye-level with you, is quite an experience. I find it quite stirring. It’s the dream of flight.

Oooh, oology

Hrafn and smyrill eggs. We saw several ravens, most notably two sporting above the cliffs at Vik i Myrdal. Perhaps they were Huginn and Muninn, Odin’s raven familiars, who served as his aides, Thought and Memory. We never saw a merlin, although others in our group did.

The eggs above were from one of two displays of the island’s eggs, from the enormous whooper swan’s to the tiny wren’s, that both proved rather a challenge to photograph.

This whimbrel egg fragment was found at Gardar, the same place as the young whimbrel we saw.


The Icelandic beaches were remarkably bare of anything other than rocks, pebbles, and sand. We found, in order of frequency, some mussel, scallop, snail, and limpet shells. But our best sightings were a number of starfish that had been washed ashore.


Everywhere except Reykjavik, on both ends of our Icelandic trip, we had sightings of the common snipe (Gallinago gallinago). This species is not to be confused with the related Wilson’s snipe, which we have in Brooklyn, and which was considered the same species until recently, making the confusion understandable.

Above each of the farms we stayed at — Langaholt, Vogafjos, Smylabjorg, and Hofdabrekka — at least one snipe, and sometimes up to six, were to be seen. At Smylabjorg, I flushed one out from right in front of me while tramping through a meadow and on the lookout for both nests and sheep droppings. The one pictured was vocalizing on a rock near our rooms in Vogafjos. He hushed himself as I approached, then returned to calling when I retreated.

Small, furiously fast fliers, the snipe were usually seen above, going back and forth across the sky, then dropping suddenly in graceful free-fall curves. But they were generally heard overhead first. As part of their courtship and territorial rituals, the males extend specially adapted feathers on the side of their tail. These look a little like oddly placed legs through binoculars. As the birds descend, the air rushing through the feathers make a haunting sound. It’s known as winnowing, a sort of dry, drumming “huhuhuhu.” But transliteration of bird sounds rarely does justice to the original (I haven’t found a good clip on-line yet: the Wilson’s is rather different). It’s a very strange, stark, and beautiful sound. It’s like the land and the sky, indeed the world, is breathing. Frankly, it took my breath away, time after time.

For me, it has become the very sound of Iceland.

Other Icelandic Animals

White-tailed bumblebee (Bombus locorum), seen a number of places in Iceland, finally digitally captured in the small garden behind the Parliament building.

Besides birds, Iceland doesn’t have a lot of other animals, including invertebrates. The number of bugs is growing, though, as the world warms. Moths were a common sight, in the long diurnal light. There were sky-darkening masses of midges at Myvatn, a place name which actually means “midge water”; we had to use our bug nets one morning to keep them from flying into our eyes. They don’t bite, thankfully. And they are the reason the lake is so popular with the thirteen species of ducks that breed there.

We did see an incredible black slug (I’d unaccountably left my camera in the van). Among mammals, the arctic fox is a native, the reindeer an import: unfortunately, we didn’t see the former, but we did see a herd of the latter near Egilsstadir in the east. Fantasias of antlers.
This spider was an unexpected find on the rim of Hverfell, the amazing, and largely barren, tephra crater near Myvatn.


I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk roses and with eglantine.

Iceland is full of desolate, hraun (lava) fields, some moss-coated, others bare as an outer planet. The southern sandurs, outwash plains, are dark deserts. But, with all its rain and long summer days, and the mild effects of the Gulf Stream, the island also has a rich profusion of wildflowers.
We saw the most enormous dandelions, and vast fields of arctic lupine.
The grass and moss are emerald, the flowers jewels.


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