In Iceland, college students at the bedside of a glacier in danger


AFP, published on Sunday, November 10, 2019 at 09:52

"It's really beautiful but so sad to see how much the glacier has melted". With her 5th class, Lilja Einarsdottir is roaming the SolheimajOkull threatened with extinction by global warming.

Every year, Jon Stefansson, a retired teacher, accompanies schoolboys from HvolsvOllur, in southern Iceland, to the bedside of the glacier to follow its evolution.

Stuck between two mountainsides, the SolheimajOkull has been declining by about 40 meters every year since 2010, according to student records.

On this rainy October day, using a GPS device, a drop-down meter and two yellow flags, teenagers start taking surveys on the mainland.

Then rescuers make them cross in Zodiac a brownish lagoon formed by meltwater to a wall of ice: there, the glacier reaches up to 200 meters thick.

"When (the first students) started here, (they) did not see any trace of water," says Lilja, 11 years old.

– 400 endangered glaciers –

Below the path that leads to the glacier front is a sign in the black sand: the inscription "JOklamaelingar" ("Glacier Measurements" in Icelandic) is surrounded by a series of handwritten numbers – " 24 "," 50 "," 110 "- which represents the annual retreat in meters of the glacier calculated by the pupils.

While the world experienced its hottest month ever in July, Iceland unveiled a plaque in memory of OkjOkull, the first glacier on the volcanic island that was lost to global warming, a symbol to alert the public.

OkjOkull was decommissioned by glaciologists in 2014, and another 400 are in danger.

The SolheimajOkull, which is ten kilometers long and two meters wide, is a part of MyrdalsjOkull, Iceland's fourth ice cap.

The area is highly geothermal, with Katla, one of the five most active and powerful volcanoes in the country, lying dormant beneath the ice.

The glacier fell by 11 meters in 2019, far from the record 110 meters recorded last year. "It depends more or less on the weather and the way the glacier breaks (…), sometimes a big part of the glacier comes off, falls into the water and you get a very, very big measure," explains Jon Stefansson .

– Record of annual variation –

In total, the school has seen the ice front retreat 380 meters in almost a decade.

"We thought we might be wrong (about global warming, ed), but when you see that it's proof that you do not," says Birna BjOrnsdottir, 12.

Even though the measures are not perfect and are not official, they give an idea of ​​the changes under way, which seem to be accelerating in recent years.

And confirm the trend observed by scientists. In 2018, the SolheimajOkull was indeed among the three glaciers in the country to hold the record annual decline (about 200 meters), according to data from the Association for Research on Icelandic Glaciers.

"These are rather subtle changes when you're here every day," concedes Daniel Saulite, a guide for five years. "But the volume of the glacier is much lower than before, there are also a lot more cracks on the front and access is getting harder and harder," he says.

The destination is very popular among tourists. The company Icelandic Mountain Guide, one of the three operators in the year, claims 27,000 visitors in 2018.

Glaciers, which cover about 11% of the country's surface, are distinctive features of the 1,200-year-old landscape of this colonized island. But the cast upsets the landscape.

"Lakes are forming in front of several of them," notes Hrafnhildur Hannesdottir, a glaciologist at the Icelandic Meteorological Institute.

In total, Icelandic glaciers have lost 250 km3 of ice for 25 years, equivalent to 7% of their total volume.

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