A Brief Melting Moment

The postcard racks in the visitor center of Iceland’s Skaftafell National Park were nearly empty. Five workers packed leftover souvenirs and snacks into cardboard boxes and dismantled movable shelves. In the first week of September, summer tourism was over. My husband Jeff and I had traveled from the west coast of Florida to Iceland so that we could see for ourselves the source of water that is raising the level of our Gulf of Mexico, and all the world’s oceans.

A young Icelandic native outfitted our tour group of 16 with pairs of toothy metal crampons and ice axes with yellow strap handles. Raggi, guiding the park’s last glacier hike of the season, was built long-legged, like a heron. He wore a brilliant red cap over his mid-length soft brown hair.

A melting glacier in Iceland.

"However immobile it might appear, I could now sense how that glacier was collapsing underneath itself," writes Susan Cerulean. As large masses of ice melt, sea levels are rising. Credit: David Moynahan.

“Okay guys, circle up,” he said. His English was perfect, but he pronounced guys like ice with a g—gice. He said it a lot.

“The peak of the glacier you are visiting today is named Hvannadalshnjúkur,” he said. The mountain’s syllables wound around his tongue in a complex music.

“Put that in your pipe!” Raggi grinned, knowing we could not match his language or even repeat this one word. “In English, it’s translated as Pick Ax Mountain, but it sounds more beautiful in Icelandic, don’t you agree?”

Raggi taught us how to negotiate the ice, up hill and down. “Bite the tip of the crampon into the ice,” he explained, demonstrating. “Your knees will act as brakes. You can trust your crampons.

“But guys, don’t step on this size rock,” he cautioned, nudging a football-sized boulder. “It’s too easy to turn your ankle.” He rolled his left foot over the rock, showing us what we should not do. I felt equal parts scared and powerfully excited.

Our ragged line of ice tourists minced up the base of the mountain in the wake of our guide. Raggi turned and watched. “Climb like cowboys, guys,” he urged, striking an exaggerated, bow-legged stance, his toes pointed out in a ballerina’s third position. “With confidence, like a teenager!”

The foot of the glacier–all black gravel and slushy mud–resembled a road construction site or a mine tailing more than the thick tongue of snow I had imagined. When a glacier advances (by adding ice), it bulldozes a pile of rocks called a moraine, in its path. Since this glacier was retreating, we had to climb its old moraine before we’d get to the glacier. But soon the nasty mud gave way to a mixture of sand over ice, and then we reached the brilliant body of the glacier. Raggi pointed out moulins–deep clefts or holes bored by the sun into the surface. Far below, we heard plunging water.

“Don’t fall in,” cautioned Raggi. “I have with me only a 60-meter rope, and it’s a kilometer to the bottom of this particular hole. I’d call this one here a four-person Moulin.” We gave that fissure a wide, wide berth.

We climbed for nearly two hours, passing through a glittering ice cave and around cracks and crevasses wide enough to swallow every last one of us. Raggi offered a hand at tough passages. If he slipped a bit, he turned it into a plie and a kick, a dance sequence. He was devilishly in control of the ice.

At the apex of our hike, our guide called a 15-minute break. He dipped a plastic cup into an icy pool of water, lit up a cigarette and grew conversational.

Iceland as seen from above.

As ice from the Arctic melts, island nations like Tuvalu and Kiribati will be swallowed by the oceans. Above, Skaftafell National Park in Iceland. Credit: David Moynahan.

“We’ve just closed the summit,” he said, “because the ice is so weak. We are noticing not just pools of ice water on top of the glacier, but running currents and huge crevasses that weren’t here two weeks ago.”

Up high, the ice rested in big blocky chunks. Its texture resembled a frozen solid snowcone. But as I stood still and paid close attention, I appreciated that the brilliant shine of this glacier’s surface was water, not snow. The sun’s hot razor had sliced a million fatal cuts into the ice. I bent over to examine one of the knife-thin rivulets all around me. It was studded with a single file line of tiny basalt rock fragments.

“Look how that rock dust is basically burning into the ice, transmitting and intensifying the heat of the sun,” said Jeff, leaning over my shoulder. “The huge streams of water that are pouring into the crevasses are breaking up the glacier’s underbody and lubricating its passage toward the sea.” However immobile it might appear, I could now sense how that glacier was collapsing underneath itself, letting loose its thousand-year life in a muddy, rock-strewn river rushing to the Arctic Sea.

Shrinking mountain glaciers, and even more critically, the Arctic ice cap and the vast ice fields of Greenland are swelling the oceans as they melt, which jeopardizes low-elevation coastal areas. Like ours back home, in Florida.

When it was time to go down, Raggi circled the crowd. Everyone had been talking among themselves in their respective languages–Belgian, Spanish, Italian and French. Although the tour was conducted in English, only our party of four and two women from New Zealand were native speakers. I thought it odd that no one brought up climate change, or even the obvious rate at which this very glacier was melting, nor how Raggi, an Icelander, might be affected about how his country is changing. But never have I felt more responsible–as a citizen of one of the superpower nations with the largest effect on climate change–for the warming of the Earth.

It works like this: emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by our industry, cows, cars, airplanes, you name it, cause warming that thaws some of the planet’s ice. Melting ice leaves behind open oceans that absorb about 80 percent more solar radiation than frozen water does. And so as the sun heats the ocean, even more ice melts, in a devastating feedback loop.

“Come along, my little minions,” said Raggi. “Tie your ice ax onto your wrist so it doesn’t go skittering into a crevasse.” He inspected our crampons to make sure they were still tightly affixed to our boots. If you can insert a little finger under your heel, he told us, it’s not tight enough.

It took significant thigh and knee power to slow my downward momentum as we ventured back down the glacier. I paid close attention to the crunch of my crampons. Twice Raggi called out to the group: “Carefully now! Go single file. Ice axes in your right hand with the loop around your wrist.” He stood downhill from us on especially steep stretches, prepared to body block anyone who might slip.

At the bottom of the trail, I asked Raggi why we had not taken the direct route up the glacier.

The young guide laughed. “Icebergs as big as three-story buildings are rolling off that peak. It’s very dangerous. To go up to the summit we would have to drive 20 kilometers and approach it from a very different direction. And after the coming rain, even the path we took today will melt,” he added.

By the next morning, the weather had turned unsettled and cold. Bitter rain dripped off the fringed woolen backs of the sheep outside our windows.

We drove across the mesh of glacial-fed river land that covers Iceland’s central south. Snouts of glaciers sniffed down from the gray sky. Plaited tendrils of waterfalls completed the connection of glacier and seabound river.

An hour to the west of Skaftafell, we climbed aboard an amphibious, Vietnam-era boat, shoulder-to-shoulder with students from the Netherlands and tourists from Korea. The steel boat rumbled into the water of Jokulsarlon Lagoon, the surreal interface of Breioamerkurjokull Glacier and the Arctic Sea.

We entered a world of ice sculptures tall as two story houses. A small inflatable Zodiac, piloted by a man in a fluorescent green rain suit, nudged massive icebergs from the path of our boat, herding ice just as we’d seen wild-eyed dogs chase Icelandic sheep. Seals cut long paths through the icy water and leaped in our wake, like dolphins. Our guide told us they were chasing shoals of herrings and capelan that had entered the lagoon from the sea.

But even more than wildlife, the landscape of icebergs riveted me. They took fantastical forms: A sea serpent. The Hope diamond. A whale’s corrugated tail. A small, thick owl. A feathered headdress, candles, flat-topped cumulus clouds. Some were milky white, others sky-blue, still others charcoal. Many were striated to the core with black volcanic sand. The bluest, we were told, had just turned somersaults in this salty lagoon, exposing their saturated bellies to the sky.

The guide shaved off bits of an iceberg near the boat and passed it among us. I rolled some around in my mouth, suddenly realizing I was tasting liquid that had frozen into ice in the Pleistocene Era. “We really are the warmth that is melting this world,” I said to Jeff, as I felt the slip of cold against my tongue. I felt deep grief for the world in my turning stomach, and anxiety, too, for how the Earth must change.

Jokull means glacier. Sarlon means lagoon. Every day there is more Sarlon and less Jokull, as the glacier releases huge walls of frozen water into the lagoon. I now saw that this gorgeous place wasn’t a static postcard, but more like a slow-motion tragedy.

Jeff adjusted his wool scarf more tightly around his neck, thinking about what we were seeing. Offering a scientist’s long-term perspective, he said, “It’s not the fact that this is happening, that icebergs are calving off of glaciers. That’s a natural phenomenon. It’s where it’s happening, and the rate at which it is happening, that is the problem,” he said. He explained that Jokulsarlon Lagoon is steadily growing larger as the glacier above it retreats in the warming climate. Large blocks of ice are breaking free from the glacier’s edge at ever increasing rates, stocking the lagoon with icebergs, which then sail to the of the mouth of the River Jokulsa.

A melting iceberg in Iceland.

Jokull means glacier. Sarlon means lagoon. Every day there is more sarlon and less jokull. This gorgeous place isn't a static postcard, but more like a slow-motion tragedy. Credit: David Moynahan.

We disembarked from the boat and walked down to the juncture of that river with the Arctic Sea, where several enormous blue-glass icebergs had stranded and wedged into the sand. We wandered among them, marveling. But with every crashing wave, the salt tides gnawed at the ice behemoths’ underbellies. Freezing, needle-sharp rain insinuated into their surfaces, melting, melting. And black bits of rock–knuckle-sized or tiny as needles’ eyes–gimleted through the ice. We knew that when the icebergs had shrunk enough to move back-and-forth with the tidal currents, scraping and scraping on the bottom, they would finally sluice out into the sea.

We wanted to believe these icebergs were permanent fixtures on this Icelandic outpost, that it would take a very long time for them to diminish. How could something so large simply melt? But the next morning, when we returned, only basketball-sized fragments remained. The rapid pace of change in this place, and on the planet, was finally comprehensible to me. The last time the Earth warmed two or three degrees Celsius–which is where we’re headed–glaciers melted and sea levels rose by tens of meters. So this was the water that soon would brim over the lips of our islands. Standing only feet above sea level, Dog, the St. Georges, and St. Vincent will be only shadows under the surface of the sea. No more sand for sea turtle nests, no more skittering shorebirds, no more perfect family vacations for thousands and thousands of beachgoers. The submergence of the islands I knew so intimately was more than I could bear to imagine, but will be no more a loss than the glaciers of Iceland will be to Raggi.

On the flight home, almost exactly half way across the Atlantic Ocean, I leaned my head against the airplane window and spotted a single bright iceberg in the blue denim ocean. Now I could recognize it for what it was: a brief melting moment in time, soon to disappear into the voiceless salt sea.

Note: This is the first in an occasional series of firsthand reports describing the effects of climate change and other aspects of the environmental crisis. These reports will be about what we have and what we are losing.


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