Press "Enter" to skip to content

What Worries Iceland? A World Without Ice. It Is Preparing.

HÖFN, Iceland — From the offices of the fishing operation founded by his family two generations ago, Adalsteinn Ingólfsson has watched the massive Vatnajökull glacier shrink year after year. Warmer temperatures have already winnowed the types of fish he can catch. But the wilting ice mass, Iceland’s largest, is a strange new challenge to business.

“The glacier is melting so much that the land is rising from the sea,” said Mr. Ingólfsson, the chief executive of Skinney-Thinganes, one of Iceland’s biggest fishing companies. “It’s harder to get our biggest trawlers in and out of the harbor. And if something goes wrong with the weather, the port is closed off completely.”

ImageCreditSuzie Howell for The New York Times

A warmer climate isn’t just affecting Höfn, where the waning weight of Vatnajökull on the earth’s crust is draining fjords and shifting underground sediment, twisting the town’s sewer pipes. As temperatures rise across the Arctic nearly faster than any place on the planet, all of Iceland is grappling with the prospect of a future with no ice.

Energy producers are upgrading hydroelectric power plants and experimenting with burying carbon dioxide in rock, to keep it out of the atmosphere. Proposals are being floated for a new port in Finnafjord, now a barren landscape in the east, to capitalize on potential cargo traffic as shipping companies in China, Russia and Arctic nations vie to open routes through the melting ice. The fishing industry is slashing fossil fuel use with energy-efficient ships.

ImageCreditSuzie Howell for The New York Times

Glaciers occupy over a tenth of this famously frigid island near the Arctic Circle. Every single one is melting. So are the massive, centuries-old ice sheets of Greenland and the Polar regions. Where other countries face rising seas, Iceland is confronting a rise in land in its southernmost regions, and considers the changing landscape and climate a matter of national urgency.

When Europe suffered record-breaking heat in July, Iceland’s capital of Reykjavik clocked its hottest temperatures ever. Iceland’s economy is on the cusp of a recession, partly because an important export, the capelin fish, vanished this year in search of colder waters. This week, the United Nations warned that the world’s land and water resources are being exploited at an unprecedented rate.

ImageCreditSuzie Howell for The New York Times

“Climate change is no longer something to be joked about in Iceland or anywhere,” Gudni Jóhannesson, Iceland’s president, said in an interview, adding that most Icelanders believe human activity plays a role. “We realize the harmful effects of global warming,” he said. “We are taking responsibility to seek practical solutions. But we can do better.”

The country elected an environmentalist, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, as prime minister in 2017 on a platform of tackling climate change. Her government is budgeting $55 million over five years for reforestation, land conservation and carbon-free transport projects to slash greenhouse gas emissions. More will be spent by 2040, when Iceland expects businesses, organizations and individuals to be removing as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they put in.

ImageCreditSuzie Howell for The New York Times

Environmental activists say that still isn’t enough to make Iceland, a wealthy nation of just 350,000 people, a model. Despite generating clean geothermal energy and hydropower, major industries including aluminum and ferrosilicon production also produce a third of Iceland’s carbon dioxide. Tourism, now the engine of growth after a banking collapse in 2008, has flourished with warmer weather but added to Iceland’s climate woes as planes packing millions of visitors push per capita carbon dioxide emissions above that of every country in Europe.

Bigger nations like Norway and Finland have cut emissions more, and over 190 other countries except the United States have pledged to combat climate change under the Paris Agreement. But with the impact in Iceland more visible than in other nations, it is doing what it can — while trying to turn the warming climate into an economic advantage. “Let’s look at practical solutions instead of being filled with despair,” Mr. Jóhannesson said.

ImageCreditSuzie Howell for The New York Times

Ólafur Eggertsson, a farmer, has been anticipating how to tame the wilds of his new environment. On a sunny day, he pointed to a sparkling glacier sprawled thinly atop the nearby Eyjafjallajökull volcano on Iceland’s southern rim. Eyjafjallajökull erupted spectacularly in 2010, snarling European air traffic and raining ash over the Thorvaldseyri farm run by his family since 1906. But even before that, the glacier had been visibly retreating, and far faster than when his father and grandfather worked the land.

That alarms him, he said, because glaciers keep volcanoes cool. Scientists predict more eruptions in the coming century as the glaciers melt. Mr. Eggertsson is working to make the farm carbon neutral to prevent more warming, by transforming it from a mainly dairy operation to an 160-acre estate with barley and rapeseed fields — crops that couldn’t grow in the cold climate 50 years ago.

ImageCreditSuzie Howell for The New York Times

He is converting the rapeseed to biofuel. And Mr. Eggertsson, who plans to ramp up his 364,000-euro investment in the crop business in coming years, is hoping that Iceland’s farmers will one day grow enough barley to avoid importing it on polluting ships and planes.

“Sometimes what I’m doing feels like a drop in the ocean,” Mr. Eggertsson said, pulling handfuls of barley from the soil. “But humans are contributing to warming. I have no choice but to act.”

ImageCreditSuzie Howell for The New York Times

Others are finding deals in the demand from companies and people eager to offset their carbon footprint. Near Mr. Eggertsson’s farm, Reynir Kristinsson this year planted 200,000 native birch trees on 700 acres of volcanic flatland that his nongovernmental organization, Kolvidur, leases from the state.

More than a million trees have been purchased by Icelandic companies and foreign ones like Ikea since 2010. Mr. Kristinsson is negotiating with Isavia, Iceland’s airport operator, in hopes of crafting a deal to plant trees for every tourist and Icelander who flies in and out of the island, and is bidding to lease 12,000 more acres, forecasting “exponential growth.”

ImageCreditSuzie Howell for The New York Times

Some companies are just trying “to green wash” their image, Mr. Kristinsson acknowledged. But as consumers demand transparency, businesses are more serious about protecting the environment and know they have to spend substantial money toward battling the changes. “If they don’t show they’re acting responsibly, they will lose clients,” he said.

Yet most of Iceland’s volcanic terrain is deforested, and it will take decades for newly planted trees to absorb carbon at a large scale. Trees are certainly not a fast fix for Iceland’s glaciers, which scientists say now can no longer recover the ice they are losing.

ImageCreditSuzie Howell for The New York Times

That includes Vatnajökull, which once stretched over more than a tenth of Iceland and now covers 8 percent of this 40,000-square mile island. Named a Unesco World Heritage site in June, it is shrinking by a length of nearly three football fields a year in some places.

In Höfn, Mr. Ingólfsson’s business has been thwarted by the change. While the land here has risen nearly 20 inches since the 1930s, in the last decade alone, it has floated four inches above sea level. It is forecast to rise as much as six feet in the coming century, according to the Icelandic Meteorological Office.

ImageCreditSuzie Howell for The New York Times

That new land is preventing Mr. Ingólfsson from acquiring bigger-capacity trawlers that his competitors use. HB Grandi, a Reykjavik-based rival that is one of Iceland’s largest fishing companies, has invested in enormous super-trawlers that use less fossil fuel and allow for a larger catch. This year, cold water capelin can’t be found. But mackerel are now swimming in the warmer currents around Iceland, and the value of the catch has risen noticeably.

Such investment — which also translates into smaller fleets — are running through Iceland’s fishing industry, and fits a national strategy to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to ocean acidification and harm fish. The transformation is important and strategic: Fish account for 39 percent of Iceland’s exports.

ImageCreditSuzie Howell for The New York Times

Mr. Ingólfsson’s trawlers can now only move in and out at high tide, and his business suffers for that. Last winter, two were stuck outside the harbor when a storm hit, he said, forcing the catch to be offloaded at another factory on the east coast, leaving scores of workers at his Höfn plant idle.

“Unless we find a solution,” he said, “things will just get worse.”

Glacial melting is also expected to oversaturate watersheds in the next century and scientists predict that they then will dry up, forcing energy producers to adapt. Landsvirkjun, the state-run energy company, which generates three-quarters of Iceland’s power, is building room for additional water turbines at its dams. It is also building new capacity for wind turbines to operate when the glaciers die.

“From a design perspective, we’re taking into account what will happen in the next 50 to 100 years,” said Óli Grétar Blondal Sveinsson, the executive vice president for research and development. “There will be no glaciers,” he said flatly.

That prospect has jolted Icelanders — and some visitors — to a realization that they are witnessing a treasure vanish. Steinthór Arnarson, 36, quit his job as a lawyer three years ago to open a tour business at the Fjallsárlón lagoon, employing 20. He takes visitors on inflatable boats around iceberg-studded waters that barely existed two decades ago.

A native of the area, he recalled the lake being a fraction of its current size when he was a teenager. When he returned in 2012, the Vatnajökull outlet here had melted so much that the lagoon had grown a mile wide, and thundering rivers nearby had shifted course.

Many of the 200 tourists who visit daily want to see Vatnajökull before it disappears, Mr. Arnarson said.

“People are stunned by the glacier’s beauty and feel like me,” he said, gazing at the 130-foot high wall of blue ice soaring from the water.

“It’s nice to see a piece of it break off,” he said. “But it’s really sad.”


Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *