Sunday, September 30, 2007

Disappearing Ice - Jokulsarlon

Click on any image to enlarge it.
We are living in an exciting, albeit dire (for humans), time on this planet. Global warming, climate change, water wars, sea level rise - now common stories in the news.

This month I had the great fortune to spend some time in Iceland where I could see some of the unfolding drama of our warming earth for myself. It was humbling to try to capture in my photographs the intensity (and perhaps immensity) of the moments we experienced in this land of fire and ice. The explosive rumble of a fracturing glacier crashing into the sea. The whip of cold wind on the face... so strong, it’s hard to stand up. The sting of icy rain... the shroud of fog blanketing the landscape... the numb fingers and wet cameras. These things don’t show their boldness or bluntness in photographs.

Sunshine was precious, though rain, fog or wind didn’t stop us from hiking and exploring. We visited the Snaefelsnes Peninsula, where a massive volcano is roofed by a beautiful glacier and most residents are personally familiar with magical neighbors - elves, trolls, or fairies - who live in the moss-draped lavarock; then the land of fire around Hveragerdi, where geysirs, boiling pools, sulphurous steam vents, mudpots, and hot rivers offer free geothermal energy to those who live there; next on to the south coast, Vik, and the vast sandur, where glaciers have shaped the land, fertile farms nestle beneath graceful waterfalls, and it’s sheep vs. fences in a rugged terrain; and finally to Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajokull, with which we had our personal encounters and saw the Disappearing Ice for ourselves.

Having driven along the south coast past rugged mountains with glaciers pouring through their gaps, past countless waterfalls and sculpted cliffs - all invisible to us under dense cover of fog - our first real encounter with the ice was at Vatnajokull. And it was a REAL encounter! Face to face, hands on, incredibly awesome.

We awakened in our farmhouse cabin in Hof to a clear sky. Hallelujah! I could hardly wait for the other three to get ready to go. Our first stop of the day would be to see the iceberg-filled bay, Jokullsarlon.
Jokull means glacier and sarlon means lagoon. One of the glacier’s tongues called Breidamerkurjokull, licks this deep lagoon that has a narrow channel into the North Atlantic. Every day, chunks of ice the size of houses (or department stores!) calve off the lip of the mighty ice and fall into the lagoon. In 1975, the lake was less than 3 square miles. Due to the melting and receding of the glacier, it has now grown to 7 square miles, and reaches depths of 650 feet. The "glacier calves" then make their way out to sea... either as icebergs or, having melted, as new seawater. This water froze thousands of years ago during the late Pleistocene epoch.. Tasting this ice and drinking its water felt comparable to being graced with the opportunity to taste a priceless vintage wine.

We arrived early in the morning. You didn’t need to see the morning frost on the ground to know that the windchill temperature was well below freezing. But I was so excited by the golden light on the vast bay full of icebergs that I left my gloves and hat in the trunk for the first half hour. We spent 2 hours hiking along the shore, marveling at ice formations, the glacier, and the mountains. Some small delicately carved ice sculptures floated near the shore - tiny remnants of melted mighty bergs. Further out were mini-bergs of odd shapes. And beyond them were the massive icebergs... some white, some black, and some blue. The white ones have had their surfaces scrubbed and melted away by the elements, the black ones are fresher, still carrying the surface soil and gravel that had blown onto the glacier, and the blue ones have freshly rolled, exposing their water-saturated bellies to the sky.

Around 10:30 a small coffee shop opened. We warmed up and bought tickets for the boat ride into the lagoon. The boat was a Vietnam-war-vintage amphibious steel truck-boat with big wheels that we boarded by the parking lot. Our driver then took the road around a few hills before plunging into the bay. What a strange experience driving into and out of the water in one vehicle. Once afloat, we meandered among the large icebergs, awed by their mass and beauty and grateful for the sunlight that made them glisten. We could almost touch the giants. Accompanying us from time to time were harbour seals, who feasted on the bounty of fish in the lagoon. And eider ducks swam beside the icebergs, ducking under ledges or into cracks when threatened.

The icebergs move along with the tide and current, piling up as they run aground. Most never leave the lagoon as ice, shrinking into the small lovely crystals near shore. How long might it take for one of the behemoths to turn into a delicate little ice figurine? Visitors here generally only get a single snapshot view of the process. The larger pieces that make their way through the narrow channel, under the bridge, and into the sea immediately meet with swift currents and ocean waves. We walked alongside their path and out to the beach where several impressive icebergs had washed ashore. Here we could look deeply into their ancient ice, or marvel at their curves and hollows. We could walk right into crevices in them. They felt so old and solid.

The next day was a doozy - fog, wild winds, and driving rain. Our only venture out was a second visit to Jokulsarlon (a second snapshot) ... even that was challenging keeping the car on the road. When we returned to the very same spot on the beach, all that was left were a few beachball-size bits of ice. Were we really at the same spot? Did a high tide carry the icebergs away? As our doubts melted away, we knew as sure as sun rises that the behemoths had turned to water, shockingly, overnight!