People have been tracking the state of glaciers in Iceland for decades; Now it will be engaged in technology
The 30-meter Komelon brand tape measure, a pencil and a yellow blank are all that Halstein Haraldson takes with him in his travels to the Snaefellnes peninsula in the west of Iceland. But, unwinding the roulette wheel in front of my eyes at his home, in Mosfellsbayr, a town near Reykjavik, he says that this is a serious improvement compared to the length of the marked rope that he used to take with him.
11% of Iceland is covered with ice, and rapidly retreating glaciers threaten to redo the landscape of the island, so Haraldson, 74 years old, volunteers in a program to track the state of glaciers , one of the first to notice the loss of ice. Every autumn, Haraldson, often with his wife and son, goes on foot to see the changes taking place with the glacier assigned to him.
Their rudimentary tools are very far from satellites and photos taken at regular intervals that appear around the world in recent years, helping to track the loss of ice. Recently, it has already begun to talk about disbanding this network of people who have been tracking the ice manually, which is almost a hundred years old. But such manual work serves several purposes at once: Iceland’s glaciers are on the verge of melting, and these men and women — among them farmers, schoolchildren, a plastic surgeon, and even one Supreme Court judge — work not only to guard the glaciers, but also their messengers.
Today, about 35 volunteers serve 64 measurement points throughout the country. The numbers they collect are published in the Jokull Icelandic scientific journal and transferred to the World Glacier Tracking Database [World Glacier Monitoring Service, WGMS]. Glacier observer vacancies are rare and very popular, many glaciers of the same family have been tracking for several generations, and this work is passed from father to son or daughter, as was the case with Haraldson when the journey becomes too heavy for the aging sentinel.
Most likely, this is one of the longest examples of citizen participation in climate science in the world. But in an era when precise tracking of the position of glaciers can be carried out from afar, it remains unclear how long such inherited tracking will last. This question even some of the participants of this network are asking.
According to the stories of Haraldson, the father of the family grew up in a modest yellow farm house on the Snaefellsnes peninsula. As an adult, he cared for the fields and taught at a local school, and in his spare time he studied the geology of the region, walking kilometers through lava fields lying in the shadow of the pearl of this region: Snayfellsjöküdl, a volcano over 700,000 years old, covered by a glacier.
It was a quiet life, unremarkable for people passing by, until John Eitorsson appeared in 1932 - a young man who had recently returned to Iceland after studying geology, first in Oslo and then in Bergen, Norway.
Eytorsson got a job at the Meteorological Office in Reykjavik, and in his free time he founded the first program to track the growth and retreat of Icelandic glaciers - but traveling around the country to check them was difficult and time consuming. For scientific purposes, each glacier needed to be measured in the same month of the year, and travels were slow, and were often complicated by violent, unpredictable storms. For the success of this project, he needed recruits, ideally farmers who would not need to travel far.
That is how his family inherited Snayfellsjökull. At the time, there was no scientific urgency in tracking glaciers; glaciers naturally expanded and narrowed to small values. But that was many decades ago. Now the world's glaciers serve as harbingers of climate change caused by human activity, and provide strong visual evidence of how people are changing the planet.
In the house of Haraldson, Snafeedlsjökökl’s images are decorated with white walls, as is often the case with photographs of relatives. Some are made with pastel or watercolor, others - in a more abstract black and white style. For Haraldson, his wife Jenny (who performed many of these drawings), and their son Haraldur, this glacier is considered to be a family glacier.
Haraldson began to compose his father's company in his hikes to the glacier sometime in 1962. Then their journey to the edge took from 10 to 15 km along steep and rocky terrain. The glacier itself stretched over an area of 11 square meters. km - tiny by the standards of glaciers. Upon arrival, they pulled out a long section of thin rope with meter marks to measure the distance between the ice and the metal pole, record it and send it to the Community. When his father left this world 14 years ago, Haraldson took on this task.
From 1975 to 1995, the glacier advanced 270 m, according to Haraldson’s records. For this period, it was not uncommon: in the 1930s, many of the country's glaciers significantly retreated due to unusually warm weather, but since 1970 they began to advance again, until human-induced climate changes defeated them again.
In the end, his annual glacier pilgrimage was joined by his wife and son. By the time the road was built, passing a meter from the glacier. From 195 to 2017 his notes indicate that Snayfellsjökull retreated 354 meters - that is, he lost 84 meters, counting from the 1975 position.
Most of the locals are frustrated by the disappearance of glaciers, says Haraldson. All inhabitants of the peninsula use the glacier as a key milestone; in everyday conversations, distances are determined by distance from Snafellsjöküdl. Others talk about the supernatural attractiveness of the glacier. Jules Verne may have experienced something like this: Snayfellsjökull served as the setting for his book Journey to the Center of the Earth .
When the glacier began its retreat in the 1990s, the family considered this a natural deviation. But since then, almost all the glaciers tracked in Iceland have been reduced. Now, as they understand, their glacier is disappearing due to global warming. In 2016, scientists announced that by the end of this century Snafellsjöküdl was awaiting complete disappearance.
Most of the data contained in the world’s glacier tracking database, which includes information on more than 100,000 glaciers from around the world, was collected through aerial comparisons. In the description of each glacier is its location, length, orientation and height. “All occurrences are based on a single observation,” it is written on the website of the database, on the image of the glacier at a certain moment. Approximately half of all glaciers in the database are measured by comparing aerial photographs taken from year to year and maps.
In 2005, the WGMS and the National Snow and Ice Data Center launched a global ground-based ice measurement program from space[Global Land Ice Measurements from Space]. Instead of relying solely on photographs and personal observations, glacier descriptions can now be updated using remote sensors on NASA's Terra satellite . The benefits of such sophisticated remote tracking in terms of efficiency are quite large. But even if aerophotography is dying out like dinosaurs, what will happen to glacier controllers in Iceland?
Even Jon Eitorsson's granddaughter, Christian Eytorsdotir, reflects on this topic. She was only ten when senior Eitorsson formally organized the Icelandic glaciological community.in 1950, he passed away, but she followed his profession and today works in the Icelandic Meteorological Bureau. Her gray hair is cut short with sharp strands, and hiking pants and sneakers indicate that she is ready to go to the fields at any time.
“The Glaciological community has a lot of recorded songs and lyrics,” she says, recalling how her grandfather’s volunteer work influenced her life. “One of the sayings says that my grandfather loved glaciers so much that they shrank.”
When traveling together to explore glaciers, community members and scientists usually sing songs written by Sigurdur Torarinsson, an Icelandic geologist, volcanologist, glaciologist - and songwriter. They also write new ones - just before 1970, the community released a book of songs about glaciers.
Since 2000, Eytorsdottir has been tracking the edge of the large Langjokuydl glacier , located in the south of Iceland, and 100 times the area of Snaefellsjokull. (She did not inherit her glacier, but applied when it was free). Every September she goes for a five-hour walk to the glacier with her husband. “There is a river flowing there,” she says, carefully tracking her path on the map. “It smells a little bad, it's a geothermal river.” To cross it, we have to take off clothes or wear waders. ”
Sometimes they look for other ways, passing through the grazing flocks and their shepherds. The landscape is changing all the time. The glacier has already retreated more than 500 meters.
Unlike Haraldsson, Eytorsdottir uses more modern technology. “We used a tape measure, but now we track everything with GPS,” she says. “There are more opportunities to get this data - but I think that we will always go there, at least until the glacier disappears.”
Halstein Haraldsson, keeper of the Snayfellsjokull glacier, says that when he meets with friends, they first ask how he and his family are doing. And then, he says, they ask: “What about the glacier?”
This question was well known to all volunteers who were tracking the glaciers of Iceland when they gathered in 2016 in the building of natural sciences of the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. Most of them have never seen each other before, but they gathered to discuss how glaciers change, and what tools would be more convenient to measure the movement of the glacier front - basically, whether volunteers should use portable GPS devices more often, or use roulettes and supporting points.
“We had an internal dispute over whether we should continue to do this, given that now all this is possible with remote sensors,” says Bergur Einarsson, a hydrologist and glaciologist who recently took over the reins of the network from Odur Sigurdsson. To some, the rough nature of measurements with paper and pens may seem to be a nuisance, but Einarsson believes this is actually an advantage. “One of the strengths of these measurements is that they have not changed. They have been produced in much the same way since the 1930s. ”
This means that although scientists today can use remote measurements, get accurate images and coordinates, the history of these records is much shorter, and it often lacks the specifics of ground-based measurements. Moreover, sophisticated technology projects require funding, which boils down to the following: photos after identical periods and remote sensors are not at all as cheap — or reliable — as several dozen volunteers armed with roulettes.
The strength of the program last year was demonstrated last year, when scientists from around the world gathered for a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, DC, to discuss the fate of the satellite Terra. After 18 years in orbit, he began to run out of fuel, which threatened the maintenance of scientific records.
But for Einarsson, there is an even deeper reason to support the program - and it will most certainly be supported by Haraldsson, Eytorsdottir and another 33 voluntary glacier controllers. “People go there, approach the front of the glacier, and see the changes with their own eyes,” he says. “And then they return to the community, and serve as something like ambassadors of climate change, and transmit this information to various branches of society.”
“It is very important to communicate with people on this subject,” says his predecessor Sigurdsson, “and keep people interested in their surroundings.”