In late March 2013, we went, 15 photographers strong, to photograph Iceland and its Aurora Borealis in all their splendor. Our plan to photograph the Borealis illuminating the high sky was thwarted by cloud cover that blocked our rendezvous. But our exploration of this wonderful country illuminated our minds’ eyes, not only to Iceland’s pristine beauty but also to the revelations Mother Nature provides to those who traverse its snow-capped mountains and glaciers and visit its rugged shores.
We hadn’t been in Iceland very long before we donned hard hats and ice spikes, assuring ourselves a safe ice walk, and made our way up Solheimajokull, a glacier near the southern coast of Iceland (lingering winter snows make Northern Iceland impassible in March).
In this photo, our guide is describing the GPS device fixed on the glacier’s slope. It’s been on the slope in different places for nearly 10 years. It’s used to measure the melting glacier’s movement. Our guide tells us that the high slopes of this glacier are melting at about 10 meters a day, although the melt rate is slower at lower altitudes.
Yes, Iceland’s glaciers are melting, as are the glaciers I visited in Patagonia, the Alps, Nepal, Glacier Park, Canada, and Antarctica (in Antarctica, however, the floating ice cools the seas, increasing snow fall and ice in parts of Antarctica).
(If you haven’t yet seen James Balog’s Chasing Ice, a fantastic 2012 film documenting our melting glaciers [Balog starts in Iceland] and rising seas, do so; it could change your thinking about our precious earth. Balog’s Extreme Ice, produced by National Geographic and Nova, is equally as compelling, and free at the link on PBS.)
Icebergs calved from the glaciers make their way down rivers and streams emptying into the Atlantic Ocean, where, like skillful hands of a crafty artist, the waves and tides sculpture Nature’s exquisite gift of huge, shapely ice diamonds as ornaments on the black volcanic sands of the coastal shores, sparkling against the background of golden rays from the early sunrise.
When, in the early morning light, the temperature lingers in the mid 20’s and the wind chill factor takes it even lower, it’s hard to imagine that the Atlantic Ocean’s temperature is actually rising. But it is, particularly at below-surface levels.
A couple of winters ago, I was fortunate to join photographers in Yosemite. There, we learned that global warming was driving animals (and their food supplies) to higher elevations and more northern territories.
Our October 2011 blog, The Happy Plight of the Obese Marmot and Other Tales, includes a discussion about the migratory climatic-change movement of species from warm to cool, called the “species range shift.”
It’s been happening for the last 40 years and is expected to continue at least to the end of this century. The current rate of movement is about 8 inches an hour. But in many parts of our country and other parts of the globe, the movement of plants and animals to cooler territory is blocked by cities and other earmarks of civilization. So the movement is not free and easy for many endangered species, and there is apt to be unsettling loss of animal and plant life and a resulting loss of biodiversity and our food supplies. (However, there is work going on to develop strains of grains that are more heat tolerant.)
How does the movement in the Northern Hemisphere to higher and cooler latitudes work in the oceans as they warm? There are no roads or buildings to block the sea lanes that fish and other aquatic creatures use in their flight from warm to cool or cold. But, the movement has its challenges. For example:
Could the northern movement to Iceland’s waters of Mackerel, heretofore caught by Scottish fisherman, spark a “Mackerel War” between the UK and Iceland, as the Scottish fisherman vie with Icelanders for the “right” to the fish that left Scotland’s historic fishing grounds and now make their home some 700 miles to the northwest, within Iceland’s 200 miles of territorial waters?
The troubling question is the subject of Harriet Alexander’s February 2013 article in the UK’s Telegraph, The battle for mackerel in the icy waters between Britain and Iceland, where she wrote:
“It is totally unacceptable that Iceland can get away with this,” said Ian Gatt, chief executive of the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association – which represents all fishermen who work in the shallow waters where mackerel are found. “Scotland relies on mackerel. We have nothing else to fall back on.”
But as the fish began to swim north they presented too tempting a prospect to Iceland, where the fishing industry accounts for 11 per cent of the economy – more than any other nation – and 40 per cent of exports.
Iceland, not a member of the EU and with its waters now teeming with mackerel, decided unilaterally that it was entitled to catch 145,000 tonnes last year.
As of this moment, the issue is not resolved, and Scottish fishermen have accused Icelanders of “criminal conduct,” denying that the move north of the fish they cherish is related to a warming ocean.
Beyond the issue of who can fish the Mackerel, is that this conflict could well be a harbinger of things to come. As Gwynne Dyer wrote in Mackerel, global warming don’t respect international boundaries:
The problem is not really greedy Icelanders or stubborn British. It is climate change. And we will see many more disputes like this, some of them with a much higher risk of violent confrontation, as the warming proceeds and fish stocks dwindle.
As glaciers melt and no longer provide a reliable source of fresh water, people who relied on the fresh water in the streams the glaciers used to supply are going to suffer. Glaciers and rivers and streams also don’t respect international boundaries (like the Himalayan glaciers that feed the rivers of India and China).
Will water wars about rights to fresh water become a dangerous confrontation shaped by the vast and relentless reach of global warming? We touch on these issues in our blog, When Mother Nature Decides to Defrost Her Ice Box. This remarkable trip to Iceland affirmed the vitality of the issues we raised in that blog:
“Scientist, Lester Brown, author of World on Edge, believes that humankind will not get serious until the earth’s food and water shortage force us to face reality. Brown‘s discussion of the impact of climate change on food and water includes the following:
‘Ice melting in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau poses an even graver threat to food security at a global scale. It is the ice melt from these mountain glaciers that helps sustain the major rivers of Asia during the dry season, when irrigation needs are greatest. In the Indus, Ganges, Yellow, and Yangtze River basins, where irrigated agriculture depends heavily on the rivers, the loss of any dry-season flow is bad news for farmers. China is the world’s leading producer of wheat. India is number two. (The United States is number three.) With rice, China and India totally dominate the world harvest. Therefore, the melting of these glaciers coupled with the depletion of aquifers present the most massive threat to food security the world has ever faced.’
“Yes, Mother Nature has decided to ‘defrost’ her ice box, our reservoir of fresh water. Will the ‘climate deniers’ and the rest of us pay attention to the melting ice and its threat to the world’s water and food supply?”
We can now add:
“And how will we who call this planet our home share its precious resources as their plenitude and location are reshaped by our changing global climate?”
Will we follow the grain fields, trees, and other plants and animals north, eventually to the cooler latitudes of Canada?
More “lessons for the learnin'” in later issues of our blog.