In Iceland, Unintended Witnesses to Climate Change

Retired hand surgeon Leifur Jonsson

Retired hand surgeon Leifur Jonsson made his first trek to the Hofsjokull glacier in 1977, and took over as expedition leader in 1982. Vikki Valentine/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Vikki Valentine/NPR

Hofsjokull is located in the highlands of central Iceland. The glacier is 20 miles wide and about a mile high at its thickest point. Jonsson's team measures a handful of the glacier's tongues, including this one. Richard Harris/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Harris/NPR
A tongue of the Hofsjokull glacier,  located in the highlands of central Iceland.

Hofsjokull is located in the highlands of central Iceland. The glacier is 20 miles wide and about a mile high at its thickest point. Jonsson's team measures a handful of the glacier's tongues, including this one.

Richard Harris/NPR
Dr. Jon Thorsteinsson (l) and Dr. Sigmundur Magnusson (r),  and Steingrimur Hermannsson i

Dr. Jon Thorsteinsson (left), Dr. Sigmundur Magnusson (right) and Steingrimur Hermannsson, former prime minister of Iceland, stand at one of the expedition's base camps. Vikki Valentine/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Vikki Valentine/NPR
Dr. Jon Thorsteinsson (l) and Dr. Sigmundur Magnusson (r),  and Steingrimur Hermannsson

Dr. Jon Thorsteinsson (left), Dr. Sigmundur Magnusson (right) and Steingrimur Hermannsson, former prime minister of Iceland, stand at one of the expedition's base camps.

Vikki Valentine/NPR
An ATV drives across the rocky desert in front of the Hofsjokull glacier. i

Leifur Jonsson and his friends measure the retreating glacier on foot, but younger members of the expedition use bikes and ATVs to reach more distant parts of the glacier outlet. Richard Harris/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Harris/NPR
An ATV drives across the rocky desert in front of the Hofsjokull glacier.

Leifur Jonsson and his friends measure the retreating glacier on foot, but younger members of the expedition use bikes and ATVs to reach more distant parts of the glacier outlet.

Richard Harris/NPR
Streams of melt water pour out into the field in front of the glacier. i

Streams of meltwater pour out into the field in front of the glacier. Richard Harris/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Harris/NPR
Streams of melt water pour out into the field in front of the glacier.

Streams of meltwater pour out into the field in front of the glacier.

Richard Harris/NPR
An ATV driver attaches a chain to an expedition truck stuck in a river. i

An ATV driver attaches a chain to an expedition truck stuck in a river. Richard Harris/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Harris/NPR
An ATV driver attaches a chain to an expedition truck stuck in a river.

An ATV driver attaches a chain to an expedition truck stuck in a river.

Richard Harris/NPR
Vigfus Magnusson (l), Karl Bjarnthorsson, (c) and Solveig Thorvaldsdottir at Hofsjokull. i

Vigfus Magnusson (from left), Karl Bjarnthorsson and Solveig Thorvaldsdottir scout out possible routes to the foot of the glacier. Richard Harris/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Harris/NPR
Vigfus Magnusson (l), Karl Bjarnthorsson, (c) and Solveig Thorvaldsdottir at Hofsjokull.

Vigfus Magnusson (from left), Karl Bjarnthorsson and Solveig Thorvaldsdottir scout out possible routes to the foot of the glacier.

Richard Harris/NPR
A hot tub in front of the glacier. i

The expedition brought up a fiberglass tub to capture waters from a hot spring at the foot of the glacier. Richard Harris/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Harris/NPR
A hot tub in front of the glacier.

The expedition brought up a fiberglass tub to capture waters from a hot spring at the foot of the glacier.

Richard Harris/NPR

Iceland is famous for its volcanoes — and its ice. About 10 percent of the land is covered in glaciers, and they stir passions. For decades, members of a society dedicated to measuring glaciers have trekked out to central Iceland to measure one in particular, called Hofsjokull.

This year, their trek begins on a damp, gray September day. Before they head inland, a mismatched convoy of trucks, motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles pulls off to the side of the road to let air out of their tires. This will give them a more comfortable ride as they set out across the treeless and ultimately roadless volcanic landscape. Vigfus Magnusson unfolds a map to scope out the drive ahead.

He points on the map to the glacier they're heading toward. Magnusson says the length of time for the journey depends on the weather, the rivers and quicksand.

"But Leifur is going in front, and if he disappears, then we'll stop for a while and think," he says.

A Scientific Party

Leifur Jonsson, a retired hand surgeon, has led expeditions to measure this glacier for 30 years. He runs the trip with quiet authority. It's not exactly a scientific study. It's not exactly an adventure. And it's not exactly a party. It's a blend of all three.

Partway through the journey, the convoy stops at the edge of a rapidly flowing river. There's no bridge.

Jonsson points proudly to his son, Hermann Leifsson, who is sitting on a dirt bike at the edge of the river.

"That's my boy, you know, on the yellow cycle," he says. "Looks like someone from outer space."

Hermann Leifsson is sitting on a dirt bike, decked out in black body armor and waterproof clothing to protect him from the rain — and the rivers.

"It's a little bit more than usual," he says, gazing out over the rushing river.

The creeks are swollen by rain. But the milky blue runoff in this vast and gently sloping basin also comes from melting glaciers. This could be a hint about what lies ahead at Hofsjokull.

The bikers slowly cut a safe path through the water, with the trucks following their lead.

The convoy presses on across the gray moonscape of lava and streams. Once, all of Iceland was covered with glaciers, but they've been retreating since the end of the last ice age. And recently they've been going fast.

The caravan comes to a stop at a mossy spring. People climb out of their jacked-up trucks and SUVs to stretch their legs. The irony of burning fuel on a recreational trip to measure an effect of global warming goes unremarked.

Reliving a Memory

Sigmundur Magnusson, 79, and a retired hematologist, says he has been making the trip for 35 years.

"We go every year," he says. "You know, kids want the same story over and over again, and so do we."

And the story of the trip is the same every year, too. There is always a long and challenging drive. Each year, they camp out for a night or two, eating traditional foods such as cold lamb, blood sausage and dried fish. And each year they pull out their measuring tapes to see how much the glacier has changed.

The trekkers take off again, and finally, after six bone-jarring hours of travel, pull up to a small hillock that offers at least token protection from the cold and damp wind. About 100 feet from the foot of the glacier, steam rises out of the ground from a hot spring.

The group used to take dips in the hot spring, until a flood washed away its natural walls. Then, a few years back, the younger generation brought up a fiberglass tub and directed the hot water into it, for their nighttime revelries.

Solveig Thorvaldsdottir has driven her aged father up here. But the trip is also for her.

"There's so much energy here. You just come here, you feel nature, you feel the forces. And it's just so nice to be here. It's very difficult to explain, either you feel it or you don't. And I feel it," she says.

An Unmistakable Trend

The glacier looks dirtier than usual this year, she says. It's a gentle slope of ice that extends up to the horizon. Hofsjokull is about 20 miles wide and morphing all the time. Jonsson says that some years. the tongue of the glacier he measures has actually surged forward. But the long-term trend has been unmistakable.

"I have mostly seen the glaciers decreasing, growing back and becoming lower," Jonsson says. He wants the retreat to stop.

That's a forlorn hope.

The next morning, Jonsson is up early. He has packed up his tent, collected some of the beer cans that peppered the ground around the hot tub, and he is now at one of his annual measuring points. He's standing in a field of mud and rounded rocks at the foot of the glacier, looking for a stick he placed there as a marker last year.

When Jonsson finds it, he doesn't look too happy. It's clear the glacier has retreated far more than its usual distance, which is about the length of a car.

Sigmundur Magnusson pulls out a long measuring tape and paces off the distance from the previous mark to the glacier, while Leifur Jonsson's daughter watches from a distance.

This business with the tape measure may have made sense in the 1930s, when the glacier society first started coming here. But that was before satellite photos and GPS. Idunn Leifsdottir says measuring isn't really the point, anymore.

"You can do that in an easier way. So this is just an excuse to come here," she says.

The trip is no longer just about adventure and companionship. This group has become unintended witnesses to climate change. Leifsdottir says that the last 10 years have been much warmer. But global warming isn't good for the world, she says.

"It's nice to have plants around, but well, it's not good. It gets better in Iceland, but the rest of the world sees the bad part," she says.

Once the measuring tape is rolled up, Jonsson heads back to his truck. He checks a clipboard to figure out exactly how far the glacier has retreated: 41 meters, the largest retreat he has ever seen. That's almost half the length of a football field in a single year.

This isn't happy news for Solveig Thorvaldsdottir.

"I mean, what are we going to call our country when the ice all melts? We might as well call it lava land," she says.

But Hofsjokull won't disappear in her lifetime. So Thorvaldsdottir and her friends will still be able to carry on this bittersweet trek to their glacier, year after year.

Produced by Vikki Valentine.

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