In Iceland, Unintended Witnesses to Climate Change For more than 30 years, a group of doctors and their friends and family have made a long, bone-jarring and wet trip to a glacier in the center of Iceland. The tradition is part camping adventure, part scientific expedition, and increasingly bittersweet.
NPR logo

In Iceland, Unintended Witnesses to Climate Change

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
In Iceland, Unintended Witnesses to Climate Change

In Iceland, Unintended Witnesses to Climate Change

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The world's nations are in Bali, Indonesia to discuss how to tackle global warming when the Kyoto Agreement expires. The effects of climate change are clearly etched on the landscape of Iceland. The glaciers that cover about 10 percent of the island are retreating. For decades, members of a special society have trekked to remote areas to measure the ice.

For our Climate Connection series with National Geographic, NPR's Richard Harris traveled with one group this fall.

(Soundbite of walkie-talkie)

Unidentified Man: Okay.

RICHARD HARRIS: It's a damp and gray September day on the open planes of central Iceland in a mismatched convoy of about a dozen trucks, motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles has pulled off the side of the road onto a dirt track. The drivers get out to let air out of their tires. This will give them a more comfortable ride on the journey ahead as they set out across a treeless and ultimately roadless volcanic landscape. They're heading for Hofsjokull, a glacier that's smack-dab in the middle of this North Atlantic island.

Rickfuss Magnusson unfolds a map to scope out the drive ahead.

So how long do you think this will take us?

Mr. RICKFUSS MAGNUSSON: Depends on the rivers and the weather. There are some quicksand.

HARRIS: Quicksand, oh. We don't want to go on the quicksand?


(Soundbite of laughter)

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: Leifur is Leifur Jonsson who has led an expedition to measure this glacier for 30 years. He's a retired hand surgeon, tall and barrel-chested like a bear. He runs this trip with quiet authority. It's not exactly a scientific study, it's not exactly an adventure, and it's not exactly a party, but it is a blend of all three.

(Soundbite of engine noise)

HARRIS: We catch up to Leifur Jonsson a while later when the road stops at the edge of a rapidly floating river. There is no bridge.

Dr. LEIFUR JONSSON (Retired Hand Surgeon): That's my boy, you know, in the yellow cycle.


Dr. JONSSON: He looks like someone from outer space.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: 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. He gazes out over the rushing stream.

So you're going to drive across, huh?

Mr. HERMANN LEIFSSON: Yeah, I'm going to try to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: Or swim maybe.

Mr. LEIFSSON: Yeah, well, it's a little bit more than usual, I think.

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

(Soundbite of an all-terrain vehicle)

HARRIS: Leifsson guns his engine and heads out into the water.

(Soundbite of all-terrain vehicle)

HARRIS: It's all the way up to the axels, but he's staying on it, making it across.

(Soundbite of an all-terrain vehicle)

HARRIS: No quicksand here, at least. We pressed on across the gray moonscape of lava. Each year, it's the same basic story. There's a long and challenging drive, 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. It's changed a lot.

(Soundbite of noise)

HARRIS: Finally, after six bone-jarring hours of travel, we pull up to a small hillock that offers at least token protection from the cold and damp wind. We are now at the foot of the glacier of probably only 100 feet away. And right over here is steam rising up from the ground. It's a hot spring.

(Soundbite of running water)

HARRIS: The spring runs across the ground a short distance and then into a fiberglass tub that the younger generation has brought up here for their annual nighttime revelries.

We made it.


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

Ms. THORVALDSDOTTIR: 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.

HARRIS: 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. Leifur Jonsson says some years, the tongue of the glacier he measures has actually surged forward. But the long-term trend has been unmistakable.

Dr. JONSSON: I have mostly seen the glaciers decreasing, growing back and becoming lower.

HARRIS: And how do you feel about that?

Dr. JONSSON: I want them as they are, not decreasing anymore.

HARRIS: That's a forlorn hope.

Dr. JONSSON: All this here is new for me.

HARRIS: The next morning, Leifur 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.

Dr. JONSSON: I put the stick down here somewhere in this pothole here glacier. And these are not far from the glacier.

HARRIS: He starts searching the ground to find his marker.

Uh-huh. So it survived a year right here.

Dr. JONSSON: Yeah.

HARRIS: He doesn't look too happy though. It's clear this glacier has retreated far more than its usual distance, which is about the length of a car.

(Soundbite of noise)

HARRIS: They plod a measuring tape and pace off the distance from last year's mark to the glacier.

(Soundbite of noise)

HARRIS: 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. That was before satellite photos and GPS. But Idunn Leifsdottir says measuring is not really the point anymore

Ms. IDUNN LEIFSDOTTIR: You can do that in an easier way. So this is just an excuse to come here as you know.

HARRIS: And the trip is no longer just about adventure and companionship. This group has become an unintended witness to climate change.

Ms. LEIFSDOTTIR: Because it's much warmer now - the last 10 years maybe.

HARRIS: Is it good or bad?

Ms. LEIFSDOTTIR: Well, it's nice to have nice plants around. But well, it's not good because it gets better in Iceland, but the rest of the world sees the bad part of it so it's not good.

HARRIS: Once the measuring tape is rolled up, Leifur Jonsson heads back to his truck. He checks a clipboard to figure out exactly how far the glacier has retreated.

Dr. JONSSON: Yeah, it reads 41 meters.

HARRIS: Forty one meters…

Dr. JONSSON: In one year.

HARRIS: Is that the biggest you've ever seen?

Mr. JONSSON: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

HARRIS: That's almost half the length of a football field in a single year. This isn't happy news for Solveig Thorvaldsdottir.

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

HARRIS: Hofsjokull is not going to disappear in her lifetime, at least. So she and her friends will still be able to carry on this bittersweet trek to their glacier.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Here some Vikings where Iceland's first settlers and you can hear how climate shaped their rise and fall at Once there, you can read the latest global warming coverage from National Geographic magazine.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.