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This Glacier in Iceland Is Fighting to Stay Alive

The Falljökull glacier has cut off its lower reaches but the upper portion is advancing once again

Skaftafell National Park (Roland Gerth/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Every glacier melts. Liquified glacier water trickles down rivers and streams during warm seasons; the cold seasons’ falling snow usually replaces the loss and, eventually, compresses into ice. But the last century’s changing climate has helped melt to outpace snowfall, and glaciers around the world are dying. 

Doomed glaciers are thought to melt in place, like an ice cube abandoned on the counter; to retreat instead of advancing like a river of ice; or, in the case of tropical glaciers, to sublimate directly from ice to water vapor. (The last case might not be due to global warming — the ice loss on Kilimanjaro is actually caused by less snowfall and more sun.) At least one glacier, however, has surprised scientists by not following any of these patterns.

The Falljökull glacier of Skaftafell National Park in Iceland has abandoned its rotting, dying lower portion. The upper portion is once again advancing forward. Emrys Phillips, a researcher with the British Geological Survey, compared the glacier to a lizard that has detached its tail to escape a predator. "In the case of the glacier, the predator is our warming climate," he told Climate Central.

While acknowledging that “it’s strange to anthropomorphise a glacier,” Phillips says it’s “as if the glacier is trying to save itself by shortening its active length to adapt to the increasingly warmer summers and less snowfall during the winter months....

In effect, Phillips says, “The glacier has downsized.”

Phillips and his colleagues deployed several different forms of reconnaissance technologies — satellites, ground-penetrating radar and remote-sensing LiDAR — to reveal the steep mountain glacier’s survival strategy. They published their findings in the Journal of Geophysical Research last week. 

If other mountain glaciers are staying alive in this way, research measuring the effects of climate change should look beyond the total length of glaciers and focus on the size of active portions, the researchers say. Over 90 percent of alpine glaciers in the world are retreating, but perhaps a few might have life in them yet.

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