It was our final day in Iceland before returning back to the US. We so many great experiences visiting this country of beautiful extremes, but more than anything, what we wanted to see on our last day was a glacier. We talked about it, and decided that we should see a glacier, as we might never be able to see one again. We booked a beginner glacier hike on Sólheimajökull glacier, a hike that took you way up into the glacier.
It was a misty and cool day; small droplets of rain pressed against us at the parking lot at the base of the glacier. Before us, the Sólheimajökull glacier loomed, white and black and gray. After getting fitted with safety harnesses, helmets, crampons, and pickaxes, our group of twelve set off to the glacier hike. Our guide, who was originally from the Alps and who had been hiking glaciers his whole life, first took us to a sign as we walked along the edge of an enormous lake. He stopped and said, “In 2010, this is where the glacier was. Each year, it gets smaller. In the winter, it stops melting but never regrows. But we’ve still got quite a hike to get to the glacier as you can see.” The sign he showed us had many different numbers over years. Last year, in 2018, the glacier receded more than any other year: 118 meters. And so, we continued our hike, which took about 15 minutes, walking along with the edge glacier’s melt pool. This link offers a video that shows the melting of the Sólheimajökull glacier from the years 2007- 2015.
One of the tours they now advertise in Iceland is the “kayak the glacier” experience. There is a kind of horseshoe-shaped lake that is made when a glacier reaches its largest size and then begins to melt. You’ve seen this shape before on a map: it’s reflected in the bowl-shaped bottom of Lake Michigan. That bowl shape is created by the melting of a glacier. As a glacier advances, it moves earth itself, pushing up stone, soil, and bedrock; the powerful edge of it creating a wall of stone. As the glacier recedes, it leaves that wall of stone behind, and as it melts, that stone creates a natural dam, and the bowl-shaped area behind the dam fills with water. Water that tourists can kayak in. Water that is created, in part, by the 2600 miles it took me to fly to Iceland. Water that is, for all intents and purposes, the tears that the earth cries.
As I stood at the bottom of the glacier, I realized how small I was in comparison to the massive block of ice. The Sólheimajökull glacier took up all the space, moving into our field of vision, white, black, and sometimes blue, daunting in its appearance. As we got close, you could see the shimmering of the meltwater coming off of it, moving into the lake below. Icebergs, also, floated in the lake–our guide explained that those icebergs crack off the glacier frequently and will likely be gone by the end of the summer. So much ice. So much to melt.
We carefully put our crampons on our feet and, single file, began our ascent into the glacier. As soon as we stepped foot on the glacier, my heart grew heavy with sorrow. The most striking feature of the glacier wasn’t the beauty. It wasn’t the black ash from various volcanic activities, or the white and blue ice. The most striking feature was how fast it was melting. Everywhere the glacier was melting. The day we were there, it was around 50 degrees, now a fairly common temperature for Iceland this time of year. And everywhere you looked, the glacier was glistening. Little drips became streams, streams became bigger streams, and eventually, they flowed into quite large rivers, running down the glacier. Standing anywhere on the glacier, you could observe this and watch the ice melt and take milennia of black and gray ash along with it.
At one point, our guide stopped and pointed to a mountain quite far off from where we stood. Less than a decade ago, he told us, the glacier reached up to that nearby mountain. Now, that mountain isn’t reachable, the glacier is much lower, and there is a glacial river between us. I stood there and thought about it: that must have been millions of gallons of water in that short time, all melted away into the lake and eventually, the ocean nearby.
The amount of melting made the Sólheimajökull a bit difficult to traverse. The tour company maintained a trail on the glacier, but it was an ever-moving target. As we hiked, we two people working on the trail on the glacier. They would cut a set of stairs, and then, within an hour or two, the stairs would melt and become dangerous and they’d have to cut new ones. This ever-evolving trail was now just part of the experience of walking on a glacier, as our guide explained.
The walk was a walk of extremes. The solid white and blue ice. The black and gray of the volcanic ash became unlocked as the glacier melted. One of the folks on our walk asked, “can we tell what volcanic eruption this ash came from?” Our guide said, “No, it all just melts together.” You could be standing on ash and melt from 10,000 years ago or even 100,000. Scientists with specialized equipment drilling core samples could tell, but we could not. Here is an image of the entire glacier, Myrdalsjokull, from 1986 to September 2014. The glacier we walked was one “arm” of this larger glacier. You can see how massive it is, and you can glimpse the volcano that sits beneath.
Throughout our week in Iceland, I didn’t get a strong sense that the spirits of the land were welcoming or open to outsiders. Icelanders certainly capitalize on their island’s natural beauty as part of their tourist industry. And while you might enter a lava cave and be told of rooms called “the banquet hall of the elves” or “the troll’s den”, or, you might see the stone stacks throughout the land that are there to appease the little people, the Icelandic people are not willing to talk about those aspects of their land. They don’t speak of their relationship to the land spirits with outsiders. And neither do those spirits of the land seem interested in saying hello. So I spent the week in Iceland not engaged heavily with the spirits of the land; things were just quiet. Thus, I was certainly surprised when even before I walked up to it, the glacier immediately reached out to me and wanted to convey a message.
As we climbed Sólheimajökull, I connected deeply with the spirit of place. The glacier itself, and the spirit of the mountain—are between two active volcanoes, Katla and Eyjafjallajökull. Sólheimajökull first shared with me its anger, so angry that it was melting away. So angry at humans. I could feel the stress and strain as it spoke to me: to tell people what you have seen here. Tell of how the melting will flood their cities. Speak of the truth you have witnessed. I felt the anger in its voice, the anger radiating out of it, as it knew it was dying.
We continued to climb the glacier, witnessing its tragic beauty among the melting ice. Then a second voice emerged from Sólheimajökull, this one of sadness. I am losing myself, the glacier said. I am crying tears for the world. How many people who climb me today will speak of what they have seen? How many will change because of it? How many have made me cry further just to walk upon me? I cry for us, the glacier said, and I cry for the world.
We had to climb over a large crevasse with water rushing through it. Our guide explained that this kind of crevasse was very dangerous and could easily drown you if you fell in. Eventually, this crevasse would literally crack a large chunk of the glacier off into the melt pool. As I navigated the crevice, I heard the glacier speak once again, this time, in despair. What is happening is happening. There is nothing to be done. Our melting will reshape the world. I have been here for so long, and someday, I will be here again. But in the meantime, my waters will travel far and wide.
Upon meditation on this experience after returning home, I realized that I was hearing the many voices of this glacier working through the many stages of grief. I was experiencing the grief that this sacred place was experiencing, conveying to me, perhaps so I could convey it to you.
We got to a high point on the glacier where you could see it continue to rise up for many miles into the mist. Here the glacier flattened out quite a bit. It was here that our guide swung two pickaxes in the ice to create handholds and let us kneel down on them to drink the fresh glacial melt-water. Pure, cold, refreshing. As I drank the water, thirsty from our climb, I could feel the energy of the glacier. As I drank, the emotions that the glacier was conveying to me welled up within me, overflowing. Anger, fear, sadness, despair, acceptance. All at once, those feelings spread throughout me. As we made our way back down, I simply allowed myself to experience the myriad of complex feelings of this place.
The next day, on our flight home, we flew over Greenland and the lower part of the Arctic before landing back in the US. I looked down, out of the window of the plane, and saw so many small chunks of ice participating in their own complex patterns of melting, this time, with nobody to hear or witness up close.
How much damage did this trip to Iceland cost the earth? That’s the part that has been perhaps the hardest for me to process, as I’ve been thinking about and meditating on this experience. I went on this trip for pleasure. I’ve had little chance to travel, and I wanted to experience new things and visit somewhere completely different. But my very engagement with this glacier, my presence there, was part of why it was melting. Sure, you can say, but Dana, you can always offset your carbon for this. And yes, I always do offset my carbon from travel at the end of the year (most of it work-related). But does that offset matter? In the end, I chose to engage in an activity that speeded the melting of this sacred place helped this glacier melt. One article, I read recently suggested that each trans-Atlantic flight, like the one I took, melts about 30 square feet of Arctic sea ice. So for myself, my round trip contributed to 60 square feet of ice melting in the Arctic.
Just like the glacier, I’m full of a myriad of complex emotions. I’m glad to have had this experience. I’m saddened by it. I recognize my own part in this. I feel sorrow and anger and acceptance. We are all on the front lines of climate change, the 6th extinction happening, the age of the Anthropocene. Every one of us is living in a time where we are aware of the problem, many of us trying to do something about it. At the same time, by participating in modern life, we can’t help but contribute to it. This is the great Catch-22 of our age. To see the glacier is to destroy the glacier. To use fossil fuels necessary for modern life is to burn them. How can I afford solar panels for my home without commuting to work each day in a fossil fuel-powered vehicle? The glacier weeps as I write.
But the other thing that this lesson has powerfully taught me is the power of experience. How many people, in seeing that melting glacier could really deny the truth of climate change? How could it be denied that these things are happening, powerfully and directly, before our very eyes? This experience has changed me. I “knew” about the glaciers melting before. Knew as in I intellectually engaged in an understanding about the fact that glaciers worldwide were melting. But it was not till I stood upon one, till I connected with the spirit of that place, and until I confronted my own contribution to that melting, could I really have wisdom surrounding it.
As I write these words, I’m attempting to convey some of that wisdom, that direct experience, but my words cannot have the impact of that weeping glacier. Book knowledge is what we engage with intellectually and logically, what we read or hear in order to better understand something. Book knowledge is mitigated by human language, words on paper or spoken aloud. These words, as I write them, are read by your eyes and processed by your brain. But they are a pale representation of the experience of standing there, of seeing the glacier weep, drinking its meltwater, and feeling its pain. But I’ve done my best, dear reader, and I hope it gives you a small piece of this experience and into that of one melting glacier. Can we find these same kinds of changes in our own ecosystems, and use them as local teaching tools? Perhaps we can, and perhaps that’s a message I can leave you with today.
PS: I’m excited to announce that I just signed my first book contract a few weeks ago! Because of this, I will be taking a few weeks off of blogging so that I can prepare my manuscript to submit to the publisher (which is quite a bit of work). I’ll keep you updated on the progress, release date, etc. Thanks for your understanding!