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Earth Technology

The Icelandic Families Tracking Climate Change With Measuring Tape (undark.org) 88

Gloria Dickie, writing for Undark Magazine: A 30-meter Komelon-branded measuring tape, a pencil, and a yellow paper form are all Hallsteinn Haraldsson carries with him when he travels to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in western Iceland. But unfurling the measuring tape before me at his home in Mosfellsbaer, a town just outside of Reykjavik, he says it is a significant upgrade from the piece of marked rope he used to bring along. With 11 percent of the landmass covered in ice, rapidly ebbing glaciers are threatening to reshape Iceland's landscape, and Haraldsson, 74, is part of a contingent of volunteer glacier monitors who are at the frontlines of tracking the retreat. Every autumn, Haraldsson, often accompanied by his wife and son, sets off on foot to measure the changes in his assigned glacier.

Their rudimentary tools are a far cry from the satellites and time-lapse photography deployed around the world in recent decades to track ice loss, and lately, there's been talk of disbanding this nearly century-old, low-tech network of monitors. But this sort of ground-truthing work has more than one purpose: With Iceland's glaciers at their melting point, these men and women -- farmers, schoolchildren, a plastic surgeon, even a Supreme Court judge -- serve not only as the glaciers' guardians, but also their messengers. Today, some 35 volunteers monitor 64 measurement sites around the country. The numbers they collect are published in the Icelandic scientific journal Jokull, and submitted to the World Glacier Monitoring Service database. Vacancies for glacier monitors are rare and highly sought-after, and many glaciers have been in the same family for generations, passed down to sons and daughters, like Haraldsson, when the journey becomes too arduous for their aging watchmen. It's very likely one of the longest-running examples of citizen climate science in the world. But in an age when precision glacier tracking can be conducted from afar, it remains unclear whether, or for how long, this sort of heirloom monitoring will continue into the future. It's a question even some of the network's own members have been asking.

The Icelandic Families Tracking Climate Change With Measuring Tape

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  • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Sunday June 10, 2018 @03:04PM (#56760880) Homepage

    We even got a new highest waterfall several years back. The highest used to be Glymur, at the bottom of Hvalfjörður (very pretty waterfall, BTW, strongly recommend the hike out to it). But Morsárjökull (a terminal glacier of Vatnajökull, the giant glacier in the southeast) receded up a cliff, leaving a series of waterfalls - Morsárfossar - which are taller than Glymur (but not as pretty).

    • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Sunday June 10, 2018 @03:24PM (#56760952) Homepage

      Pictures: Glymur [google.com], Morsárfossar [google.com].

      Glymur falls down into a slot canyon. Most people go along the top route, along a trail called Leggjabrjótur (literally "Broken Leg" - let's just say that you don't want to fall ;) ). The bottom route is spectacular but not really recommended. You have to wade through a freezing cold river, and there's a serious risk of falling rocks, which would be pretty much instant death given how far they're falling. Lots of dead birds usually floating around down there (they nest in the cliffs around the falls).

      The story behind how it's created also relates to why so many things in the area begin with "Hval-" ("whale"). According to legend, a man met an elf woman, and ended up sleeping with her, with the promise that if a child resulted, he'd raise the child in the world of humans and have it baptized. Nine months later, he was at church, and a child was abandoned at the doorstep, with a note stating that the father of the child will have it baptized. The priest three times asked if anyone knew whose child it was, but he refused to speak up, despite knowing the truth. Enraged, the elf woman cast a curse on him, causing him to go mad and run off into the fjörd where he changed into a monstrous-sized red-headed whale (Rauðhöfði, "Redhead"), where he lived, destroying ships in his fury.

      One day he destroyed a boat containing a sorcerer's son. To get revenge, the sorcerer himself sat out, and when the whale emerged, he enchanged him into going a mindless blind rage. The sorceror sailed to the bottom of the fjörd, pursued by the whale, and ran inland; the enraged whale chased after him, flopping across the surface and digging out what would become the river channel of Botnsá. The sorceror climbed up the nearby mountain (Hvalfell, Whale Mountain), and the whale slowly thrashed its way up the side, gouging out the canyon in which Glymur flows; Glymur means clanging, due to the noise of the whale's thrashing, and the ridge there is Skjálfandahæðir or the Shaking Heights. Exhausted and bashed up, the whale managed only to reach the lake Hvalvatn (Whale Lake) before dying in its centre.

      This is of course a totally true story supported by modern science.

      • When my group hiked the Skaftafell, we took the standard route from Svinajokull through Svartifoss and then down into the vast pebble plain of the Morsá, which we could tell must be a seriously huge river when the icecap is melting. Your new waterfall must be another day's hike up the Morsá from the point where we intersected it.

        The views even on this stretch are incomparable. It should be on everyone's bucket list.

        • by Rei ( 128717 )

          Did you go up Kristínartindar? That's an amazing hike. :)

          It's a shame all of the people who come just to see the (pretty, but IMHO overcrowded) Svartifoss. The really pretty stuff comes into view once you get some altitude :)

          • Did you go up Kristínartindar? That's an amazing hike. :)

            Yes we did, getting great views of Svinajökull on one side and the Morsá on the other. That was also where I saw my first ptarmigan.

        • which we could tell must be a seriously huge river when the icecap is melting.

          You mean during a jÃkullhlaup? When a volcano under an ice cap melts a lot of water, which then melts out the side of the ice cap. Regular jÃkullhlaups often match the flow of the amazon, and large ones match the rest of the freshwater flow on the planet. Briefly.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Gravis Zero ( 934156 )

      Hvalfjörður, Morsárjökull, Vatnajökull, Morsárfossar?

      I think people would take Iceland seriously if you guys stopped naming things after what you find in your Alphabet Soup. ;)

      • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Sunday June 10, 2018 @09:53PM (#56762564) Homepage

        Anyword looks scary if you don't know the roots. Picture how, say, "Yellowstone" would look if you didn't know the words "Yellow" and "stone" - or worse, how English words tend to be structured. Yell-Ows-Tone? Yel-Lows-To-Ne? Ye-Llowston-E? Not knowing how to break something up makes it look alien.

        Hval = Whale
        FjÃrÃur = Fjord
        Mor = Sediment
        Ã = River
        Vatn = Water
        JÃkull = Glacier
        Foss = Falls

        For some of those, you can see the English analogue, can't you? Icelandic is a Germanic language too.

        • by Rei ( 128717 )

          Thank you, cell phone, for mangling my post...

          Or was it Slashdot this time?

        • you are being very polite about English - English is the most bastardised language in the world with rules that are not really rules and pronunciations that are inconsistent. I never realised that until i had a girlfriend who didn't speak English as her first langauge and trying to explain why things like "bough" and "tough" sound completely different
        • For some of those, you can see the English analogue, can't you? Icelandic is a Germanic language too.

          I've been having a binge on Scandi-Noir while also continuing to work on my German, and even *I* can start to hear and understand the German roots in Swedish, Danish and Norwegian.

          I found a "Student Edition" crib/ guide book for Beowulf in a second-hand bookshop last week, and thought three times before putting it back on the shelf. I'm regretting that. Russian practice this afternoon.

  • by 93 Escort Wagon ( 326346 ) on Sunday June 10, 2018 @03:48PM (#56761040)

    ”But in an age when precision glacier tracking can be conducted from afar, it remains unclear whether, or for how long, this sort of heirloom monitoring will continue into the future. It's a question even some of the network's own members have been asking.”

    If nothing else, it’s still a good excuse for an outing.

  • by iggymanz ( 596061 ) on Sunday June 10, 2018 @03:52PM (#56761068)

    "Such findings werenâ(TM)t uncommon during that period: In the 1930s, many of the countryâ(TM)s glaciers had retreated significantly due to an unusually warm climate, but beginning in 1970, they advanced once more until human-caused climate change beat them back again."

    So in the 1930s it was natural, but now oh noes it's the evil mankind making them retreat.

    I smell B.S.

    • by DogDude ( 805747 )
      I smell stupidity.
    • by green1 ( 322787 )

      I was at a glacier recently, and there was a sign talking about how if the glacier kept melting due to global warming, it would vanish and no longer be able to be a source for water for the rivers it fed, and all the problems people downstream would have due to lack of water.

      What they seemed to miss was the idea that if the glacier was NOT melting, there would also be no water downstream....

      • What they seemed to miss was the idea that if the glacier was NOT melting, there would also be no water downstream....


        What you seem to miss is: glaciers are supposed to regrow in winter. So the average size is constant ... a no brainer.

        • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
          If it was "So the average size is constant" why the need to measure it? Why the need to tell the world its getting measured?
          If it "regrow in winter" its not constant.
          • Because due to global warming the glaciers are shrinking, that means the average size over the course of a year gets less from year to year or decade to decade. As you surely know that: what kind of nonsense do you ask here?

          • Because over the last 40 or so years, the average size of glaciers has not been constant.

            At best, instead of being stored, the water runs off quickly in the winter and isn't stored to smooth out the water curve for the rest of the year.

            At worst, climate change has also altered where the rain is falling so enough water no longer falls on the glacier and at some point, the area will become arid after the stored up water is gone.

      • I was at a glacier recently, and there was a sign talking about how if the glacier kept melting due to global warming, it would vanish and no longer be able to be a source for water for the rivers it fed, and all the problems people downstream would have due to lack of water.

        What they seemed to miss was the idea that if the glacier was NOT melting, there would also be no water downstream....

        The size of a glacier is dependent on the balance between the snow it receives each year and the amount of melt over the year. If the glacier is growing it's receiving more snow than is melting. If the glacier is shrinking it's receiving less snow than is melting. If it shrinks to the point of disappearing then melt that keeps rivers going late in the summer/fall will also disappear changing the pattern of water flow often to the detriment of those who depend on the river.

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      Think of the fun of talking about "climate change". With the graphs and people going out to measure the "climate change".
      The results go back decades and show many changes. But now its all about the "climate change"...
    • by q_e_t ( 5104099 )

      So in the 1930s it was natural, but now oh noes it's the evil mankind making them retreat.

      I smell B.S.

      No, in the 1930s it was human too.

    • by dave420 ( 699308 )

      Arguing your incredulity is not a very wise thing. Something can be true even if you don't think it is.

      • I am rationally pointing out a recurring or cyclical phenomenon might not have a new and different cause for the most recent instance. It is unwise for you to assume the article is correct merely because it's something you want to believe.

  • by Waffle Iron ( 339739 ) on Sunday June 10, 2018 @04:12PM (#56761128)

    How can they conclude that these glacier measurements are changing because of rising temperatures, when it's just as likely that it's due to natural periodic fluctuations in the melting point temperature of ice, or else due to natural expansion and contraction of all the rocks forming the island?

    • by green1 ( 322787 )

      How about the fact that the last ice age ended a while ago, so it's somewhat expected that the ice may not remain frozen forever?

      • Not quite - the last glacial period ended a several thousand years ago, a bit before agriculture was invented, but we're still very much in an ice age that has gripped the planet for 2.6 million years (you can tell it's an ice age by the year-round polar ice-caps)

        Leaving the ice age is what has climate scientists worried about global warming - our planet is a bistable system, toggling back and forth between ice age/ icehouse state and a greenhouse/hothouse state. Our species entire existence has been durin

      • How about the fact that the last ice age ended a while ago, so it's somewhat expected that the ice may not remain frozen forever?

        As Immerman pointed out by the definition that geologists use we are still in an ice age and will be until there are no longer substantial ice caps in the polar regions.

        But you're talking about the end of the last glacial period around 10,000 years ago. The fact is that the peak of the Milankovitch cycles that apparently drive the glacial cycles occurred around 8,000 years ago and since about 6,000 years ago there has been a slight cooling trend that would have eventually dropped us into the next glacial p

      • by q_e_t ( 5104099 )

        How about the fact that the last ice age ended a while ago, so it's somewhat expected that the ice may not remain frozen forever?

        The ice age ended a long time ago, and after the initial rise in temperature, the trend for 8000 years has been a decline in temperature. The last 150 years has broken that trend. So, no, what you believe is expected goes against the trend.

  • By using the same method passed down across generations, consistent data is collected.
    Future high tech methods could be employed, but compared to age old methods.

  • But this sort of ground-truthing work has more than one purpose: [...] But in an age when precision glacier tracking can be conducted from afar,

    The entire point of ground truthing a measurement is to check that the remote instruments are actually working correctly.

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