Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Standing on a Glacier

tanding on a glacier is a geographer’s dream. It is rather like stepping through a time portal... not like a door that takes you to another age, but one that allows you to observe the scale of geologic time. The earth is constantly in motion, the landscape churns with activity, but we humans cannot see it, not until you stand on atop a melting ice river, and you know what to look for.

Terminal end of Sólheimajökulsvegur Glacier, Iceland

The terminal end of a glacier is much like I imagined it to be, perhaps not much different that the surface of a comet. There is a lot of grit, in this case, black and grey ground from lava and basalt. Moving ice is eroding the sides of this volcaninc range quite effectively. Streaks and splotches interrupt the deep, dull grey with minerals from broken veins, rusty red, vibrant ocre, and turquoise in color.

An iceberg floats along the far end of a small lake. By the glacier, mounds of till merge with geometric ice forms. Glaciers leave behind an assortment of moraines as they fade, hills of cleaved and scoured boulders, pebbles, sand, silt and clays.  Further up the glacier the ice becomes more apparent.  Most is gritty and white, more typical of summer. A few geometric windows of smooth, aquamarine blue peak out from hidden places, remnant shadows of winter ice.

A guide leading a flock sojourners walk past me. Their climber’s gear speaks of adventure.  My desire to follow is just slightly less compelling than my judgement to heed the signs warning of danger.  Despite an apparent solidity, the ice can shift quickly, brittle crust covers pits and chasms. I can’t help myself, I climb a bit further, so that my feet are perched on what looks like ice rather than the sooty regolith. I watch the hikers, in their spiky crampons, claw their way up through a snaking, black gully and disappear.
Though I have read many scientific articles on climate change and ice dynamics, standing on the glacier teaches me new things. The way great ice melts is surprisingly complex and not fully understood. There may be no issue of greater importance, certainly to people who live along the seas and oceans of this world. The ice is melting. I see that now with greater clarity. There is little room for doubt when the heart and mind insruct as one.

As I gaze upon the sculpured landscape, I can see in my mind's eye slabs of ice on rising landscapes growing thicker and heavier from year to year. Their weight lends power to gravity’s everpresent work on the earth. Below, mounds of corrugated regolith line the valley. They brace the ice firmly into the hill creating formidable barriers. I imagine this struggle between friction and gravity, a crescendo of waves, a cycle of forward and retreat. As I peer into the geologic now, I see other variables are also in play. The temperature warms. It rains. Liquid water finds its way through to the boundary of ground and ice and undermines the force of friction, like the slick blades of an ice skater. The ice river flows, faster still.  Solid converts to liquid. Waters warm. Currents go deeper, melting the ice from below. The glacier gives way, slowly, in stages. It calves into more and larger slices, that melt as they float away. Vast volume of land ice pushes into the oceans. The level rises. It is a self-feeding cycle, a feedback, an epic battle between friction and gravity and it is happening in all the icy places of the earth.

Here, in Sólheimajökulsvegur, Iceland, the river of ice receeds, as is the case in more than 90% of the world’s glaciers. To touch the dying glacier, I had to walk a half mile up the canyon, from a parking area that sat next to the ice thirty years ago. It is a relatively small feature, a thin finger of a much larger sheet of ice nestled between mountains. It will likely melt fully in my lifetime. Nine percent of the planet is still covered by ice, a remnant of the last glacial maximum that occurred roughly about twenty thousand years ago. Many times in the last three million years the seas rise and fall by several hundred feet. Though it generally happens over millenia, there are also rapid pulses, in the scale of decades, when the waters diluge the earth's shores.

I see my son exploring on the edge of the scree and time shifts back this more human scale. It is almost time to go. I press the tips of my fingers against a streak of aquamarine ice shaded from the everpresent rays of the Islandic solstice sun.  I feel the heat of my skin softening the crystal matrix just ever so slightly.
Ice melts in surprising ways, it seems. There are many variables to consider. It is the anthropocene, the age of humanity a new chapter. Standing on a glacier, I see myself and everyone I know as a part of it all.