From the offices of the fishing operation founded by his family two generations ago, Adalsteinn Ingólfsson has watched the massive Vatnajökull glacier shrink. Rising temperatures have already winnowed the types of fish he can catch. But the wilting ice mass, Iceland’s largest, is a strange new challenge to business.
“The glacier is melting so much that the land is rising from the sea,” said Ingólfsson, CEO of Skinney-Thinganes. “It’s harder to get our biggest trawlers in and out of the harbor. And if something goes wrong with the weather, the port is closed off completely.”
As temperatures rise across the Arctic nearly faster than any place, Iceland is grappling with the prospect of a future with no ice. Energy producers are upgrading hydroelectric power plants and experimenting with burying carbon dioxide. Proposals are being floated for a new port to capitalize on potential cargo traffic as shipping companies vie to open routes through the melting ice. The fishing industry is slashing fossil fuel use with energy-efficient ships.
Glaciers occupy more than a tenth of this island. Every single one is melting. Where other countries face rising seas, Iceland is confronting a rise in land.
When Europe suffered record-breaking heat in July, Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, clocked its highest temperatures ever. Iceland’s economy is on the cusp of a recession, partly because an important export, the capelin fish, vanished this year in search of colder waters.
“We are taking responsibility to seek practical solutions,” President Gudni Jóhannesson said. “But we can do better.”
The country elected Katrín Jakobsdóttir as prime minister in 2017 on a platform of tackling climate change. Her government is budgeting $55 million over five years for reforestation, conservation and carbon-free transport projects.
Environmental activists say that still isn’t enough to make Iceland, a wealthy nation of just 350,000 people, a model. Despite generating clean geothermal energy and hydropower, major industries also produce a third of Iceland’s carbon dioxide. Tourism, now the engine of growth after a banking collapse in 2008, has added to Iceland’s climate woes.
Ólafur Eggertsson, a farmer, has been anticipating how to tame his new environment. The nearby Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in 2010, raining ash over the farm run by his family since 1906. But even before that, the glacier had been visibly retreating — and glaciers keep volcanoes cool. Scientists predict more eruptions in the coming century.
Eggertsson is working to make the farm carbon neutral by transforming it from a dairy operation to a 160-acre estate with barley and rapeseed fields — crops that couldn’t grow in the cold climate 50 years ago.
“Sometimes what I’m doing feels like a drop in the ocean,” he said. “But humans are contributing to warming. I have no choice but to act.”
While the land here has risen nearly 20 inches since the 1930s, in the last decade alone, it has floated 4 inches above sea level. It is forecast to rise as much as 6 feet in the coming century, the Icelandic Meteorological Office said.
Glacial melting is also expected to oversaturate watersheds in the next century, and scientists predict that they then will dry up, forcing energy producers to adapt. Landsvirkjun, the state-run energy company, is building room for additional water turbines at its dams. It is also building new capacity for wind turbines. “We’re taking into account what will happen in the next 50 to 100 years,” said Óli Grétar Blondal Sveinsson, the executive vice president for research and development. “There will be no glaciers.”