As the world experiences rising sea levels, Iceland’s waters fall – and float to the other side of the planet

Illustrated map of Iceland showing Höfns southeastern coastal location

Bcalling the catch home is becoming an increasingly treacherous task in this Icelandic fishing village. As much of the world worries that sea levels are rising and engulfing land, society here has the opposite problem – sea levels are falling.

Sea lagoons surrounding the village of Höfn – pronounced hup, as if you have hiccups – become shallower and harder to navigate. The tide comes in and out with less force than usual, causing the canal through which fishing boats pass to slowly fill up with sediment.

“The large ships, when they come fully loaded with capelin or herring, the keels of the ships will be quite close to the bottom. So there is an increased risk that they hit the bottom, which can lead to leaks in the hull, financial loss or a shipwreck, ”says Þorvarður Árnason, director of the University of Iceland’s research center in Höfn.

“The about 60 men who work on the ships, they are all local. The thought of a shipwreck is scary.”

Þorvarður Árnason, director of the University of Iceland’s research center in Höfn

A misty landscape with mountains in the distance and boats moored next to wooden houses
A wall of glaciers with mountains covered with moss in the background and a lake in the foreground.

Þorvarður Árnason looks out over the Hoffellsjökull glacier lagoon. The boats are moored in Höfn, Iceland. The front of the Sólheimajökull glacier, on the south coast of Iceland. Temujin Doran / CNN

“The about 60 men who work on the ships, they are all local,” Árnason said. “The thought of a shipwreck is frightening.”

Höfn is located in the shadow of Iceland’s largest ice sheet, Vatnajökull. For centuries, the mighty weight of Vatnajökull has compressed the earth beneath it. But global warming is causing these ice caps and glaciers to melt rapidly, now faster than at any time in the last 200 years. As they disappear, the earth literally rises.

When glaciers melt, the water that once formed them flows into the ocean.

This has two major consequences.

For centuries, glaciers have pushed the earth beneath them.

When the glaciers begin to melt, they become lighter and relieve some of the pressure on the ground below, causing the earth to bounce back.

Large glaciers also have a gravitational effect on the ocean and draw water towards them.

As they melt and lose mass, this pull becomes weaker and the water flows away, eventually to the other side of the earth.

Where Iceland got its name from is no mystery – about a tenth of the country is covered by glaciers. But the Arctic is experiencing the most dramatic temperature rise in the world, and as a result, Iceland now loses about 10 billion tons of ice each year, according to NASA. At this rate, Iceland could be ice-free in 2200.

GPS measurements show that the soil in Höfn has increased by as much as 1.7 centimeters per year. The closer the land is to the melting glacier, the faster the rise rises – about 20 minutes of driving north, the earth rises by as much as 3.8 centimeters each year.

In Höfn, Árnason has followed the development with concern. The village is linked to the fishing industry and most families depend on it. If the boats can not get in, it will almost certainly mean economic ruin.

But there is another reason why sea levels around Iceland are falling: Gravity.

Large chunks of sea ice float in a lagoon.
Boats dock at a quiet lake next to a pier.

Water drips down from melting ice in Iceland. The sea ice floats in the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. Ships are berthed in a harbor in Höfn. Temujin Doran / CNN

The rapid melting of glaciers and the Greenland ice sheet is causing sea levels to rise in most of the world, simply by adding huge amounts of water to the sea.

But this increase has not been uniform. Counterintuitively, Greenland and territories around where melting occurs most are actually experiencing a drop in sea level, and not just because of this phenomenon with increasing ground.

Everything that has mass has its own gravity. The bigger it is, the more gravity it has.

“The ice cap is so heavy that it pulls the ocean towards it due to gravity. But if the ice sheet melts away, this attraction begins to weaken and the water moves away,” says Thomas Frederikse, postdoc at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“The further away you are from the ice sheet, the more water you get.”

NASA researchers estimate that if the average global sea level rises by 1 meter – which would be partly due to melting ice in Greenland – it would actually fall by 20 centimeters around Iceland. This is because it is so close to Greenland, where this change in gravity takes place.

And although melting on Iceland itself will play a role in global sea level rise, it holds a small amount of water compared to the world’s largest ice caps.

If all the glaciers in Iceland were to melt, it would increase the global average sea level by 1 centimeter. On the other hand, Greenland and Antarctica have enough ice to lead to catastrophic impacts – if the whole of Greenland were to melt, it would add 7.5 meters to global sea levels. Antarctica has enough ice on the continent to raise sea levels by almost 60 meters if it all melted.

See how experts measure glacier melting in Iceland Temujin Doran, CNN

Ice melting accounts for about two-thirds of the world’s sea level rise. But climate change is affecting our garden in yet another way.

As humans emit more greenhouse gases – primarily by burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas for energy – sea temperatures also rise and the extra heat causes the ocean to expand.

As the water gets warmer, its molecules move faster and disperse more, increasing its volume. Researchers estimate that about a third of global sea level rise can be attributed to this expansion.

The latest scientific evidence shows that even though the world stopped burning fossil fuels today, sea level rise is still locked until 2050. But future emissions will have huge consequences after 2050.

If the world warms by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, scientists warn that the average global sea level rise could reach 70 centimeters by the end of the century, threatening the viability of human life in some places. The temperature rise is already at 1.2C.

Iceland’s effect on global sea level

Source: Frederikse, T., Jevrejeva, S., Riva, REM, & Dangendorf, S. Journal of Climate

When glaciers melt in Iceland, the impact on global sea levels is not uniform.

The meltdown contributes more to an average sea level rise halfway around the world – as in the Marshall Islands – than in Iceland’s own waters.

Map of the Marshall Islands

ONEs fishermen in Höfn are struggling with the consequences of shallow seas, people in the Marshall Islands have seen the sea around them rise rapidly.

The Marshalles consist of five islands and 29 low-lying, annular atolls. As the ice melts on the other side of the globe in places like Greenland and Iceland, the resulting sea level rise has forced people here to change their lifestyles and think about their future in a more existential way.

“There are no mountains, there are seas on both sides of you, and the land is really thin and small,” said Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner, a writer and climate envoy for the Marshall Islands Ministry of the Environment.

“The coastline is getting shorter and shorter, it is a real threat to the physical existence of our country.”

Above: An aerial photo of Ejit Island in the Marshall Islands’ Majuro Atoll. Bottom left: Workers build a sea wall in Majuro, Marshall Islands, in April 2019. Bottom right: Boys clean fish along the shoreline of Ebeye Island in Marshall Islands’ Kwajalein Atoll in July 2019. Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR / Redux, Lorenzo Moscia / Archivolantino / Redux

The average height above sea level at Marshalls is only 2 meters. Here, every inch means something.

Worldwide, the average sea level has risen by more than 20 centimeters since the beginning of the 20th century and has risen in the last three decades. Since 1993, the level has increased by 2.8 to 3.6 millimeters on average. At the same time, the Marshalls experienced about double, with an increase of 7 millimeters, according to an Australian government climate report.

Sea level rises here are causing floods, which are becoming more frequent. Waves regularly wash over the protective barriers that line the coast.

The streets are flooded more often. Drinking water becomes contaminated. The livelihood is destroyed. Jetn̄il-Kijiner says that the threat of a flood always threatens people’s minds.

It is a constant reminder of the existential threat that this nation faces from climate change and that they need new tools to adapt quickly.

A joint study between the Marshallese government and the World Bank outlined the country’s opportunities, from building sea walls to reclaiming land and erecting buildings. The more intense reactions include traveling entire islands and, as a last resort, migrating.

“We have to be prepared. We just have to be prepared that we might have to back up, people have to go home and leave jobs halfway so they can take care of their houses and their gardens or something like that because they were flooded. , says Jetnil-Kijiner.

Houses protected by a sea wall when waves crash into it in the foreground.
Waves crash into a sea wall in Majuro in April 2019. (Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR / Redux)

“It’s completely unfair. We should not have to do that. It’s extreme measures that will cost us billions of dollars, all because of something we had not contributed anything to.”

Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner, Climate Envoy for the Marshall Islands Ministry of the Environment

Her family, like most of those living on the islands, built a concrete wall to protect their homes from the constant floods. The barrier they used to have, made of tin panels, was no longer enough.

The new wall holds up – so far.

“But who knows how long it will work? The impacts will keep coming because we do not scale down [global] emissions as fast as we should, ”she said. “Here it has become so serious that we are now exploring really extreme possibilities for adaptation, like raising our islands, even having to build brand new islands.”

According to the joint study, 40% of the buildings in the capital Majuro will be threatened if the sea level rises by 1 meter and 96% of the city is at risk of frequent floods.

“It’s completely unfair. We should not have to do that,” Jetn̄il-Kijiner said.

“These are extreme initiatives that will cost us billions of dollars, all because of something we had contributed nothing to.”

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