Now or Never: The Paradox of Flying to Iceland to See a Melting Glacier10 min read

On a hot day in mid-August I settled on my bed, trying to cool down next to a weak electrical fan. In less than a month, my gap year would officially start and I was surfing the internet for future travel opportunities. I found an international learning and sharing camp in Reykjavik. They were going to do a photo-marathon at the camp to raise environmental awareness among participants. They also planned to go and visit a geothermal power plant and discuss topics on sustainability and climate change. I was immediately sold.

The paradox

The only thing I felt conflicted about was flying. I searched online and found a ferry that sailed between Denmark, the Faeroe Islands and the east coast of Iceland. This, however, wasn’t a realistic option for me at the time. I would only be in Iceland for ten days, I didn’t have a driver’s licence, and public transport in Iceland is virtually non-existent. From what I read, I understood that buses aren’t dependable (and cost hundreds of euros). On top of the severe impracticality, the money that the ferry and buses would cost me was about four times the price of the plane tickets. Moreover, I reasoned that I originally planned to travel to Asia, which would have required more than two three-hour flights.

Even though I had argued my way out of the flying problem, so to say, I couldn’t shake the feelings of irony and paradox about the fact that I was about to take a plane to participate in a camp all about environmental awareness. Yet, I also didn’t want to deny myself the opportunity, as I had done many times before.

Boarding the plane on my own was an experience I will never forget. I was emotional and scared about leaving my safe home to explore an unknown place. The spectacular view of the sunrise above the fluffy clouds made me even more sentimental. I realized that this trip was something special, that it was a privilege. Most likely I wasn’t going to be doing this anytime soon again, so I better be present to experience the journey.

Wing of an airplane with clouds underneath, an orange sunrise and blue sky.
My flight to Keflavík international airport early in the morning

The Sólheimajökull Glacier

And so it began. Soon, I arrived at the camp. The camp provided us with the opportunity to join excursions out of Reykjavik. One of these excursions was a visit to the Sólheimajökull glacier. Since it’s relatively close to Reykjavik and within an accessible area, this glacier has become a go-to tourist destination.

Our driver, a volunteer at the organisation, told us that the glacier sits on top of a volcano. That’s why the ice has encapsulated layers of ash over the years. Just like the rings of a tree, a glacier can have centuries of history engraved into its core. But due to global warming, we lose five years of Iceland’s history every year. With this poetic but sad piece of information, we stepped out of the minivans and trotted up the paths paved in the volcanic rock.

Just like the rings of a tree, a glacier can have centuries of history engraved into its core. But due to global warming, we lose five years of Iceland’s history every year.

Picture taken from a minivan showing the steer wheel on the left, a car on the  road and a landscape with hills.
The view from my spot of the minivan, in the middle front seat while driving up to the glacier

A wall of ice

The glacier itself was like a wall of ice. I had never seen a glacier before and seeing the amount of ice in September was a strange sensation to someone born and raised in the Netherlands. I’ve only ever seen snow and ice in midwinter.

The lagoon of water in front of the ice made me sad, as I knew this was the result of melting caused by climate change. Every year, the lagoon grows the length of an Olympic swimming pool. I walked up to the glacier and saw tiny streams of water running into the lake. When I got closer, I clearly heard dripping water. I could hear the ice melting, and occasionally a plonk when pieces would fall down and drop in the water.

I realised that this wasn’t quite proof of global warming. Glaciers have always melted in the summer and autumn seasons. But the big problem is that the ice has stopped growing back during winter. This gave my observation a different nuance. The melting that’s happening right now could still be described as ‘normal’, but will nevertheless be fatal for the glacier.

Seeing it before it disappears

The tourists’ behaviour seems to confirm the fleetingness of glaciers and other natural wonders. The most popular activity at the glacier (and at other tourist sites) is, of course, taking photos. And the best photos are those with the tourists themselves in it. A piece of evidence that you were there, proof that you saw the glacier while you still could. You made it in time.

And don’t get me wrong, I took those pictures too. I understand the fun and aesthetic appeal of taking photos. However, people are aware that the glacier they use as a background is rapidly disappearing. This knowledge makes the photo even more important.

In a conversation with other participants, a lot of questions came up. Do we as humans appreciate these things too late? Do we even really appreciate them at all? Or do we just want to post a pretty picture on social media?

A girl standing on a hill on the left side of the picture with her back to the camera looking out over a glacier and mountain top.
An aesthetic ‘Instagram’ picture of me in front of the glacier at a popular photo spot

Moreover, this feeling is not only an interesting paradox. A multitude of websites created for tourists describe the melting of the Icelandic glaciers as a consequence of global warming. Most of the articles conclude that tourists should therefore visit the majestic glaciers “while they still can” or “while the ice-cap is still with us”.

The consequences of visiting

This sense of urgency of wanting to see Iceland’s extraordinary nature before it’s gone leaves us with a paradox. Visiting Iceland will inherently contribute to the climate crisis. As I mentioned before, it’s complicated to reach Iceland without flying in. So almost all tourist fly and therefore add a huge amount of green house gasses to our atmosphere, which obviously aggravates global warming. This also means that my choice to travel to Iceland to see the dying glaciers will inevitably impact how many more people get to see them.

The tourism sector might be important to the Icelandic economy, but tourism accounts for about 8% of global greenhouse emissions. I calculated that the emissions from my flights for this trip have been between 522 kg and 635 kg of CO2. Yet, a flight from New York to Iceland would have been about a 1000 kg of CO2 emissions. And these emissions are only the flights, not even driving around Iceland in a car or minivan, which was also part of the trip.

This means that my choice to travel to Iceland to see the dying glaciers will inevitably impact how many more people get to see them.

Loss and Grief

The natural wonders in Iceland are coated in a layer of loss and grief for the nature we are losing. In 2014 the Okjökull glacier in the western part of the country lost its status as a glacier. Scientists said it would die very soon. This summer, locals held a memorial service to grieve the lost glacier. They also revealed a plaque that was meant to raise awareness for the consequences of global warning.

Picture of a sign saying "A letter to the future: Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This momentum is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it. Ágüst 2019, 415ppm CO2.
The plaque at the Okjökull glacier

Greta Thunberg stated in her speech in New York that “change is coming, whether you like it or not”. Climate change is already happening and it’s very visible and tangible in Iceland. The Icelandic glaciers clarify that there is no question in stopping climate change anymore. It’s important to curb the warming as quickly and as much as possible.

So climate change is an ethical question. Do we or do we not fly to Iceland to witness a glacier before it is gone? This is an uncomfortable truth. One I was aware of when I enrolled in the camp, stepped on the plane, and stood next to the glacier’s lagoon. This truth became even more evident in a discussion we had during a meal. It was a discussion about compensating flight emissions. I decided not to shy away from the uncomfortable truth that envelops my trip to Iceland, but to treat is as a way to think about these questions.

A polluted nature

The consequences of a flight aren’t directly visible at every tourist destination. Flights, after all, aren’t the only factor that’s causing melting glaciers. The impact of tourism is acutely visible when it comes to pollution. We travel to our destinations to see a certain sight (usually something we spotted on Instagram), but we cannot avoid seeing the bad things we have done to pristine nature. A melting glacier, plastic bags washing ashore on a black beach, or a geyser that is inactive because of pollution.

A video made by my fellow participant and friend Niharika, which shows plastic pollution at a tourist destionation in nature

These unintended human interventions transform a natural landscape into a nature-culture hybrid. The landscape is not just natural anymore, human culture has infiltrated or is even dominant.  A lot of landscapes, I daresay almost all, are a nature-culture hybrid. These can be beautiful, think of the countryside with its farms and agricultural fields. But for sites that promoted as pristine, wild nature, we experience these interventions as something uncomfortable. Humans were never supposed to melt a glacier or pollute an impressive cave with a waterfall.  

Sustainability in Iceland

Iceland has been using its hydro and geothermal activity to generate energy for the last century. Because of this, most Icelandic households use 100% renewable energy. Sustainability is high on the political agenda in Iceland and that was visible when we walked in the outskirts of Reykjavik the first day. We counted the electrical vehicles we saw and the houses with green roofs. Eating vegan was also no problem in Reykjavik, which is testimony to both a growing tourism sector and a growing popularity of plant-rich meals.

The camp itself aimed to increase environmental awareness and succeeded. We visited the recycling centre and landfill that processes most of the waste produced in Iceland and were told to wash and dry every container before we put it in the recycling bin. We had a presentation and discussion about waste management in the countries we came from.

The last day

In the end, I had the best time in Iceland. Not only did I fall in love with the landscape, the architecture, and the people I met. I will also remember the interesting conversations, laughing so hard my stomach hurt, and shared meals just as much as the waterfalls, troll-like rock landscapes, and geysers.

One of the friends I made during this camp told me she felt inspired. It was the last day and we were waiting at the bus station. She lives in Poland and told me recycling was difficult. There aren’t a lot of bins to separate and nobody she knew actually made the effort. “But”, she said “I’ve been inspired, I will start separating my waste now. Hopefully my flatmates will join me”.

And I understood that even though we all flew to Iceland, it was not in vain.

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