Why Climate Change Matters in Iceland


The Icelandic landscape has long held a fascination for me–from my first visit to Reykjavik in the 1970s when I was a young boy through the field course I taught there in 2007. It is a place where the land is most often laid bare, and geologic history is written (and volcanically rewritten) on even the most weatherbeaten and exposed summits, in the seasonal rise and fall of glacial rivers, and in the ice-scoured earth left by receding glaciers.

To prepare for Climate Run by learning more about specific effects of climate change in Iceland, I’ve been reading quite a bit–including the groundbreaking article, Climate‐driven vertical acceleration of Icelandic crust measured by continuous GPS geodesy by Kathleen Compton, Richard A Bennett, and Sigrún Hreinsdóttir.

The study, which assesses many years of precise GPS data from 27 different sites in Iceland, is the first one to show that the earth’s surface is rising as a direct result of glacial melting due to climate change.

reboundScientists have been able to measure the rise of the earth’s crust as icecaps and glaciers melt and unburden the ground, effectively allowing it relax. The weight of ice that melts each year in Iceland–an estimated 11 billion tons–is actually causing the earth’s surface to rebound.

In Iceland, not only is the earth’s surface rising–in what is often called post-glacial rebound or uplift–but in some places it is rising at a rate of more than one inch each year.

As Compton et al. write in the conclusion to their study, this movement has the potential to increase the frequency and the severity of volcanic activity in the region and to affect how we measure the movement of tectonic plates. Earlier today, Compton shared with me in an email that

One of the things that’s cool about this research is that it shows that all Earth processes are connected. Sometimes I think we get stuck thinking that climate change is an atmosphere phenomenon. But we know that many Earth processes are affected. The oceans are getting warmer and more acidic. Ice is melting, and a warmer world will physically change the shape of our planet.

As I learn more about the complexities of global climate systems, it becomes ever more clear that everythingdown to the very ground we stand uponis so thoroughly entangled with everything we do in the world, there’s no way we can think of ourselves and our actions as anything but an inherent and consequential part of this one world we share.

2 thoughts on “Why Climate Change Matters in Iceland

  1. pavel says:

    It’s heart rending to think of, for sure. At the same time, though, I like to think of the positives that can emerge from a greater understanding of just how complex and interconnected ecological systems are with our behavior. I am coming to believe more and more that rather than “solutions” to a “problem,” we need to embrace the messiness of our relationship and figure out a resilient way forward.


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