Melting History
Melting History
Glacial lagoon Fjallsárlón
Melting History
Glacial lagoon Fjallsárlón

The glacial lake is changing in the face of an unstoppable process that is robbing us of history

The Fjallsárlón glacial lagoon in southeast Iceland is living proof that the Vatnajökull glacier is disappearing. The slow movement in the reservoir of melted ice and the a rich array of sounds bear witness to the consequences of climate change in a country where glaciers have been an integral part of life and a symbol of the unrivalled power of nature.

Vatnajökull is Europe’s largest glacier, which took over 4000 years to form. Its ice is imprinted with a long history of natural processes, volcanic life and human activity. It is waning rapidly due to rising global temperatures. It may suffer a similar fate to the many other glaciers that disappeared forever from the surface of Iceland over the last few decades.

The melting of the glaciers is not only causing loss of information about millennia of our history stored in the ice like on a hard drive and a rise in sea levels that has so far seemed so slow and distant. It is also turning Iceland into a kind of a laboratory for testing the problems that the future will bring, reflecting on the interconnectedness of the elements of nature and human infrastructures. 

Glaciers that cover at least a tenth of the island’s surface form the largest water reservoir in Iceland. Therefore, their rapid melting threatens the future availability of water needed by the local energy industry. Some of Iceland’s largest hydroelectric power plants depend on glacier-fed rivers. As the glaciers melt, more water flows into hydropower plants. In the second half of this century, however, the volume of water may start to decrease and the plants too will hit the bottom.

Icelanders like to call their island “the land of fire and ice” in homage to the glaciers and volcanoes that have shaped its otherworldly landscape. The Fjallsárlón lagoon is a warning that Iceland might be reduced to the first of these attributes – a land of fire. This is not a hyperbole about the risk of droughts. When glaciers melt, the pressure they exerted on the volcanic systems gets released. As a result, the activity of the island's volcanoes increases, which entails further danger. The eruption of volcanoes with glacial ice sheets can cause widespread melting of the ice, leading to unprecedented floods.

Sound archive

Fjallsárlón: Library of thousands of years melting away

Along with the nearby even larger Jökulsárlón lagoon, the Fjallsárlón lagoon, formed by a melting glacier, is one of the main tourist attractions in the southern part of Iceland. It lies near the so-called Ring Road, the main road that winds around the whole island. Tourists can use a car park and a small restaurant. For his recording and listening sessions, Magnús chose a different route to the lagoon, a place with a view of the glacial outwash, without tourists taking selfies with icebergs and motorboats offering a scenic ride between the chunks of floating ice. A hydrophone submerged in the lagoon on a fishing rod recorded a microcosm of sounds of the melting ice. The monumentality of the place and the processes that take place there are captured in the recording with the sounds of ice blocks breaking off, slumping under their own weight into the water, rising back to the surface and starting to slowly drift away. The recorded palette of sounds suggests that nature has a personality and that in areas like this one, a prominent part of its identity gets lost.

Field notes