In our latest instalment of the series we continue to follow Lucia Griggi on her voyage, touching on the critical issue of melting glaciers. As important to the climate as they are spectacular to look at, these natural superstructures are rapidly disappearing, leaving us to contemplate the consequences.
“Even when you’re there, in front of one, it’s hard to get a perspective on the sheer size of it.”
Journeying through the North East Passage you get to see a lot of white, Lucia explains, “It’s basically just a blanket of snow and ice. Everywhere. And it’s not even properly frozen, it’s just squares of whiteness. As far as your eye can see it’s just patterns of ice, all broken up with the pack ice.”
But not all ice is created equal. In contrast to the monotonous monochrome landscape, the experience of seeing a glacier first hand can be transformative. As the crew continued to traverse the North East Passage, following the icebreaker when necessary, the glacier on the islands of Franz Josef Land offered just such an experience.
“When you go to these glaciers you get this feeling…” Lucia pauses briefly, trying to remember the experience, “it can drop 10 degrees when you start approaching from the ocean. When you come up to that glacier wall on the ribs – obviously keeping a distance because of the risk of calving – the temperature drop is just fascinating. You can literally feel it as you come up to the face.”
Those temperature differences are important. Glaciers and ice caps in the polar regions play a vital role in protecting our planet from global warming for a host of reasons. They act as shields, reflect the heat from sunlight back into space – in contrast to seawater which absorbs it. This means that the faster they melt, the more seawater there is, the more the process of warming and melting is sped up. They also hold a huge quantity of trapped carbon dioxide so as they melt, more and more of this greenhouse gas is released and added to the atmosphere.
Gear for polar adventures...
Recently, melting glaciers have hit the headlines with regards to how they are impacting rising temperatures and sea levels. In August of 2019, Iceland held a “funeral” for the Okjokull glacier, the first on the island to officially loose its status as a glacier. A plaque to commemorate the loss reads, “In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening, and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”
It’s not just Iceland which is under threat. There are currently over 198,000 glaciers on our planet, according to the Randolph Glacier Inventory (RGI). Some might argue that number, saying that if you include smaller glaciers and ice caps the figure is actually closer to 4000,000. However, one thing that nearly everyone can agree on is that their future is looking increasingly bleak.
As with many of the challenges facing the arctic, there is an element of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. But perhaps part of the problem is that we simply don’t believe that these frozen behemoths could possibly be affected by anything that we do?
“Even when you’re there, in front of it, it’s hard to get a perspective on the sheer size of it,” Lucia remarks, flicking through the library of images and footage on her computer. “I’m trying to think, from all the different views I’ve had – whether it’s from the drone, whether it’s from the helicopter landing up on the glacier, or being down below and looking up at a 600 foot wall – you can never really understand the perspective and the sheer size, you always underestimate it. It’s otherworldly, almost unfathomable.”
Unfortunately, despite their gargantuan size, humans are indeed having an effect. If nothing is done about rising global temperatures soon, it’s expected that over the next decade many of the world’s glaciers will shrink to such a degree that they will lose their status, like Okjokull. Some may even disappear altogether. This mass melting is one of the main sources of rising sea levels and it’s estimated that if all the world’s glaciers were to melt, the combined impact on sea levels would be a rise of over 4 meters. That may not sound like a lot but the results could be catastrophic; a potential loss of over 1.79 million square kilometres and the forced relocation of around 187 million people.
For Lucia it’s a fact that does not need to be backed up with facts and figures. She’s spent years documenting glaciers all over the world and has gotten to know their changing faces well. “I’ve seen a lot of glaciers and I don’t think there’s been one that has ever felt similar, they’ve all got different characters. I feel there’s something really special about them, and we’re losing all of them.”
“That’s something about coming back to these wildernesses regularly,” She shows me contrasting images of when she visited the glacier and one from years before, taken by a different photographer. “I come back to the same places and I can see that they have retreated significantly. You can just see it. There are obviously more scientific methods of measuring the ice loss, but for me you don’t need that. You can visually see it. It’s that stark.”
Arctic Glacier Exploration...