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Iceland's glaciers are collapsing quickly. It could be catastrophic for the Massachusetts coastline

Iceland's melting glaciers could give us a glimpse at Massachusetts's future
Iceland's melting glaciers could give us a glimpse at Massachusetts's future 04:27

BOSTON - Iceland is a country known for its dramatic views of stunning waterfalls, volatile volcanoes and hundreds of glaciers. Iceland is also at a serious risk from climate change. Glaciers are collapsing at an alarming rate.

While that may seem to some as a problem that's 2,500 miles away, it's having a direct impact on Massachusetts coastlines.

There may be no sight more synonymous with Iceland than the shining ice of its many glaciers. Each glacier is like a time capsule that tells a climate story from thousands of years ago.

Now, more importantly, these glaciers give a glimpse into our future.

"We see crevasses opening up, we see the ice melting down," said Bart Vaganee, a guide for Icelandic Mountain Guides. WBZ-TV talked to him on Sólheimajökull, one of Iceland's most popular glaciers on the south coast.

Sólheimajökull is one of Iceland's most popular glaciers. Courtesy

Glaciers in danger   

The reality for glaciers like Sólheimajökull is discouraging. According to Vaganee, the latest predictions for Sólheimajökull reduce the total size by eight kilometers if the climate continues warming to 2.7 degrees Celsius. That's about half of the glacier's total mass.

Solheimajokull is melting quickly. CBS Boston

Sólheimajökull has lost two kilometers of ice in the last 130 years. Twenty-five percent of that loss happened in the last 15 years. The glacier is now melting at a rate of over 40 meters per year.

Glaciers melting worldwide

These changes in Iceland are also occurring elsewhere in Europe and around the world, according to Thomas Johannesson, a geophysicist at the Icelandic Meteorological Office. The IMO is the equivalent of our National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

"In the long run, glaciers in Iceland are not going to survive this warmer climate," Johannesson said. "If all our glaciers were to melt, it would raise sea level by about a centimeter."

One centimeter doesn't sound like much. It's less than a half inch - just a drop in the bucket of overall ocean. But if all the Icelandic glaciers were to melt, that means all the glaciers from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets would melt, too.

If those two ice sheets melt, sea levels would rise another 25-30 feet. That would be catastrophic to our coastlines.

Melting glaciers could be catastrophic for the coast. CBS Boston

"It's going to be a very different future without the glaciers," said Guðfinna Aðalgeirsdóttir, a professor of glaciology and researcher at the University of Iceland.  

Is it too late to save glaciers?

When asked if we've reached the point where we have to focus on adaptation over mitigation, Aðalgeirsdóttir responded, "That's a very good question. I can't really answer that. All I can tell is that the glaciers are melting and that the sea level is rising. But I think that it's never going to be too late."

Perhaps not too late for us, but too late for some Icelandic glaciers.

In 2019, a team from Rice University held a symbolic funeral for the now-extinct glacier Ok, hoping to draw attention to these melting glaciers.

After the ceremony, a plaque was placed in the now ice-less ground. Written in Icelandic and English was a letter to the future:

"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," the plaque reads.

A plaque for the now-extinct glacier CBS Boston

Back on Sólheimajökull, when asked if there is a future of Iceland that's ice-free. Vaganee answered, "it really depends. We see a lot of glaciers are going to melt. It really depends on how much we can actually do to keep the climate warming down."

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