The entrance to the “centre of the earth” may disappear within decades

The glaciers that have given Iceland its name will be gone within two centuries and all but the biggest one by the end of this century, according to scientists.

Iceland, glacier, Snæfellsjökul
Snæfellsjökul © Anjali Kiggal, Creative Commons

In one of the first and most famous science fiction novels of all time, Jules Verne´s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the voyage to the planet´s mysterious inner world starts in a volcano under a glacier in Iceland.

Scientist now predict that very little will be left of the glacier Snæfellsjökull by 2050, and it will disappear entirely before the end of this century.

Original Illustration from Journey to the center of the earth by Edouard Riou
Original Illustration from Journey to the center of the earth by Edouard Riou.

In Jules Verne´s 160 year-old novel, the German scientist Otto Lidenbrock, his nephew Axel, and Hans, their Icelandic guide, enter tunnels that lead to the earth´s centre in this 7-800,000 year old glacier/volcano.

Since the third century A.D. or for 1750 years, volcanic activity has not melted the snow cap, but now global warming is.

Already shrunk by 50%

“It will disappear by the end of the century” confirms Ms. Guðfinna Th. Aðalgeirsdóttir glaciologist and an active participant in IPCC, the main UN scientific body on climate change.  Indeed, it will mostly have disappeared within decades or by mid-century.

Snaefellsjökull has already shrunk by more than half since the end of the 19th century. It currently covers 10 square kilometers and is on average 30 meters thick.

Iceland, glacier, Snæfellsjökull
Snæfellsjökull © Margrét Adamsdóttir, Creative Commons

“There is no doubt that climate change caused by human activity is increasing global temperature, which causes the melting of glaciers,” Aðalgeirsdóttir explains.

“Global temperature has already increased by 1.1 degrees. If the Paris Agreement holds, the heating will be within 2 degrees, and hopefully within 1.5 compared to pre-industrial times. However, right now it looks like we will see an increase of 2.8 degrees this century.”

Glaciers cover about 10% of Iceland, an area of roughly 11,000 km2.

Smaller glaciers in more danger

Smaller glaciers worldwide are more vulnerable to rising temperatures than the bigger ones, and indeed Iceland´s smallest glacier – with an appropriately short name, “Ok” –  has already disappeared. However, even Europe´s biggest glacier, Vatnajökull, will eventually disappear.

“If the Paris Agreement holds there will remain 30-60% of Vatnajökull in 2300. If the temperature, however, will rise by 4 degrees it will be 0-30%,” Aðalgeirsdóttir says.  All smaller Icelandic glaciers will have disappeared, according to this model, within two centuries.

The melting of all Icelandic glaciers would contribute to about 9 mm of potential global sea level rises due to global warming.

 Fast melting after 1994

As a matter of fact, it comes as no surprise to scientists that the Icelandic glaciers are shrinking. Indeed, if there is a surprise, it is that they are not retreating faster.

Snæfellsjökull, glacier, Iceland
Snæfellsjökull © JuTa, Creative Commons

The temperature in Iceland, Europe´s biggest island, is closely connected with the sea temperature, and therefore rising temperatures in the North-West Atlantic have contributed to the melting of the Icelandic glaciers.

“After 1994 the ocean around Iceland warmed considerably and all of the glaciers started to retreat quite rapidly. Then in 2011 something unexpected happened,” the glaciologist explains.

The mysterious “Blue Blob”

The melting of the glaciers slowed down. It coincided with the development of an area of regional cooling in the North Atlantic Ocean to the south of Greenland, called the Blue Blob. Cooling in the Blue Blob has been mitigating atmospheric warming in Iceland since 2011, reducing glacier melt by as much as half.

Big Blob, NASA
The Big Blob © NASA

The Blue Blob is one of the few places on the planet which is not warming. In addition, the Arctic has been warming almost four times faster than anywhere else on earth.

It is still somewhat of a mystery how the Blue Blob came to be and why it so much colder than the surrounding waters.

However, this reprieve will not last long.

“The North Atlantic cooling is projected to persist until the mid-2050s, further slowing down mass loss of Icelandic glaciers,” Aðalgeirsdóttir explains. “It resumes thereafter as the regional cooling in the Blue Blob weakens.”

The bright flood of the solar rays

The Snæfellsjökull-glacier is renowned for its beauty and attracts tens of thousands of tourists every year.

Snæfellsjökull - the glacier seen from the capital, Reykjavik.
The glacier seen from the capital, Reykjavik. © John Martin PERRY, Creative Commons

“I was thus steeped in the marvellous ecstasy which all high summits develop in the mind; and now without giddiness, for I was beginning to be accustomed to these sublime aspects of nature. My dazzled eyes were bathed in the bright flood of the solar rays,” the narrator of Jules Verne´s novel described his ascendancy of Snæfellsjökull.

The reflection of the “bright flood of the solar rays” of the 1,446 meter high snow cap can, indeed, easily be admired from across the ocean in Iceland´s capital Reykjavik some 120 kilometers away.

However, if global warming is not stopped, this will be history within a few decades.

Latest news