Against a Backdrop of Melting Ice, Two Arctic Adventurers Share Perspectives

By Lucie McNeil

REYKJAVIK, Iceland–  This week at the historic first `Arctic Circle` gathering in Reykjavik, National Geographic Pristine Seas Expeditions and Expedition Leader Enric Sala are talking about their work in Franz Josef Land surrounding pristine baselines.

With 140 countries represented to talk `Arctic House Rules’, a phrase coined by conference host and Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimmson, I put my crampons on to get some perspective from a local woman not attending the big discussion on one of the hottest subjects in town: ice melt.

Gunilla and I in the Moraine of the retreating Solheimajokull Glacier. Photo by Linda Liu.

Gunilla Lindh arrived in Iceland this April to begin a seismic career change from financial consultant to outdoor adventure guide with Reykjavik-headquartered Arctic Adventures.

A Swedish force-of-nature (Gunilla means Battle Maiden) we first became friends learning ice skills during our ‘northern’ holidays. Most memorable of these adventures was one as snowmobile guides in ScoresbySund, East Greenland. We then decided to try and work on more outdoor-experiential education in ice adventures together. My current sabbatical from NatGeo’s incredible Explorers’ team in Washington, D.C. is just one of the ice-inspired plots during an epic Easter Sunday ice hill hike above Constable Point’s frozen sastrugi that came to be. Ice talks.

Photo by Lucie McNeil.
Photo by Lucie McNeil.

After a swift climb yesterday on Solheimajokull’s ash and ice walls, just two hours drive from Reykjavik, we cramponed carefully back through this most stunning terrain, arriving back at a pooling valley bottom floor below for another chat:


Lucie: My summer’s been largely boat-bound on the National Geographic-Russian Arctic National Park expedition to Franz Josef Land (Read more: First Look at Post-expedition Discoverieswith Enric Sala.  Enric was talking to Heads of Arctic Governments at the conference yesterday about what it looks like up there, as one ‘hot spot’ and we’re going to be talking about it more in Russia too, with a film and NatGeo Magazine piece by David Quammen and Cory Richards coming out soon. And even that far up (80.0° – 81.9° north) we reported back that there’s now very, very little, to no summer sea ice. 

While our work there was about putting up pristine baselines for a very remote area, there are no resident communities up there, no business; our engagement on ice will be in conversations back in Moscow and elsewhere; but here, you are working right in the heart of people, tourism and communities that rely on the weather; what are you seeing up close, how do you talk about what’s happening to people coming to visit some of the most talked about ‘pristine’ places in the world? 

Gunilla:  Well, everyone talks about this at a high level – and Solheimajokull glacier – my local ‘ice’ and which I’ve been walking with clients for the last five months, nearly every day – has been well and truly captured `raw` by James Balog (See more from Nat Geo photographer James Balog) and plenty of other photographers.  But working in the walls, showing it to mainly young people for the first time, is something else…

Lucie: Why do you ‘love’ this glacier? How does it speak to you?

A huge crevasse. Photo by Lucie McNeil.
Photo by Lucie McNeil.

Gunilla : It blows me away; it’s just so dynamic, it changes all the time, no day is the same. It’s partly ash-covered because of eruptions nearby from active volcanoes. So inside the walls, there’s this layered contrast, a perfect framing of earth’s ‘fire’ and ‘ice’ components.  And with ash lingering on the glacier, it’s insulating the underlying ice so you get really wild, rugged, mazes of deep crevasses, bottomless moulins, ice caves and giant canyons, carved out by trickling streams that turn into raging torrents after rain. Its power speaks to me; I know you know better than anyone how that grabs you!

Lucie: I know first hand that being crushed by a Gunilla-sized hug is probably equally hazardous to being on a glacier without crampons; what’s this Hug-Sized Hole you were on about?

A hole in the ice. Photo by Gunilla Lindh.
A hole in the ice. Photo by Gunilla Lindh.
The same hole in the ice a few weeks later. Photo by Gunilla Lindh.
The same hole in the ice a few weeks later. Photo by Gunilla Lindh.

Gunilla: Yeah, I first noticed this hole beginning of July taking clients past it, pointing out cool stuff. I could put my arms round it, hug it, if you like – nothing more than half a meter across; then a few weeks later, because of melt water rushing through it, it had butterflied into a large moulin, around 10 meters deep and 3m across meters; then a few more weeks, and it was a tunnel, and then suddenly the roof was gone, it linked with a nearby open tunnel and it’s now – 3 months later – one large open canyon. Gone. For us guides, up there 6-7 days a week, seeing the transformation was just spectacular and gave a phenomenal means to explain to clients how quick the changes are.

Lucie : …your own personal time-lapse, in fact. How do you adapt to changes, as a new-ish guide ?

Gunilla : You usually have a broad idea of a route on the glacier in mind; the key is constant ongoing micro navigation and risk assessment. You never try to make the same route twice as somewhere, which has been safe, could the next day be impassible or to dangerous to travel.  Every journey is true exploration and it constantly keeps you on your toes. After a while you become very good at reading ice and from knowing how the glacier has changed over the last few months in specific places you are able to (at least try) to predict what the terrain will be like in the near future. We’re also seeing the glacier start to get it’s winter ‘coat`; the ice is shedding it’s soft, white top layer to reveal a very dense, turquoise, translucent mirror; you can see 10-15 meters straight down in the ice.

Lucie : And then coming right down, to the valley floor – sodden and a lake-sized flood. I was here last September and it was nothing like this.

A frigid lagoon. Photo by Lucie McNeil.
A frigid lagoon. Photo by Lucie McNeil.

Gunilla : At it’s largest, the glacier stretched all the way down to the ocean, which is now about 7km away from the glacier snout. It has been in pretty much constant retreat for the last hundred years and as it does you get a valley of moraine where you can really see the grinding effects of the glacier as it eats away on the mountain. The glacier is at the moment retreating about the size of a small football field a year and where we now park the cars – still a 10-minute walk away from the glacier snout – is where we were walking the ice back in 2000.  Your ‘new’ glacier lagoon here in front of the snout wasn’t here five years ago.  So in practical terms the walk from the car is getting longer about 10 cm a day!

Lucie:  Being outside, in nature, any nature basically, is our fuel.  I’ve made part of my sabbatical a look at geo-education initiatives that are developing and thriving — what’s working here, what’s going to work in future, for what you do?

Gunilla: …the same – seeing and feeling it first hand; promoting some sort of authentic, real experience.  I know that’s not practical across the board, but the more people have the tools to ‘know’ ice and what it does, as an earth component – like they know ‘fire’ or ‘wind’, the better we’ll be.  Most people just don’t yet, the same as you’d say most people don’t yet relate the ocean to their second breath. We don’t need to make a lot of long speeches anymore – the ice is literally disappearing under our feet, standing here. If everyone makes just a small change at home to help combat global warming it will lead to a large positive impact. I changed homes and jobs to get closer to understanding the ice – not everyone needs do that!

Read more about National Geographic’s Expedition to Franz Josef Land

Changing Planet