Curse of the Drift Ice

by Thor Edward Jakobsson, translated by Keneva Kunz


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




Dr Thor Jakobsson is the head of the Sea Ice Research Unit of the Icelandic Meteorological Office and a member of the Expert Team on Sea Ice at the World Meteorological Organisation. His article looks at the chief characteristics of sea ice in Icelandic waters and its impact on the country and its people. Translated by Keneva Kunz.


In a well-known poem, one of Iceland's favourite poets, who wrote the lyrics to the Icelandic national anthem, refers to polar ice as "the country's ancient foeman". Not without reason, either, since through the centuries this natural phenomenon of the northern reaches has made life difficult for the Icelanders in numerous ways, chilling the air circulating around the country, closing sailing routes and blocking access to rich fishing banks. During peak ice periods of earlier centuries, people even feared the polar bears which could be borne with the ice floes drifting all the long distance from Greenland. On the other hand, it is this very polar ice which deserves the credit for giving the country its name; Iceland is named for the polar ice.

Icelanders are fortunate enough to possess reports of the men exploring the country when it was discovered in the 9th century AD, as well as records of the settlers who were first to permanently settle the country.

One of the explorers was the Norwegian Flóki Vilgerðarson. He had learned of a country in the west and decided to investigate. With him on his ship he had three ravens. After sailing for some time he released the first raven. The bird flew back eastward, in the direction from which they had come. Flóki concluded that there was no land nearby to the west and sailed onwards. Several days later he released the second raven. This bird flew in circles above the boat in confusion and alighted on the ship once more. Flóki decided that they must be way out on the wide ocean, far from any coast in all directions. They continued to sail westwards into the unknown. After several more days of sailing they released the third raven. This one flew straight west, so that Flóki was convinced that there must be land ahead. Only a short time later he caught sight of the coast. It must have been a welcome sight, bringing relief and rejoicing to those aboard his ship.

Raven-Flóki, as he came to be called, was pleased by this new-found land, especially to begin with. The lakes and rivers were teeming with fish, there was plenty of food to eat and wood to provide heat. During the summer, the fishing was so good that the newcomers neglected to prepare for the winter. As a result almost all their livestock died of hunger and lack of shelter. When spring arrived Raven-Flóki explored the country further. One day he climbed a high peak from which he saw, to his astonishment, a fjord full of polar ice. He had never seen the likes of this back in Norway and decided to name the country Iceland - for this unique natural phenomenon. Raven-Flóki decided that he had spent enough time in Iceland and that his expedition should return home to Norway to tell others there of the new land. Not everyone agreed on the advantages of the country; some men claimed that "butter dripped from each blade of grass" while others felt it had little to recommend it. But Iceland the country is called even today - and will presumably continue to be called in the years to come.

As everyone knows, Iceland is located in the far north, near the top of the globe, one could say. Which means that the sun does not beam down on the country as generously as it does in more southerly latitudes. Southern warmth, however, is borne northwards by the air currents - and not least by the ocean currents. It is the Gulf Stream System which sustains Icelanders and almost the entire biosphere here. A branch of the Gulf Stream system, the Irminger Current, encircles the country. Without the Gulf Stream, Iceland would scarcely be habitable.

Only a short distance to the west there is another current, of a completely different nature - the ice cold and low saline East Greenland Current. This flows south from the Arctic along the eastern shore of Greenland, farther south through the Greenland Strait between Iceland and Greenland and all the way south around Greenland's southern tip. Large quantities of polar ice are borne along by the current, some of it originating far to the north while some has formed farther south along the route of the East Greenland Current. In addition to the polar floes forming on the ocean, huge icebergs from the Greenland glaciers and remnants of them float southward.

Through the centuries Icelanders have learned that the polar ice off the country's coast can vary greatly over time. Sometimes it has been frequent and persistent, certainly not a welcome guest. Long periods can also pass when its presence is scarcely felt, and it is practically forgotten.

A comparison of the frequency of polar ice over the past three centuries definitely favours the 20th century, although there have been periods of difficult ice conditions in that century as well. The 18th century began with extensive polar ice, which occurred again around the middle of that century and then again in its closing decades, although there were substantial periods in between with considerably less ice.

During the 19th century polar ice was often extensive, with such periods extending into the following century, until a turning point was reached around 1920.

Well into the milder 20th century, the polar ice had long since been forgotten. Folk of middle age knew that polar ice had frequently visited the country well into the second decade, but not been seen since 1920. Thus it never occurred to the public at large that polar ice would be anything but a recollection from Iceland's past which had been the subject of moving poetry by major writers. In their works the poets urge the people to take heart and continue undaunted their struggle for existence and for independence from the Danish realm.

But it turned out that Icelanders had not been freed from the grips of natural threats when they established an independent republic in 1944. Suddenly in the mid-1960s "the ancient enemy" reappeared on the horizon and forced its way to the country's coast as it had in bygone days.

In 1968 polar ice off Iceland was more extensive than it had been since 1888. This unusual ice winter began when the weather station attendant in Grímsey woke up to a frightening reality on the morning of December 5, 1967. The island was surrounded by polar ice. The small island of Grímsey, crossed by the Arctic Circle itself, is the most northerly settlement in Iceland. The panorama facing the weather station attendant was the beginning of a major event, as the ice persisted for month after month along the northern coast of Iceland and even in the East Fjords, until well into June and did not disappear completely until midsummer.

The ice caused all sorts of problems, disrupting ship traffic along the country's coast and access to its northern and eastern harbours, damaging fishing gear and preventing fishing in normal fishing grounds. Nor did the chilly air brought by this unbidden and certainly unwelcome guest improve the situation.

People recalled stories of the extensive polar ice of the 19th century and its impact. It had brought cold and livestock losses which prompted people, especially in northeast Iceland, to desert their farms in large numbers and emigrate to North America. The polar ice aggravated the difficulties caused by extensive eruptions of volcanic ash around the same time. Enticing descriptions and offers of a better life on the other side of the ocean became even more attractive under such conditions. The thousands of people who left the country in the space of a few decades made a considerable difference to such a small population. The descendants of these people in North America now number over 300,000, or a number similar to the entire population of Iceland!

The sharp drop in the fishing catch during the years of widespread polar ice in the late 1960s also caused a major downturn in the Icelandic economy. An unusually large number of people emigrated during these years to seek work elsewhere.

The last major occurrence of polar ice reaching the very coast of Iceland was in the spring of 1979. The ice disrupted ocean traffic and brought cold weather, even killing the grass of hayfields.

It was news in the media for weeks on end and the Icelandic parliament Alþingi appointed special committees to deal with transport and security issues. There was discussion that towns in the north of Iceland needed to be prepared for such occurrences in the future and keep sufficient stocks of staples in the case that ocean transportation was disrupted during periods of polar ice. But during the past two decades the ice has never been as extensive as it was in 1979, although it has often reminded us of its presence and paid the country brief visits or floated just off its shores.

What is it that causes the polar ice, which generally floats south along the coast of Greenland, to set its course for Iceland instead? This is the result of the interplay of three factors in particular. In the first place, the quantity of ice stretching down from the Arctic Ocean is sometimes unusually great. Secondly, the temperature conditions and salinity of the surface ocean layer is sometimes such that the polar ice prevails for a longer time than usual. Last but not least, prevailing westerly winds cause the polar ice to stray from its course and head east toward Iceland.

Polar ice in the Greenland Strait is greatest in the spring, following a long and cold winter. The danger of polar ice in Iceland is thus greatest in April and May. It needs only very small encouragement from the prevailing winds. Ocean conditions off Iceland also vary considerably. Because of this, the polar ice forms and melts at varying speeds. As a result there are a number of reasons for the arrival of "the country's ancient foeman". They interact with one another, making it difficult to predict the advent of polar ice with any certainty far in advance.

Continuous investigations of polar ice are made from vessels and aircraft, as well as by weather stations along the coast, if the ice draws near land. There are many reasons for concern. Will the polar ice close fishing grounds yet again? Is it heading for sailing routes encircling the country? Is there even a danger that it will crush against the shore, gripping the country in its clutches for days and weeks, cooling the air along the coast and causing chilling fogs? Can we even expect a wandering polar bear, desperately hungry after a sail across the ocean from its distant home in Greenland?

The information on polar ice conditions received by the Icelandic Meteorological Office is used immediately for monitoring and evaluating prospects for the immediate future, while attempts are made, based on the weather prospects and forecast, together with knowledge of the currents, to assess probable developments in its spread and movement in coming days. Warnings of danger to sailing vessels are issued if considered necessary.

The formation, drifting and melting of the ice is monitored on all fronts. An attempt is also made, with the help of complex mathematical models in powerful computers, to predict the movement of the ice for the following days. Ocean journeys in the realm of the polar ice are gradually becoming more frequent, as powerful icebreakers open new routes or expeditions seek oil under the ocean floor. Knowledge of the polar ice is thus necessary for a variety of human activities in the ice regions.

The history of polar ice off Iceland provides some indication of changes and long-term fluctuations in the oceans and atmosphere, i.e. climatic variation. Persistent incursions of polar ice indicate that some changes must have taken place, possibly extending far beyond Iceland, at least throughout the North Atlantic. The Icelandic nation's tendency to keep records through the ages, in the form of annals and reports describing polar ice and weather conditions, has provided valuable sources for research into weather fluctuations in the North Atlantic in past centuries.

The habitat of the polar bear extends across the polar ice. The animal ranges widely, travelling great distances across the frozen ocean surface. It catches fish and seals by diving skilfully off the edge of the ice in pursuit of its prey. It can also swim great distances, across long stretches of open water or from one ice flow to another. A polar bear has no easy life, but it is a hardy animal, which can withstand all sorts of trials.

Viewing a polar bear in its natural environment is an engaging experience. The author was once aboard an icebreaker in midwinter, located in Baffin Bay between Greenland and Canada. Endless, gleaming white stretches of ice surrounded us on all sides. We were stuck fast, aboard Canada's largest icebreaker, so thick and solidly frozen was the ice.

One day we saw a grey spot on the horizon to the south, which appeared to be moving. Through binoculars we could see that it was a polar bear travelling across the ice in the direction of the vessel. As it approached we could see two cubs trotting along beside their mother. The she-bear forged ahead and passed the icebreaker at what she must have considered a reasonable distance. The cubs were curious and sniffed in the direction of the icebreaker. But their mother had no time for foolishness and the little family gradually disappeared from our sight on its journey north across the expanse of ice.

Icelandic annals contain fairly frequent reports of polar bears which had been transported to Iceland by polar ice. As might be expected, they were more frequent visitors in past centuries when the ice was more extensive. All the same, they were a rare enough sight to cause a flurry of excitement when word spread of a polar bear in the vicinity. People closed themselves securely in their dwellings while the most daring men joined up to take on the uninvited guest.

There are stories, for example, of the shooting of a polar bear in 1792 in the West Fjords and another in North Iceland. In 1802 two bears came ashore in the Strandir district of the West Fjords. After spending several days visiting fish-storage shacks, one of the bears was killed. Nothing more was heard of the other. In 1874, a number of polar bears came to Iceland; three were killed in the Hornstrandir region of the West Fjords while three came ashore in Mjóifjörður in the East Fjords. Bears have not been known in Iceland since the year 1988, although in 1993 fishermen noticed a polar bear swimming several miles offshore.

In recent years polar bears have been a rarity, since the polar ice has been much less extensive, as was mentioned. Polar bears also decreased in number due to human impact, but since they have become protected their numbers have grown once more. Some scientists are concerned that the shrinking polar ice cap resulting from the Greenhouse Effect will make it more difficult for the polar bear to survive.

© Icelandic Geographic 2003. Reproduced by kind permission of Icelandic Geographic. We have not attempted to reproduce the photographs from this article as it would be impossible to recreate their impact.


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