Shortly after taking off from Norway’s lovely city of Bergen during a recent work trip, I spotted something out the window that really surprised me. Amidst the rugged, snow-covered corrugations of the high country east of the coastal fjords was the serenely smooth patch seen in my iPhone photo above.
The crevassed streams of glacial ice pouring off the elevated patch were a give-away that this is a feature known as an ice cap. I was surprised because I didn’t realize that southern Norway still had large expanses of ice like this.
With just little digging I learned that this is the Hardangerjøkulen Ice Cap. And I’m now very glad that I had this opportunity to see it in all its icy splendor. That’s because Hardangerjøkulen and other mainland Norwegian ice caps, are doomed to melt away entirely. Once they do, they will not grow back for a very long time, if ever.
That conclusion is supported by a 2017 study conducted by an international team of researchers led by Henning Åkesson from the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research in Bergen. As part of the study, he and his colleagues used a computer model and information about past climates and glaciers to simulate Hardangerjøkulen’s history from 4,000 years ago to the present. They also predicted what might happen to it in a warming climate.
The research paints a grim picture of the ice cap’s future: “Present day Hardangerjøkulen is in a very vulnerable state, and our study of its history over the last several thousand years shows that the ice cap may change drastically in response to relatively minor changes in climate conditions,” Åkesson says.
Writing in their paper, published in the journal Cryosphere, Åkesson and his colleagues concluded:
We expect that other ice caps with comparable geometry in, for example, Norway, Iceland, Patagonia and peripheral Greenland may behave similarly, making them particularly vulnerable to climate change.
According to Åkesson, Hardangerjøkulen, as well as most glaciers and ice caps in Norway, actually melted away during the mid-Holocene period, victims of temperatures that were two to three degrees warmer C than today. As temperatures dropped, Hardangerjøkulen regrew. During its fastest growth spurt, starting 2,300 years ago, the ice cap tripled its volume in less than 1,000 years.
Now, things are headed in the opposite direction. “Today the ice is more than 300 meters thick at places, which may sound like a lot,” Åkesson says, quoted in a release from the Bjerkness Centre. “But the implication of our study is that if climate warming continues, this ice cap may disappear before the end of this century. I don’t think most people realize how fast glaciers can change, maybe not even us as scientists,” Åkesson says.
The shrinking of Norway’s glaciers will have significant economic implications. That’s because Norway gets almost all of its electricity from hydropower, and 15 percent of that electricity is derived from glacial meltwater.
More broadly, the melting of Hardangerjøkulen and Norway’s other ice caps and glaciers is contributing to global sea level rise. Overall, the world’s 211,000 glaciers and ice caps are currently responsible for about half of the sea level rise being caused by melting of our planet’s cryosphere.