Reflections from Iceland

In September, four of our Relics of Nature members went to Iceland to conduct archaeological fieldwork and surveys. Here are some of their reflections and photos from that trip.

From the left: Katherine Burlingame, Sanne Bech Holmgaard, Alexa Spiwak and Þóra Pétursdóttir. Photo: Katherine Burlingame.

(…) these lands provided the right ground to gather thoughts, discuss methods, and the many and exciting possible ways forward

The whole idea of the Relics of Nature project springs out of many years of archaeological fieldwork and surveys in the dynamic natures of Iceland. Assembling the team here, to explore the volcanic and icy heritage-scapes of the Vatnajökull National Park, therefore seemed like the indisputable starting point for our research journey together. Walking these rich landscapes, encountering the diverse topography of volcanic land formation, the manifestation of climate change in melting glaciers and the minute and large-scale impacts of human beings on these lands provided the right ground to gather thoughts, discuss methods, and the many and exciting possible ways forward.

Þóra Pétursdóttir

A person looking out towards the glaciers
Heinabergsjökull, one of many offsprings of Vatnajökull.. Photo: Þóra Pétursdóttir

They say Iceland is the land of fire and ice, classical elements of nature that were once believed to keep the Earth in balance. Yet, standing at the glacial rim of Vatnajökull, we were reminded that this equilibrium is increasingly challenged by chaos. The glacier tells a story of transformation, uncertainty, loss—an uncontrollable momentum beyond our control. We stood in contemplative silence and listened to it weeping, an accelerated river of melting leaving behind mountains of rock and earth, filling new lakes with frigid water. In the presence of such a colossal force, it’s difficult to believe that in the near future, it will all be gone.

A few days later, as we arrived at one of the main tourist destinations Jökulsárlón, the glacial lake fed by the melting of Vatnajökull’s outlet glacier Breiðamerkurjökull, I was struck by the commercialization of this loss. All around us, tourists were eating crepes and fish and chips, sipping their coffees and hot chocolates while gazing out at the glacial lake speckled with ice chunks from the calving of the fastest receding glacier of Vatnajökull. I expected to see a shared sense of sadness or some form of lamentation. Instead, I encountered faces of bewilderment and awe or simply, indifference. It reminded me that on this project we face the difficult task of joining a wide range of voices trying to get the world to listen, to care about what is happening in the High North. It means rethinking what we have done before and how to move forward—perhaps riding on that wave of bewilderment experienced when witnessing the colossal forces of nature and feeling empowered rather than powerless.

Katherine Burlingame

Ice floating in water with mountains in the background
Jökulsárlón glacial lake. Photo: Katherine Burlingame

A poignant lesson on the deep connections between the natural world and industry (…)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of my most striking memories from the trip was our visit to the Kárahnjúkar Dam, the largest rockfill dam in Europe. The 730m long behemoth is a massive incursion on the landscape, flooding not only great swaths of highland grazing areas but also altering waterbodies downstream. Rangers working in the area believe that the marked decline in reindeer herds around Snæfell can be connected to its construction, and many were critical of its use for powering the Fjarðaál aluminium smelter 75km away. Harnessing water from the melting Vatnajökull glacier, the dam’s lifespan is shockingly short due to sedimentation: an estimated 50-80 years from its date of construction in 2009. A poignant lesson on the deep connections between the natural world and industry, the dam’s demise will likely come sooner than expected due to increased melting and sediment loading as a result of a rapidly changing climate.

Alexa Spiwak

A panorama photo of a dam with sea and mountains in the background
Kárahnjúkar dam, and Snæfell mountain in the distance. Photo: Alexa Spiwak
People walking up a mountain
Aiming for the break-ice on the high-slopes of Snæfell, Iceland’s tallest mountain. Photo: Þóra Pétursdóttir

As we move through Iceland, we are faced with the imposing, yet retreating glaciers (…)

In this age of climate change and global environmental crisis, melting ice has become a world-wide concern and a powerful symbol of the consequences of human impact on the planet. As we move through Iceland, we are faced with the imposing, yet retreating glaciers of the Icelandic landscapes, the mess it leaves behind and the force with which it has changed the landscape and livelihoods of people over time. Getting the opportunity to experience the Icelandic glaciers with their human and non-human surroundings was an important reminder that the glaciers, like other bodies of melting ice, are local and material as well as global and symbolic. To whom does the ice belong and who gets to mourn their disappearance?

Sanne Bech Holmgaard

On the slopses of Snæfell, overlooking Snæfellsöræfi. Lands flooded by the Kárahnjúkar dam in the distance. From the left: Alexa Spiwak, Sanne Bech Holmgaard and Katherine Burlingame. Photo: Þóra Pétursdóttir
Photo of the members by a glacier
By Heinabergsjökull. From the left: Katherine Burlingame, Þóra Pétursdóttir, Sanne Bech Holmgaard and Alexa Spiwak. Photo: Katherine Burlingame

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