These Icelandic Families Are Tracking Climate Change with a Measuring Tape

Jennifer Cauli /
Jennifer Cauli / | © Culture Trip
Camille Buckley

In Iceland, the effect of climate change on the Arctic landscape has been monitored by a small group of volunteers over generations.

Using a simple measuring tape, a pencil and piece of paper, a group of about 35 volunteers head out separately towards an assigned glacier every autumn to measure the rapid changes taking place. The results are published in the Icelandic scientific journal Jokull, and submitted to the World Glacier Monitoring Service database. Vacancies for glacier monitors are rare and highly sought-after, and many glaciers have been in the same family for generations, passed down to sons and daughters.

Jennifer Cauli /

However, becoming a glacier monitor in Iceland is a particularly coveted role as many of the glaciers remain in the same family and are passed down through generations, a very rare occurrence of citizen climate measurement worldwide.

It began in the 1930s when a meteorologist working for the Meteorological Office in Reykjavík established the first program to monitor the growth and retreat of Iceland’s glaciers but found that getting around the country to check up on the glaciers was a feat in itself that he could not handle on his own. Therefore, he hired local farmers who knew the landscape well. Decades ago, glacier monitoring was not the stark visual evidence of climate change that it is now. While glaciers naturally fluctuate, it became understood that when all of Iceland’s monitored glaciers were in a state of decline in the 1990s, it was the effect of global warming – with many scientists predicting that some glaciers in Iceland could disappear in less than a century.

Jennifer Cauli /

While most of the data contained within the World Glacier Monitoring Service database has been created via aerial photograph comparisons. This, along with other remote monitoring tools from NASA, is considered efficient. Yet it leaves one to ponder about what will happen to Iceland’s glacier monitors.
It has been suggested that, although remote monitoring is possible, there is a benefit to the type of hand measurement being done by the glacier monitors since the 1930s, and that is dependability. This small group of volunteers does not have to rely on government funding or satellite fuel, but the will to carry out this family practice and carry the first-hand accounts of climate change out into the world.

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