Frequently asked questions & answers...

What is a glacier?

It's like an ice river – it's ice flowing away from an ice cap. The glacier we are studying, Virkisjökull, is one of the ones draining the largest ice cap in Europe, called Vatnajökull. (Jökull means ice or glacier in Icelandic!).

How big is the Vatnajokull ice cap?

About the size of Yorkshire: c. 140km E-W and 100km N-S.

How do glaciers move?

In two ways: by flowing (a bit like soft wax, or runny honey), and by sliding along surfaces, lubricated by water (surfaces like the glacier bed or fractures within the ice).

How fast do they move?

The ice in Virkisjökull is flowing forward at an average of 20 cm per day.

How fast are glaciers melting?

The top surface of our glacier is melting away at around 12m per year, and the front of the glacier is retreating at 40 m per year or an average of 10cm a day.

Is your glacier typical?

It's quite typical in the way that it moves (flowing and sliding). It's smaller than many other Icelandic glaciers. Skeidarajökull (Europe's biggest) is 17km wide across its snout (about as wide as Manchester), Virkis is only 1km.

Will glaciers disappear?

Studies suggest that many of the world's mountain glaciers and small ice caps — like the ones we're studying in Iceland — could shrink dramatically or even disappear by the end of the 21st century.

Why is this project unique?

It's unique in the way it's studying so many different aspects of the same glacier, from weather to glacier movement to glacier melt to the meltwater river to groundwater.

Are you studying volcanoes?

No, but the ice cap where the glacier starts is sitting on the 2nd biggest volcano in Europe, which hasn't erupted for 300 years (1727) and is due to erupt soon. Our instruments (seismometers) do record occasional rumblings from the volcano's magma chamber. Other BGS scientists are doing lots of work on other volcanoes in Iceland.

What relevance do glaciers have for flooding?
  • Worldwide, as glaciers and ice caps melt, sea levels are rising, and this may cause coastal flooding in low lying areas around the world. In London, the Thames Barrier was not designed with climate change-induced sea level rise and increased storminess in mind, and may become less effective.
  • Locally, melting glaciers can create big lakes in front of them, dammed by rapidly dumped sediment in moraines. Rapid melting and accumulation of water in these lakes can cause the moraine dams to break, causing potentially catastrophic flooding. In the last few years Nepal alone has seen 21 glacial lake floods.
What relevance do glaciers have for water resources?
  • Melting glaciers change the hydrology of glacial catchments, affecting river flows.
  • Many glacial rivers are used for hydroelectricity production – like in Iceland and Alaska. As melting rates change and glaciers disappear, summer river flows will shrink, giving less electricity potential.
  • Glacial meltwater is a vital resource – 1 billion people in the Indian subcontinent rely on rivers fed by meltwater from Himalayan glaciers. As glaciers disappear, millions of people will struggle for water. Our studies of groundwater resources in front of an Icelandic glacier could help countries like India find new groundwater resources to replace meltwater rivers.
But if these things are happening in India and Nepal why are you studying a glacier in Iceland?

Many glaciers behave in many of the same ways – so understanding our Icelandic glacier better will help us predict how similar mountain glaciers in other areas, like the Himalayas, will behave. And it's much cheaper and easier to do these studies in Europe, relatively close to home, than in Asia.

Do glaciers have relevance for anything else apart from water?
  • Many UK cities are built on glacial deposits that were laid down over 10000 years ago. Studying how these deposits form in an active glacial landscape in Iceland can help us better understand their engineering properties, which could help us design better buildings and infrastructure in the UK.
  • Glaciers and ice caps create localised cooling of the climate. Removing them upsets the delicate balance of local climate, which can then affect the climate over larger areas, this can lead to less stable climatic regimes, causing unpredictable and changing weather patterns.
  • Some studies argue that ice caps and glaciers that sit on volcanoes, like those in Iceland, actually help to maintain higher pressures acting on magma chambers, similar to corks in bottles of champagne. If you remove the ice, the volcano is more likely to erupt.
Is the climate really changing?
Global temperature is rising steadily, at an average of c. 0.015°C per year

Global temperature is rising steadily, at an average of c. 0.015°C per year, in spite of short term variations. The two hottest years since 1979 were 2009 and 2010. Almost all scientists think that this warming is the main cause of an increasing number of extreme weather events around the world, like floods and drought.

How much has the project cost?

£600,000 in 5 years.

Why are UK taxpayers footing the bill for work on Icelandic glaciers?

Our science in Iceland is relevant to glacial environments around the world, where UK expertise might come in very useful in future – like helping to support developing countries facing water shortages because of disappearing glaciers. It is better to help plan for these changes, than give emergency aid, or deal with the problems of mass population migration as a result of increasing water shortages. Melting ice also directly affects the UK – causing sea level rise and coastal flooding and erosion: a better understanding of this could save the UK money in future. And a better understanding of active glacial environments helps engineers building on ancient glacial deposits in the UK.