Colours, Shapes & Science of Iceland (1/2) by Lauren Noakes

With scenes like this (nr the BGS Observatory in Iceland) is it any wonder that the disciplines of art and science came together here? (photo by Brighid)
In the spring of 2013 artist Jean Duncan, Cechr Artist in Residence, came to stay with the scientists during their fieldwork season. Yesterday saw the launch of her exhibition ‘Melt’ and I went along to find out more about the BGS Iceland Observatory, the work and how it inspired this beautiful art from Jean.…. 
Written by me, Lauren, your intrepid press officer in BGS Edinburgh 

“I didn’t expect there would be lime green in amongst the grey and white of the ice”

“on the ice there are these turquoise streams running down deep blue holes” 

Only ever having seen Iceland through the words, images and models of scientists I was fascinated to hear how Jean described the daunting expansiveness of the landscape cut with vivid colours like lime green and turquoise.

“it was really wonderful to have Jean along because it was like seeing the landscape and process on the environment through a new set of eyes and it really refreshed our passion for this beautiful and fragile place” Jez (photo by Brighid)

Jean, who accompanied the team on their September fieldwork, was surprised not only by the landscape’s colours but by the shapes! It turns out the triangles Jean sketched, which littered the landscape, weren't random but a pattern explained by science. Jean explained “it’s called the angle of repose, something that happens when soil or sediment collapses and it always ends up at this same angle, so whilst it’s clearly a very chaotic landscape there is this pattern running through it with these triangles” Turns out the sediment makes a uniform 36degree angle of repose. Who knew!

After Jean introduced her work it was the turn of the scientists to step up and do their thing. Jez Everest, BGS Iceland Observatory Team Leader, was first up to introduce the Virkisjokull glacier. “She’s a lovely wee glacier but she’s in trouble. She’s been melting very rapidly over the last 5-6 years and that is on the back of a continued melting period since in the 1990’s and previously since the 1930s.  So she’s a glacier in decline, as are all glaciers on Iceland and most around the world. That’s why we work here, and because she responds quickly to changes in regional climate so we can pick out the drivers and responses to environmental change."

“In just two years the glacier has retreated 70m from it's snout and thinned from the top by about 20m” Stark statistics - of which you can find more of, and accompanying research and information, on the Observatory's webpage.

“I work onto wet plaster, paint on it then scratch into it and sometimes run it under the tap. Working away at it, it’s a wee bit like what’s happening in the environment, it’s all rubbed and moved and changing all the time” Jean (photo by Brighid)
“These environmental changes happening on the glacier allow us to see how our own landscapes may have evolved. Scotland and Ireland were once very similar environments to that in Iceland. In 2009 in Iceland we witnessed the formation of these sinuous eskers, geological features that we can see preserved in Scottish landscapes today. Eventually Virkisjokull and the surrounding landscape will be free of ice and will just be one big lake, there’ll be no evidence that there was ever a glacier here.”

It’s shocking to think this could happen in our children’s lifetime, maybe even our own. It’s predicted that in only a few hundred years all the ice on Iceland will have gone.

So where does all the water from the glacier go? For that you'll need to ask a water expert! Luckily there are a few on the project and talking next at the event......

Brighid O Dochartaigh (BGS hydrogeologist) studies the subsurface water in the area just infront of the glacier called the sandur, and Andrew Black (University of Dundee Hydrologist) monitors the surface water coming out of the glaciers catchment area. Tune in tomorrow to hear about how their work on Iceland has the potential to positively impact people all around the world. 

Until then, thanks for reading

At the launch of Melt exhibition, some of the scientists who took Jean out on the ice
From left to right: Verity Flett, Andrew Black, Brighid Ó Dochartaigh, Jez Everest

Go see Jean’s ‘Melt’ exhibition NOW. It’s on in the Tower Foyer Gallery at the University of Dundee and runs until 29th March. For opening times of the Tower Building see here.  

Please feel free to leave comments below. I'll endeavor to get your science questions answered by Jez and the team, but please be patient. Thanks again.