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

Yesterday I blogged about the art exhibition which our Iceland team have been a great part of. I'd tantilised you with the prospect of finding out how their science could impact people round the globe and left you with the question - where does all the water from the glacier go? 

So to quench your palpable intrigue here's Part 2/2 where we hear from the groundwater experts on the Iceland project. Again this is written by me, Lauren, your intrepid press officer in BGS Edinburgh.

Also on display at the exhibition is
Andrew's famous fieldwork hat!
Hydrologist Dr Andrew Black from the University of Dundee explains why a lot of his time in Iceland is involved with trying to measure the volume of water in the river. "All the water from the glacier catchment emerges into the river system via a lake"

“It’s about trying to understand how the outputs of this large and hostile glacial system link to its inputs [about 7m of snow and rainfall a year]. If we succeed in that we can make better predictions about how long the ice has left before it either completely vanishes from this part of Iceland or if some new equilibrium might be achieved.” 

Jean worked alongside Andrew on the bridge over the river "stopping traffic so he could safely dangle bits of equipment into the river to measure its flow". Jean also said she was spooked by the river because “when I came back to it a few minutes later the water level had visibly risen, you were actually experiencing the glacier melting before your very eyes, it was a shock”. 

Whilst i sat in the audience listening to Andrew talk about his experiences it occurred to me that this band of scientists are in a very unique position. For many years now they’ve been privileged to witness, record and study in detail the changes to this environment that not many other people ever have or will. With their arsenal of science equipment including weather stations, boreholes, seismometers, webcams…….(the list goes on here)..... I don’t think even the locals know the glacier in the intimate and in-depth way this team do. More importantly this work isn't just about doing science for science's sake. What they've learned, through hard graft and ongoing collaborations, has the real potential to benefit hundreds of millions of people around the globe. Brighid O Dochartaigh, hydrogeologist at the BGS, explained more of this in her talk. 

Brighid proudly stands next to her Icelandic
jumper on display at the exhibition. Hand
knitted by herself with wool from the
island it's a thing of beauty coveted
by her collegues!
“We’ve discovered there’s a thick permeable aquifer made of sand and gravel that’s sat just in front of the glacier, in the area called the sandur. During winter there’s more water flowing underground through here than there is water flowing in the river. Close to the glacier this aquifer is filled in part by the river but further away it’s filled by mostly rainfall. This could be really significant and important for future water resources around the globe, not just in Iceland.”

“In many areas people rely extremely heavily on melt water from glaciers, in areas like the Himalayas  people rely on it for drinking water. So if these glaciers disappear, as we’re seeing on Iceland, then that's a massive problem and we’ll have to find replacement sources of water. The work we’re doing on Virkisjokull suggests there could potentially be a large store of water underground that’s replenished by rainfall and not glacial melt water which clearly could be really important for those living close to it. So I’m lucky enough to work in this amazing place and do work that could have important ramifications all around the world”. 

With potentially global benefits to the work the team are doing in Iceland it’s clear to me that grabbing every chance to communicate their work is essential. What could be more important, other than the work itself, than raising awareness of not only our local ancient environments and evolving landscapes but the future security of water around the globe? 

By doing outreach collaborations with CechrArtist in Residence Jean Duncan, and previously with the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition (see our 2013 online outreach on that), the team are making their work accessible and understandable. Not only that but they hope such events will inspire a whole new generation of young and early-career scientists. Not only do you get great science by bringing different skills and people together but great art too.

Together again: scientists and artist reunite at Jeans 'Melt' exhibition
From left to right: Andrew, Verity, Jean, Brighid and Jez
Jean's closing comment: “I wanted to record the changes happening as the glacier is dying, nothing stays the same out there. The place, people, history, geology and geography came together and became a strong memory for me. What I came away with was a picture of this landscape that’s never going to be the same again because it’s changing constantly. So I’ve made these sketches but when everyone goes back in April it’s not going to look the same. It was a really unique opportunity.”

Thanks again for reading,

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