By Richard Engel, Charlotte Gardiner and Kennett Werner
SÓLHEIMAJÖKULL GLACIER, Iceland — To first-time visitors, it is a picturesque sight: a large lagoon dotted with kayakers and framed by lush green hills and an imposing, snake-like glacier.
But to Sigurrós Arnardóttir, a master's student in glacial geology at the University of Iceland, the view is “horrifying” for its constant reminder that climate change is destroying glaciers and causing sea levels to rise.
Standing at the water’s edge, Arnardóttir, a researcher and guide at Iceland’s Sólheimajökull glacier, describes how the lagoon—a product of glacial runoff—didn’t exist 10 years ago. “This was all just ice.”
Now the lagoon is 230 feet deep in parts. As it gets bigger, water seeps underneath the glacier, accelerating the melt.
“I have kind of a love-hate relationship with the lagoon because it just screams climate change,” Arnardóttir adds.
Oddur Sigurðsson, a glaciologist at the Icelandic Meteorological Office, forecasts that all of Iceland’s 300 or so named glaciers will melt within 200 years, raising global sea levels by 1 centimeter (0.4 of an inch).
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In 2014, Sigurðsson declared another Icelandic glacier, known as Okjökull, “dead.” In August he and about 100 others — including Iceland’s environmentalist prime minister — held a symbolic funeral at the site of its “glacial remains.” Another 55 glaciers have disappeared by Sigurðsson’s count.
Mitigating climate change is “one of the top priorities of the government,” Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, Iceland’s environment minister, told NBC News. “We need to scale up our efforts and step up our game when it comes to solving the climate crisis.”
Perhaps the most promising example of how Icelanders are working to cut their carbon footprint lies about 70 miles northwest of Sólheimajökull. Scientists at the Hellisheidi Power Station, the world’s third-largest geothermal power plant, have developed a process to capture carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and inject it into rock.
The method — now five years old — has cut the plant’s CO2 emissions by a third and researchers there are hoping that it will be adopted elsewhere.
Studded with volcanoes, Iceland gets about a quarter of its electricity from geothermal power: Hot rock heats rainwater underground, which, when brought to the surface, powers turbines to make electricity. But the steam produced by the turbines contains some CO2.
The process, known as CarbFix, involves extracting CO2 from the steam and showering it with water to create carbonated water. It is then pumped underground into porous basalt rock, mineralizing in about two years — significantly faster than other carbon-capture and storage methods.
The result is something that “stays buried underground as rock forever,” says Edda Aradóttir, CarbFix’s project manager. Unlike other CO2 storage methods, it doesn’t need to be monitored for leaks.
Aradóttir believes that as the process improves it will turn the plant carbon neutral. She would like to see other polluters, including aluminum plants, adopt CarbFix to neutralize their emissions. In June, representatives from big industrial companies in Iceland committed to try it out.
“Iceland is unique in Europe in being able to do that,” thanks to plentiful basalt, says Stuart Haszeldine, a geosciences professor at the University of Edinburgh.
But CarbFix is still small scale, storing 12,000 tons of CO2 emitted by the plant each year. By contrast, a gas power plant emits about 800,000 tons of CO2 annually.
Critics question if the CarbFix method can be scaled. Cost is the biggest hurdle: Without incentives like tax credits for storing CO2, there isn’t much reason for emitters to adopt it. “There is no price on polluting,” Haszeldine said.