This is my blog, so I guess it’s the right place to be honest.
I’m not sure my trip to Iceland was a good idea.
Some background… my wonderful wife Julie suggested that a trip would be a great present for my upcoming 50th birthday. Since I really don’t care for parties in my honor, I jumped at the chance to travel. It’s always bothered me that I’ve been on the planet for so long without seeing most of it. Sure, I’ve criss-crossed my home country and seen a lot of amazing places, but to be 49 years old and never used a passport seems pretty lame. To me it has felt nationalistic, like I believed that everything good was here in the states and everywhere else is a nasty shithole. It’s a common refrain in our current national conversation and I ache inside when I hear it. So I got a passport and spent months planning an epic trip to Copenhagen, Denmark with a five-day layover in Iceland.
I spent months planning and preparing for my epic trip. I obsessed over what I would bring, how I would carry things, and what I would explore. I booked flights, hotels, and vehicles. I bought maps and guide books and watched who knows how many You Tube videos about Iceland and Copenhagen. I really enjoyed the process of preparing for the trip, but at no time did I consider the impact of my travel.
A few months ago I began listening to “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming” by David Wallace-Wells while also reading “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. These two books, (while I am still trying to finish them), have shifted my thinking about our present and future as human beings. I’ve always been fairly pessimistic about society and pretty skeptical about the inherent “goodness” of people, but I’ve found myself deeply troubled by our current culture and the imminent existential threats we face. In short, these books combined with my already cynical view of things have set me in a mood that isn’t so rosy.
But my trip and its planning proved to be a great distraction from these concerns and I embraced that distraction. The dissonance about the costs of this self-celebratory excursion became obvious when I was crammed into my seat on my Iceland Air flight to Reykjavik. I departed Portland at 8pm and as the flight was direct, we cruised north east from Oregon in a massive arc over northern Canada, Greenland and into Iceland. I couldn’t sleep much on my flight owing to my poor choice of seat and excitement about finally being on my trip. When I woke from a short nap I looked down on Northern Canada and saw in the faint twilight small towns with flickering flames glowing nearby each. I assume I was looking at some sort of oil wells with their flares venting off excess gasses. Northern Canada is home to vast networks of tar sands oil wells. As the sun came up over the northern horizon I saw that we were over water and when we arrived over Greenland I could see miles upon miles of glaciers. On the eastern coast of Greenland I could see where these glaciers terminated in long fjords filled with icebergs. It was incredibly scenic and awesomely vast.
As we dropped down to Iceland, my mind focused on my trip and the tasks at hand: get checked bag, clear customs, pick up camper van, buy food and hit the road. The excitement of exploring a place I’d spent so long reading about and enjoying other people’s images of was building and I was ready to go the moment we touched down on the flat volcanic plateau of Keflavik International Airport. Despite all of my research, I wasn’t quite ready for the crush of people at the airport. Long lines of people snaked to coffee stands and the restrooms. Outside of baggage claim, the warm sunshine greeted me and hundreds of other travelers looking for rides. As I waited for my shuttle I eavesdropped on the conversation of a group of American college kids as they too waited for a lift to their rental car. They were bragging about how much alcohol they’d just bought at the massive duty-free shop inside the airport. One kid in particular seemed especially proud of his acquisitions and kept bragging about how much Jägermeister he could drink and I was struck by just how not proud I was to be an American in another country with this American nearby. In the parking lot I watched as a different group of young American men pulled up in a jacked-up Land Rover Defender. They very noisily greeted two more “bros” who hopped into the ostentatious truck and zoomed off to conquer the wilderness. The whole scene seemed off to me: the crowds, the piles of oversized bags, the carts of beer and the ebb and flow of vans, trucks, busses and cars. I was eager to get to the Iceland of waterfalls and glaciers where the wind was what you heard not the call of the breeding-age American dude.
One thing that came up again and again in my research of Iceland was stories of people who just showed up in the small island country completely ill-prepared to deal with the weather, terrain and people. This became obvious when I checked out my camper van. With another van rental agent, a couple from California was receiving a detailed orientation about the roads of Iceland. The couple asked if they could have one of the large maps the agent was using, and they were informed that they could indeed buy one for 1600ISK (about $15 US). They balked, “how come they aren’t free?” the woman asked incredulously. I couldn’t hear the agent’s reply as it was at a conversational voice level and my ears have been acclimated to American voice level, but I hoped the reply was, “because when you show up in Iceland you should already have a map and a plan, dumbass.”
On the road I enjoyed a pleasantly sunny drive along a coastal road that connected the Keflavik area with the rest of the southern Iceland coast. I purposely avoided driving in and through Reykjavik knowing that I would have that pleasure later in the trip. When my little road eventually joined the Ring Road, (Iceland’s primary highway which - you guessed it- rings the island), I was greeted with a traffic jam of busses, camper vans, and cars all headed my way. The caravan of traffic thinned as I drove further east and I hoped to be past the reach of day-tripping tourists from Reykjavik. I was wrong. When I stopped at Skogafoss, Iceland’s most-photographed waterfall, I was dismayed to find massive parking areas packed with busses, vans and cars. A restaurant, hotel and store sat alongside the parking/camping area and a long string of people snaked up the hillside alongside the big pretty waterfall. I called my wife and kids and showed them the scene on Face Time before driving away. If I was going to photograph this particular waterfall, it would have to be in the middle of the night.
I am happy to say that the crowds of Skogafoss were predictable in nature. They arrived at 9am each day and dissipated at 6 each evening. I shifted my day to avoid them and capitalize on the sweeter light in the overnight hours. During the busy times I slept, drove, and avoided the hot spots. My strategy worked well, but I was still flustered by the busy-ness of Iceland. In most towns I drove through there was copious amounts of development. Hotels, cabins, restaurants and stores were being built as fast as the weather allowed. Even the new parking lots in many places were already overflowing with cars and while I cannot blame the people of Iceland one bit for wanting to cash in on the gold rush, it seems like there isn’t a lot of thought being paid to how to preserve the natural beauty most people come to Iceland to see. As in the American West, the rush to make a buck usually leaves little time for thinking of the future.
Like the American West, much of the impact of the tourism gold rush in Iceland is focused on a handful of “must-see” hot spots. Take the small town of Vik for example. Nestled above a black-sand beach alongside a immense headland that points to a jumble of offshore pinnacles, the place is incredibly cute. The old red-roofed church that overlooks the town is surrounded in lupine meadows and a small stream cascades through the village, but once you reach the corner of the road that a few years ago would have been the edge of the town you encounter a ¾-mile long stretch of new development that includes two hotels, several cabins, a sprawling campground, three gas stations and a big shopping center where you can buy Icelandic sweaters, espresso drinks, and groceries under one roof. It’s very nice, and while I was there sipping my $8 latte I pondered the nonsensical nature of flying to a remote country known for its remarkable natural beauty only to spend time perusing the aisles of a brightly-lit modern shopping mall.
Further east along the Ring Road you can find Diamond Beach and the famous Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon where every day, especially every summer day, people come to watch giant chunks of blue glacial ice slip by on the their short trip from the glacier to the sea. I visited in the middle of the night and it was surreal to have a lagoon filled with towering icebergs on one side and a sprawling parking lot, restrooms and a gift shop on the other side of me. It was clear from the size of the place that it was one of the hot spots. Later as I photographed the ice piled on the beach nearby I considered the allure of the place. Here you have a river of ice, some of it perhaps thousands of years old, spilling from a shrinking ice cap into a lake that a lifetime ago was not there and then this ice floats out of a short channel and into the sea where people come from all over the planet to see it up close, touch it and Instagram the hell out of it.
I’m sure I could drive the entirety of the Ring Road and find example after example of the conflict between preserving the natural and exploiting its popularity, but doing so would do nothing to change the course we are on, and this is what troubles me.
Photographers played a major role in the establishment of the American National Park system. If it was not for the work of Ansel Adams and other artists like him who documented the wildly-scenic parts of America, it would have been easy to allow the desecration of those spaces. Out of sight, out of mind. But things have changed. Where a photographer or painter once had the power to inspire reverence and preservation, now legion of them blaze paths for the rest of us to follow. Discount airlines, cheap rental cars and phones with cameras have made the remote accessible, and places like Iceland are prime examples of what happens when the weight of our population bears down on a delicate ecosystem. I’ve often said that landscape photographers are like ants. We love to follow the pheromone trails of other photographers to the exact places they have been so we can take exactly the same photos they took. It’s lead many popular landscape photographers to remove their location data from their photos in hopes that the places they have discovered and captured beautifully can remain untrampled and pristine. We’ve gone from “look at this place I found, let’s work together to save it!” to “look at this place I found, I hope you don’t go there and ruin it!”
I made the shot above at 4am. It’s Kirkjufell and there is probably no chance that you haven’t seen it before. In a country known for hot spots, this one is likely the hottest. The series of little waterfalls cascading in front of this amazing mountain peak are no more than 100 yards long. At the top is an old bridge and at the bottom is a parking lot. Along both sides are pathways paved in plastic grating that is all the rage in Iceland now. In places where thousands of people tread each year, they have begun laying down this grating and roping off the edges. To make this shot, I placed my tripod just over the rope line. I lowered the level of my camera to use the grass in front of me to mask the muddy trail just below, but you can still see the pathway on the other side of the river. In places like Kirkjufell, the impact of throngs of people can be somewhat mitigated by ropes and signs, but we all have been to places where those things are ignored wholesale. If I had come to this spot the evening prior to this sunrise, I would have seen it. You see the little town next to Kirkjufell is only a mile away and the afternoon I arrived there were three cruise ships anchored in the harbor. Busses and vans were busy ferrying people to Kirkjufell and other equally beautiful places on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula while I took a nap. When the sun rose there for me, there was only one other photographer there and we worked the foggy morning scene quietly in peace and tranquility. It was very nice.
And while it would be conceivable for me to accept that fact that the world’s population being what it is and that it’s human nature to seek out beautiful places I just can’t shake that my trip to Iceland was folly. I flew to the country via Iceland Air, which uses Boeing 757 planes that hold about 200 people. Based on that aircraft and those passenger counts, I - me, Mason - am responsible for approximately 2.2 tons of CO2 being spit into the atmosphere. Each of these flights, (and there are so many!), contribute substantially to the amount of human-caused CO2 emissions each year. To put it plainly, my flight -each way- resulted in the loss of about 30 cubic feet of arctic sea ice. Ouch. Taking that fact to heart, I need to accept that my little portion of my little trip erased a piece of ice about the size of the one I am sitting on in the photo that leads this post.
Most of us do what we can to help the environment. We recycle, we try to drive less, and so on. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to fly less as airline travel world-wide is up to 4.3 BILLION PEOPLE every year, which is 38 million more people than last year. The airport in Keflavik, Iceland is only a few years old and it’s already been outgrown. On my return flights home my plane from Copenhagen was parked on the tarmac about 500 yards from the terminal and we ride busses the rest of the way because all of the jetways were in use. My flight out to Keflavik was the same way… I rode a bus to my plane because the airport was too full. It’s nuts.
But for me what really set the hook was flying back over Greenland on July 31st, which was experiencing the largest melting day since they started keeping track of those things. The 31st was quickly upset as the worst melting day by the true biggest, August 1st. Take a look:
That’s the Greenland Ice Cap on July 31st taken by me from my seat in my CO2-spewing 757 at 38,000 feet. Looking down I could see the water pooled in deep crevasses and collected in massive blue lakes on the surface of the glaciers for as far as I could see.
As the melting ice scrolled below, I snapped photo after photo knowing that I was witnessing something pretty important. Knowing that human-caused climate change was altering the systems of our planet is one thing, seeing it happen is another. It was visceral and deeply, deeply disturbing. Two weeks later and I’m still thinking about it and I may never stop.
Look at this glacier! It’s Jakobshavn Glacier and it’s the most active glacier on the planet. When I flew over on July 31st it was having a tough day. The glacier drains about 7% of Greenland’s ice sheet and with the area in the grips of a heat wave it was shedding ice dramatically fast. If you look at the left edge of the photo you can see the arc of ice dropping into the sea in a steady stream of icebergs and water.
You can see here the calving glacier’s outflow of debris. It’s normal for Greenland’s glaciers to actively calve icebergs, in fact Jakobshavn is thought to be the glacier that spawned the iceberg that sunk the Titanic, but to have an event like this is highly unusual. The fjord containing the glacier’s outflow of icebergs is miles long and the entire fjord was filled with icebergs.
The area where the ice flows reached the sea was capped by some clouds, but you can see the massive icebergs dispersing into the Atlantic. This view is facing north.
Here are some numbers from the melt event on July 31st:
12.5 Billion Tons of Ice melted on July 31st.
197 Billions Tons of water melted into the Atlantic in July, enough to raise the ocean level by .5mm.
60% of the Greenland Ice Sheet lost at least 1mm of ice on the 31st.
While many people have dismissed this event as inconsequential, I see it as a sign that things are changing rapidly, perhaps rapidly enough that we don’t fully grasp how big of a deal this is. While in Copenhagen, I experienced a muggy heat wave that roasted much of Europe that week. It was miserable being in many of the old buildings and castles in Denmark with no air conditioning to mitigate the heat. My hotel had no AC and boy did I miss it. I don’t like it when it gets hot. I get bitchy.
Climate change is our new reality and while I’d like to think that we as a species are going to do what’s needed to slow the change, I truly believe that we don’t have it in us. Many of us can’t even bring ourselves to acknowledge that we have something to do about it, and that’s fully and completely on us. We are simply too damn stubborn and lazy to work together to ensure that our home will be livable for future generations.
And that brings me back to the guilt that I feel over my trip. Did I need to go to Iceland and Denmark? Nope. Did I deserve to go? Not really. Should I have gone? Probably not. You see, just because I have the means to travel and rent camper vans and walk amongst the chunks of ice on Diamond Beach doesn’t mean that I should.
Is it possible that our entitled and privileged existence where we consume far more than we need and expect far better than we deserve is going to come back to bite us? No, not us. Our kids.
They are going to be the first generation in memory that should not expect to have it as good as we have it now. They should expect things like clean drinking water and affordable food to be harder to come by in their lifetimes. They should expect that slowly rising sea levels and warming regions will displace millions of people who will need help. They should expect struggle and maybe even conflict.
When I came home from my trip I told my wife that I thought we should work to raise our kids differently, to help them become more resilient and adaptable. No, we aren’t going prepper, that’s just silly. I think our kids are going to have to be ready to accept a life with less, to appreciate having less. We all should.
So yes, I regret flying halfway around the world just to take some pictures. I regret feeling entitled to do so. As photographers we are going to have to think long and hard about what we do and why we do it. If we love to travel, are there ways to do so that have less of an impact on our environment? Do we need to fly so much?
And if we do need to fly, should we expect to pay a fair price for the toll we are taking on the planet? Iceland Air, the airline I used on my trip, is working with farmers in Iceland to plant trees for every passenger that flies on their planes. That’s nice, but they should also see what they cans do about the fuel they burn and the prices they charge. The frugal side of me loves the idea of flying to Iceland for a few hundred dollars, but the aware side of me knows it should cost a lot more. Traveling to remote places should not be something we do on a whim or for a weekend. Maybe we should save up and make those long flight trips rare luxuries.
I know I am going to bring that kind of gravity to those types of things going forward.