The Secret Lives of Glaciers
by M Jackson
Green Writers Press, 2019
Reviewed by JENNA GERSIE
The Secret Lives of Glaciers is best read with a cup of coffee. In her acknowledgments, geographer and glaciologist M Jackson thanks her friends who “helped me access the ice, provided support in the community, and poured more coffee” (xi). It is the conversations and observations over caffeine that make the book, for it is the stories about ice, more than the ice itself, that interest Jackson here.
Jackson opens the book with one story. A man knocks on the door of her home on the south coast of Iceland, where “[g]lacier after glacier after glacier lined up like white teeth in an enormous icy grin along the highway” (26). “Do you want to see something?” the man asks. She says yes. They drive for an hour along the Ring Road, the highway that takes you around the country, then walk toward a glacier in the low winter light. They climb up the glacier until they reach a shallow bowled area on its surface. He pours coffee. They sip it. Darkness falls. And then:
“. . . the northern lights, the aurora borealis, appeared in the sky above us. First a dull glow, and then, like a light switch flipped on, blazing yellows, purples, greens, swirls of pinks and whites, and—wait—the glacier we were sitting on, Breiðamerkurjökull, it began picking up, internalizing, swallowing, containing the lights in the sky. The northern lights pulsed through the ice at the rim of the bowl, through the thin seracs, transforming them into icy Jedi lightsabers smoldering in kaleidoscopic concentrations. And the bowl of the glacier itself, it was whirling, throwing light like a candle-lit chandelier, like a phosphorescent ocean wave, like a field at midnight populated with hundreds of summertime fireflies.” (7)
Throughout the book, Jackson moves seamlessly between these colorful, poetic descriptions of ice and the science of glaciers. But the glacier terminology she provides is used not simply to understand the processes of glaciers, but to understand human relationships to glaciers. Jökulhaups—glacier floods caused by nearby volcano eruptions, the escape of englacial lakes, bursting ice-dammed lakes, or other triggering events—are described to explore the ways the power of ice impacts human communities built at the feet of the glaciers. Albedo—how much of the sun’s energy is absorbed or reflected by the glacier, and the associated amount of melting—is described to explore how Icelanders often perceive glaciers as alive. Ablation—the process of ice mass loss through evaporation, sublimation, melt, and erosion—is described to explore human manipulation of glaciers in a thriving tourism industry.
Though Jackson does offer statistics throughout the book—how many glaciers cover the earth’s surface, how far glaciers in Iceland have receded in recent decades, the percentage of volume glaciers in Iceland are projected to lose in the next fifty years—those statistics are not central to her narrative. Instead, Jackson focuses on stories: the woman who paints in shades of blue, the elderly couple who checks in on their nearby glacier every morning, the man who believes the glacier watches over a loved one who has died.
There is no single story about glaciers, Jackson argues. Glaciers are diverse and complex, and so are our relationships to them. Though Iceland’s glaciers are disappearing, we cannot look at glaciers simply as a story of melt as a consequence of climate change. “While it is important to have the best physical data, statistics, and models chronicling glacier change, if such information is not grounded within the human stories of glaciers . . . then that information is powerless,” Jackson writes. “If people do not see themselves in the story, then they are not part of the story” (14). So Jackson works to tell some of those stories.
Of course, climate change is at the center of Jackson’s inquiries. While Icelanders observe changes in their glaciers, they also note that they have observed such changes for centuries. In cultural memory, the glaciers grow, then recede, then grow. Based on their observations, concerns of a changing climate may not be as immediate for some of them as they are for those who look strictly at the statistics of melting ice worldwide, because Icelanders have always lived with these fluctuations in ice. As Jackson insists, the story of glaciers is not just a story of loss. “Iceland has been experiencing climatic shifts over the entire length of human habitation,” she writes. “. . . Any Icelander alive today has lived through a time of intense glacier change . . . and those experiences have been beyond positive or negative” (221). Jackson urges us to not just look at the numbers or the photographs of receding ice, but at the complexities of entangled physical and social changes, the intimate interconnections between people, place, and ice.
Jackson notes that tourists flock to Iceland “expecting to see change in the glaciers” (204)—expecting to see climate change—or maybe just to “see glaciers before they disappear” (203). And it is no surprise that people from all over the world are drawn to these glaciers, or that Icelanders see an opportunity to share what they love about ice with others. Jackson writes,
“Today, the ice caves in Iceland are among the most photographed places in the country, pictures of unbelievable hues of sapphire, bubble-waved walls of sheer blue resembling underwater worlds, of time-stopped frozen waterfalls, ice tunnels, ice stalagmites, incandescent sublimation crystals and jagged icicles, low winter light pouring through blue ice caves filtering flickering blue-golden glows.” (191)
With such rich descriptions, Jackson allows readers who have never seen a glacier to love that ice, that color blue, to long for a world where we can live alongside ice, to protect it and let it watch over us.
Jenna Gersie is a PhD student in the English department at University of Colorado Boulder. She is managing editor of The Hopper.