During the summer of 2015, several Roosevelt University students majoring in Sustainability Studies have been doing internships or pursuing study abroad opportunities in various locales around the world, from Chicago to Hawaii and from Schaumburg to Scandinavia. We’ve invited them to write up reports from the field on their activities, adventures, and advocacy work in the service of environmental conservation, sustainable development, and social justice.
Here’s the second of these student blog posts, from Shannon Conway, a senior SUST major who took a class on glaciology and climate change through a study abroad program in Denmark that included a week-long field study session in Iceland.
SUST major Shannon Conway in Copenhagen, Denmark, Summer 2015
This summer, I had the amazing opportunity to study at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS) in Copenhagen, Denmark, with a field-based tour of Iceland’s southern coast. This three-week, three-credit course revolved around Iceland’s glaciers and how they’re being altered by climate change. What attracted me to this course was the semi-short duration of the course, the locations, and of course, glaciers! For as long as I can remember I have been a creature of the cold. Snow, ice, and anything that has to do with cold temperatures intrigues me. I have always wanted to study abroad but thought that an entire semester was a little much, so this three-week program suited my schedule.
Student life at DIS was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. My housing and classroom were both centered directly in the heart of Copenhagen, making it easy to familiarize myself with the city. I lived in Kannikestræde with about 30 other American students who came from all around the country; my actual roommate, Lea, was from Hawaii. There were about 10 different courses throughout these three weeks, all with different study tours.
Living in Copenhagen was quite the cultural shift from living in Chicago. Most of the roads were cobblestone, the buildings did not exceed four stories, and it rained basically everyday for at least an hour. The Danes are very reserved people, but their daring fashion choices definitely make a statement. It was very easy to pick out the American in the crowd just by looking at what they were wearing, considering we all looked like tourists compared to them.
The name of the course I took was called Climate Change and Glacier Modeling. My professor, Susanne Lilja Buchardt, is a native Dane who lives in Iceland for half of the year with her family. She is a brilliant glaciologist and has worked in the field for over ten years. In the course, we focused on the impacts of climate change and how it’s altering everyday life in Iceland, Antarctica, Greenland, and essentially the entire world. Though only a small percentage of glaciers are located in Iceland, they are vital to study since they’re being affected first due to their smaller ice volume. The first week of my course was spent in the classroom in Copenhagen from 9:00am to 1:00pm where we discussed how glaciers form, shift, and flow. This whole week was a preparation for our Iceland study tour.
The second week of class, we packed our bags and headed to Reykjavik, Iceland, for a week-long study tour. Arriving in Iceland almost felt like we were landing on Mars. The terrain was covered with dark lava rocks, some covered in a thick moss which looked like coral. There were snow covered mountains to my right, the Atlantic Ocean to my left, and lava rocks between. Reykjavik is the country’s capital where 95% of the population lives, which is about 130,000 people, and where we stayed for the majority of the trip. Every day we would get on our tour bus at 8:00am and head to different geological sites.
Day 1: We visited the Icelandic Meteorologist Office and attended a presentation from a well-known local glaciologist. Here, we received a brief rundown on volcanoes, glaciers, and climate.
My class took these super-sized trucks up the
Langjökull glacier. The driver would let almost all
the air out of the tires in order to disperse weight
evenly up the mountain. If they did not do that,
the truck would get stuck in the ice.
Day 2: My class and I went to the Volcano House where we listened to a presentation about Iceland’s most historical volcano eruptions. Then we headed over to the earliest known settlement in Iceland and toured the artifacts and housing found there.
Day 3: First, we visited Deildartunguhver, the most powerful hot spring in Iceland and Europe, where water was above boiling point and was spewing out of the ground. Then we went to Hraunfossar waterfalls. They are a series of water flows coming down from ice melt, flowing over a lava field.
Later that day we headed southeast to the Langjökull Glacier where we were taken to the top on an old army truck with wheels almost taller than me. At the top, we went on an “Into The Glacier” tour. Glaciologists have carved a mile-long tunnel through the middle of the glacier. We went about 200 feet into the center. Each line of ice had a piece of history to it, whether it was a darker layer of ash from a volcano or a skinny layer of ice from a dry season. It was truly incredible to be in this ice tunnel.
Inside the Langjökull glacier where there are visible lines of history. Theses are formed from seasons, melting, accumulation, and volcanic eruptions (S. Conway, June 2015)
Day 4: We left our hotel for the night and headed to the Burfell Hydropower Station. Water flows down from the mountains, into rivers, and down another slope in order for energy to be captured. Burfell is unique because of its ice-catching system at the mouth of the river. If there are ice chunks from the glacier melt, they will be stopped before flowing into the plant.
After this visit, we went to the Hekla Volcano Center. Hekla is one of the most active volcanoes in Iceland, with the past seven eruptions averaging every 10 years. When I was there, it was 4 years overdue. After Hekla we traveled to the city of Vik which is right on the coast of the Atlantic. If climate change continues to make sea level rise, Vik will no longer be here in the next century. The only way Vik could survive, oddly enough, is if the Katla volcano erupts, creating more land mass.
After Vik, we went to the beautiful waterfalls of Seljalandsfoss, then to Kirkjubæjarklaustur where the earth is cut in half with a river running through. At the end of the day we ended up at Hotel Laki.
The waterfalls of Seljalandsfoss. There was a path we walked completely around the backside of this waterfall. And got soaked.
Svínafellsjökull Glacier hike, the Ice Explorer guide leading us, followed by my professor (S. Conway, June 2015)
Day 5: We traveled with the Ice Explorers to Skaftafell National Park where we took our ice picks and boot spikes on a hike up Svínafellsjökull glacier. Since it was summer, the glacier had retreated a great deal and there were massive cracks in the ice with no visible ending. Each step was to be taken with extreme caution.
After the glacier hike, we traveled to the iconic glacial lagoon in Breidamerkurlon. The lagoon was formed only 80 years ago due to warming temperatures. Sublet-glaciers from the Vatnajökull glacier melt into this lagoon, bringing giant chunks of ice down with it. In the lagoon, the pieces of fallen glaciers become icebergs in a way, and flow out to the shores of the Atlantic.
Glacier Lagoon being fed by sublet-glaciers from the Vatnajökull Glacier. This lagoon was formed only 80 years ago. It is astonishing what climate change and rising temperatures can do.
Day 6: This day was used as a relaxing traveling day, but was just as memorable as the others. We headed back to Reykjavik where we went swimming at the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is a hot springs which was formed about 50 years ago by mistake. Engineers at the local geothermal power plant did not know what to do with the excess water they created, so they dumped it in a nearby lava field. It was full of sulfite and other natural chemicals, but was not toxic to humans. Because of where the water got dumped, the natural geothermal energy from the earth heated the excess water, creating a hot spring. Now, it has become a huge tourist attraction for Iceland.
Group photo of my class while retreating down the Svínafellsjökull Glacier. The weather was unusually hot and we needed to take off many layers of clothing. My professor, an expert glaciologist, claimed that was the warmest glacier hike she had ever been on.
Reflecting back on my trip, I can truly say this is one of the best experiences I have ever had. Not only was it a cultural and social learning experience, but also a huge eye-opener in terms of sustainability.
Shannon Conway in Iceland, June 2015
Without being there first-hand to witness what is happening to these glaciers and to the surrounding geography, I would not be able to fathom the rate at which climate change is impacting them. By seeing the ice physically flow down into the ocean, ice chunks plummeting into the pools of water, and Icelandic natives concerned about flooding in their cities, I realized how important the practice of sustainability is in our world.
This trip was much like an awakening to me and what I stand for, what I study, what I practice, and what I should do differently. Much of what we do in our everyday lives is impacting the globe somewhere else. After being in Iceland, I now know how big of an impact that really is.
All in all, I could not be happier about my decision to study abroad this summer and I hope other students will see what a great experience this was and want to make a study abroad trip themselves.
Text written and photos provided by Roosevelt University SUST major Shannon Conway, August 2015