Touching Permafrost, Ice Tunnel & Norse Mythology

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

The Juvasshytta at 1,840 meters of altitude is the base for exploring more than Galdhøpiggen, the roof of Scandinavia. The man-made ice tunnel, entirely dug by hand with ice axes allows you to discover the ins and outs of this world of ice and the fragile climate balance. Explore the mythological well of knowledge hidden in the Ice Tunnel in Jotunheimen National Park, learn about the delicate flora and fauna of the tundra and touch climate change yourself!

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The wind is cold and goes straight through my hiking pants that I am wearing on this summer day. Still, I consider myself lucky: close to Galdhøpiggen, Norway’s highest peak, the average wind speed in winter is about 70 kilometres per hour, so the 20 kilometres per hour of today are not that bad. The white door in front of me leading into the Ice Tunnel will secure a wind free space but it will definitely be colder inside…

Inquisitively, I step into a surreal world of natural ice, carved out in the mountain at an altitude of 1,900 meters and artistically sculpted. I pass through the orange ring of Middle Earth. I find myself surrounded by ravens of the Norse God Odin, the snake Midgard and the beautifully-lit Yggdrasil, the eternal tree of the Norse mythology. Through a maze of tunnels, I search for the well of knowledge of the god Mímir. I come across objects frozen in the ice such as a 1,500-year-old scaring stick to hunt for reindeers, a 3,000-year-old leather shoe, more than 4000-year-old arrow heads. I pass by the oldest ice parts in this melting ice slab that are about 7,000 years old.

On my quest to learn more about this secret polar world, I find my own well of knowledge standing in the middle of the Ice Tunnel: Jo Jordet, my Climate Park guide. Jo is not only a guide, he participated actively in digging the 70-meter-long ice tunnel I am walking through, a 2-year project involving a lot of ice-hard work! Beyond the artistic side, its scientific and educational aspects are the ones that passionate Jo the most. Along a team of climate, permafrost, geology, glaciology and archaeology experts involved in the Climate Park, Jo studied climate and climate change, including the Milankovitch cycles and the glacial measurements of Jotunheimen that have been taken since 1900.

If I am aware of scientific studies about the thawing of permafrost, I had never seen it myself, let alone touch it. Earlier on, as I had just met Jo a few hundred meters from the tunnel, he actually showed me permafrost! He started jumping like a mad man on the soil, until it started to look like the top surface of a tasteless wobbly gelatine dessert. He had just activated the upper layer of the permafrost… High up in the mountains and in colder climates, the temperature in the ground has stayed below 0°C for thousands of years: this is permafrost, that covers about 24% of the land in the Northern Hemisphere. Where we are standing now, in the Jotunheimen National Park amongst the Caledonian Mountain range that covers all of Norway, the permafrost goes as far deep as 300 meters!

“Why does permafrost matter so much?”, Jo asked me rhetorically, before answering his own question.  “When the permafrost thaws, the enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and methane it stores as frozen organic matter are released, contributing even more to greenhouse gases.” In 2200, scientists estimate that the emissions from the thawing of permafrost will represent 5 to 39% of the carbon emission from the industry! The bad news though is that this effect is rarely included in climate models as it is not very known yet. NASA evaluates that 1.5 trillion tons of carbon in the form of methane and other hydrocarbons (i.e., twice as much as is found in the atmosphere!) is currently stored in the permafrost.

At a more local level, consequences are even more catastrophic. The permafrost is formed by ground water seeping through the spaces in between the soil and the stones in the summer. In the winter, it freezes, expanding and pushing stones further, creating a patterned ground, looking like islands amongst the rocks. As such, permafrost contributes to stabilizing the soil, and its disappearance has already led to landslides, sinkholes and rock falls. With warmer temperatures, cities built on permafrost can collapse entirely.

Jo is not a climate activist. He lives in the mountains of Norway, and he has witnessed changes. Actually, the first ice-tunnel he dug has melted entirely and the second one is now insulated to prevent it from melting away, which eventually will happen anyway though as it is doomed. “Temperature changes here affect the structural stability of entire ecosystems much more than in a more temperate regions” he explains. Typically, the volume of the glacier keeps reducing and even at a much higher rate since 2000. Since the beginning of measurements in 1900, the glacier has retreated by 1.1 kilometres. On paper, it does not seem much. But as we are walking out of the ice tunnel together and crossing the 10-year belt, I realize how wide it is. I just need to look at the colour of the rocks: lichen cannot grow in ice, and it takes 10 years for yellow map lichen to appear on rocks after the glacier has retracted. I can see it with my naked eye.

As we approach the weather station, Jo makes me realize that we are close to the record for the warmest day that was registered last year. Even if I am shivering during this month of July, the temperature is way too warm, and this greatly affects the melting rate of the glacier that occurs during the summer. The situation has started to worry the small community living in the village of Lom, down in the valley. Despite this world of ice, this polar climate is arid, and Lom is dependent on the melting water of the glacier. Since the 1700s, the situation had been quite stable, and recently, things have gone out of control. If the glacier disappears, Lom will lose its water which is unthinkable for the farming community.

Surely, on top of losing its water source, the Lom tourism industry would also suffer as the reason why the Lom area attracted travellers in the first place and still does so would be gone too… These septentrional regions feel the climate pressure first even though it is affecting the whole planet. Time to take climate change seriously and act?

Insider’s tip: Where to stay [the Elveseter Hotel]

Perfectly located to explore the Jotunheimen National Park, and more specifically the beautiful Road 55, the Galdhøpiggen – Scandinavia’s highest peak – and the Ice Tunnel, this family-run hotel is also a true gem full of Norwegian treasures from crafts to museum-grade art pieces.

The proximity and relatively easy access to the glacier boosted the nineteenth century ice tourism in the area when wealthy Germans and British came to train for mountain expeditions. A farm since 1623, the Elvesæter family realised the potential and has proposed rooms since the 1880’s. Generation after generation, the inn has been expanded and decorated with delicate wood-carving, a fine family craftsmanship, traditional objects such as the family brides’ rose-painted chests and bridal sledges, and three original Tideman paintings, one of Norway’s most celebrated painters. In the evening, after a day hiking in the mountains, seating by the fireplace on a traditional kubbestol chair and admiring the 1855 Saying Goodbye to the Old People, 1862 Priest with Sick People or 1894 Gravøl is a treat for the body and soul.

Interestingly, a majestic column stands on the Elvesæter’s property: in the 1920’s, it was commissioned by the Norwegian government to be erected in front of the city hall in Oslo. But the war broke out and the column was never finished even though the moulds were completed. The then owner of the Elveseter hotel managed to acquire the column representing the history of Norway.

Travel tips:

  • The Klimapark 2469 Climate Park aims at monitoring climate change in the Galdhøpiggen area and establishing a window for the public. Partners are the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, University of Oslo, Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate and Gjøvik University College.
  • For more info regarding climate change, refer to the NASA.
  • We decided to be carbon-neutral to reach the Ice Tunnel, and biked the road from the Elveseter Hotel to Klimapark 2469. This makes it a fantastic day outing combined with the visit of the Ice Tunnel. Beautiful, demanding, exhilarating on the way back down!
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!

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