Melting Goddess of Fertility: Photographing Icelandic Glacial Caves

The notion of a glacier is rather abstract for most of us. We often associate glaciers with increasing global temperatures and melting, but we do not quite know what they are like on an experiential or sensorial level. I had been fascinated by documentary films showing the vastness of ice caps, the harsh weather conditions, and the scarce life there. Still, I could not quite connect to glaciers. I needed to be close to one, to touch it, to smell it, to experience the weather, the light, and the ice.

In March of 2018, I went for a photo-tour in Iceland, which included a visit to the glacial caves of Breiðamerkurjökull, one of the outlet glaciers of Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap in Iceland. The two caves we visited, in the area called Treasure Island, were just amazing. I came back home understanding the glaciers better, but this short visit was not nearly enough to appreciate them fully. Overwhelmed by what I saw, I did not pay enough attention to detail. It was only when working on my pictures at home that I noticed how much was hidden there. A fragment of one image in particular was emotionally striking. At the bottom of the cave wall, in black ice, I could see a shape of a woman, which reminded me of an ancient figurine of a Goddess of Fertility I saw many years ago in a museum in Ankara.

Goddess of Fertility. Treasure Island cave, Breiðamerkurjökull, March 9, 2018.

How symbolic, I thought: an ancient icy goddess reclining under the glacier with dripping icicles hanging above her, indicating that her time was coming to an end. The reality of the threat of global warming struck me. Sometimes, a powerful symbol may convey a message just as well as scientific evidence can. This discovery triggered my desire to return to the glaciers, and this desire has not changed since. I wanted to capture on camera the unique impression of the moment and the place, a close view of the ice and its secrets.

Glacial caves vary greatly; some are wide open to light and some are more enclosed. Some have a wide entrance with a narrow tunnel going far into the glacier. The flickering light and the structure and color of ice make the caves alive and mysterious. The ice at the lower parts of the cave walls is often black, sometimes even opaque, the upper parts are lighter in color and more transparent. Shades of sapphire and of blue are mesmerizing, but we also see green, yellow, or brown, depending on the incoming light and the surroundings.  

Crying Glacier. A fragment of the wall of Sapphire Ice Cave, Breiðamerkurjökull, March 3, 2020.
Icy Coral. Fossil air in small tunnel well exposed to light in the area of Treasure Island. This feature was discovered by Solla Sveinbjörnsdottir. Breiðamerkurjökull, February 7, 2019.

We can see air bubbles, stones, volcanic ash, and even parts of plants caught in ice. Glacial caves reveal much about climatic history. The air bubbles contain information on the concentration of various gases in the atmosphere from many hundreds of years ago. The layers of ash indicate volcanic activities and the tree fossils say something about the flora before the ice age. Scientists take ice cores from the Arctic to research the climate’s past, but I could also see it through my lens. I will not make any scientific discoveries from my images, but they allow me to better understand the importance of the research based on ice cores. At the same time, I can enjoy the complexity of the ice’s content, its color, and the plethora of imaginative features changing as the ambient light changes.

Troll. A part of the ceiling in Sapphire Ice Cave, Breiðamerkurjökull, March 3, 2020.
Leaves and Twigs. A small fragment of the wall in Blue Dragon cave showing tiny leaves and twigs caught in ice. Skeiðarárjökull, February 27, 2020.

I was particularly moved by my experience in a cave called Blue Dragon in Skeiðarárjökull, another outlet of Vatnajökull consisting of several tunnels. A short time on my own in one of the tunnels made a special impression on me. It was dark and quiet, just a delicate trickle of water somewhere nearby and tons of ice above and around me. A ray of light was coming from the entrance to the cave and my eyes started to adjust to the darkness. The outside world disappeared for a moment as I was surrounded by what seemed to be Icelandic fairy tale beings, trolls and frozen creatures blinking their weird eyes at me. I wondered what they wanted to tell me.

Two-headed Dragon. A part of the ceiling of the Blue Dragon cave, Skeiðarárjökull, February 27, 2020.

I set my camera on the tripod and got close to one of them, hoping it did not mind being photographed. It was their kingdom and I was an outsider, but I did not feel like an intruder. I felt their friendly welcome, even some warmth in their icy home. I wished they could talk and tell me their story. After all, they were much older than me, at least several hundred years. What had they experienced over time? Could we understand each other?

I pushed the shutter button and waited for 30 seconds; this is how long it took to get a picture with a low ISO. The camera screen still showed a rather dark image, but I could see that the shine of the eye was there. How privileged I was to be in their home and to photograph it. I tried to respect the place, not to tread too much on the icy ground, not to break it. My camera was making too much noise but the trolls did not complain. How kind they were.

Photographing in such a dark environment is somewhat hit and miss. The exposures were long, but the camera recorded what was there, well-hidden from the naked eye: creatures floating in dark blue ice, momentary impressions of real physical entities.

Jellyfish. Fossil air bubbles and volcanic ash around a small cavity in the wall of Blue Dagon Cave, Skeiðarárjökull, February 27, 2020.
Octopus. Skeiðarárjökull, February 27, 2020.

The caves I visited in 2018 and in 2019 in the Treasure Island area on the edges of Breiðamerkurjökull do not exist anymore. They disappeared together with the retreating glacier. The creation of caves and under-glacial tunnels is a dynamic process and new ones form while the old ones change or disappear. The two caves I visited this year may not be accessible next year. Blue Dragon Cave on the side of Skeiðarárjökull and Sapphire Cave on the very edge of Breiðamerkurjökull have rather small chances of surviving the summer in their current forms. I could see the meltdown occurring rapidly over my three annual visits to the same area. The place was quite different each time, with the lagoon Jökulsárlón enlarged and packed with floating icebergs calved from Breiðamerkurjökull’s terminus.

The images I froze in my camera stay, while the subject of my photography melts. These pictures cannot be taken again, but they can be seen. I want to show what is so fragile, unique, and valuable, and what we must try to save. 

None of this work would have been possible without the wonderful help and support of my guides: Haukur Snorasson in 2018, Einar Rúnar Sigurðsson over the three years, and Solla Sveinbjörnsdottir and Guillaume Martin Kollibay in 2019 and 2020. Einar’s beautiful pictures can be seen in his recent photography album Crystal Ice Cave, published by Blurb.

(Top image: Blue Dragon Cave. One of the tunnels of the cave on the east side of Skeiðarárjökull, February 27, 2020.)

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Barbara Bogacka is an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society. She is interested in a wide spectrum of photographic genre, particularly abstract images of nature. Since retirement in 2015 from her academic job at the University of London, she has revived her interests in the environment and in climate issues. Pollution and its effects on the meltdown of glaciers are of her special concern. Currently, she is working on a photography project to bring remote and unfamiliar views of ice closer to our homes. Barbara is a Polish citizen based in Northern England.

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