3D drone images show dramatic impact of climate change on Icelandic glaciers

A new 3D process which involves old aerial photos and modern-day drone photography has shed light on accelerated ice loss from some of Iceland’s largest glaciers.

Dr Kieran Baxter from the University of Dundee documented the dramatic ice-loss on a group of outlet glaciers on the south side of Vatnajökull, one of the largest ice caps in Europe.

He said: “We have been working to produce images that are both engaging and easy to understand.

"It is important to show how climate change is physically and visibly affecting the region."

Images show the ice retreat at Skálafellsjökull in 1989, left, and 2019, right. Credit: National Land Survey of Iceland/University of Dundee

Aerial mapping photographs taken by the National Land Survey of Iceland were modelled in 3D using specialised photography software.

While this process is routinely used by scientists to measure the historical ice surface, here the models are aligned with current day drone photographs to highlight the impact of climate change on the region.

Dr Baxter added: “This method allows us to compose unique aerial views of past landscapes and to see how they have changed over the last 30 to 40 years.

"This period, which is within living memory for many people, has seen accelerated melt in south-east Iceland."

Three images illustrate the shrinking ice in Hoffellsjökull, from 1982, top, to 2019, bottom right.. Credit: National Land Survey of Iceland/University of Dundee

"While we have a fantastic resource of mapping photographs from the 1980s, this method can also be applied to aerial photographs that are even older," said Dr Baxter.

"The archives are huge and we have barely scratched the surface in terms of using them to better show how the warming climate is revealed in our landscapes.”

Vatnajökull ice cap, which covers an area of 7,700 sq km, has lowered by around 20 metres on average in the last 30 years.

The height of the outlet glaciers pictured in the image comparisons has dropped even more, up to 100 metres to 150 metres in some areas during that time.

The area of the icecap has been reduced by over 400 sq km since the turn of the century.

The impact of climate change is being seen across the ice caps. Credit: National Land Survey of Iceland/University of Dundee

Dr Tomas Johannesson, Coordinator of Glaciological Research at the Icelandic Meteorological Office, said: “Outreach about changes in the climate and the on-going down-wasting of glaciers of Iceland has become increasingly important in our glaciological work at the Icelandic Meteorological Office in recent years.

"We have limited background and expertise in the creation of effective visual outreach material that shows the dramatic changes of the glaciers.

“Our collaboration with Kieran Baxter and the University of Dundee is important for our public outreach and has proved effective to explain the changes that have occurred in recent decades."