Boyabreen, tongue of Jostedal Glacier Phot Cred: Finn Loftesnes
The museums of a country are said to reflect its culture. The Wine Museum across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower in Paris is world renowned, as are the Swiss Alpine Museum in Berne and the BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche museums in Germany. And somewhat belatedly, as it opened 20 years go, Norway has a Glacier Museum.
Its raison d’être is linked to Norway’s famed fjords. The fjords are the claw marks of glaciers that gouged valleys in bedrock out into the sea as they left the land at the end of the last ice age. Ice formed the topography of the country of today, and there’s still much of it about. There are 1,593 glaciers in Norway, and together they cover about one percent of its land area. The biggest one, Jostedalsbreen (“Jostedal Glacier”) inland from the west coast, is the largest on the European mainland, more than four times the size of the Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland, the largest in the Alps. That prevalence of glaciers led to their being part of life in the country; children learn about them in school, and mountain hikers and touring skiers often cross parts of them.
In 1991, the Norsk BreMuseum (“The Norwegian Glacier Museum”) foundation was set up by the International Glaciological Society and six Norwegian academic institutions, NGOs and public agencies. The foundation worked apace. In 1992, the museum building designed by internationally renowned Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn was finished in the Village of Fjærland on the west bank of the Fjærland Fjord, about six miles south of the southernmost tongue of Jostedalsbreen.
The location couldn’t have been better for the purpose. The Jostedalsbreen consists of an upper ice field on a plateau and 50 tongues extending down surrounding glacial valleys. Of the tongues, 28 of them are named on maps. The glacier and its tongues are maintained by the heavy snowfalls, not by low temperatures, as coastal Norway is warmed by the Gulf Stream. Moreover, Jostedalsbreen is a temperate glacier, which means that it always contains water, because it’s at the melting point, from its base to its surface. So the glacier easily can shrink as well as slide at any time, sometimes dangerously so. The Briksdalsbreen tongue has been found to be receding so rapidly that it may be on the verge of breaking away from the upper ice field and has been closed for ice climbing. The complex of the Jostedalsbreen and its tongues have become a giant laboratory, now much studied by Norwegian researchers, as well as by scientists from abroad. The Tunsbergdalsbreen tongue is monitored by the Glaciorisk European Project and the Bøyabreen is monitored by the University of Würzburg in Germany.
Glaciers are among the planet’s most sensitive indicators of climate change. So, in addition to studying glaciers and collecting and exhibiting the minutiae of them, the Museum conducts climate research, now in a purpose-built research facility opened in 2007 by Walter Mondale, the Vice President in the Carter administration (1977-1981) whose ancestors hailed from the village of Mundal just a mile-and-a-half west of Fjærland.
The Museum, the first of its kind, has had an unexpected spinoff. It inspired the creation of glacier museums elsewhere, including the extensive Glaciarium in El Calafate at the edge of the Patagonian ice field in Argentina, opened in February 2011, a small museum in the town of Höfn near the Vatnajökull Glacier in Iceland and Magic Ice, the first ice museum in a warm climate, opened in April 2011 in the Forum Shopping Mall in Istanbul, Turkey.
Norwegian Glacier Museum website at www.bre.museum.no (in Norwegian, English, and German; click on British flag to access the English version).
Jostedalsbreen National Park website at www.jostedalsbreen.info (in Norwegian, English, and German; click on British flag to access the English version).
Breheimen Center serving the Jostedalsbreen and Breheimen National Parks, www.jostedal.com (in English).
Other glacier museums: Glaciarium, El Calafate, Argentina, www.glaciarium.com (selectable in Spanish, Portuguese, and English), Jöklasýning Glacier Exhibition in Höfn, Iceland, www.rikivatnajokuls.is (in Icelandic with summary pages in English), and Magic Ice in Istanbul, Turkey, www.magicice.com.tr (selectable in Turkish and English).
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo, where he works as a translator. A natural scientist by training, he takes his vacations in France. Dateline: Europe appears monthly in MG.