A 38-year-old Austrian tourist was killed on Sunday afternoon after he allegedly ignored warnings and wandered beyond the chains that cordon off the Nigard Glacier in the mountains of central Norway. As many as nine others had done the same, but escaped injury when a massive ice block broke off the glacier and crashed into the river below.
The leader of the Jostedalen glacier guides’ organization said it was sheer luck that the death toll wasn’t higher on Sunday. One guide who witnessed the fatal incident told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that at least 10 people had stepped over the chains set up in front of the glacier that, like many other glaciers in Norway, has been subjected to warmer temperatures and steadily shrinking for years.
Glaciers are notoriously unstable and can be dangerous. “Around 10 people had defied the warnings and chains,” glacier guide and expert Tshering Pande Bhote told NRK. “Suddenly the ice block breaks off from the front of the glacier. The warnings are posted all over that you’re supposed to stay behind the chains, but when folks are on holiday, they defy that and don’t think about the risk.” A German couple was also killed after walking on the glacier four years ago.
The tourist on Sunday was cast into the river along with two others who managed to get themselves to land. Emergency crews were sent to the scene including police, an ambulance, two rescue and ambulance helicopters from Florø and Førde and divers from Bergen. “One of those who landed in the water and survived was hit in the head by the ice block, but suffered minor injuries,” Helge Blindheim of the Vest Police District told NRK.
The third person was seen lying lifeless in the water. “Our crews couldn’t get to him, the ice block had just fallen off and it was too dangerous to approach,” Blindheim said. A rescue helicopter later managed to get the person up from the water but resuscitation attempts failed. The man, from Austria, was declared dead by a doctor at the site at 7:20pm.
Glacier breaking up
Steinar Bruheim, leader of the guides’ association in the glacier area of Sogn og Fjordane, said the Nigard Glacier’s front has been very active this summer, which also has been the warmest on record in Norway. Bruheim said there have been ice and rock slides off the glacier on several occasions.
Bruheim said it was difficult to determine the weight of the ice block that broke off the glacier on Sunday, but that it likely weighed several tons. He also noted that tourists have wandered beyond the posted boundary several times this summer. “We have seen earlier that it’s just been luck that folks haven’t been taken by the glacier when it breaks up,” he told NRK.
Three of the other tourists standing on the glacier were thrown into the ice-cold river on Sunday but they survived. “They were lucky,” Bruheim said. “Because of all the ice melting, the river is high and the current is strong. Getting back on land isn’t easy.” It’s also difficult for those on land to rescue anyone in the water.
The glacier treks led by the organization approach the glacier from its other, more stable side, and with all participants roped together and using special equipment for safety reasons. When guides see tourists go out of bounds and walk on the glacier themselves, “we try to wave and yell that they should go back, but they just wave back,” Bruheim said. “There’s not much more we can do.”
Difficult to stop tourists
Ivar Kvalen, mayor of the local community of Luster where the glacier is located, claims the warnings are well-posted in clear language. “I maintain that the information offered is good enough,” Kvalen told NRK. “Then the question is how can we stop folks from crossing over the boundary. We’d have to have guards up there, and it’s not illegal to go out of bounds either.”
He said that local authorities, the police and the state nature conservation agency evaluates the security measures around the glaciers after every summer season. “We can look into further measures, but there’s not much you can do when folks ignore them,” Kvalen said.
NRK had reported just last week that the Nigard Glacier had been melting at a rate of 10 centimeters a day. Norway’s state waterways agency NVE predicted record melting of Norway’s glaciers this summer, with Nigard losing fully eight meters of its length just since mid-May. The glaciers have been reduced by an average 10 meters per summer in recent years, indicating that this year will end with reductions of 12 to 13 meters, according to NVE.