Iceland: life on global warming's front line

Other News Materials 6 April 2008 13:52 (UTC +04:00)

( Reuters ) - If any country can claim to be pitched on the global warming front line, it may be the North Atlantic island nation of Iceland.

On a purely physical level, this land of icecaps and volcanoes and home to 300,000 people is undergoing a rapid transformation as its glaciers melt and weather patterns change dramatically.

But global warming is also having a profound effect on Iceland economically -- and in many ways the effects have actually been beneficial.

Warmer weather has been a boon to Iceland's hydroelectric industry, which is producing more energy than before as melting glaciers feed its rivers.

Climate change, stoked by human use of fossil fuels, has also focused attention on Iceland's energy innovations and created demand for its ideas and expertise in fields such as geothermal energy and fuel technology.

Scientists from Africa to the Americas are exploring what Icelandic universities and energy researchers are up to. And foreign companies are teaming up with the small island's firms.

Two-thirds of electricity in Iceland is already derived from renewable sources -- its plentiful rivers and waterfalls and the geothermal heat that warms 90 percent of Iceland's houses.

Some observers say forward-thinking comes naturally on an island where climate change can already be seen in thawing ice and balmier winters.

"People are already now planning for a future that will be different from the past," said Tomas Johannesson, a geophysicist at the Icelandic Meteorological Office.

"We are in an unusual situation that many of the changes that are happening are maybe more beneficial than for the worse," he added.

The increase in waterflow in the island's rivers, because of melting glaciers, is one example.

"If you compare the hydrological data about how much energy is in the water for the last 60 years, and then the last 20 years, you see that there is an increase," said Thorstein Hilmarsson of the national power company Landsvirkjun.

This extra energy is needed in an economy driven partly by power-intensive industries such as aluminum smelting.

But Icelanders know that climate change is not a simple economic equation.

"If something serious happens to other nations, this can easily have an effect here. So people are not exactly welcoming these changes," Johannesson said.