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  • Glaciology
  • Beth Peterson (bio)

It's quiet on the glacier—and not the good kind of quiet. It's the long quiet—the quiet that splits you open, leaves you flayed.

I try yelling.





Nothing. Only low rumblings in the distance and the faint sound of water running, probably rainwater or melted snow, dripping through thin tears in the ice, pushing downward, drips becoming streams, streams becoming wide rivers of glacial runoff, pouring down the base of the mountain, splitting into the glacial valley, cascading into the Atlantic Ocean.

When my eyes adjust to the semi-darkness of the crevasse, I size up the hole. I'm hanging midway between parallel walls of raw ice, thick and slanted and buckling in places. There's an overhang two stories above; I see the outline; shards of snow crack off it every few minutes, fall past me or onto my back and arms. Somewhere above the overhang, there's a shaft of sky. Beyond this, the only thing I can make out [End Page 73] clearly is a thin blue line, edging the glacial walls many stories below. Everything else is wet and dim, like the underbelly of a cement culvert in high tide.

It was the summer of the lemmings—the fourth year in the four-year cycle of boom and bust, massive population explosions followed by sudden and devastating dives. In the course of a few months, sometimes weeks, Norwegian lemmings fall off cliffs; they walk into rivers; they climb onto long sheets of ice and sun themselves to death. In a single area, populations swoon from several thousand to near-extinction.

No one knows exactly why this happens. Some scientists say that the Norwegian lemming deaths are caused by early thaws and late spring freezes. Lemmings burrow, creating long low tunnels beneath the upper layers of snow. When the snow melts early, leaving them on the top of the ice, bare and exposed, lemmings can freeze in a single cold morning. Others say that it's a stress mechanism: there are too many animals in one place, and in their sprint to get away from one another, they run off cliffs, they dive into deep pools of water.

In the 1960s, scientist W. B. Quay suggested that in the every-few-year combination of bursting lemming populations and increased temperatures, something inside the lemming's brain becomes unbalanced. Abnormal deposits begin to show up in their blood; the lemmings begin to move at a frantic pace. These deposits shut off all the normal responses of the animal brain until the lemmings can't eat, can't dig, can't reproduce, can't do anything but move, in frenzied circles, in large groups, until they die from exhaustion.

I didn't know about the lemmings that day on the glacier, but I'm not sure it would have mattered if I did; I came to Norway because I thought I'd be able to breathe better there than I could in the States, in my small, suburban, closed-circle life. I felt stuck—caught between careers and relationships and lives—and I was young enough then to believe that in a new place, in different air, everything that was lost could be fixed, recovered. [End Page 74]

It had been a perfect morning. We'd been waiting for it: cool and sunny and dry. It was clear, too, clear enough to see the backside of Mount Fannaråken in the distance, snow crusting over its ridged outline and dropping four thousand feet to a broad rocky valley. Beyond Fannaråken, miles of high mountain plains and lesser peaks, gray and muted—even in the summer sun—stretch straight to the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike most of Norway, wet and green, this region is dry, cold, austere: brown grass plains flattened by heavy snows giving way to sharp angular slopes and broad blockfields of hard, jagged rocks.

Like usual, the morning of the glacier hike, the six of us—four Brits, one Latvian and myself—had gotten up early, taken the first bus, and arrived at the glacier before breakfast. We hiked two miles down a single-track...


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