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Iceland Is Living in our Future

I spent the first half of this week reporting in Iceland, and I came away convinced that the country provides a window into our collective future in at least three important ways.

Iceland uses remarkably few fossil fuels to power its economy and heat its homes. Instead, 85 percent of the country’s energy comes from domestically produced renewables, primarily geothermal power and hydropower.

Iceland can claim such a high percentage of renewables, the most of any country in the world, thanks to its unique geology. Its land sits atop an incredibly active volcanic zone, and six major geothermal plants tap that subterranean warmth to provide heating for almost all the country’s homes.

Drive around the countryside, and you can’t miss steam billowing from the ground between the majestic fjords. Just this morning, an active volcano began erupting in a town I visited only a few days ago.

Geothermal power also produces about 20 percent of the country’s electricity, with the remainder coming from a robust network of hydroelectric plants. The oil that Iceland does burn is primarily used to power cars and trucks, as well as the boats that comprise the country’s large fishing fleet.

Iceland a small and wealthy country that is unique, to say the least, in having such abundant geothermal and hydroelectric resources. But as we’ve recently reported, new advances gleaned from the oil and gas business are making geothermal feasible in new locales. And as solar and wind power continue to expand at a rapid clip, it may not be long before more countries are powering their economies not with fossil fuels but with local, clean renewable energy.

While Iceland is not a major emitter of planet-warming emissions, the effects of climate change are already transforming its landscape and economy.

One of its glaciers, Okjokull, has completely melted away. Over the next 200 years, scientists expect the rest — including the massive Vatnajokull glacier, which covers some 3,000 square miles — to disappear as well.

As major glaciers melt, some research suggests their shifting weight could trigger more volcanic and seismic activity. Already, subterranean tremors are damaging some towns’ pipes and triggering flash floods.

Warmer weather is also affecting plants and animals. Iceland’s native plants are at risk of extinction as temperatures rise and invasive species arrive. One of the country’s most important fish, the capelin, has occasionally vanished as waters around the country warmed. And like all coastal cities around the world, Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, is threatened by rising sea levels.

Some of the climate disruptions faced by Iceland will be unique, given its remote locale and distinct geology and biodiversity. But as we’ve seen this week in Chile, California and beyond, the rapidly warming planet will have profound effects on every corner of the Earth.

“Climate change is no longer something to be joked about in Iceland or anywhere,” Gudni Johannesson, Iceland’s president, told my colleague Liz Alderman in 2019.

There’s still plenty of pollution coming from Iceland. Its booming tourism business creates substantial emissions through air travel. In fishing, another important industry, the over-harvesting of natural stocks and the rise of open-water salmon farming are creating environmental hazards. And heavy industry, including aluminum production, remains a big emitter of greenhouse gases.

That’s all the more reason Icelanders are enthusiastic about a small but growing business that has an early foothold in the country: carbon capture. A local company, Carbfix, is a leader in the difficult work of taking captured carbon dioxide and sequestering it underground. And Climeworks, a Swiss company that is a leader in pulling carbon dioxide directly from the air, has set up its two largest facilities in Iceland, drawn by the promise of cheap, clean geothermal power, and a well-suited partner in Carbfix.

Both companies are just getting started. But in the years ahead, carbon removal and storage are expected to become enormous businesses, with similar facilities cropping up around the globe.

Last year was Earth’s warmest year, by far, in a century and a half. And 2024 is sharping up to be even worse.

Last month clocked in as the hottest January ever recorded, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service announced today.

It was the hottest January on record for the oceans, too, as you can see in the graphic above. And sea temperatures kept on climbing in the first few days of February, surpassing the daily records set last August.

Oceans absorb the great majority of the extra heat trapped by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, making them a reliable gauge of how we are warming the planet. More practically, warmer oceans provide more additional fuel for hurricanes and atmospheric river storms, and can disrupt marine life.

January makes eight months in a row that average air temperatures, across both the continents and the seas, have topped all records for the given time of year.

The principal driver of all this warmth is no mystery: The burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and other human activities have driven the mercury steadily upward for more than a century. The current El Niño weather cycle is also allowing more ocean heat to be released into the atmosphere.

Yet precisely why Earth has been this hot, for this long, in recent months remains a matter of some debate among researchers. But there’s no doubt about what action is needed if we want to turn things around.

“Rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are the only way to stop global temperatures increasing,“ Samantha Burgess, Copernicus’s deputy director, said in a statement.

Raymond Zhong and Elena Shao

Related: A global drop in carbon dioxide emissions because of fewer volcanoes may have thrust the planet into its longest ice age, around 717 million years ago.

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