The agency of melting glaciers

March 2022
The Seventh International Conference on Climate, Tourism and Recreation (CCTR 2022)

Perennial snow and ice will gradually disappear from many regions in the arctic and sub-artic parts of Scandinavia. Glaciers and perennial snow fields are important landscape features and venues for tourism activities and mountaineering, have importance for place identity and hold symbolic and cultural significance for nearby communities. In this paper we present findings from a study into how guides, tourists and other local tourism actors perceive climate and environmental change and impacts on local communities and the tourism industry. Melting glaciers has become one of strongest symbols of global climate change, instigating last chance tourism as well as rallying cries for climate action from activists. In this sense does retreating glaciers act as charismatic entities, appealing to the publics feelings and imaginations. The melting cryosphere is also subjects for scientific enquiry, providing the very knowledge that are needed to establish it’s rate of decline and interlinkages and feedbacks with other natural and human systems. Climate change is a phenomenon that is notoriously hard to connect with emotionally for most people, as it is based on highly abstract models of reality that disconnects with most peoples own experiences and perceptions. Melting glaciers can thus serve as boundary object by the properties they have as charismatic entities, that allows tour guides or activists to raise awareness about climatic and environmental change or push for climate action. The glaciers serve to reconcile different knowledge systems, allowing for co-existence of emotions, imaginaries and scientific rationality. By interviews, workshops and surveys in local communities surround two of the major ice caps in Norway – Jostedalsbreen and Folgefonna, we find that the immediate consequences of the disappearing snow and ice is manageable. Tourism actors have a high adaptive capacity, and tourists indicate that they would still visit the glacier-destinations. But these findings can overshadow more subtle impacts of the melting ice. By drawing on theories both from human geography and science technology studies, we show how the melting glaciers is performing non-human agency by inspiring guides and other tourist professionals to influence tourists’ awareness and concern about climate change and sustainability.