Winter storms and intrepid tourists keep Iceland's search and rescue teams busy

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Marco Werman: Now about those tourists. Some of them are not prepared for the harsh winter conditions and they’ve been keeping Iceland’s search and rescue teams busy. Alda SigmundsdÄttir is an Icelander. She says it’s been the coldest, nastiest winter in a long while.

 

Alda SigmundsdÄttir: We’ve just been getting one storm after the other and quite a lot of snow and it’s quite rough.

 

Werman: Yeah, I’m looking at the map and the Gulf Stream just kind of sends what we get here in Boston up to you guys.

 

SigmundsdÄttir: Right. Thank you so much.

 

Werman: You’re very welcome. What has been the impact on the tourist season then?

 

SigmundsdÄttir: Part of the problem is just the sheer numbers that are coming in, and of course then it’s compounded by the bad weather. So, what happens is that tourists don’t realize, they don’t recognize that when the Icelanders say “Don’t travel, there’s going to be a storm,” they think it will be something like back home and it’s usually quite a bit different. So, they don’t take weather warnings seriously.

 

Werman: I gather there was a recent incident involving some cross country skiers from Finland?

 

SigmundsdÄttir: Yeah, that was a particularly bad situation. There were three cross country skiers who were going across the Vatnajökull glacier, which is the largest glacier in Europe outside of Greenland. Evidently one of their travelers got ill, so they called for help from the search and rescue teams and they came up and they got the sick tourist. They strongly advised the other two to come with them because there was a storm coming and they refused to come down. So, three days later the storm blew in, they lost their equipment, their tent was gone, and so they had to call the rescue teams again and the rescue teams had to go up in extremely bad conditions and try and find them, which they did. But I think there was sort of the incident that sparked a lot of anger in Iceland because they were advised to come down and they didn’t heed the advice, so the search and rescue teams had to put themselves in danger.

 

Werman: Is it true that search and rescue teams in Iceland are mostly volunteers?

 

SigmundsdÄttir: Yes, entirely volunteers. They’re stretched to the max, I’d say, right about now. There have been incidences of people going up onto the glacier, even with small children, and in some cases needing to be rescued. So, the calls that the search and rescue teams are getting have increased exponentially in the last five years or so. The cost of each rescue is, as you can probably imagine, pretty hefty and it really can’t be sustained. Something has to change.

 

Werman: That anger among Icelanders about these ill-prepared tourists, is it difficult for them to reconcile? Because the tourism dollar in Iceland is pretty strong, right?

 

SigmundsdÄttir: I think most Icelanders see this tourism boom as a mixed blessing. It’s a situation where I think most Icelanders are just trying to get a grip on what’s happening and how to deal with the situation.

 

Werman: What advice do you have for tourists going to Iceland besides “Don’t be stupid”? What’s the trick to returning from Iceland in one piece?

 

SigmundsdÄttir: Well, there is an excellent website called SafeTravel.is and it’s run by the search and rescue teams. Let me just say here that the Icelandic search and rescue teams are fantastic--they don’t take any chances. For example, there was a woman just a few days ago cross country skiing around one of the glaciers and she had a device with her that sent every 12 hours a signal as to where she was. The device failed, she didn’t realize, but all these search and rescue workers went out looking for her just because they don’t take any chances. They found her after a three-day search in horrible, horrible weather. That would be my first piece of advice to tourists, just to do your homework before you set out and always heed the warnings of the locals.

 

Werman: Alda SigmundsdÄttir. Her blog is “The Iceland Weather Report.” Thank you very much.

 

SigmundsdÄttir: Thank you.