glacier in Iceland with a warning sign
Photo: Deanne Bird

Tourists ignore warning signs at dangerous sites

It was a sunny June day with light, scattered clouds in the sky. Perfect for an excursion day. A husband and wife and their adult daughter were on holiday in Iceland and on their way to the Sólheimajökull Glacier, located on the southern part of the island. And they were far from the only ones. A young couple with a baby in their backpack and several tourist buses were among the many who had set out this sunny day to visit the famous glacier. 

On the way to the glacier, visitors came to a blue sign with white text: “Attention natural hazard! Calving and unstable glacier. Do not pass this point.” The sign also had images illustrating the danger of approaching the glacier. 

Guðrún Gísladóttir and Deanne Bird sat at a proper distance from the sign and the many visitors, a little up a slope. They are both researchers in one of NordForsk's projects, Nordress, carrying out research on societal resilience to natural hazards. The project is part of NordForsk's research programme on societal security. 

As part of a new study, they observed the behaviour of tourists to examine how people act in natural areas that may pose a potential risk to human safety. Do the tourists stop and turn around when they read warning signs, or do they continue? 

More than 1000 visitors came to the glacier during the days that Gísladóttir and Bird carried out the study, and among them were the aforementioned guests. The young couple with the baby in the backpack passed the warning sign and continued right down to the glacier. The couple with their daughter debated the issue. The father was reluctant because he had read the warning sign, but they chose to continue after convincing the father that it would be OK.   

This was the researchers' observation spot. Photo: Deanne Bird.

A dangerous area 

Deanne Bird makes no secret of the fact that for those who ignore the warning sign and move on, it is a dangerous area to explore: 

“We sat there over several days and different times throughout the day and captured different tourist groups who walked past the warning signs and up on the glacier. There’s a lot of loose rocks and there is a huge concern that it may fall down on the path. It is a very dangerous area to go walking. With people spread all over the landscape and the mobile reception is not great it would be very challenging to get people out of that area in case of an emergency.” 

Of all the groups they observed, 153 decided to continue past the first sign, 60 did not and a further 11 split up with some heading down to the glacier and others remaining at the first warning sign.  

It was mixed in terms of gender, age and ability in relation to those that walked past the sign, particularly among the groups that split. 

To the question of whether the same behaviour applies in the other Nordic countries, the answer is clear: 

“Most definitely. It is a known issue. Generally, people don’t think anything will happen to them on their vacation, so they are willing to take the risk and many just want to take selfies and get a great picture. When people travel in groups, they often place the responsibility on their tour guide or tour company. This is not just unique to volcano areas. The lessons that we would take from this study can be applied to other areas, for instance forest fires when people are hiking. How can we ensure they are informed about the risks? This will be a growing issue with climate changes coming to the Nordic countries. 

Information is the key 

“What I argue about is that we need to make sure that we provide enough information through as many sources as possible so tourists can take informed decisions. Going to the glacier is safe most of the time but there is a risk for accidents. The most important is that people are aware of that and can take informed decisions."  

“We do need to use as many voices as possible. Someone said I had this amazing taxi driver telling me to be aware. Accommodation places, taxi drivers, bus drivers and many more can help making tourists aware of the risk areas.” 

Read more about Nordress, the Nordic Centre of Excellence on Resilience and Societal Security. 

Read more about NordForsk’s work with societal security.