Monitoring the Climate on the Fringe of the World

It all started with a single sentence in a blog post about Iceland: “A farmer is looking for support in a weather station and a sheep farm.”

It was 2012 and after studying photography in the German industrial city of Dortmund, I was ready for a change. I had long planned to visit Iceland and when I read about the remote farm it all came together. I answered the mail, got the job, sold most of my stuff, and booked my flight.

Marsibil Erlendsdottir, the farmer and weather watcher, picked me up at the small airport in Egilsstadir near the easternmost edge of Iceland.

The drive to the weather station took almost two hours – through snow-covered mountain passes, along waterfalls, past reindeer and empty summer houses. As we neared our destination, the road became narrow and rough. Finally we reached the end of a remote fjord where a small yellow lighthouse appeared in the distance.

“Welcome to the end of the world,” said Mrs. Erlendsdottir with a laugh.

The Icelandic Meteorological Office operates 71 manned weather stations across the country, 57 of which report precipitation, snow depth and land cover once a day. Ms. Erlendsdottir, who passes Billa, supervises one of the 14 stations, which also report on cloud cover, weather conditions and other meteorological phenomena.

Regardless of the weather, Billa checks the readings from the weather instruments at her station every three hours, day and night, and forwards them – temperatures, air pressure, wind conditions and others – to the office in Reykjavik.

Their reports are published online and broadcast on the radio along with those from the rest of the country. For farmers who rely on the forecasts, the information provided by Billa can help guide their daily work. For fishermen on the high seas, the information can mean the difference between life and death.

There has been a weather station in this area since 1938, always operated by real people. (Given the harsh conditions in the region, automation wouldn’t be possible, says Billa.)

The region is incredibly remote. In the coldest months of the year, the farm can only be reached by boat and can be cut off from the outside world for days during storms.

Billa grew up on the weather station with her brother and five sisters. She married one of the local fishermen and had a family of her own that raised two children – one of whom, her son, was born on a boat on the way to the hospital.

Billa’s husband died in recent years, leaving her to run the weather station and the farm on her own. Billa could have easily left the place, but she decided to stay.

“It never gets boring here,” she said.

I worked with Billa for 10 months at the beginning. Growing up on a farm in Poland, I found much of the job familiar: looking after the sheep, training Border Collies, repairing fences, collecting hay.

Billa doesn’t enjoy the limelight. It took over a year before she felt comfortable enough for me to take her portrait.

In the meantime, I began to document her life and work to the rhythm of her days – and the weather reports.

Like Billa, I like to spend time off the grid and keep coming back to the farm where there is no cell phone reception. In total, I spent about two and a half years there.

The area becomes inaccessible, especially in the winter months when daylight lasts only a few hours and the constantly rotating beam from the lighthouse cuts through the darkness.

For months the farm is covered in snow and the sounds are muffled – with the exception of the sounds of the surrounding sea. In winter the waves get wilder and wilder, the wind stronger and stronger and the weather conditions less predictable.

But even in the toughest snowstorm, Billa leaves her house to look after the animals and check the protection of the instruments.

Each season has its own chores. In spring, when the sheep give birth, the animals must be monitored 24 hours a day. In summer the hay has to be collected for the winter months. And in autumn the sheep are carried down from the mountains.

In addition to all the work on the farm, Billa also maintains the lighthouse, which was built in 1908. Your pantry must always be full, as the nearest supermarket is 80 km away.

In winter it takes an hour by boat to get to the nearest shops. A mail boat arrives every two weeks, but only if weather conditions permit.

The circumstances here are immensely demanding, but living in harmony with nature gives Billa a feeling of inner peace. She cannot sit still and spends as much time outside as possible.

A few years ago, Billa’s daughter Adalheidur, who passed Heida, finished her studies in Reykjavik and moved back to the farm to accompany and help her mother.

“If I ever moved away, my mother would definitely stay here alone,” said Heida.

“Here,” she added, “she feels free.”

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