Researchers Memorialize First Icelandic Glacier Lost To Climate Change


In 2014, scientists announced that Iceland’s first major glacier, Okjökul – famously known as ‘Ok’ – has disappeared. This August, researchers are commemorating the lost glacier with a monument and “A letter to the future” urging for climate action. The monument is scheduled to be installed at the site of the lost glacier in Borgarfjörður, Iceland, by researchers from Rice University in Texas and members of the Icelandic Hiking Society. The message on the monument’s plaque titled “A letter to the future” reads, “Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.” At the end, the date the monument will be unveiled – August 2019 – is printed, along with the figure “415ppm CO2” referencing the record-breaking carbon dioxide levels recorded in the atmosphere in May this year.

Glaciers naturally lose mass through a process called calving where melting ice or wind or water erosion lead to a rift in the edge of a glacier. This rift causes the glacier to become unstable and break away from the land forming an iceberg, which falls into the ocean. Although calving is a natural part of a glacier’s life cycle, climate change has significantly increased the rate at which the glacier drops ice into the ocean, affecting global sea levels, driving ocean currents and influencing atmospheric circulation. In addition to these effects, the decline of glaciers will impede the considerable benefits of glaciers such as providing water and hydro-electric power.

The melted glacier and its effects on Icelanders was documented in a film by University of Rice anthropologists Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer in 2018 called, “Not Ok.” The film attempts to bring awareness to the realities of global environmental change and drive the point that nature is no longer ‘out there.’ Boyer said the monument, in the same spirit as the documentary, is “to create a lasting memorial to Ok, a small glacier that has a big story to tell. Ok was the first named Icelandic glacier to melt because of how humans have transformed the planet’s atmosphere. Its fate will be shared by all of Iceland’s glaciers unless we act now to radically curtail greenhouse gas emissions.” At the current rate of rising global temperatures due to unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide, scientists fear that Iceland’s 400+ glaciers will melt away by 2200.

The 2003 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change unequivocally outlines the salience of the threat of climate change: ‘Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.’ The message on the monument’s plaque titled “A letter to the future” highlights the need for substantial and sustained reductions of carbon dioxide emissions, and those of other greenhouse gases. As U.S. Anthropologist Howe said, “One of our Icelandic colleagues put it very wisely when he said, ‘Memorials are not for the dead; they are for the living. With this memorial, we want to underscore that it is up to us, the living, to collectively respond to the rapid loss of glaciers and the ongoing impacts of climate change. For Ok glacier it is already too late; it is now what scientists call ‘dead ice.’”