Iceland bids farewell to first glacier lost to climate change

Scientists fear all the island country’s 400 glaciers will be gone by 2200.

Glacier ceremony
Elected officials, researchers and supporters climbed to the top of what once was the Okjokull glacier to commemorate the first glacier lost to climate change in Iceland [Felipe Dana/AP]

With poetry, moments of silence and speeches, officials and activists in Iceland have bid goodbye to the country’s first glacier lost to climate change

About 100 people climbed for two hours on Sunday to the top of the Ok volcano in west-central Iceland to where the Okjokull or “Ok glacier” once stood.

They installed a bronze memorial plaque there to serve as a tombstone for the glacier that used to stretch 16 square kilometres. Only a small patch of ice remains. 

A plaque commemorates the first glacier lost to climate change in Iceland [File: Handout via Rice University]
A plaque commemorates the first glacier lost to climate change in Iceland [File: Handout via Rice University]

Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson joined the group of researchers and Icelanders at the funeral ceremony.

“We see the consequences of the climate crisis,” Jakobsdottir said. “We have no time to lose.”

Robinson called for urgent efforts, saying: “The symbolic death of a glacier is a warning to us, and we need action.”

The memorial plaque itself bore a message, with the inscription “A letter to the future”. 

“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,” the plaque read.

It was also labelled “415 ppm CO2” – a reference to the record level of carbon dioxide measured in the atmosphere in May.

Glaciologists stripped Okjokull of its glacier status in 2014. Scientists warn that some 400 others on the subarctic island risk the same fate.

The melted glacier was the subject of the 2018 documentary “Not Ok”, produced by anthropologists Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer of Rice University in the US state of Texas, who initiated the monument project. 

“This will be the first monument to a glacier lost to climate change anywhere in the world,” Howe said in a statement in July. 

“By marking Ok’s passing, we hope to draw attention to what is being lost as Earth’s glaciers expire. These bodies of ice are the largest freshwater reserves on the planet and frozen within them are histories of the atmosphere.”

In 1890, Okjokull covered 16 square kilometres but by 2012, it measured just 0.7 square kilometres, according to a 2017 report from the University of Iceland.

The island loses about 11 billion tonnes of ice per year, and scientists fear all the country’s glaciers will be gone by 2200.

Glacier Iceland fix
Okjokull glacier was declared dead in 2014. This combination of September 14, 1986, left, and August 1, 2019 photos show the shrinking of the glacier on the Ok volcano in Iceland. [NASA/AP]

According to a study published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in April, nearly half of the world’s heritage sites could lose their glaciers by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate.

The human toll of the changing climate is also expected to get worse, with melting glaciers affecting food supplies, causing sea levels to rise and eventually displacing billions, said Asad Rehman, the director of War on Want, an organisation that works to address the intersection of poverty and climate change.

“It’s now predicted two billion people, up to one-fifth of the world’s population, will be displaced from their homes, many of course with nowhere to go,” Rehman told Al Jazeera. 

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies