In 1901, a geological map of Iceland’s Central Highlands depicted the Okjökull glacier as a large swathe of ice spanning 38 square kilometres. By 1945 it had shrunk to just 5 square kilometres. Not long after 2005, it was all but gone.
In 2014, Okjökull lost its glacier status; now, it’s just a shield volcano with no glacial cover at all.
Unfortunately, this is very likely the direct result of climate change, and unless things change, this will not be the last glacier to have this fate.
A team of researchers and documentary makers have now highlighted this loss – as well as the losses to come – by creating a memorial for the lost Okjökull glacier (these days referred to simply as Ok, having lost the -jökull or “glacier” part of its name).
On Sunday 18 August, Iceland held a ceremony to officially mark the glacier’s passing and install a memorial plaque. The ‘funeral’ was attended by the researchers who initiated the project, along with Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson.
“I hope this ceremony will be an inspiration not only to us here in Iceland but also for the rest of the world, because what we are seeing here is just one face of the climate crisis,” Jakobsdottir told AFP.
The glacier was even issued a death certificate, according to AP.
Andri Snaer Magnason, the author of the memorial, is not mincing words in the dedication on the plaque.
“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.”
Along with this passage, the memorial also includes the number 415ppm CO2: the record level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere reached in May this year, the first time this has happened in human history.
“This will be the first monument to a glacier lost to climate change anywhere in the world,” says anthropologist Cymene Howe from Rice University.
“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. They are also often important cultural forms that are full of significance.”
Many glaciers, in Iceland and elsewhere on the planet, are losing a huge amount of ice to a warming climate. With Asia’s mountain glaciers rapidly melting and depleting the region’s people of precious water resources, and with Antarctica alone losing 252 billion tons of ice annually, the onus is on us to do something.
“One of our Icelandic colleagues put it very wisely when he said, ‘Memorials are not for the dead; they are for the living,'” Howe said.
“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.'”
A version of this article was first published in July 2019; updated to include details about the memorial ceremony.