Iceland commemorates first glacier lost to climate change

A bronze plaque will tell future visitors to the site about the glacier and its demise

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Iceland has honoured its first glacier lost to climate change with a dedicated ceremony – as scientists said about 400 others on the subarctic island risk the same fate.

A bronze plaque was unveiled on Sunday to commemorate Okjokull, which translates to “Ok Glacier”, in the presence of local researchers and their peers at Rice University in the United States who initiated the project.

Glaciologists stripped Okjokull, in the west of Iceland, of its glacier status in 2014, a first for Iceland, as it failed to meet the requirements to be termed a glacier because of its size and lack of movement.

Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir and Environment Minister Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson attended the event.

“This will be the first monument to a glacier lost to climate change anywhere in the world,” Professor Cymene Howe, associate professor of anthropology at Rice University, said in July.

The plaque bears the inscription “A letter to the future” and is intended to raise awareness about the decline of glaciers and the effects of climate change.

It reads: “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.”

epa07778911 An undated handout photo made available by Rice University Texas, USA, showing the plaque commemorating Okjokull glacier, which once sat atop Ok volcano in Borgarfjordur, Iceland. Media reports state that Iceland’s first glacier lost to climate change will be remembered with a monument to be unveiled on 18 August 2019 at the site of the former glacier. The ceremony making the glacier loss will be4 attanded by Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir, environment minister Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson and former Irish president Mary Robinson.  EPA/Dominic Boyer/Cymene Howe / RICE UNIVERSITY / HANDOUT MANDATORY CREDIT: Dominic Boyer/Cymene Howe / RICE UNIVERSITY HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
The plaque commemorates Okjokull glacier, which once sat on top of Ok volcano in Borgarfjordur, Iceland. EPA / RICE University

The plaque is also labelled “415 ppm CO2,” referring to the record level of carbon dioxide measured in the atmosphere last May.

In an opinion article for the New York Times published the day before the memorial's unveiling, Prime Minister Jakobsdottir lamented the devastating effect climate change was having on her country's natural resources.

"In just a few decades, Iceland may no longer be characterised by the iconic Snaefellsjokull, famously known as the entrance to Earth in Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth," she wrote.

“In short: The ice is leaving Iceland.”

“Memorials everywhere stand for either human accomplishments, like the deeds of historic figures, or the losses and deaths we recognise as important,” researcher Prof Howe said.

“By memorialising a fallen glacier, we want to emphasise what is being lost – or dying – the world over, and also draw attention to the fact that this is something that humans have ‘accomplished’, although it is not something we should be proud of.”

Prof Howe noted that the conversation about climate change can be abstract, with many dire statistics and sophisticated scientific models that can feel incomprehensible.

“Perhaps a monument to a lost glacier is a better way to fully grasp what we now face,” she said, highlighting “the power of symbols and ceremony to provoke feelings”.

Iceland loses about 11 billion tonnes of ice per year, and scientists fear all of the island country’s 400-plus glaciers will be gone by 2200, said Prof Howe and her Rice University colleague Dominic Boyer.

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

In 2014, “we made the decision that this was no longer a living glacier, it was only dead ice, it was not moving,” Oddur Sigurdsson, a glaciologist with the Icelandic Meteorological Office, told AFP.

To have the status of a glacier, the mass of ice and snow must be thick enough to move by its own weight. For that to happen, the mass must be approximately 40 to 50 metres thick, he said.

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

Mr Sigurdsson said he feared “that nothing can be done to stop it”.

“The inertia of the climate system is such that, even if we could stop introducing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere right now, it will keep on warming for century and a half or two centuries before it reaches equilibrium.”