Iceland unveils memorial for first glacier lost to climate change

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The plaque has been installed at the site of the former glacier. The first of the country’s 400 to have ‘died’ due to climate change.

Former Okjökull glacier. Image: Rice University

A century ago, the Okjökull glacier (known as Ok) in west Iceland was 50 meters thick and covered 15 sq km. Since that time it has melted to a size which covers barely 1 sq km, losing its status as a glacier.

A letter to the future

The plaque, inscribed in Icelandic and English, is a sombre letter to future generations. “In the next 200 years, all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path,” the plaque reads. “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 memorial is dated August 2019 and also carries the words “415ppm CO2”, referring to the record-breaking level of 415 parts per million of carbon dioxide recorded in the atmosphere in May this year.

How can a glacier lose its status?

A glacier is defined as a persistent mass of compacted ice that accumulates more mass each winter than it loses through summer melt and is constantly moving under its own weight. When this ceases to be the case, the remains are known as “dead ice”.

Loss of glacial ice has wide-ranging effects, with the potential to impact water resources, infrastructure, and even the rising of land as it rebounds under a lighter load of ice.

Ok’s Warning

Cymene Howe, an associate professor of anthropology at Rice University, said the plaque “would be the first to a glacier lost to climate change anywhere in the world”. Marking the moment should draw attention to what is being lost.

“An Icelandic colleague said: ‘Memorials are not for the dead; they are for the living,’” Howe continued. “We want to underscore that it is up to us, the living, to respond to the rapid loss of glaciers and the ongoing impacts of climate change. For Ok glacier it is already too late.”