- (Not) Icy Grave
Okjökull was a mighty glacier for centuries. Now, it's been lost to climate change.
What does a memorial service for a glacier look like? There hasn’t been a precedent yet, so one shouldn’t be surprised to hear that Iceland’s first service for a former glacier included mournful poetry, impassioned political speeches about the need to fight global warming, and moments of silence atop the crest of a volcano.
What’s left of the Okjökull glacier—now ironically named ‘Ok’, since the latter part of its name is the Icelandic word for glacier—resides in the west of the country.
In its heyday, Ok used to stretch 16 square kilometres, almost one and a half times the size of a football field, and provided pure water that was thousands of years old to nearby residents. Now it occupies just under a square kilometre.
Yesterday, on August 18, Ok was officially memorialised with a plaque and a ceremony that saw about 100 people, including Iceland’s Prime Minister, its Environment Minister, and a former President and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in attendance.
The plaque reaffirms Ok’s doleful honour of being the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as one.
Below, the words ‘415ppm CO2’ are also inscribed, referring to the record levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere around Ok last May.
Though one of Iceland’s preeminent glaciologists, Oddur Sigurðsson, had declared the glacier extinct in 2014, it is likely that the ice cap had melted long before that.
According to Sigurðsson, who was also present at the ceremony, a glacier is declared scientifically ‘dead’ once it becomes too thin to move by its own weight. It’s pronounced as extinct once it stops moving on its own.
Ok was an ubiquitous figure in Icelandic culture. It appeared in storied sagas of yore, and also gained popularity amongst locals due to its visibility from inhabited areas, serving as a geographical marker of sorts.
Iceland is home to over 400 glaciers, and in less than 200 years, they could lose them all.
There might be no turning back from the threat of global warming, but scientists believe that it is still possible to curtail future losses.
“This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done,” reads the plaque, addressed to passers-by in the future, on Ok’s ‘grave’. “Only you know if we did it.”
Featured image credit: NASA Earth Observatory