Iceland commemorates first glacier lost to climate change

An image taken on Aug 1 showing where the glacier had melted away throughout the 20th century.
An image taken on Aug 1 showing where the glacier had melted away throughout the 20th century.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
A Nasa image from  1986, showing the Okjokull glacier atop the Ok Volcano in Iceland.
A Nasa image from 1986, showing the Okjokull glacier atop the Ok Volcano in Iceland.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Near half the world's heritage sites could lose their glaciers by 2100 if emissions not curbed

REYKJAVIK • Iceland was yesterday set to honour the passing of Okjokull, its first glacier lost to climate change, as scientists warn that some 400 others on the subarctic island risk the same fate.

A bronze plaque was to be unveiled in a ceremony to mark Okjokull - which translates to "Ok glacier" - in the west of Iceland, in the presence of local researchers and their peers at Rice University in the US, who initiated the project.

Iceland's Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir, Environment Minister Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson were also due to attend the event.

"This will be the first monument to a glacier lost to climate change anywhere in the world," Associate Professor Cymene Howe at Rice University's anthropology department, said last month.

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.

"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 reads. It also has the label "415 ppm CO2", referring to the record level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere last May.

"Memorials everywhere stand for either human accomplishments, like the deeds of historic figures, or the losses and deaths we recognise as important," 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."

A SHAMEFUL ACCOMPLISHMENT

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.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR CYMENE HOWE, at Rice University's anthropology department.

She also 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 its 400-plus glaciers will be gone by 2200, according to Prof Howe and her Rice University colleague Dominic Boyer.

Glaciologists stripped Okjokull of its glacier status in 2014, a first for Iceland. In 1890, the glacier's ice covered 16 sq km but by 2012, it measured just 0.7 sq km, according to a report from the University of Iceland from 2017.

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

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 about 40m to 50m thick, he said.

A study published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in April said nearly half of the world's heritage sites could lose their glaciers by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate. Dr Sigurdsson said he feared "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 a century and a half or two centuries before it reaches equilibrium."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2019, with the headline 'Iceland commemorates first glacier lost to climate change'. Print Edition | Subscribe