Versa Media
Aug 22 · 4 min read

Sean Piccoli

Icelanders held a memorial service for one of their own on Sunday: a glacier that had crowned a dormant volcano for millennia until global warming melted it away.

100 people trekked up the mountain on foot on Sunday to take part in a plaque-laying ceremony for a vanished ice sheet that locals called Okjökull.

“We see the consequences of the climate crisis,” Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir said at the service. “We have no time to lose.”

A memorial plaque for a dead glacier can help people visualize the impact of man-made climate change when science and data alone aren’t enough, say two American anthropologists who made a documentary film about the lost glacier and came up with the idea for a memorial.

“We expect this won’t be the last glacier memorial in the world,” Dominic Boyer, a professor of anthropology at Rice University in Houston, Texas, said in an interview with Versa Planet.

Boyer and fellow Rice University anthropologist Cymene Howe joined Icelanders at the dedication on Sunday. They have been studying the relationship between Iceland’s people and its climate for a few years. That work first led them to the story of Okjökull, a glacier that used to cover almost six square miles of Icelandic terrain.

It was “a glacier that every Icelandic schoolchild would learn about in school and memorize on the map,” Howe told Versa Planet.

“Jökull” is Icelandic for “glacier.” Ok is the name of the mountain that was the glacier’s home. But in 2014, local glaciologist Oddur Sigurðsson pronounced Ok’s glacier dead because it had shrunk so drastically and its remaining ice had become too thin to move. A glacier is defined by movement — a combination of weight, gravity, and melting at the base of the ice sheet that pushes the entire mass over land.

The loss of Okjökull inspired Howe and Boyer to start work on their 2018 documentary Not Ok. When Sigurðsson joked about wanting to issue a death certificate for the glacier, the filmmakers thought he might actually be onto something.

“We had a lot of conversations with Icelanders about what the appropriate form would be to memorialize or commemorate this glacier,” Boyer said. “We eventually settled on the idea of the memorial as being something that was appropriate to the gravity of the event but also something that would perhaps become a prototype for other communities across the world.”

The plaque’s inscription, written by novelist Andri Snær Magnason, begins with “A letter to the future.” In Icelandic and English, it goes on to say that all of the country’s glaciers will meet the same fate unless humanity does “what needs to be done.”

(Image: NASA Eart Observatory, http://go.nasa.gov/2KFQBer)

“Only you know if we did it,” the inscription says.

It is dated August 2019 and signs off with “415ppm CO2,” noting the grim milestone the planet reached earlier this year: a historic high of 415 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Humans have never known a planet with CO2 concentrations that high.

As Boyer and Howe documented in Not Ok, Icelanders have a close relationship with ice, snow, and winter cold. Glacial ice covers more than 10% of this North Atlantic island nation that is home to about 340,000 people and almost 400 named glaciers. But Iceland is losing 11 billion tons of ice a year, and its glaciers are in retreat, making the country a focal point of climate change worries while inhabitants face a landscape altered by overheating.

Okjökull was a tiny glacier by local standards but visible enough to attract notice. Early travelers mentioned it in their accounts, and the glacier appears on century-old Icelandic maps. Measurements over time show the glacier’s — geologically speaking — rapid decline from about six square miles at the beginning of the 20th century to three square miles in 1973 to less than half a mile square by 2012.

What’s left of it today sits “completely below the snowline,” Helgi Björnsson, a glaciologist and author of the 2017 book The Glaciers of Iceland, wrote in an email to Versa Planet.

“Several other small glaciers on mountains just reaching above the snowline have disappeared, most of them had no name,” Björnsson also wrote, “but Ok was known to everyone, and therefore we miss it.”

At the present rate of shrinkage, all of Iceland’s glaciers probably will be gone by the year 2200, according to one study.

Iceland is not alone. Neighboring Greenland lost 11 billion tons of ice in a single day on July 31 this year during a record heatwave. The ice in Greenland is melting faster than predicted, with potentially severe consequences for the world’s coastlines.

“We recognize fully that scientists are in agreement about what is occurring,” said Howe. “But sometimes the science doesn’t quite speak to people in the same way that a memorial might.”

Sigurðsson, for his part, drafted the mock death certificate he had talked about a few years ago and brought it to the service on Sunday.

“It may not seem important whether one small glacier disappears or not,” Sigurðsson told Versa Planet in an email. “This is, however, a symptom of a huge, ongoing global change with enormous effects on the living nature worldwide which, in turn, inevitably will affect people in all corners of the world.”

“It is certainly worthwhile to contemplate the outcome,” he added. “Calling attention to this memorial of Okjökull may help us see the situation more clearly.”

Versa Media

Written by

Bringing you stories from people you usually don’t hear from, in places media usually don’t go.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade