Politicians, scientists, and others gathered in Borgarfjörður, Iceland, northeast of Reykjavik on Sunday to mourn the loss of the Okjökull glacier, laying a plaque warning of the impact of climate change, the BBC reported.
Okjökull, along with many other Icelandic glaciers, took serious hits from warming summers over the past two decades. It was officially declared inactive by glaciologist Oddur Sigurðsson in 2014, when he discovered that snow was melting before it could accumulate on the cap, and there was no longer enough pressure being built up to keep the glacier moving.
At that point, the word jökull (meaning glacier or ice cap) was eliminated from its name, leaving the site formally designated by the name of the shield volcano it was located on, Ok. According to Slate, Rice University anthropologists Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer were disturbed to see that the elimination of the glacier was almost entirely ignored in the English-language news media, filming a documentary titled Not Ok and later concluding the glacier’s demise should be commemorated.
Attendees at the event included Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir, Environment Minister Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson, and former Irish President Mary Robinson, according to the BBC. The plaque itself reads, in both English and Icelandic:
Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as glacier. 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 know what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.
Author Andri Snaer Magnason, who wrote the words on the plaque, told the BBC, “This is a big symbolic moment. Climate change doesn’t have a beginning or end and I think the philosophy behind this plaque is to place this warning sign to remind ourselves that historical events are happening, and we should not normalise them. We should put our feet down and say, okay, this is gone, this is significant.”
Calling Okjökull’s disappearance a “real loss,” Boyle told the BBC, “Plaques recognise things that humans have done, accomplishments, great events. The passing of a glacier is also a human accomplishment—if a very dubious one—in that it is anthropogenic climate change that drove this glacier to melt.”
Glaciers are in bad shape worldwide, from North America and Europe to Greenland and Antarctica. A study in Nature this year estimated that glaciers lost over 10 trillion tons of ice between 1961 and 2016, which is enough volume to cover the entirety of 48 lower states in the U.S. in four feet of snow; another study published in The Cryosphere estimated the Alps will be stripped of 90 percent of its glaciers by the year 2100. According to the Associated Press, the lead author of the first study, World Glacier Monitoring Service at the University of Zurich director Michael Zemp, said that glaciers are disappearing at five times the rate they were in the 1960s. Zemp added that in central Europe, the Caucasus region, western Canada, and in the lower 48 states, “at the current glacier loss rate, the glaciers will not survive the century.”
Just as troubling, some studies have found that coastal glaciers in Antarctica are melting much faster than expected, which could have dire consequences for sea level rise. Even if humans stopped emitting greenhouse gases on an industrial scale tomorrow, Victoria University of Wellington Antarctic Research Center climate scientist Nick Golledge told Earther, “The scary thing is it keeps melting. We’ve basically set in motion a series of changes which are gonna carry on playing out over the next few centuries at least, maybe thousands of years.”
Sigurðsson told the BBC he has kept an inventory of Icelandic glaciers since 2000, finding that by 2017, 56 of the smaller ones had disappeared.
“150 years ago no Icelander would have bothered the least to see all the glaciers disappear,” Sigurðsson told the news network, referring to the glaciers’ advancement over farmlands and flooding from meltwater. “But since then, while the glaciers were retreating, they are looked at as a beautiful thing, which they definitely are... The oldest Icelandic glaciers contain the entire history of the Icelandic nation. We need to retrieve that history before they disappear.”
“We see the consequences of the climate crisis,” Prime Minister Jakobsdottir told the audience at the ceremony, according to Deutsche Welle. “We have no time to lose.”