“We have lost Ok, and it’s definitely not okay”. A critical moment in history has been reached: Okjokull is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier, due to climate change. After 700 years of life, it was officially pronounced dead in 2014, and it is now just a small patch of ice atop a volcano. Its loss was mourned in a funeral in August 2019, attended by around 100 people, including Iceland’s prime minister. The mourners hiked for two hours up a volcano, to commemorate the loss of the glacier, now just called ‘Ok’ – without the ‘jokull’, Icelandic for glacier – with a plaque containing a message to future generations. The plaque declares that “we know what is happening and what needs to be done”, addressing future generations with “only you know if we did it”. It was installed due to residents’ strong feeling of loss and to recognise “it is anthropogenic climate change that drove this glacier to melt”.
This was a devastating loss for the residents. For thousands of years, Ok had been a source of pure drinking water. It was once visible from densely inhabited areas, known to children for its strange name and place on maps; glaciers like Ok hold a huge cultural significance to Iceland. Another glacier, Snaefellsjokull, now receding, is the location where characters in the science fiction novel ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ found the passage to the core of the planet. According to Oddur Sigurdsson – a glaciologist for the Icelandic Meteorological Office who pronounced Okjokull’s death in 2014 – the oldest Icelandic glaciers “contain the entire history of the Icelandic nation,” and “we need to retrieve that history before they disappear.”. He also highlighted a heart-breaking reality: the world that Icelanders once “learned by heart as some kind of eternal fact,” in childhood textbooks, songs and poems is no more.
But this will not be just a loss for one group of people – it will be a loss for us all. For the residents, it is a loss of home and life as they know it; for the rest of the Western world, it is a threat of future loss that we do not wish to imagine. In developing countries, this loss is already present – through death and destruction – which we (Westerners) hide from behind a shield of economic privilege. With the subarctic island losing around 11 billion tonnes of ice per year, it is predicted that all of Iceland’s ice masses will be gone in 200 years, and the symbolic death of Okjokull is a warning of what’s yet to come. Not just for Icelandic glaciers, but almost half of the world’s heritage sites could lose their glaciers by 2100.
The worst part, though? It is possible that nothing can be done to stop it. The nature of our Earth’s atmospheric patterns means that a significant part of the warming we have caused has actually been absorbed by the oceans, due to predominantly negative Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation winds, saving us from the worst of catastrophic climate change. However, this means that even if we stop introducing greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, oceans will continue to emit the heat they’ve absorbed, especially if the Pacific trade winds reverse. This continued warming will continue to melt glaciers worldwide; dire consequences await: excessive flooding, the reintroduction of deadly diseases, and the disappearance of coral reefs.
We are playing a losing game, and this plaque is one of the first attempts to officially recognize our losses and those potentially to come. I commend the Icelandic people and their frank approach. Now that our mistakes are set in stone, we can see that we are making history that we cannot be proud of. So, I stand with them and say rest in peace to Okjokull, and to all that this glacier represented: from the childhoods of once hopeful Icelanders, to the millions from developing countries and future generations who will lose their lives as a result of a climate breakdown which they did not cause. You all deserve much, much better.
By Ella Weston
DISCLAIMER: THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN THIS ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR ONLY AND DO NOT REPRESENT THE VIEWS OR OPINIONS OF COMPASS MAGAZINE AS A WHOLE OR THE UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE DEPARTMENT OF GEOGRAPHY.