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19.08.2019 Europe

Iceland marks death of first glacier due to climate change

By Amanda Morrow - RFI
LISTEN AUG 19, 2019

Iceland has commemorated the demise of Okjokull – its first glacier to be lost to climate change – with a memorial plaque on the barren terrain exposed by the passing of the 700-year-old body of ice.

Icelandic political and cultural figures joined scientists and activists in a ceremony to commemorate the loss of Okjokull, or Ok, which was once a thriving glacial mass spanning 16 square kilometres.

Anthropologists at Rice University in Texas came up with the idea of a holding a memorial for the glacier, which was declared dead five years ago, while making a documentary about its passing in 2018.

“Part of the ceremony felt like a funeral … in that many people expressed their grief, sadness and concern during the hike up the mountain and also at the ceremony itself,” says Dominic Boyer, who filmed the documentary, Not Ok with his Rice University colleague Cymene Howe.

The bronze plaque laid at the site of the former glacier also serves as a letter to future generations, lamenting the fact that all of Iceland's 400-plus glaciers are in recession.

“From Reykjavik you can see Snæfellsjökull, which is probably the most famous glacier in Iceland – it's the subject of Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth and of Halldór Laxness's Under the Glacier,” explains Boyer.

“It's a terrifically important glacier in terms of Icelandic culture and history. That glacier is on a low mountain like Ok and it's receding very rapidly. Scientists predict that it may only make it another 20 or 30 years – and that would be a huge loss.”

The Icelandic Meteorological Office stripped Okjokull of its status as a glacier because it had stopped moving, becoming only dead ice.

“A glacier has to accumulate mass of snow or ice every winter to offset any melting that happens during the summer months,” says Caroline Clason, a lecturer in physical geography at the University of Plymouth, in the UK.

“It also has to move downhill under its own weight, under gravity – so when a glacier is no longer big enough to actually move downhill and flow, it's no longer a glacier.”

Scientists expect that most of Iceland's glaciers will be lost within the next two centuries. “In geological timescales, that's nothing,” says Clason.

As for Okjokull, the symbolic plaque isn't its only legacy. The former glacier has gifted the summit of the mountain that was once its home with a lake.

“The glacier is gone, but now Iceland has its highest glacial lake – which is interesting,” says Boyer. “Otherwise it's quite barren at the top.”