Memorializing a Glacier and Hoping for the Future

A monument is unveiled at site of Okjokull, Iceland's first glacier lost to climate change in the west of Iceland on August 18, 2019. (Photo by Jeremie RICHARD / AFP) (Photo credit should read JEREMIE RICHARD/AFP/Getty Images)

We hear every day about ways in which accelerating climate change threatens life on earth, but scientists struggle to communicate that if we don’t significantly reduce our carbon footprints, we’re history. In Iceland, glaciologists and public officials have resorted to a different approach: staging a funeral for a melted glacier, now demoted from that classification to “dead ice,” and marking the occasion by installing a plaque with a “letter to the future.”

At the New Yorker, essayist Lacy M. Johnson attends a funeral for “Okjökull” — once a glacier with a surface of 16 square kilometers, and now “only a small patch of slushy gray ice.” In personifying shrinking masses of ice — key geographical features of the area, and the planet — officials hope to impress upon people the dire extent of climate change, and the need for humans to stop living in ways that threaten themselves, and all life forms.

Among others, Johnson talks with Iceland’s leading glaciologist, Oddur Sigurðsson.

When I asked him directly if glaciers were living, he hesitated. Things that grow and move, we tend to consider animate, he said, even if we resist the idea that every animate thing has a soul. A healthy glacier grows each winter more than it melts each summer; moves on the ground under its own weight; and is at least partially covered with a thick, fur-like layer of snow. Glaciers also move on their insides, especially in Iceland, where the glaciers are made of temperate ice, which exists right at the melting point. This sets them apart from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which are frozen and older by hundreds of thousands of years.

In Iceland, Sigurðsson said, the oldest ice was born more than a thousand years ago, before the Little Ice Age, on the north side of Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in the country. Vatnajökull is roughly the area of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, and stands almost as tall as the Empire State Building. Okjökull, by comparison, was small and young when it died; ice covered the mountaintop for only a few centuries. Sigurðsson knows this because he had counted the glacier’s rings, which were formed by dust each year—not unlike the rings on a tree. The rings contained a sort of memory—a record of pollen clouds, volcanic eruptions, world wars, and nuclear meltdowns. When a glacier melts, Sigurðsson explained, its memory disappears.

Having “memory” is just one of the many ways scientists refer to glaciers in terms that make them seem alive. They also “crawl” and have “toes”; when they break off at the ablation edge, they are said to have “calved.” They are born and die—the latter at increasing rates, especially during “the great thaw” of the past twenty years. When Sigurðsson conducted a glacier inventory in the early two-thousands, he found more than three hundred glaciers in Iceland; a repeat inventory, in 2017, revealed that fifty-six had disappeared. Many of them were small glaciers in the highlands, which had spent their lives almost entirely unseen. “Most of them didn’t even have names,” he told me. “But we have been working with local people to name every glacier so that they will not go unbaptized.” Now, he intends to complete their death certificates and bring a stack of them to meetings.

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