‘Only you know’ if we did enough, says memorial to Iceland’s lost glacier

Okjokull disappeared in 2014, the first Iceland glacier to do so.

By Thin Lei Win, Thomson Reuters Foundation - July 25, 2019
An undated photo of the former glacier Okjökull in Iceland taken before it was lost to rising temperatures, provided by Rice University. (Dominic Boyer / Cymene Howe)

ROME — Iceland’s first glacier to be lost to rising temperatures is to be marked with a memorial carrying a grim warning about the impact of climate change if the world fails to act on time.

“In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path,” reads a plaque to be installed next month near where Okjokull, also known as Ok Glacier, was until it was lost in 2014.

“This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it,” it reads in English and Icelandic, under the words “A letter to the future.”

Icelanders call their nation the “Land of Fire and Ice” for its otherworldly landscape of volcanoes and glaciers, immortalized in literature. But the glaciers are melting and scientists say rising global temperatures are to blame.

“This will be the first monument to a glacier lost to climate change anywhere in the world,” said Cymene Howe, and anthropologist with Houston-based Rice University who made a 2018 documentary about the glacier’s disappearance.

“By marking Ok’s passing, we hope to draw attention to what is being lost as Earth’s glaciers expire.”

The shrinking of the glaciers heralds profound shifts in Iceland’s weather patterns, water flows, flora and fauna, according to the Icelandic Meteorological Office.

Volcanic activity is expected to increase, as the melting of glaciers relieves pressure on volcanic systems, with the eruption of glacier-tipped volcanoes causing major melting of ice.

This could lead to floods of historic proportions, known as “jökulhlaups” which could alter landscapes, devastate vegetation and threaten lives and infrastructure, scientists have warned.

Rice University said its researchers would join key local figures and members of the public for the memorial’s installation on August 18.

“With this memorial, we want to underscore that it is up to us, the living, to collectively respond to the rapid loss of glaciers and the ongoing impacts of climate change,” said Howe in a statement announcing the memorial.

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