People in Iceland held a funeral and erected a plaque for a glacier lost to climate change

Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, who directed a documentary called ‘Not OK’ about the Okjökull glacier, stand with a plaque eulogizing the glacier, August 18, 2019. Amy McCaig/Rice University

Where a glacier once covered nearly 6 square miles of land in Iceland, there is now only a commemorative plaque beside a small patch of snow.

The glacier, once known as Okjökull (“jökull” means glacier in Icelandic) lost its status as a glacier in 2014, since it had shrunk below one square mile and was barely 50 feet deep, according to The Guardian. Rising temperatures due to climate change caused the glacier to melt.

Now it is known simply as “OK.”

This combination of Sept. 14, 1986, left, and Aug. 1, 2019 photos provided by NASA shows the shrinking of the Okjokull glacier on the OK volcano in west-central Iceland. A geological map from 1901 estimated Okjökull spanned an area of about 38 square kilometers (15 square miles). In 1978, aerial photography showed the glacier was 3 square kilometers. in 2019, less than 1 square kilometer remains. (NASA via AP)
Photos provided by NASA show the shrinking of the Okjokull glacier in Iceland. The image on the left is from September 14, 1986, and the one on the right was taken August 1, 2019. Associated Press

On Sunday, dozens of people hiked to the top of the rocky volcano where Okjökull once stood. (Glaciologists have dubbed the remaining portion “dead ice,” since glacial flow has ceased.) They carried a plaque with them to memorialise the glacier.

“This will be the first monument to a glacier lost to climate change anywhere in the world,” Cymene Howe, an anthropologist at Rice University who directed a documentary about the glacier, called “Not OK,” said in a July press release. “By marking OK’s passing, we hope to draw attention to what is being lost as Earth’s glaciers expire.”

People walk towards Okjokull glacier in Iceland  for a ceremony on August 18, 2019. Okjokull glacier, which will be the first of the countryÕs hundreds of glaciers to be lost due to climate change, will be remembered with a memorial plaque. REUTERS/Geirix
People walk towards Okjokull glacier in Iceland. Reuters

The crowd at the glacier’s funeral heard a poem about it, as well as speeches from the plaque’s author, Andri Snær Magnason, and geologist Oddur Sigurðsson (who first declared OK’s new status).

Then a group of children installed the new monument.

Here’s what the plaque, titled “A letter to the future,” says:

Iceland glacier plaque
This plaque, written by Andri Snær Magnason, recognises the site of the former Okjökull glacier. Rice University

The last line – “Only you know if we did it” – serves as an unnerving message to people in the future who will pass by the site.

“We felt it was important to have the children install the plaque because the message of this memorial is that we are accountable to future generations,” Dominic Boyer, Howe’s colleague who co-produced the documentary, said in a release. “The quality of their lives will depend on the climate actions we take, or don’t take, today. As adults, we need to always be thinking about how our children and grandchildren will judge us.”

Below the text, the plaque notes the current concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: a record-breaking 415 parts per million. The concentration hasn’t been that high since at least 800,000 years ago, before humans evolved.

July was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth. A heat wave swept Europe and caused extreme ice melt in Greenland that scientists didn’t expect to see until 2070 in a worst-case scenario. In five days, Greenland’s ice sheet lost 55 billion tons of water ⁠- enough to cover the state of Florida in 5 inches of water.

Scientists link this extreme melting to climate change.

Okjökull glacier
The former Okjökull glacier. Rice University

Though glaciers in Iceland have undergone brief periods of expansion, they’re shrinking overall due to climate change. Iceland loses almost 25 square miles of glacier each year.

“Its fate will be shared by all of Iceland’s glaciers unless we act now to radically curtail greenhouse gas emissions,” Boyer said of OK.

Some scientists predict that all of Iceland’s glaciers could be gone by 2200. If that happens, global sea levels would rise by an additional centimeter.

“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. For OK glacier it is already too late,” Howe said.