Iceland holds funeral for giant glacier that melted after record heatwave

All of Iceland’s ice masses expected to disappear within 200 years

Alessio Perrone
Tuesday 20 August 2019 12:00 BST
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A monument is unveiled at the site of Okjokull, Iceland's first glacier lost to climate change in the west of Iceland on August 18, 2019
A monument is unveiled at the site of Okjokull, Iceland's first glacier lost to climate change in the west of Iceland on August 18, 2019 (AFP/Getty Images)

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Iceland held a funeral for its first glacier lost to climate change on Sunday.

Amid poetry, moments of silence and political speeches about the urgent need to fight climate change, Icelandic officials, scientists, activists and others bade goodbye to the Okjokull ice sheet, in west-central Iceland.

According to satellite images from the NASA Earth Observatory, the glacier appeared as a solid-white patch in 1986, and Icelandic geologist Oddur Sigurðsson said it used to stretch six square miles (15 square kilometres).

A geological map from 1901 estimated Okjokull spanned an area of about 38 square kilometres (15 square miles).

But a NASA image from 1 August this year shows that only small dashes of white ice remained.

Two NASA photos showing the shrinking of the Okjokull glacier in west-central Iceland. Left: the glacier on 14 September 1986; right: on 1 August 2019
Two NASA photos showing the shrinking of the Okjokull glacier in west-central Iceland. Left: the glacier on 14 September 1986; right: on 1 August 2019 (AP Images)

Mr Sigurðsson pronounced Okjokull dead about a decade ago after it melted throughout the 20th century. In 2014, it no longer fulfilled the criteria to be classified as a glacier.

Mr Sigurðsson said that while it was Iceland’s first glacier to disappear, all of the nation’s ice masses will be gone in 200 years.

“There is no longer any doubt that the climate in the Arctic is changing markedly and rapidly,” said Minik Rosing, professor at the University of Copenhagen.

“All of the Nordic countries comprise Arctic territories, where climate change has gone from theoretical predictions of the future to everyday reality,” he said.

On Sunday, about 100 people made a two-hour hike up a volcano to the made-for-media memorial for Okjokull.

Mr Sigurðsson brought a death certificate, while residents reminisced about drinking pure water thousands of years old from the glacier.

“The symbolic death of a glacier is a warning to us, and we need action,” former Irish president Mary Robinson said.

“We see the consequences of the climate crisis,” Icelandic Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir said. She said she will make climate change a priority when Nordic leaders and German Chancellor Angela Merkel meet in Reykjavik on Tuesday.

“We have no time to lose,” she added.

“I know my grandchildren will ask me how this day was and why I didn’t do enough,” said Gunnhildur Hallgrimsdottir, 17.

Children installed a memorial plaque to the glacier.

It reads: “Ok [Okjokull] is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier.

“In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path.

“We know what is happening and what needs to be done,” it continues, addressing future generations. “Only you know if we did it.”

Additional reporting by Reuters and AP

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