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Okjökull Glacier – A Cautionary Tale


Look at any satellite image of Iceland and one thing you can’t miss is the amount of ice that shows up. It’s the reason many of us love to come to Iceland in the first place. Renting a car in Iceland and visiting some of the country’s glaciers is a bucket list activity for many, and with good reason.


But our global climate is changing. Open up a road map of Iceland in a few decades' time and things are likely to look very different, not least for its glaciers. If you don’t believe me, the evidence is right there in front of you in the form of a plaque. Engraved into the copper is a letter to the future. It reads simply:


“Ok 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. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”


Iceland glacier retreat


The respected Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason wrote those poignant words. Ok was redefined back in 2014, the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status. Icelandic geologist Oddur Sigurðsson confirmed that the ice was too thin to sink or to move under its own weight. The glacier was gone for good, a wake-up call not only for the country but the wider world.


However, it wasn’t until 2019 that a ceremony took place to commemorate the loss and unveil those chilling words that look set to haunt this generation and those to come. As a measure of the ceremony’s importance, Environment Minister Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson and the Irish president Mary Robinson joined Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir to mourn the loss of this centuries-old tongue of ice. Rice University representatives Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer joined around 100 others to mark the occasion of Iceland’s first named glacier being lost to climate change. Glacier's retreat in Iceland suddenly got very real indeed.



Stop a minute and take another look at that last sentence. “Only you know if we did it.” Sadly, the challenge of halting climate change, let alone reversing the damage, is a massive one. For years we, as the world’s custodians, have acted without thought or regard for the consequences of our actions. But it will be future generations that feel the negative effects far more than we will.


Okjokull Glacier - Chronicle of a Death Foretold


A US government agency report published in 2018 claimed that carbon dioxide levels are higher now than they’ve been at any time over the last 800,000 years. On the plaque, under the inscription, you’ll see the figure 415 ppm CO2. The number references the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2019, and it’s one record that no one would wish to see broken.


You see, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. When coal and oil are burned, the carbon they store is released back into the atmosphere. That gas absorbs heat. And while gases like methane and nitrous oxide do the same (in fact absorbing more heat per molecule) there’s a lot less of them. Carbon dioxide is abundant, and it sticks around for a long long time. Coal and oil took millions of years to form, but we are returning that carbon to the atmosphere much more rapidly than is safe for the future health of our planet. And the consequences are terrifying, not just for little Okjökull glacier in Borgarfjörður, West Iceland, but for every square mile on Earth. This isn’t just climate change. This is a climate crisis.


Climate change Consequences


Say we do nothing and all Iceland’s glaciers go the same way as Ok. Right now, those glaciers are responsible for replenishing lakes which support fish stocks, for hydro-electric power generation and are a major draw for the large number of tourists who flock to the country each year. Beyond Iceland, the melted ice has consequences too.


The world’s oceans would rise by a centimeter. If you think that doesn’t sound much at all, consider how many millions of people live by the coast on land that’s already susceptible to flooding. Homes will be lost by people that can ill afford to replace them. Crops at the agricultural margins will fail, stripping the world’s poorest of their livelihoods and their ability to feed themselves. In the developed world, we might have the luxury of being able to adapt and to afford the increased food prices that will inevitably follow. But not everyone is that lucky.



Today, glaciers cover around 10% of Iceland’s land surface. Vatnajökull is the biggest, the largest in all of Europe too. If we don’t act, by the time its 7,900 km² area has disappeared, so too will have all the other Icelandic glaciers. That’s a long way off, but all the more reason to act now before we’re left with only regrets.

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