Iceland marks lost glacier with a plaque

plaque installation
© Amy McCaig/Rice University – Anthropologists Dominic and Cymene on Ok mountain, August 18.

The ancient Ok glacier, a fraction of its former size and unable to move, was declared dead in 2014.

Mourners gathered in Iceland yesterday to commemorate the loss of Ok, a glacier that is not longer a glacier because most of its ice has melted away due to climate change. In the ceremony on August 18, hikers climbed to the top of Okjökull, the mountain on which the glacier once lived, and placed a plaque to mark its loss.

The plaque, written by Icelandic author Andri Snaer Magnason, is a powerful reminder of how human actions shape the natural world, despite it seeming vast and permanent. The haunting words read:

"Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as glacier. In the next 200 years all our main 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."

At the end is the date, followed by the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air globally – 415 parts per million (ppm).

former Ok glacier in Iceland© Dominic Boyer/Cymene Howe – A photo of the former glacier Okjökull

The idea for the plaque was born out of a 2018 documentary film titled 'Not Ok' and made by Rice University anthropologists Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer. They heard about Ok's death being declared in 2014 by Icelandic glaciologist Oddur Sigurdsson, who climbed the mountain and discovered that Ok was no longer thick enough to move, meaning it was 'dead ice.' From BBC:

"The glaciologist explains that when enough ice builds up, the pressure forces the whole mass to move. 'That's where the limit is between a glacier and not a glacier,' he says. 'It needs to be 40 to 50 metres thick to reach that pressure limit.'"

As Time described, Ok has since "melted down into a different type of terrain called moraine, an accumulation of clay, silt, sand and gravel." It once covered 5.8 square miles, but now measures only 0.386 square miles, 6.6 percent of its original size.

Ok hikers© Rice University – Hikers were invited to climb Okjökull on August 18 to witness the plaque installation.

A plaque may seem an odd way to mark the glacier's death, but as Dr. Boyer explained, plaques are meant to recognize human accomplishments. Ok's death is, quite tragically, a human accomplishment, the result of anthropogenic climate change. He said,

"It's not the first glacier in the world to melt – there have been many others, certainly many smaller glacial masses – but now that glaciers the size of Ok are beginning to disappear, it won't be long before the big glaciers, the ones whose names are well recognised, will come under threat."

How many more plaques do we want to place?

Iceland marks lost glacier with a plaque
The ancient Ok glacier, a fraction of its former size and unable to move, was declared dead in 2014.

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