How to Mourn a Glacier
Along the western edge of Iceland’s central-highland plateau, in the far east of the Borgarfjörður district, the Kaldidalur, or “cold valley,” stretches twenty-five miles between two barren volcanic ridges: the Prestahnúkur system to the east and the Ok volcano to the west. These volcanoes form part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the longest mountain range in the world, which runs under the ocean from Antarctica to the Arctic and into the Siberian Sea. On the valley’s eastern slope, massive glaciers push dolerite boulders down the mountainsides with their shining blue snouts. The western slope rises slowly toward the summit of Ok, a low shield volcano shrouded in mist.
Although nearly every mountain, stream, and valley in Iceland has a name and a history, Ok isn’t particularly famous. No path brings tourists to its summit, and those who travel the one-lane gravel road through the valley floor typically take no note of Okjökull—meaning “Ok’s glacier”—which spanned sixteen square kilometres at its largest, at the end of the nineteenth century. By 1978, it had shrunk to three square kilometres. In 2014, Iceland’s leading glaciologist, Oddur Sigurðsson, hiked to Ok’s summit to discover only a small patch of slushy gray ice in the shadow of the volcano’s crater. Okjökull could no longer be classified as a glacier, Sigurðsson announced to the scientific community. It had become “dead ice.”
In August, I joined about a hundred scientists, activists, dignitaries, farmers, politicians, journalists, and children, as they gathered at the base of Ok to mourn the lost glacier. The day began cold and gray; a cover of low clouds threatened rain. “The climate crisis is already here,” Iceland’s Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, told the crowd. “It is not just this glacier that has disappeared. We see the heat waves in Europe. We see floods. We see droughts.” Film crews pointed their cameras, while the wind whipped Jakobsdóttir’s hair and the paper on which she had written her remarks. “The time has come not for words, not necessarily for declarations, but for action,” she said.
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Her message was echoed by Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland and former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, and by Kumi Nadoo, the secretary-general of Amnesty International, who assured us that the planet would be fine. But, if we sustain our current trajectory, he continued, humans would be gone. Nadoo passed the microphone to the writer and former Icelandic Presidential candidate Andri Snær Magnason, who gripped it with both gloved hands. “Some of the students who are here today are twenty years old,” he said, his voice shaking. “You may live to be a healthy ninety-year-old, and at that time you might have a favorite young person—a great-grandchild, maybe—who is the age you are now. When that person is a healthy ninety-year-old, the year will be 2160, and this event today will be in the order of direct memory from you to your grandchild in the future.”
Magnason, who wore black glasses, a black stocking cap, and waterproof pants, had written the text for a memorial plaque that was to be installed at the top of the volcano, at the site of the former glacier. Like his speech, the plaque was meant, he said, to connect us to “the intimate time of the future.” He asked us to turn toward the mountain. I followed the crowd away from the road and up Ok’s slope. Behind us, the volcanoes darkened with rain.
When Sigurðsson first announced Okjökull’s death, it was reported with little fanfare. A brief program aired on public television, and one short, four-line story appeared in an English-language newspaper. Around that time, two American anthropologists, Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer—my colleagues at Rice University—began conducting fieldwork on the social impacts of the climate crisis in Iceland. The story about the death of Okjökull caught their attention, they told me, because Ok (pronounced “auk”) “was not O.K.” Photographs of the melting ice cap showed the caldera in the shape of an “O”; inside the crater, a black rock jutting from the ice, looked like a “C”. One Icelander they spoke to pointed out that “Oc” is the spelling of Ok in medieval Icelandic. The mountain, they said, seemed to be writing its own name.
Howe and Boyer began making a documentary about the glacier. Working with a team of Icelanders, they filmed interviews with farmers and artists who lived near the volcano, and with scientists, politicians, folklorists, writers, professors, tourists, and religious leaders. When asked how they felt about the death of Okjökull, some people shrugged and said that they were sad. Others admitted that they were hearing its name for the first time. Sigurðsson, the glaciologist, insisted to Howe and Boyer that, even though Okjökull was the smallest named glacier in Iceland, its death was a major loss. “It should not feel like just brushing something off your coat,” he told them. Children learn the name of Okjökull in their earliest geography lessons; they see its name printed on nearly every Icelandic map. “A good friend has left us,” Sigurðsson said.
After the documentary premièred, in 2018, Howe and Boyer sought a sense of closure. They settled on the idea of installing the memorial plaque and asked Magnason to write the text. It was a difficult prompt, Magnason told me: only a handful of people might ever climb the mountain, and fewer still would happen to stumble across the plaque. The other challenge was how to evoke, in words, the linkage between glaciers and memory. “The oldest Icelandic texts are a thousand years old,” Magnason said—around the same age as the ice in the country’s oldest glaciers. “In all that time, the Earth has been quite stable, but the Earth will have changed more in the next two hundred years than in the last thousand years.” The plaque, cast in copper, would need to cohere for a reader two centuries from now, he explained, while also enshrining a specific moment of urgency.
Magnason decided to address his imagined audience directly. “A letter to the future,” the plaque reads in both Icelandic and English. “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.” As Howe, Boyer, and Magnason planned the ceremony, the first public photographs of the plaque were released and went viral. Soon, they began hearing from people all over Europe, Asia, and North America—scientists, journalists, even the Prime Minister of Iceland—who wanted to be part of the funeral for the dead glacier at the top of the world.
If we say something has died, can we also say it once lived? A few days before the memorial ceremony for Okjökull, I met Sigurðsson for coffee on an uncommonly sunny morning in Reykjavík, hoping to learn more about why he had chosen to frame the loss of the glacier as a death. For a glaciologist, Sigurðsson has amassed an unusual degree of celebrity. His phone rang several times as we talked, and he admitted that he was not used to the attention. He was looking forward to a trip with his wife, the next week, to celebrate their anniversary.
Sigurðsson brightened when I asked him about glaciers. “They are enormously interesting as a natural phenomenon,” he said. Partly his passion was aesthetic—“They just shine,” he said—but he was also interested in why they surge suddenly and without explanation. When I asked him directly if glaciers were living, he hesitated. Things that grow and move, we tend to consider animate, he said, even if we resist the idea that every animate thing has a soul. A healthy glacier grows each winter more than it melts each summer; moves on the ground under its own weight; and is at least partially covered with a thick, fur-like layer of snow. Glaciers also move on their insides, especially in Iceland, where the glaciers are made of temperate ice, which exists right at the melting point. This sets them apart from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which are frozen and older by hundreds of thousands of years.
In Iceland, Sigurðsson said, the oldest ice was born more than a thousand years ago, before the Little Ice Age, on the north side of Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in the country. Vatnajökull is roughly the area of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, and stands almost as tall as the Empire State Building. Okjökull, by comparison, was small and young when it died; ice covered the mountaintop for only a few centuries. Sigurðsson knows this because he had counted the glacier’s rings, which were formed by dust each year—not unlike the rings on a tree. The rings contained a sort of memory—a record of pollen clouds, volcanic eruptions, world wars, and nuclear meltdowns. When a glacier melts, Sigurðsson explained, its memory disappears.
Having “memory” is just one of the many ways scientists refer to glaciers in terms that make them seem alive. They also “crawl” and have “toes”; when they break off at the ablation edge, they are said to have “calved.” They are born and die—the latter at increasing rates, especially during “the great thaw” of the past twenty years. When Sigurðsson conducted a glacier inventory in the early two-thousands, he found more than three hundred glaciers in Iceland; a repeat inventory, in 2017, revealed that fifty-six had disappeared. Many of them were small glaciers in the highlands, which had spent their lives almost entirely unseen. “Most of them didn’t even have names,” he told me. “But we have been working with local people to name every glacier so that they will not go unbaptized.” Now, he intends to complete their death certificates and bring a stack of them to meetings. The next to go, he thinks, will be Hofsjökull, to the east.
It is unusual for a glaciologist to fill out a death certificate, but something concrete, like a piece of paper or a plaque, helps to make clear that the loss is irreversible. The last ice age began in the Pleistocene and ended ten thousand years ago, when Iceland was covered in a massive ice sheet thousands of feet thick. The planet has warmed, cooled, and warmed again since then; ice has advanced and retreated, and this movement has carved the mountains and valleys that we claim as our own. But, in the past several years alone, we have witnessed not only an acceleration of the great thaw, but also the sudden bleaching of the coral reefs, the rapid spread of the Sahara desert, continuous sea-level rise, the warming of the oceans, and record-breaking hurricanes each season and every year. This is one of the most distressing things about being alive today: we are witnessing geologic time collapse on a human scale.
Climbing Ok, we scrambled for hours over dolerite boulders, pitted lava rocks, patches of thick moss, and the small streams that trickled down the volcano to the lake below. We paused for lunch before the final leg of the hike, and Magnason instructed us to approach the caldera with reverence and humility. Elsewhere in Iceland, he explained, climbing to the summit of a mountain in silence and without looking back is said to grant the hiker three wishes. Wishes are sometimes too grand to be of use, Howe added, but it can be useful to imagine the future we hope to see.
As we walked the last few hundred feet, I realized that we lack metaphors for comprehending the future, much less the scale of the disaster that it has in store for us. Then the mountainside levelled, and the sight of the crater purged all thoughts from my head. The ice was gray, lifeless, uncanny. Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, Iceland’s Minister of the Environment, stood on the boulder that had been chosen as the site of the memorial. Children surrounded him with protest signs, demanding that their political leaders, their parents, and their teachers do more. “When I grew up as a little boy not very far away from here, my grandmother taught me the names of all the mountains we could see on the horizon, and the names of the four glaciers,” Guðbrandsson said. “When I visit my parents today on their farm, I can see only three.” The wind chill had dropped below freezing, and the crowd huddled together for warmth. Sigurðsson read a list of vital statistics from Okjökull’s death certificate. “The age of this glacier was about three hundred years,” he said. “Its death was caused by excessive summer heat. Nothing was done to save it.”
Howe and Boyer asked the children to come to the front of the crowd. “We need to understand our relationship to the world in ways we haven’t had to in the past,” Howe said. “We need to be able to imagine a new future.” There was a moment of silence as the children pushed the plaque into place. The day had cleared a little, and I could see across the Kaldidalur to the glaciers on the opposite peaks. Below them, in the valley’s deepest crevice, a meltwater lake was forming, already so blue and deep.