Friday, 3 January 2020

Okjökull Glacier Extinction: A Warning to Future Generations

One of the biggest threats we face in the 20th century is the growing climate crisis.  It's something that has been in the back of our minds for a while now. The increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has led to steadily increasing temperatures and a more visible impact on the environment. Okjökull glacier is the first Icelandic ice sheet to lose its status as a glacier.

Okjokull extinction and melting glaciers in Iceland

Okjokull Glacier 


As you can imagine, it was quite a shock to have a glacier lost to climate change. In the 1890s, the ice cap covered 16 square kilometers (6.2 square miles.). This number was reduced to just over half a square kilometer in 2012.

The melted ice of Okjokull glacier is symbolic of a larger problem that is an imminent threat to our future. Glaciers are expected to continue melting at faster and faster rates. This rapid decline requires action, and fast. Climate scientists estimate that in 200 years all our country's glaciers will follow the same path as this former Icelandic glacier.

Iceland Glacier Retreat 


It is the sincere hope of many that Okjokull will be the last Icelandic glacier to lose its official status. With Iceland losing around 11 billion tons of ice every year, Rice University professor Cymene Howe estimates everything will disappear by 2200. That’s more than 400 glaciers which will either become dead ice or disappear completely. This is a scary and sobering prediction, especially since glaciers currently cover around 11% on a map of glaciers in Iceland.

Ice caps around the world are either dying or being lost to warmer than average temperatures and we must take action soon. Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir has heard the warning call. The glacier was officially declared extinct by Iceland geologist Oddur Sigurðsson in 2014. We generally don't see the day to day effects of climate change. But the loss of this Iceland glacier is a very real, very visual reminder that it is happening.

As a way to shine a light on the topic, Icelanders and climate change activists held the funeral for the fallen glacier. They commemorated the loss with an event held on August 18th, 2019. Around 100 people gathered in Western Iceland on the site of the barren terrain which was once covered by the massive ice sheet. Not ironically, the ceremony took place just following the warmest July ever recorded.

The Funeral for an Icelandic Glacier 


A bare rock was chosen as the symbolic home for a bronze plaque which contains a letter to the future. In both Icelandic and English it states:

“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”.

Author Andri Snaer Magnason was tasked with writing the eulogy for this Icelandic glacier.

The monument is to acknowledge that humanity is at the tipping point. We hope to actively engage and work together to solve this serious problem together. Some attendees were the aforementioned prime minister of Iceland along with former Irish president Mary Robinson. Ms. Robinson has also worked as a UN Human Rights commissioner. They were joined by some local scientists and researchers along with some American colleagues who pushed for the commemoration project.

How do melting glaciers affect the planet? 


The effects of melting glaciers may not be seen as they happen quite slowly over time. But when looking at before and after satellite photos of ice caps, it's clear that the ice is slowly disappearing. It's a sad and shocking sight that will turn even the most ardent climate change denier into a believer. They can see it with their own two eyes.

Okjokull glacier has melted like others as climate change displaces polar bears

And of course, we've all seen those poor, suffering polar bears. They're either unable to find ice to walk on or we can see their bones because they are starving. As they fail to adapt to their quickly changing environment, the potential extinction of these gorgeous creatures is one of the disastrous consequences of melting glaciers.

Another significant problem is the rising sea levels that link directly back to excessive fossil fuel usage by the human population. As the ice melts, it flows into the ocean and inch by inch towns and coastal cities are slowly overtaken. The sea is currently rising at around one-tenth of an inch every year. While this rate may not seem like a lot, it adds up quickly and accelerates over time.

Shorelines move further and further inland and millions are impacted around the globe. Not only are people being displaced from their homes, but cities are also being submerged, food and water supplies are threatened, and the global economy is disrupted.

As carbon dioxide (CO2) continues to choke our planet, things will only continue to get worse. The youth of today are even stating that we need to declare a global public emergency and take drastic steps. After all, it is future generations will feel the disastrous consequences of climate change the most strongly.

Pollution and climate have melted Okjokull glacier

The Okjökull Glacier Extinction 


We are living out climate change in real-time. Events like the Okjökull glacier extinction act as the canary in the coal mine to remind us that we don't have forever to change course. While places like Iceland are the first to feel the effects, other, less direct events like strong hurricanes and wildfires also linked directly to global warming. If our politicians aren't willing to do something about it, we the people need to take things into our own hands and take action.

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