The memorial is “a letter to the future.” It describes what we lost: the Okjokull glacier — and how we lost it: human-caused climate change. And yet it is hopeful, acknowledging “what is happening and what needs to be done.”
“Only you,” future visitor, “know if we did it.”
It’s a reminder of geologic times gone by, like a Mount Rushmore but for the natural landmarks we’ve lost. The plaque, dedicated to Iceland’s first glacier lost to climate change, will be installed next month in Borgarfjordur.
Researchers from Rice University along with Icelanders came up with the idea after Okjokull — Ok for short — officially lost its status as a glacier in 2014.
Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, anthropologists at Rice, were conducting research in Iceland when they noticed the glacier in the distance. Boyer found only a few lines of text in an Icelandic newspaper about its demise. The two started asking around about it. They wanted to know whether the loss of one glacier really mattered.
The answer was yes.
“This little glacier on a little mountain, in a country far away on the edge of the world, is something that indexes a much larger story that affects the entire planet,” Boyer said.
They interviewed geologist Oddur Sigurosson, who first determined its non-glacier status, and many other Icelanders for a film entitled, “Not Ok” and chronicled the glacier’s end.
From there, the two decided to memorialize Ok. They talked about creating headstones or tombstones as well as informational and scientific maps to remember the glacier.
They finally settled on a memorial plaque because Boyer and Howe wanted those in the future to remember the impact humans had on the loss of the glacier, inverting the traditional use of a memorial that would laud a human accomplishment.
“This is something that humans have done, but it’s also not something that we should be proud of,” Howe said.
They worked with Icelandic writer Andri Magnason to come up with text in Icelandic and English, which reads:
“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.”
Magnason wanted to emphasize the future in his writing, to ask people who might come across the memorial years from now whether humans did in fact help stem the effects of climate change.
“If we show inaction now, our times will be judged quite heavily by future generations,” Magnason said.
Mark Carey, a professor of history and environmental studies at the University of Oregon, said there are other tributes for shrinking glaciers around the world. Carey, who did not work on the Iceland memorial, said markers that demonstrate where a glacier used to be and images that show glacial retreat over time help capture ways to think about the loss of something like a glacier.
“I think that these can be important,” Carey said. “Because you instantly feel a sense of loss, a sense of passing time.”
Though not a memorial, a similar sentiment can be found in Bolivia. The Chacaltaya glacier, once home to a ski resort, was gone by 2008, and there are now pictures of the former ice and snow and guides for visitors to see what once was, Carey said. “It’s another case where people can go and lament what was lost.”
At the Pastoruri glacier in Peru, visitors can take a route created to view how climate change is affecting Peruvian glaciers.
There are various ways to remember lost glaciers, Carey said, but the emphasis on what that loss means for local communities is important.
“Sometimes, when we treat glacier loss as just a climate global story, we miss the local landscape of who is impacted and who is not,” Carey said.
For Magnason, he and other Icelanders used to think about glaciers as everlasting structures. They are revered for their size as well as the powerful waterfalls and rivers they create when they melt. He said when he first started as a writer in the ’80s and ’90s, he couldn’t have imagined writing about the end of glaciers.
“Then, the glaciers were eternity,” Magnason said.
Yet the climate is changing rapidly, and all of Iceland’s glaciers are projected to melt in the next two centuries. The Rice University researchers say they hope this small memorial helps create a path forward for thinking about climate change and its impact.
“It’s a simple story, but it’s one that everyone is feeling,” Boyer said. “And I think that’s a really encouraging sign that people care about this loss.”