For the best part of a week, the TV has been turning its attention to the melting of the world’s ice caps. The effect of global warming can be seen in disappearing ice sheets, receding perma frosts and rising sea levels. And the warnings have been coming with increasing urgency – seaside towns and cities will soon be under threat, eroding coastlines and surging seas will flood those low lying hinterlands around our scenic coasts. The Big Thaw is on with a vengeance.
Across the polar regions, and in the high latitudes of the Himalayas, the world’s glaciers are being driven to extinction by climate change. Glaciers, those immense bodies of dense ice which have developed over centuries, constantly grow and move under their own weight. They carve out their own slopes across the landscape, and frequently cause havoc as summer melt means flooding of the arable land in their vicinity. On the other hand, glacial ice is the largest reservoir of fresh water on earth, feeding local streams and sustaining human and plant life as their waters cascade down their host mountains.
And that was why, earlier this summer, a memorial service was held to mark the disappearance of the first glacier to be destroyed by global warming. Okjökull, or simply OK for short, was never one of Iceland’s more spectacular glaciers. It had little of the picturesque beauty of most of the three hundred glaciers which cover Iceland, but yet it had a special place in the country’s mythology and a special affection in the hearts of those communities which lived around its base. And it was close enough to Reykjavik to be clearly seen from the nation’s capital, hence elevating it to special importance in terms of tourist attractions.
In 1890 geologists estimated that Ok covered 1,600 hectares, but when measured in 2012, this had reduced to just 70. The trend was obvious, the snow was melting on OK faster than it could be replaced and the ice had become so thin that it was no longer moving.
Even then, there was no general outcry, no sense of alarm about what was happening. It took two American anthropologists to draw world attention to the realisation of what damage climate change could do. Their documentary film, ‘Not OK’ was released last year and prompted a response that drew writers, politicians and schoolchildren to the spot where the glacier had been, for what was termed the world’s first memorial service to a ‘glacier that was’.
It was by then only a landscape of black and brown rocks, ugly and unkempt and neglected. The white and blue cloak of ice was no longer there. The cold, pure water which had sustained its people for generations was gone, save for the odd piece of strong ice which had clung tenaciously to a rock outcrop. The sense of loss was palpable.
Iceland’s prime minister led the climb up OK hill where a young student read from the words of the celebrated writer Andri Snaer Magnuson: ‘OK, the burdened glacier / which at last has had enough / of acts of terror from men who do not know / how to have both profit and morals’.
A group of children pressed a bronze plaque into a boulder with a ‘Letter to the Future’, recording the death of OK and the probability of all Iceland’s glaciers disappearing within a 100 years. It concluded “We know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you will know if we did it.”
The last part of the inscription, so that future generations might know, read ‘415 ppm CO2’, the record level of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, recorded just three months before the mourners retraced their steps over the barren landscape.