Iceland Mourns Loss of a Glacier by Posting a Warning About Climate Change
CreditJeremie Richard/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
They arrived on Sunday in parkas and ski hats, hiking across the rocky terrain where Iceland’s Okjokull glacier once flourished. Today it is a watery grave, which scientists and politicians say is the site of the nation’s first glacier lost to climate change.
A lake of melted ice now dominates the landscape amid a barren stretch of stone and dirt. The site was renamed to Ok after “jokull,” meaning “glacier” in Icelandic, was dropped.
In 2014, Oddur Sigurosson, one of the country’s leading glaciologists, declared Okjokull dead, saying the ice was too thin for it to qualify as a glacier. To mark its end, Icelanders unveiled a bronze plaque with a warning: “In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path.”
Iceland is not the only place where glaciers face extinction, but a rise in global temperatures poses an existential threat to one of the country’s signature attractions. Glaciers cover 11 percent of Iceland and are prominent attractions and sources of tourism.
Okjokull is west of the Langjokull glacier. Glacier tours abound, with ice climbing, hiking, cave tours and snowmobile adventures attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists to Iceland’s 4,500 square miles of glaciers each year.
In the 12 months ending in July, 2.14 million people visited Iceland. Of those, 88 percent were on vacation.
In the Langjokull glacier in western Iceland, a man-made ice tunnel — the largest of its kind in Europe — was constructed in 2015.
Bjorn Gudmundsson, the sales and marketing manager of Into The Glacier, a company that takes tourists inside the tunnels, said on Monday that he had seen more leakage in the tunnels this year as higher temperatures had caused the ice walls to melt.
“It’s been one of the wettest periods,” he said.
As many as 60,000 visitors tour the caves each year. He said that there was little snow this year, and that crevices in the glacier were appearing faster than normal.
Visitors often ask about how climate change is affecting the glaciers, he said. “We try to educate, so when people leave, they understand the impact on the environment,” he said.
The effect, though, can be difficult for infrequent vacationers to fathom.
“This is a big glacier,” he said. “I’ll probably be dead when it will disappear.”
A tour operator, Arctic Adventures, conducted a survey of more than 250 customers about climate change and travel. Of those who answered, 68 percent said they were concerned about it and more than half said they were more concerned after visiting Iceland.
Glaciers are receding in Alaska and California, among other places. In 2013, Earth Island Institute, an environmental nonprofit in Berkeley, Calif., published an article in its magazine that documented California’s receding glaciers.
“The glacial retreat is merely the most visible evidence of a larger and more troubling phenomenon for California’s human inhabitants,” it said.
But in Iceland, the loss has been acutely felt.
The country’s prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, said in an Op-Ed in The New York Times that the loss of Okjokull foretold a looming disaster that could eventually mar Iceland’s frozen beauty.
“In just a few decades, Iceland may no longer be characterized by the iconic Snaefellsjokull, famously known as the entrance to Earth in Jules Verne’s ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth,’” she wrote. “But if new beauty replaces the old, does the disappearance of these glaciers matter to anyone other than ice-loving Icelanders and visitors?”