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The Okjokull Glacier Extinction

Updated: Sep 16, 2019

In August 2019 Iceland held a memorial service for its first-ever glacier lost to the effects of climate change. The Okjokull Glacier extinction is a sobering reminder that climate change is real and its ramifications are diverse and devastating. A record level of carbon dioxide was recorded in the atmosphere last May (29019). And July 2019 is the hottest July on record worldwide. The reality of this prompted climate campaigners to mark the passing of the Okjokull Glacier. This was done as a wake-up call to raise awareness about where we are heading unless we act now.


The Okjokull Glacier

Nicknamed OK the Okjokull Glacier was formerly a glacier in western Iceland situated on top of a volcano. Geological surveys from 1901 state that the glacier spanned around fifteen square miles in coverage. However, by 1986 glaciologists found that it had shrunk to just six square miles. Even so it was a relatively healthy glacier with a flow and a good level of ice thickness.


By 2014 however, the glacier was even more depleted with just streaks of ice showing and little full coverage. It subsequently became the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier that same year. Prominent Icelandic geologist Oddur Sigurðsson stated that it no longer had the characteristics of a living glacier. It had shrunk exponentially in those last few decades.


Okjokull Glacier Memorial Ceremony

Around 100 people attended the August ceremony for Okjokull including Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir. Also amongst the crowd was former Irish president Mary Robinson who currently campaigns for climate crisis awareness. Other attendees included researchers from Rice University, climate activists and local people from the area. During the ceremony, a commemorative plaque was unveiled. The plaque was fixed to a bare rock amidst the barren landscape left behind as the glacier ice melted.


The inscription is titled - A letter to the Future. It goes on the say “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.” This heartfelt dedication was written by Icelandic author Andri Snaer Magnason and appears in Icelandic then English. It leaves the reader with a sense of the gravity of the situation humankind is currently facing. And also with a deep sense of responsibility.


Map of glaciers in Iceland

Glacier coverage in Iceland is estimated to be about 11% of the total landmass. There are upwards of 400 glaciers in this land of fire and ice. Along with its volcanoes, glaciers characterize the very fabric of Iceland. The natural wonders created by Iceland’s glaciers are what draws so many visitors to its shores.


Glaciers of all shapes and sizes can be found right across Iceland. But by far the largest one is the Vatnajökull ice cap in the southwest of the country. Easily visible from space this vast swathe of white covers around 3100 square miles. This means it makes up about 8% of the entire country. The Vatnajökull ice cap forms a large part of the Vatnajökull National park. This is an immense national park that covers 14% of Iceland. The park and the area around it harbour some of Iceland’s most beautiful natural sights.


Visitors come here to explore ice caves in winter and to hike across the glacier surface. In summer boat trips head out across the Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon to admire icebergs floating across its surface. On the nearby Diamond Beach ice blocks and pebbles of all shapes and sizes decorate the shoreline. Melted ice in springtime feeds the glacial rivers that rush across the land. These, in turn, create Iceland’s spectacular waterfalls.

Iceland glacier retreat

Sadly Iceland’s glaciers are in a steady line of retreat. In human terms, it might seem quite slow but on geological terms the speed of this retreat is extremely rapid. Even the mighty Vatnajökull ice cap is steadily shrinking. The glacier reached its peak in 1930. Since then it has been declining in both its ice coverage and the thickness of the slow-flowing ice.


This process of retreat has speeded up in recent decades. Over the last 15 years, the glacier has lost a staggering metre in thickness each year. If it continues at this rate the entire glacier will be all but lost by the end of the next century.


Measures are being put in place to try and slow this process. Tree planting helps to cool the area and slow the melting process. This is one positive measure currently taking place but much more action is needed. Visiting the wild places of the world such as Iceland shows us another part of all that we have to lose. We must all act now to change this potential future. Although Iceland has commemorated the loss of Okjokull this is a future that is not yet set in stone.

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