Okjökull glacier: A Global Warning

If you thought global warming was a problem, you might be excused. If you thought it is a catastrophe, you might be somewhere near the truth. In recent weeks, Iceland’s first official glacier death was underscored by the loss 180 billion tons of ice from the Greenland ice shelf. By Jeremy Torr.


Iceland, 1 August 2019. A mysterious voice intones a gloomy message. “I am Okjökull glacier. At least I was.”

It is the opening, mist-laden scene from a recent movie titled The Not OK Movie. OK in this case is short for Okjökull, the glacier that was 38 kilometres square and tens of metres thick at the turn of the century. Today, it’s most prominent feature is not millions of tons of ice, but a small plaque that says it is the first site in Iceland to be declassified as a glacier - because it has almost completely melted.

As scientists at the US’s Rice University note, in 1901, a geological map of Iceland's Central Highlands showed Okjökull as a massive chunk of ice. But by 1945 it had shrunk to just five km2. When it was measured in 2005, it was almost completely gone and by 2014, it had lost its glacier status; now, the plaque is all that remains.

“Unfortunately, this is very likely the direct result of climate change, and unless things change, this will not be the last glacier to have this fate,” say the Rice University researchers.

The story of the first un-glacier and the potential fate of many more in Iceland is described starkly by Andri Snaer Magnason, the author of the memorial, and he is not mincing words.

"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. The plaque also records the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere reached in May 2019 – a record 415ppm. This, say the researchers, is the first time this has happened in human history.

Andri Snaer Magnason, the founder of the OK memorial. Courtesy A S Magnason,

Andri Snaer Magnason, the founder of the OK memorial. Courtesy A S Magnason,

"By marking OK's passing, we hope to draw attention to what is being lost as Earth's glaciers expire,” says anthropologist Cymene Howe from Rice University.

“These bodies of ice are the largest freshwater reserves on the planet and frozen within them are histories of the atmosphere. They are also often important cultural forms that are full of significance."

But it’s not just glaciers that are disappearing. According to reports from Martin Stendel, a climate scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI), this is set to be the second largest ice melt since 1950, when reliable records began. “Based on NCEP reanalyses, we expect the 2nd largest melt event since 1950,” he posted on Twitter.

Okjökull plaque showing it as no longer classed as a glacier. Image courtesy Rice University.

Okjökull plaque showing it as no longer classed as a glacier. Image courtesy Rice University.

And researcher Ruth Mottram, also from the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) added that temperatures across the Arctic region were “very warm temperature for the altitude" across the regions higher altitude areas. “This year's melt is different to the one in 2012 as it is happening persistently every day rather than in extreme bursts,” she added.

The research indicates that around 180-190 billion tons of meltwater from the Greenland icecap flowed into the Arctic seas in July 2019. "That is quite a lot higher than usual," said Mottram, “The expected average would be between 60-70 billion tons at this time of year.”

The reason for the spike in ice melts was – you guessed it – an early thaw driven by higher than usual temperatures.

"High pressure associated with Europe's recent record heatwave has essentially shifted over (frozen areas) in Greenland," noted one climatologist, who added that this could cause temperatures to rise more than 10C above average on the entire Greenland ice sheet.

Rice’s Cymene Howe. Courtesy Rice University.

Rice’s Cymene Howe. Courtesy Rice University.

As if that wasn’t enough, higher temperatures in high latitudes have helped drive massive fires across the Russian tundra. Burning across some 4.5 million hectares, the fires are producing enormous quantities of smoke, ash and CO2 that not only raise temperatures, but also lead to darkened skies and poor air quality for local residents. And as the World Meteorological Organization noted in a statement, “… there is the added problem that soot falling on ice or snow melts darkens it, thus reducing the reflectiveness of the surface and trapping more heat."

The loss of ice, the death of glaciers and the rise in meltwater in 2019 may be seen as a major turning point in how we deal with climate change.

"With this (OK glacier) memorial, we want to underscore that it is up to us, the living, to collectively respond to the rapid loss of glaciers and the ongoing impacts of climate change,” said Rice’s Howe.

For OK glacier it is already too late; it is now what scientists call 'dead ice, said Howe. “Asia's mountain glaciers (are) rapidly melting, and Antarctica alone is losing 252 billion tons of ice annually. The onus is on us to do something," she warned.