“When you asked whether the land was free of ice, or whether it was covered with ice like the sea, then you must know that there is a tiny part of the country which is without ice, but all the rest is covered with it.” 

—Old Norse text early 1200s 

“That is why I contemplate the lilies of the field, but in particular the glacier. If one looks at the glacier for long enough, words cease to have any meaning on God’s earth.” 

—Halldór Laxness 

Who cannot be mystified by the almost fairy tale volcanic landscape that gave birth to the Icelandic sagas from 1000 years ago and the fabulous Snaefellsjokull glacier that moved Jules Verne to write his mythic “Journey to the Center of the Earth” in 1864. The book appeared when the Industrial Revolution was exploding everywhere at once, and based on a trip inside the volcanic bowels of Iceland, whose geologic skin offers constant reminders that the mid-Atlantic ridge is cracking right through the island at the juncture of two tectonic plates. In those days technology was followed by the conviction that nothing should halt the endless march of progress.

The 1851 Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition in London could remind its Victorian visitors of an almost human-fabricated iceberg. At the time when England was launching expedition after expedition to find the Northwest passage across Canada, the Arctic became a holy grail of sorts and a source of endless fascination for scientists and explorers alike. Professor Hardwigg in Verne’s novel even exclaimed, “When a science has set forth her fiat, it is only to hear and obey.” But today scientists know and acknowledge that those very elements that made the Industrial Revolution possible are eating away at the very bedrock of the planet and melting its snow and ice. Today, technology’s impacts are causing the ice and the very wonders that so entranced Verne, to simply vanish.

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

Just over a year ago in August 2019, we were privileged and saddened by the first memorial to a glacier lost to climate change, not only in Iceland, and Europe, but in the world. The Ok glacier (also known as Okjökull). As every Icelander knows, this momentous event was not Ok. And it was definitely not Ok for our species. The Ok no more: an omen for an entire new breed of glaciers humanity would inherit and cause to diminish from the Arctic to the Antarctic, to the third pole, the snow on the Tibetan plateau that feeds hundreds of millions in south Asia. Glaciers that are fast disappearing because of the human species.

In the next 200 years all of Iceland’s glaciers are expected to meet the same fate. We were on our way to Greenland last summer from Svalbard, very fortunate to see the largest being of all time, a blue whale, sauntering through the surface of the waves. The last time we had come to Svalbard, in 2012, our expedition ship could not make it around the archipelago due to pack ice. The sound of that stubborn ice rubbing against the hull of the ship, like a metallic fury groaning against the mind of the human species, is one of the most haunting sounds of the mechanical realm colliding against the elemental one can hear. It is at once disquieting and reassuring because the ice is like a blanket that covers the sea like protective armor. But the ice has increasingly vanished in the last decade and much of the turbulence in the oceans and rising temperatures can be attributed to its loss. The reflectivity or albedo of the top of the world has been drastically reduced due to global warming and the loss of pack ice. The feedback loop could not be clearer. When 75 percent of sunlight is reflected by the pack ice, now it is mostly absorbed by increasingly warming waters. Only 5 percent of sunlight is reflected back by open waters at the top of the world.

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

The requiem for a lost glacier in Iceland was concurrent with the fires that raged in Greenland of August in 2019 and that subsequently exploded over Siberia this year. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colo., Greenland lost more than 250 billion tons from both runoff and low snowfall last year. In one week, Greenland lost about 12 to 24 billion tons of ice per day. Enough water to last humanity for two generations.

In Iceland the memorial reads, “Ok is the first 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. August 2019 415 ppm Co2.”

Ok is now what scientists officially call “dead ice.” How many more glaciers will follow is one of the key questions for scientists and cryologists the world over. Iceland’s landscape is a thin skin that is frighteningly close to much volcanic activity that lies right under one’s feet, like the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, a monster springing right out of Ragnarok, from Norse mythology, that exploded in 2010, halting air traffic all over Europe. “Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth,” wrote the professor in Verne’s book.

Today, we know the truth, if one acknowledges the reality of what Earth is telling us, because there are still those in denial of the ultimate climate realities. Most of the world's glaciers are fast in retreat and here on Iceland, for a brief hour, humanity gathered together for a geologic loss, a requiem for an elemental monument that will never be regained. We climbed on a fast disappearing glacial drift on the Myrdalsjokull glacier in the southern part of the island, and touched the scree deposited by the glacier face dissolving into the sea.

One can only wonder what human history could have been like, if we only honored the geology of earth’s skin. We seem to be dissolving history and the posterity in one fell swoop, fell as in its original definition, meaning savage. We do not honor the bones of our ancestors. In the name of mining, we do not honor the graves of 50,000 year old aboriginals in Australia. We do not honor the Amazon, all in the name of gold and cattle and soybeans; we do not honor the greatest salmon population on earth at Bristol Bay in Alaska, all in the name of copper; we do not honor the Serengeti and its miraculous migration in Tanzania, all in the name of a gas pipeline; we do not honor the priceless ground of the Arctic Refuge because we are drunk on the oil it can provide for a few weeks of profits; we do not honor the deserts of the world because we are carving them up for uranium or lithium or oil; we do not honor the greatest marine wonder on Earth, the Great Barrier Reef. We simply do not honor the world. We are planning to gouge the bottom of the oceans to fuel the very industry that brought us to this crisis. Already the Beaufort Gyre, by changing the density of surface waters from the Arctic to the North Atlantic is changing weather patterns. It may not shut down the Gulf stream, but it has impacts scientists are just beginning to understand.

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

The Ok glacier did not give up its life willingly, but its name is here to remind us that all is not well with the human species and may never be well again. The Arctic has warmed 2 to 4 times the rate of the rest of the world. The juggernaut of the Industrial Revolution has indeed unleashed a monster. Today the way forward may be to take a step or two back while there is still something left on Earth to salvage. Climate mitigation schemes, including carbon sequestration, may be the only way forward. This is why the memorial at the Okjökull was a prayer well heeded and a warning for all earthly life and its transitoriness. We can only hope its fate will be remembered, like an invisible, weightless stake plunged into the heart of mankind.

“Where the glacier meets the sky, the land ceases to be earthly, and the earth becomes one with the heavens; no sorrows live there anymore, and therefore joy is not necessary; beauty alone reigns there, beyond all demands.” 

— Halldór Laxness

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson's work at their website.


Published on Oct 02, 2020