The Funeral for Iceland’s OK Glacier Attracts International Attention

On August 18, about 100 people, including Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir and former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, hiked for two hours to attend a somber event. The gathering was in memory of OK Glacier, which had melted so extensively that, in 2014, scientists pronounced it dead. It is the first Icelandic glacier lost to climate change. 

To be considered a glacier, an ice mass needs to have movement. OK melted so significantly that it no longer had the mass to move under its own weight and so no longer met the criteria of a glacier.

The event received international coverage, appearing in Time, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, and the BBC, among other major publications. In a New York Times opinion piece, PM Jakobsdottir called the gathering “a local ceremony but a global story.”

“Glaciers are melting all across the world, contributing enormously to rising sea levels,” she wrote. “Himalayan glaciers help regulate the water supply of a quarter of humankind. Natural systems will be disrupted.”

Funeral attendees gathered around a rock on which a commemorative plaque was installed.
(Source: Gisli Palsson)

Two researchers, Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, first proposed commemorating the loss of OK Glacier. The Rice University scientists produced a documentary called “Not Okin order to draw attention to the plight of the glacier. In the process of making the film, Howe and Boyer had the idea to hold a kind of memorial for OK, which is shorthand for Okjökull.

Howe and Boyer attended the August 18 commemoration.

Rice University researchers Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer produced a documentary film about OK Glacier. They pose next to a plaque commemorating the glacier’s demise. 
(Source: Rice University/Amy McCaig)

“As we neared the site of the lost glacier, we followed an Icelandic hiking tradition where you walk in silence, think of three wishes, and never look back,” Howe told GlacierHub in an email. “Completing that last 100 meters in silence was exceptionally poignant. We were stepping forward, to be sure, but also reflecting on what it means to say goodbye to the world that we have known.”

Rice University researcher Dominic Boyer holds the plaque commemorating OK Glacier before it is installed. 
(Source: Rice University/Amy McCaig)

Once the participants reached OK, they reflected on the tragedy of OK’s disappearance and on the need to protect existing glaciers.

“At the site of the memorial we had words of recognition, remorse, and— more than anything—calls to action,” Howe said.

Echoing the sentiment, Robinson told the Associated Press: “The symbolic death of a glacier is a warning to us, and we need action.”

OK’s demise and the commemoration in Iceland has already had ripple effect. On September 22, mourners will gather at a funeral for the Pizol Glacier in eastern Switzerland.

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Photo Friday: Glacier Tattoos

The beauty and grandeur of glaciers inspire some people to get tattoos of these natural wonders on their skin. Despite the vastness of glaciers, their presence on Earth may be less permanent than those tattoos, due to increased melting caused by global warming. The ways in which people choose to immortalize glaciers also vary. Some designs capture the simple beauty, while others focus on memories or experiences on glaciers.

See images of these fascinating tattoos below:

A delicate inner arm tattoo of glacier-covered peaks (Source: Small Tattoos/Twitter).


A tattoo inspired by Kokanee Glacier in British Columbia (Source: Ojas Cats/Twitter).


A ribcage tattoo inspired by Icelandic glaciers (Source: Little Tattoos/Twitter).


Before and after photos of a sleeve tattoo of a climber ascending a peak (Source: Owlcat Artists/Twitter).


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An upper arm tattoo of Mount Rainier (Source: Paolo Mottola Mastroianni/Flickr).


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A large side tattoo of a mountain range (Source: Jeff Tarinelli/Flickr).


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A tattoo of Tahoma’s Glaciers and the Wonderland Trail (Source: Phillip Martello).


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A small wrist tattoo of glaciers (Source: Station de FLAINE/Twitter).


Freed of Ice, Iceland Rises

GPS station at Skogaheidi, Iceland (Source: The Institute of Earth Sciences)

Iceland is, in fact, a land of ice. It is home to at least 269 glaciers, which occupy the equivalent of over 1.4 billion Olympic swimming pools. But those glaciers are melting, causing the land underneath to rise as the weight of the ice lifts. According to a new study published online in Geophysical Research Letters in February, Iceland is actually rising over 30mm per year in some places, and the rate of rise is accelerating.

These were the findings of a team of researchers led by Richard Bennett, associate professor from the University of Arizona in Tucson. They have been doing field research in Iceland since 2006 to better understand the relationship between warming temperatures, glacial melt and land rise. To track the rate of glacier melt and measure the positioning of the earth, the team collected data from 62 GPS receivers fastened to rocks in Iceland. Most of those GPS receivers were already in place, but the group added 20 new receivers of its own.

It is challenging to accurately measure the uplift response to modern ice loss because the signal can be complicated by the remnant responses to past glacial retreat. But it turns out Iceland is a favorable place for GPS-based study, because research suggests these remnant responses are minimal: the observed changes in land positioning correspond mostly to recent changes in ice mass.

Bennett and his team first learned that land rise was accelerating in 2013 after they examined one of the oldest GPS stations, located in central Iceland. When they checked other nearby stations, these also showed an accelerating rate of rebound. By analyzing the signals from the GPS network using statistical modeling, the team then found that it was the region between several ice caps that rebounded the fastest. They estimated that the largest uplift took place near the center of Iceland, between two ice caps called Vatnajökull and Hofsjökull, with rates of over 30mm each year.

Glacier Vatnajökull, Iceland (Source: Flickr)
Glacier Vatnajökull, Iceland (Source: Flickr)

The researchers also observed a remarkable increase in the rate of ice loss due to melting in the years since 1995, when some of the continuously operating GPS receivers were first placed in Iceland. Kathleen Compton, a geosciences doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona in Tucson, one of the researchers on the team, decided to use mathematical models to test whether the acceleration in crust uplift corresponded to static or accelerating rates of ice melting. Her models indicated that for land rise to accelerate, ice loss must also accelerate. She also found a correlation between rising temperatures in Iceland and land lift. Temperature records for Iceland show an increase in warming began in 1980.

The team plans to analyze land uplift data to uncover seasonal variations in growth and melting of ice caps, especially during winter snow season and summer. “Our hope is we can use current GPS measurements of uplift to more easily quantify ice loss,” said Bennett in an interview published on the American Geophysical Union’s website.

In related research, in a 2006 paper in the Journal of Geophysics Research, Aðalgeirsdóttir et al. found that glacier ice loss in Iceland dates back to at least 1995 and this trend should continue. Scientific models demonstrate that specific glaciers—Hofsjökull and southern Vatnajökull—are likely to shrink by half in the coming two centuries. Another paper by Compton et al., published in Geophysical Research Letters this February, indicates that if glacier melt continues to accelerate at current rates in Iceland, central Iceland will probably rise at a rate of 40mm per year over the next decade.

The continuous station GFUM operated by the Icelandic Meteorogical Office (Source: Institute of Earth Sciences)
The continuous station GFUM operated by the Icelandic Meteorogical Office (Source: The Institute of Earth Sciences)

Recent findings by Schmidt et al., published in 2012 on Earth and Planetary Science Letters, further suggest that continued glacier retreat could bring about upward movement of the earth’s mantle—the layer between the crust and the core—which could result in more volcanic eruptions and increase the volume of volcanic rocks during eruptions.

The natural and social impacts of warming-induced ice loss in Iceland are likely to grow over time and are critical subjects for further research.

To read more about glacial retreat and earth uplift, check out this past story on