From Iceland — Why Iceland Held A Glacier Funeral: Andri Snær Magnason On Memorializing Ok Glacier & The Climate Crisis

Why Iceland Held A Glacier Funeral: Andri Snær Magnason On Memorializing Ok Glacier & The Climate Crisis

Published August 30, 2019

Photo by
Judy Natal

“I don’t have ambitions to be a glacier undertaker,” says Andri Snær Magnason, who authored the text for Ok glacier’s memorial plaque last weekend. “But I would attend future memorials if I could.”

On August 18th, Rice University anthropologists Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer arranged a memorial for the former Ok (pronounced “awk”) glacier as a follow-up to their 2017 documentary ‘Not Ok’. The memorial is a strategic move to foreground the impact of climate change in Iceland and globally, arguing that Ok is the first Icelandic glacier whose disappearance is directly linked to climate change.

Emphasise the ‘lac’ in ‘glacier’

Over one hundred people travelled to the site to the former glacier to collectively mourn. They placed a memorial plaque with Andri Snær’s message for future visitors: “We know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

Andri Snær is figural in Iceland’s environmental, political, and artistic scenes. He received international attention with his 2008 book ‘Dreamland: Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation’ critiquing the country’s energy-harnessing practices. A decade after ‘Dreamland’ met readers, Andri Snær will publish his next non-fiction book, ‘On Time and Water,’ in Icelandic this autumn. The book interweaves grandmothers, glaciers, holy cows, and mythology in a melting world through personal stories, travelogues, and interviews.

In the context of melting glaciers and the climate crisis, Andri Snær finds that “our existence is going against future generations. That’s an unbearable, existential dilemma. We’re sacrificing the lives of the next generation for our own. Not even for survival but for comfort, which is probably the most absolute ethical situation that any generation has found itself in.”

Ok glacier

56 glaciers already gone

Out of 300 named glaciers in Iceland, the Icelandic Meteorological Office has collated an unpublished list of 56 glaciers that have melted as of 2017. Ok is the largest of these glaciers to disappear; its previous measurement in 2000 indicated it was 3.34 km. Ok was part of the Langjökull glacier group, which also includes the dead glacier formerly known as Hlöðufellsjökull.

The other 54 glaciers were less than 1 km in size as of 2000. 31 of these glaciers were located in north Iceland’s Tröllaskagi region, while sevenglaciers had expired in Flateyjarskagi. Sixglaciers in the East Fjords have melted, as have another sixin the southeast Vatnajökull group. Fourglaciers in the Kerlingarfjöll highlands have also disappeared.

Coordinator of glaciological research at the Icelandic Meteorological Office Tómas Jóhannesson offers, “Ok is a glacier that was a landmark in Western Iceland, visible from the lowlands and settled areas. The other 50 are very small glaciers that nobody except specialists or people who do a lot of hiking in the highlands or remote areas have visited.”

Viral ice

Ok’s memorial sparked an international media frenzy. The Guardian approached Andri Snær to write an article about how he memorialised the glacier, while The New York Times published an article by prime minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir.

“When I wrote the (memorial) text,” Andri Snær recalls, “I thought I was speaking to maybe a few people a year, the people who would stumble across the mountaintop. I forgot to think about the viral news network.”

Glaciologists on speed dial

The volume of unexpected international attention caused the Icelandic Meteorological Office to develop a media brochure on climate change and Icelandic glaciers. About the attention, Tómas says, “Because of Ok, there was a flurry of questions about the importance of glacier change and how disastrous this was. We wrote a summary of the importance of glacier changes and climate changes in Iceland and how they manifest.”

“We’re sacrificing the lives of the next generation for our own. Not even for survival but for comfort.”

The focus on Iceland’s glaciers and climate change spurred international journalists to write about their local climate concerns. “I saw, in different media,” says Andri Snær, “they would also take their local global warming perspective into it. You feel the awareness is different from 10 years ago. This proves what art can do.”

“On mountaintops, we have víðsjá,” explains Andri Snær, “copper plates describing the horizon. I thought the memorial plaque was a kind of víðsjá, but it doesn’t point to the horizon; it points to the future. Then it points from the future back to us, with awareness that what we’re doing is hopefully something people will see after 200 years.”

The idea of writing a text in a country with a millennium-long literary history is not lost on Andri Snær. “Icelandic sagas were written on calfskin,” he says, “and that’s lasted 1,000 years. With the memorial, I wrote on something more sturdy than calfskin. So it could last even longer; this could outlast the stone it is sitting on.”

Ok glacier

Keep the ice

The New York Times article by prime minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir appeared at the same time as the Ok memorial. In it, the prime minister concluded, “Help us keep the ice in Iceland.”

The Paris Agreement’s internationally adopted goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees this century would not fulfill her request.

According to Tómas, “if the international community succeeds in limiting climate change during this century to 1.5 degrees or less, the effect on the glaciers in Iceland will be much smaller. If climate change continues at its current pace, we expect the glaciers to be mostly gone in a couple of centuries.”

“We know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

Through the saga of Ok’s memorial, the prime minister shared Iceland’s climate-crisis approach. She wrote, “We are currently executing Iceland’s first fully funded action plan, aiming at carbon neutrality by 2040 at the latest. Iceland has decarbonised energy production, and we are working toward greener transport, including by proposing a ban on the registration of cars powered by non-renewables after 2030.”

Ok’s memorial was attended by children and teenagers carrying placards with climate-strike slogans. The movement has touched Andri Snær, and he explains, “Children who are in school now see within their own lifetimes, not even before they reach their 40s, something huge will be happening in the world. And they basically are not buying it.”

“The climate strikes are a demand that we start fixing the system. It’s basically rethinking and redesigning everything, every single aspect of our Western societies. And this goes for China and Japan, too. It goes for quite a big portion of the world.”

Future memorials

Andri Snær considers if memorialising glaciers may continue in Iceland. “I actually do think so, unless our mood will be so dreadful that we don’t want to think about what’s happened. Or if things have become so urgent in the world that we are not at this stage anymore.”

Last week in Iceland, the annual meeting of Nordic prime ministers included climate change on their agenda. Andri Snær and others urged action, and insisted their conversation should go further than it did. “I want to see Nordic countries admit they’ve already used their share of oil to get themselves to this level of prosperity. It’s the obligation of countries that were first developed to go carbon neutral and, then, carbon negative. That means not about bragging about who’s best in sustainability. It doesn’t matter if you’re best while the world is burning. If others aren’t doing anything, you have to do even more. That is something that we don’t seem to be understanding.”

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