The funeral of a glacier: time to pull the emergency brake

A blog post by Tim Mullens

Tim Mullens
Training and Marketing Officer

Posted 12/09/2019

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View from Ok Volcano.

The funeral party walked quietly up the stony, barren mountain slopes. The only sounds to be heard were the trudging of sturdy boots against the rocks, the clink of walking poles, all backed by a mournful wind.

Some of the funeral party carried homemade signs and banners as they formed a long, straggling line up the mountain.

At the top, the people stopped. They gathered around a large, grey boulder.

Someone pulled a drill from their bag and neatly opened up four holes in the boulder. The assembled crowd parted slightly as children were encouraged forward, and, with gloved hands, helped to secure a smart metal plaque to the boulder which read:


A letter to the future

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.

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

415ppm Co2


This funeral, gathering, acknowledgment – whatever you want to call it – was for the Ok Glacier, Okjökull as it was called in Icelandic. Now it’s dead, at an estimated 700 years old. A victim of a warming climate caused by human activity. The ice has melted to such an extent that in 2014 it was no longer classified as a glacier. Okjökull’s final death throes and continued decline from 1986 to 2019 are graphically illustrated in the photos below.

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/USGS


Ok is the name of the volcano that the glacier sat on top of. Jökull is the Icelandic word for glacier. So, what little ice remains towards the summit of the volcano is now known, simply and ironically, as Ok.

But it’s not ok.

It’s not ok that a glacier, covering tens of kilometres in the early 20th Century, is now under one kilometre in size and has lost most of its thickness – now made up of ‘dead ice’ i.e. no longer flowing. Rice University produced a film about the death of Okjökull titled ‘Not OK’. It’s worth a watch.

But why’s else is the melting of Okjökull, not ok? It’s not ok, because the rapid melting of Okjökull symbolises the speed and scale with which human-caused warming of our planet is melting glaciers across the world. This has a serious knock-on impact for people and ecosystems at a local and global scale:

  • Melting glaciers contribute to rising sea levels and increase flood risk for our low-lying coastal communities.
  • Communities living near glaciers, in places such as Nepal, face the risk of massive floods as pooled meltwater escapes.
  • Glaciers are huge stores of water and as they melt, there is less stored water available to support people, crops and ecosystems.

As the planet warms, our climate is changing too, with extremes of weather causing damage to organisms, ecosystems, as well as us humans. Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report warning of the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels versus a rise of 2°C.

So, as described so well in a placard carried by one of the funeral party at Ok:

‘It’s time to pull the emergency brake.’

View from Ok Volcano. Which glaciers will be next to melt?

The Climate Crisis, Climate Emergency – whatever you want to call it – is so serious that it’s past the point where one sector of society can tackle it. Climate change impacts everyone. It’s everyone’s responsibility to act.

Action is being taken at a variety of levels across the world. Climate Emergencies are being declared. Young people are striking to demand more action. And more ambitious change targets are being committed to, for example the Scottish Government announcing net-zero emissions.

So, how can we make a difference as individuals? We’ve produced a handy guide1 that contains simple actions involving home energy, travel, food and the things we buy and own.

But all sectors of society need to do more. And quickly. If you want to influence others to do more, why not consider some of the actions below?

  • Strike – students and young people across the world have been walking out of school every Friday to demand urgent action on climate change. And they asked adults to join them on 20 September.
  • Vote – make your voice heard by voting for those with the best environmental credentials. Register to vote.
  • Divest – move your money/debts, insurance, pension, mortgage, energy supplier etc to companies that have sound climate change and environmental policies. And do the same with all your buying decisions from your grocery shop to clothes.
  • Become Carbon Literate – come to free training, organised through the CCF, and learn where climate change-causing emissions come from and how you can most effectively tackle them and communicate this with others.


Tackling climate change is win-win

I didn’t attend the Okjökull funeral, but I did watch it through news reports. It affected me deeply in ways I didn’t expect. Sure, it made me sad knowing that the fate of Okjökull is symbolic of rapid and dangerous climate change across the world.

Yet the Okjökull funeral also filled me with hope that people cared enough to mark its passing, an acknowledgment that we know climate change is happening and what needs to be done to tackle it. Climate change has never had a higher profile, with climate emergencies, school strikes and BBC documentaries.

And here’s another happy thing: most of the stuff we can do to tackle carbon emissions and climate change leads to other benefits.

  • Switching to clean renewable energy (wind, solar, geothermal, anaerobic digestion etc) helps combat air pollution and doesn’t leave toxic waste.
  • Travel by bike and foot instead of car helps tackle air pollution and improves health and wellbeing.
  • Eating diets higher in plants and local produce improves our health and supports local producers.
  • Reducing, reusing and recycling means less plastics and other materials to pollute our planet.
  • Buying sustainably produced and fairly-traded products supports human rights and local environments.

If tackling climate change is a win-win situation, which it is, I think we’d be wise to take all the positive action necessary. At all levels. And quickly. It’s the obvious, common-sense and morally right thing to do, if we want to build a world that is worth living in.

Back to Iceland, where trolls feature prominently in folklore. Did you know that Icelandic Trolls are often described as stupid and greedy, but can apparently also be wise and kind?

I hope that hope future generations will judge our actions on the climate crisis as wise and kind.


Keep Scotland Beautiful plays an important role in influencing and enabling action on climate change. We work with people, places and policy through areas including collaboration with government and the public sector, communities and voluntary sector organisations, businesses and young people. Find out more.

1 We produced this handy climate change guide as part of our management of the Climate Challenge Fund on behalf of the Scottish Government.

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