In 2019, a funeral was held for Okjkull, the first Icelandic glacier to be lost to climate change. A commemorative plaque, fixed to a boulder once held in its icy grip, reads: ‘A letter to our future. Ok is the first Iceland 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.’
That glaciers and ice sheets across the planet are shrinking isn’t news and it must be challenging for scientists to try to work out how to petition the general public for an emotional response to the seemingly sterile landscapes about which they care so passionately.
Jemma Wadham somehow manages to bring something new. She turns glaciers from stern automatonical ice machines – that seem to possess a lot of grandeur but not much personality – into something one can feel a little more amity towards.
Yes, there’s the obvious: together with ice sheets, they currently holding more than two per cent of the world’s fresh water and if they carry on melting at their current rate, there’s the possibility of a two-metre sea-level rise by 2100. But they’re far more than just big reservoirs of water threatening to deluge the planet, argues Wadham. She entreats us to view them as ecosystems, elements of value in their own right. She points to the microbial lifeforms they contain, which feed off chemical reactions rather than photosynthesis. Then there’s the fact that they grind trapped minerals out of mountains in the form of glacial dust, freeing up nutrients for use by plants and animals. You could view them as ‘a gigantic nutrient factory’, she writes.
Alongside these facts are alluring glimpses into a glaciologist’s life – animal encounters and wild nights partying under the midnight sun. There are also evocative moments, such as the first smell of glacial ice: ‘that sense of being stroked by its soft, frigid fingers… a welcome and a warning.’
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