‘Only you know if we did it’: Scientists write dire letter to the future about climate change


Scientists are gathering in Iceland Sunday to memorialize Okjökull — the country’s first glacier to be destroyed by global warming.

Okjökull, nicknamed Ok, lost its status as a glacier 2014. The monument being unveiled at the “funeral” is inscribed with an ominous warning, titled “A letter to the future.”

“Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier,” it states in English and Icelandic. “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 know what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

Memorial plaque for Iceland’s Okjökull glacier. CREDIT: Rice University.

Only future generations will “know if we did it” — if we melted all of the glaciers, raised sea level tens of feet, destroyed all of our coastal cities, and ruined our livable climate.

But the truth is that human-caused global warming is disintegrating Arctic glaciers and the great ice sheets at such a rapid and accelerating pace that we will all know within a decade whether humanity has acted fast enough to avert catastrophe.

As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported in December, “Arctic air temperatures for the past five years (2014-18) have exceeded all previous records since 1900.” And 2019 is on track to be the hottest year yet.

NOAA’s report makes clear we’re in an all-but irreversible Arctic death spiral — which is driving more extreme weather in this country, faster sea level rise everywhere, and more rapid disintegration of the carbon-rich permafrost, which in turn causes even faster global warming.

Prof. Cymene Howe of Rice, told the UK Guardian last month that the plaque “would be the first to a glacier lost to climate change anywhere in the world.” She said that an Icelandic colleague told her: “Memorials are not for the dead; they are for the living.”

Let’s hope the living are listening.

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