Who is Killing the Glaciers? From Glacier Funerals to Glacier Autopsies
Memorials for Dead Glaciers
Clark, dead. Pizol, dead. Okjökull, dead. A recent string of mountaintop deaths has inspired a new ceremony: glacier funerals. The Clark, Pizol, and Okjökull glaciers are only a few of many to disappear in recent decades, but they have been prominently mourned under international spotlight. The spectacle of glacier funerals provokes an important question: do they actually inspire action, accountability, and justice?
Glacier memorials first kicked off in Iceland in August 2019, when about 100 people clamored up a mountainside to mourn the death of Okjökull—also known as the Ok glacier. Speaking into the wind through a megaphone, activists pronounced Ok’s death to publicize the consequences of human-caused climate change. After a speech from Iceland’s prime minster Katrín Jakobsdóttir and poems from schoolchildren, Icelandic glaciologist Oddur Sigurdsson pulled a death certificate from his backpack. He announced the cause of the glacier’s demise: “excessive heat” and “humans.”
Silence spread across the ridge and mourners felt the chilly breeze on their cheeks. They broke into spontaneous song and then had another long moment of silence to signal their commitment to preventing further harm to Earth’s climate, as the two anthropologist organizers Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer explain. At the site of Okjökull’s funeral, they mounted a permanent plaque that reads: “This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done.” The small ceremony sparked a global response—not climate policies or solutions, but rather a media frenzy that profiled the dead glacier and celebrated the admirable efforts of funeral attendees.
Following Okjökull’s memorial, concerned citizens and scientists laid other glaciers to rest, including the Pizol Glacier in Switzerland in 2019 and the Clark Glacier in Oregon in 2020. The Pizol funeral was coordinated by the Swiss Association for Climate Protection to coincide with a United Nations climate summit. The BBC, CNN, Time, National Public Radio, Lonely Planet, The Independent, DW, and the CBC are just a fraction of the media outlets that covered the Pizol ceremony.
In Oregon, the funeral for the Clark Glacier was presented differently—not just for a group of mourners on the now-barren mountain, but rather live streamed on Instagram for the whole world. The organizer, Anders Carlson, collected a vial of meltwater from this Cascades glacier, which he said had become “a rotting carcass of its former self.” He then put the vial into a coffin, draped it with black cloth, and positioned it in front of the stark-white state capitol building in Salem. Carlson repeated a familiar warning: we are at fault for the melting glaciers and we must change how we live. Once again, media coverage was prolific. But the funeral stories focused more on the scene of mourning than the very thing the organizer had intended: actions and solutions.
Glacier funerals inspire stories through an intense blend of melancholia, urgency, and spectacle. Tearful mourners under black veils stand alongside “Demand Climate Action Now” pickets. News articles showcase dramatic images of funeral processions, collapsing ice, and activists’ handcrafted signs. They provide vivid details of the funerals but fail to explain what drives the “glacier apocalypse,” other than occasional vague references to human-caused climate change. They don’t tap into the justice-focused ice work, like in cryopolitics or cryogenics or the ice humanities, that shows how people living close to glaciers are the ones who contribute the least to their deaths but are most at risk from their loss.
When articles do discuss climate change mitigation, they offhandedly announce “humans” as culprits and broadly attribute the glacier death to “climate change.” That’s not enough anymore. Humans did not contribute equally to the climate crisis, and broad categories such as “humans” and “climate change” are not entities that can be held accountable in legal proceedings. In short, glacier funerals evade a key question: Do glaciers just die, or are they killed?
Who is Killing the Glaciers?
Alongside the vast body of research showing the environmental injustices of climate change impacts, a different branch of research works to identify the culprits causing glacier deaths. Through “attribution science,” scientists use long-term weather records, climate models, numerical simulations, and powerful computers to pinpoint the human fingerprint on extreme events, like heatwaves, droughts, floods, and tropical cyclones. Their models analyze whether these real events happening on Earth would have occurred—or how they would have been different—had anthropogenic climate change hypothetically never happened.
Science journalist Jane Hu explains attribution science with a helpful analogy: “Just as medical researchers can study how smoking cigarettes changes people’s risk of lung cancer by comparing data from smokers and nonsmokers, attribution scientists compare events on our planet with those on a hypothetical ‘Planet B,’ one that is untouched by greenhouse gas emissions.” While attribution research may not yet be fully utilized by all climate scientists, it has evolved enough over the last decade to pinpoint the effects of human-caused climate change. For example, attribution science has been used to show that climate change has worsened spring frosts that damage vineyards in France and that Hurricane Harvey in Texas had 18% more rain as a result of anthropogenic warming.
Attribution scientists have also directed their research toward ice, working to determine how human factors melt glaciers. In one of the pioneering glacier attribution projects published in 2014, climatologist Ben Marzeion and colleagues quantified the “unambiguous” human influence on shrinking glaciers globally, especially since 1990. In 2014, they could not yet determine the precise impact of anthropogenic warming on a specific glacier. They recognized that landscape and ice conditions at each individual glacier—factors such as its shape, the contours of its mountain slope, the thickness of the ice, and the amount of rock debris deposited on top of the glacier—can strongly influence how a glacier responds to climatic changes. Regardless, the human influence on glaciers was clear. As Marzeion broke it down bluntly a couple years later, the emissions produced by driving a car a half kilometer (about 5 blocks) causes the melting of a kilogram of glacial ice.
By 2017, atmospheric scientist Gerard Roe and his team had demonstrated that the length of 37 specific glaciers around the world would not have shortened so much without anthropogenic climate change. In 2020, glaciologist Lauren Vargo and colleagues moved the needle again on glacier attribution research. Their work pinpointed particular times when human factors caused ice loss on individual New Zealand glaciers, such as 2018 when glacier melt was ten times more likely due to climate change.
The Autopsy of Palcaraju Glacier
Perhaps the most prominent example of this ultra-specific attribution research on glaciers is happening at Peru’s Palcaraju Glacier. As Palcaraju shrinks, a glacial lake named Palcacocha has formed and expanded where ice previously existed. For more than a decade, the unstable lake has threatened to overflow and inundate tens of thousands of people living downstream near the city of Huaraz. Climate scientist Rupert Stuart-Smith and his colleagues have been working to quantify just how much of the risk of a Palcacocha glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) stems from human-caused climate change. They concluded in 2021 that Palcaraju’s retreat in recent decades is the result of human-caused climate change. They also found that the glacier’s retreat has increased GLOF danger for people in Huaraz.
These Palcacocha findings are crucial—not just in science but also in the courtroom. To put it simply, if attribution science can help identify what is melting the Palcaraju Glacier, then it could possibly also identify who is melting the glacier. This attribution work has tremendous significance for people everywhere, and particularly in the Global South where nearly 70 climate lawsuits have been filed in 19 different nations. The litigation offers a legal pathway for progress addressing climate impacts and for communities to hold high-emitting international entities responsible for local climate impacts. Attribution science could help shape environmental law and justice around glaciers.
This link is at the heart of an ongoing high-profile climate litigation case in the German courts: Saúl vs. RWE. In 2015, a Peruvian farmer and mountain guide named Saúl Luciano Lliuya sued one of Europe’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, the energy utility company RWE. The plaintiff, who lives downstream from Palcacocha, highlights how his community emits minimal greenhouse gases yet suffers disproportionately high risks. Their case argument is: if RWE is responsible for 0.47% of global greenhouse gas emissions since the start of the Industrial Revolution, then RWE is also partially responsible for the increased Palcacocha GLOF risk and should pay 0.47% of the cost of an engineering project to stabilize Lake Palcacocha.
The Saúl vs. RWE case has high stakes: if it creates a precedent that holds specific companies accountable—both legally and financially—for the retreat of individual glaciers and ensuing risks, then it could unleash climate litigation based on attribution science and local community risk worldwide. This is but one of many cases where climate attribution and litigation intersect.
But it’s not just companies contributing to glacier deaths. If the goal is to move away from nostalgia about ice loss and instead toward justice through the pinpointing of responsibility, then it is crucial to understand the role of consumers and economic sectors in driving climate change. In its Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists the highest emitting sector as transportation, accounting for 27 percent of emissions in the United States. This is mainly from burning fossil fuels for planes, ships, trains, trucks, and cars. The other principal U.S. sectors emitting greenhouse gases that melt glaciers include: electricity production through coal and natural gas burning (25 percent), industry (24 percent), commercial and residential heat and waste management (13 percent), and agriculture (11 percent).
Accountability for the loss of glaciers also involves identifying the biggest emitters and worst polluters, as Saúl Luciano did for his lawsuit against RWE. In the most recent Greenhouse 100 Index published by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the six highest-ranking emitters responsible for global climate change in the U.S. are Vistra Energy, Duke Energy, Southern Company, Berkshire Hathaway, American Electric Power, and the U.S. Government, with its massive military-industrial complex. At the global level, “carbon accountant” Richard Heede and the Climate Accountability Institute identify the Carbon Majors: the world’s biggest producers of carbon dioxide and methane emissions. The list includes the top ten global emitters from 1965 to 2017: Saudi Aramco, Chevron, Gazprom, ExxonMobil, National Iranian Oil, BP, Shell, Coal India, PEMEX, and Petroleos de Venezuela. They also note that two-thirds of all industrial greenhouse gas emissions come from just 90 companies.
If stories about glacier funerals can link environmental justice work with attribution science, then they expose both the drivers and the impacts of melting ice in Peru, the United States, and around the world. The problem is not a lack of information but rather a lack of acknowledgement of causations, which is a crucial step toward accountability. We know which companies, economic sectors, countries, and consumers are responsible for the greenhouse gases that drive climate change.
Nevertheless, this information is absent in glacier funerals. Instead, the news romanticizes high-mountain elegies and paints funeral organizers as heroic saviors, making it too easy to consume and then forget the spectacles. This very process of consumption is often followed by amnesia amid the global climate crisis. What we ultimately need are stories that ignite change and force authorities to respond with justice-oriented policies.
From Funerals to Accountability and Action
Around the turn of the twenty-first century, when the public was only beginning to learn about melting glaciers and widespread climate change impacts, glacier funerals might have been helpful to raise awareness. Today we need more action and justice. In her book Under the Sky We Make, sustainability scientist Kimberly Nicholas recognizes that grief is essential; but she also points her readers to another activist slogan—”Don’t mourn, organize!” Nicholas thus concludes that “we need both grieving and action.” And for her, the main people who need to change are those she calls the “carbon elite”: people at the top of the income ladder who over-consume constantly and disproportionately.
It is time to redirect the focus of glacier funerals away from the ice and nostalgia and towards the people, companies, and industries responsible for carbon emissions. This would shift the narrative away from an endangered glacier landscape with heroic wilderness saviors—which sells stories and drives internet clicks—to the harmful work of the carbon majors and the carbon elite.
When the glaciologist Oddur Sigurdsson stood on that Icelandic mountain ridge and read the “death certificate” for Okjökull, he listed “excessive heat” and “humans” as the cause of death. But a more precise glacier autopsy—one with a detailed accounting of the causes and culprits behind the death of ice—is critical. Attribution science, climate accountability, carbon inventories, and climate litigation can inject responsibility into stories about glacier funerals. Accountability is an important step toward climate justice, and stories that foreground accountability recast people from sentimental, agent-less stories about melting glaciers as culprits, victims, and fighters.
Featured image: Aerial view of the piedmont glacier spills onto a relatively flat plain near the shoreline, showing that melting glaciers can ultimately lead to rising sea levels. Image by NASA Goddard, 2017.
Zachary Provant is a PhD candidate in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Oregon. Interested in the local impacts of changing snow and ice in the mountains, his dissertation research examines how people experience changing avalanche and landslide conditions in Alaska. Zac is a member of The Glacier Lab for the Study of Ice and Society, with current funding for this project from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Contact.
Mark Carey is a professor jointly appointed in the Environmental Studies Program and Geography Department at the University of Oregon. He wrote the book In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Climate Change and Andean Society (Oxford University Press, 2010) and co-edited The High-Mountain Cryosphere: Environmental Changes and Human Risks (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He runs the Glacier Lab for the Study of Ice and Society, with current funding for this project from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Contact.