words by Joal Stein
Rising temperatures have accelerated the speed with which glaciers are melting. Commemorating their histories—grieving them and remembering them—has become a radical act.
Life’s beauty passes
Through our swift
Rehearsal of youth
By the counterweight
Of age, ashen hair floating on glass,
Shivering song of
The sweetest melody
Is that yet unheard
Play on to the sensual ear
Any voice I make is aftereffect,
Each cleaving terminus
Another arriving wave
Crevassing veil of landscape
Melting fingers in the pass
The now-loosened grip on the crest-fallen
Soil, swollen with its wet hand
Our palm carries its markings of time
Glacier, eyes once bright as the moon
Now small enough to fit
In the fissures of my fist,
Now another body passing through me.
In the Three Sisters Wilderness of the Central Cascade range in Oregon, there are three volcanic peaks collectively known as Three Sisters (North, Middle, South), which form a cluster known as the Cascade Volcanic Arc. To get to our destination, the Collier Glacier on the western slope of North Sister, we start from the Obsidian Trailhead and make a many miles-long hike though wildflower meadows, forested trails, lava flows of tossed-about extrusive igneous rocks, mountain views, and areas flecked by obsidian. It’s a warm day in late September, in what has been yet another unusually hot and dry summer in Oregon. I can’t stop thinking of that word unusual, how often we use it now and its receding efficacy. While the weather is good news for the scores of trail hikers and runners that make their way here each season, it foretells bad news for what we might find up on the glacier.
I’m with volunteer members of Oregon Glacier Institute (OGI), a recently-formed organization that is tracking, measuring and monitoring the glaciers of Oregon. Among the volunteers are glaciologists, paleoclimatologists, quantum physicists and geologists. In one respect our trip is a diagnostic one, to assess the current health of the glacier. In another respect, it has the tone of last rites as we observe and witness its death.
Across the world, scientists and local communities are creating memorials, installing plaques and holding funerals for glaciers.
A year prior, many of these same members of the OGI were on the steps of the Oregon Stage Capital, carrying a casket full of glacier meltwater. Attendees read Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas, and eulogies were held for South Sister’s Clark Glacier, which had officially been declared “dead ice.” Across the world, scientists and local communities are creating memorials, installing plaques and holding funerals for glaciers—in Chile, Iceland, Colombia, Nepal. It’s a response to the accelerating pace and urgency of glacial melt; it’s also a collective response of ecological grief.
What does it mean to grieve for a glacier? We’ve all encountered grief in many forms these past few years, directly and indirectly. It is the emotional response to losing a thing we value and care for; it’s also the expression of a rupture, the feeling that something that we are bound to has been lost. We feel dismembered and untethered. As if parts of our own bodies are gone forever.
Glaciers are alive. They move under their own weight. They glare back at you. They remember. They act on the environment in ways that people talk about for generations. They carry biomes, bacterias, fossils, rocks, and sediments. They are sculptors of the landscape—you can see their deep imprints in valleys, mountains, and fields.
What makes a glacier “dead?” Anders Carlson, the president of the OGI, explains that the science behind it is straightforward: a glacier dies when the ice thins and ceases to move under its own weight. The scientific concept of a glacier divides it into two zones—the ablation zone and the accumulation zone. Snow falls and covers the glacier like a thin blanket, known as firn. Successive layers of firn accumulate until the weight of the snow compresses and the biological structure of the snow collapses and sinters into ice. Over time, the ice at the bottom deforms and the glacier pushes forward. This is the accumulation zone. In the ablation zone, the snow from the previous winter melts and exposes bare ice to sunlight and other factors that furthers the melting process. If the ice melts too fast for the glacier to collect new layers of snow that would later turn to ice mass, it will begin to recede. Over time as it recedes, it stops moving.
Life always seems to be inextricable from movement.
At dusk we make our way higher up the summit to set up the research equipment on the ice. The sunset on a mountain glacier is a sight that has inspired mountaineers for thousands of years.
Glaciers are alive. They move under their own weight. They glare back at you. They remember.
We’re here to test out a new way to measure ice thickness that Markus Allgaier, an optics physicist at the University of Oregon, has developed. The process works by shooting a laser beam into the ice and then counting the photons that the ice scatters back to the surface. It’s a scientific method of data accumulation, a point-counting process that helps us understand how much frozen water has been lost. While we walk on the surface of the glacier, most of its activity occurs below. Glaciers are shapeshifters, they move and deform as they interact with geology. Fissures, crevasses, and cracks form; large moulins open up in the surface that channel the melting surface to the bottom of the glacier. It’s not just the receding boundary of the terminus that marks the melt, but a thinning and deflating depth of ice.
As we sit under the clear night sky in the zone of coldness that indicates we are in the glacier’s territory, I’m watching Markus work in the dark. A single beam shines from his head lamp, all around us are mountains—and I keep thinking that the scientist has become a coroner, someone who proclaims a once-living, vital thing as dead.
The Depths of Loss
When you look at a glacier for long enough, it starts to look back at you.
To plunge your head into its meltwater and to drink from it; to hear its many voices of hissing gas, and the crash of icefalls; to see its blueness up close is an intimate thing, the way it gathers and reflects light. Listening to the ice connects me to the cryosphere, that frozen tapestry of ice that has co-written the history of this earth with soil, rock, bacteria, land, liquid, water and air. They are global repositories and regulators for our planet’s water. We often associate melting glaciers with rising sea levels, but they also release more water and moisture into the atmosphere, causing harder winds, rains and hurricanes.
But looking and listening to glaciers does not mean we know them. In her work with female elders of Indigegnous Yukon, Julie Cruikshank asks us what it means to think with a glacier. Drawing on her feminist anthropology, she connects the oral stories of tribal elders to our collective imagination of glaciers and the social life that has emerged around them. In their stories the elders speak of the glaciers as being “animate and other times as animating or enlivening landscape.” Glaciers are known as vengeful and capable of making moral judgements. They are known to respond to human actions and behavior, sometimes in devastating ways. They are known to have memories.
Glaciers are known to respond to human actions and behavior, sometimes in devastating ways. They are known to have memories.
On Pico de Orizaba—a volcano also known as Citlaltépetl or Star-mountain a few hours south from my other chosen home in the bosque de niebla of Veracruz—the last remaining glacier of Mexico, Jamapa, stands alone. The tropical glaciers of Mexico’s three glaciated peaks face a similar prognosis as a result of longer summers, shorter winters and more rain. Researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) reported that Orizaba’s glaciers shrunk 90% from 1958 to 2001 alone, a pace that’s accelerated in the last 20 years. The tropical glaciers of the world are nearly gone.
The impact is more than a symbolic loss, but a material one for the communities, regions and watersheds connected to the glaciers of Mexico. It’s never just a glacier that disappears, but the surrounding ecology as well, the flora and fauna and animals.
There is a deep Indigenous history in Veracruz, one of the most notable communities being the Nahua people. And the Nahuatl language is deeply inspired by glaciers. For example: it refers to each town center as altepetl (which literally translates to water-mountain), a word that could also refer to its main political unit, its surrounding territory and its population in precolonial times. The Nahuatl language has a different name for Pico de Orizaba: istaktepetl, which means white mountain. There is another recording of the volcano’s name, Poyauhtecatl, the one that colours or illuminates, which the Tlaxcaltecs used in reference to their taken country. The Aztec mythology of this volcano tells us that this once ice-capped summit is where the deity Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent, had his funeral pyre.
When we lose a landscape we lose a language that formed around it. And with the loss of language we lose an entire way of thinking, including all the stories that the landscape knows. Words recede from memory, while memories and archives are lost to history. Eventually we, too, recede into the earth. To grieve a glacial landscape is to grieve the loss of all of those stories woven into it. Of losing what the glacier knows.
Radical Acts of Grief
Trying to imagine what a glacier knows is humbling. That process of sintering—when the snow compounds and transforms into ice—traps dust particles, bacteria, and air, forming little bubbles that are then stored in the ice. It’s an accumulation of history similar to the way our own lives accumulate experiences and events through both individual and collective memory. Researchers around the world are racing to drill ice cores as deep as possible so that they can understand more about the history of this planet. But as the glaciers melt, the memories trapped within the ice become ones of absence.
I wanted to visit the glaciers of Oregon because Oregon is home. When talk of melting glaciers makes its way into popular discussion it’s usually in reference to the large charismatic ones—Doomsday Glacier, the ice caps of Iceland, towering ice sheets that calve and thunder into the water. Their scale captures our imagination and elicits a sense of awe. The last time anyone bothered to take a comprehensive look at Oregon’s glaciers was in the 1950’s when topographical maps were made after World War Two. In Oregon, there were once 54 known glaciers; after this season’s latest census from OGI we know there are now only 27 remaining. Kenneth Phillips, a scientist with Mazama (named after the Nahuatl word for Mountain goat), one of the first mountaineering clubs of the Pacific Northwest founded in 1894, wrote in the club’s journal in 1939 that “perhaps mountaineers of the fairly near future may look upon the empty cirques of Mt. Hood as a normal condition.”
If we grieve a glacier—remember it and commemorate it—we deem it kin.
But Oregon’s mountain glaciers are critical to our way of life—they feed streams and rivers such as the Willamette and Deschutes, they keep the forests cool and the water chilled for salmon to spawn, and they help to irrigate nearby farms. As temperatures increase, the peak gets less snowpack and snowmelt. And so with each passing summer, it’s hard not to notice the transformation of the ever-blackening peaks. It’s a self-fulfilling act: at the edges of the glacier, the melting ice turns into a slush, full of dirt, debris and rocks. These rocks and debris then collect and absorb heat, which further melts any surrounding ice.
Grief comes from bearing witness to bodily transitions, while mourning marks something as sacred. If we grieve a glacier—remember it and commemorate it—we deem it kin. Grief opens up a broader more-than-human community that reveals the complex ways in which we are bound and interdependent.
In a time of ecological collapse, placing weight on the importance of the natural world and celebrating it as something sacred is becoming increasingly radical and urgent. This includes public acts of mourning for glaciers—speaking about these entities, celebrating them, remembering the languages they’ve inspired and creating sanctuaries for them—so that we don’t have to keep attending future funerals.
In 1928, at the precipice of a major war when the world was ready to erupt, the German statesman Gustav Stresemann, inspired by a 1920 Bela Lugosi film, said that it felt like the world was dancing on a volcano. Likewise, as the thinning veneer of our once-stable, seemingly-immovable institutions and lifesystems collapse, as the sea levels rise and the glaciers melt, as it becomes increasingly clear just how indistinguishable we are from the fate of the natural world, I feel as though the world is swimming on a vanishing glacier.