At the beginning of October, Greenpeace activists projected a video onto the surface of a glacier in Svalbard, Norway. An unexpected sight in the remote expanse, the video featured youth from all over the world calling on international leaders to pledge to protect the Earth’s oceans and biodiversity. This video is an example of a new activist approach of physically using glaciers — powerful symbols of nature — to highlight the changing climate.
This is a Wake Up Call for global leaders! We need you to listen to the voices of young people around the world and to take serious action to protect our planet. Can we count on you?
— Greenpeace (@Greenpeace) September 29, 2020
The video advertised Greenpeace’s WakeUpCall event that was held virtually on September 30, in advance of the UN Biodiversity Summit on the same day. A major goal of the meeting was to convey the importance of a Global Ocean Treaty to protect at least 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030, according to one of Greenpeace’s event organizers, Veronica Frank. “All government representatives who attended the call play a very important role in the treaty negotiations,” Frank said in an email to GlacierHub. “In particular, the governments of Costa Rica, Belgium, Senegal have been taking the lead in gathering support for the 30×30 target and an ambitious Global Ocean Treaty that would deliver this target in international waters.”
At the same time the images were projected, Greenpeace’s ship Arctic Sunrise sailed to view a climate marker: the second lowest extent of sea ice on record. Aboard the ship were scientists and experts of all ages, including youth involved with the video project. Mya-Rose Craig, an 18-year-old bird expert and activist, accompanied the voyage to learn more about the Arctic, and to convene the world’s northernmost climate strike on behalf of the Fridays for Future movement.
Another young person involved in the project, South Africa’s Raeesah Noor-Mahomed, noted that she was thrilled to be a part of the call to action. Since January, Noor-Mahomed has been striking outside her school in Johannesburg with hopes that her country’s president, Cyril Rampahosa, will declare a climate state of emergency. When the pandemic caused the weekly school strikes to move online, Noor-Mahomed continued to demand more ambitious climate action. She welcomed the opportunity to be a part of Greenpeace’s WakeUpCall, because it allowed her to have impact beyond her own country.
“When the pandemic is over, we can’t continue as we did before. The governments need to make drastic system changes.”
— Voices of Youth (@voicesofyouth) April 22, 2020
“To me, this project was a chance for me to bring up that it’s unfair to expect all countries to play an equal role [in ocean protection] because some are more privileged, and others are struggling because of inequity,” Noor-Mohamed told GlacierHub. “Much of the world’s Indigenous people were able to look after the seas and now their oceans are being stripped from their control.”
The youth involved with this project were fundamental to its success in communicating with world leaders. Veronica Frank at Greenpeace said, “this was a youth led project, and an opportunity for youth activists to talk directly to decision-makers and call for ambitious ocean and climate action. We wanted to boost [the world leaders involved] and let them feel empowered by the youth movement to keep pushing other governments to step up their level of ambition.”
From Greenpeace’s point of view, the WakeUpCall event was a success. But why advertise it on a glacier in the Arctic? “[We used a glacier] to send a clear message from the frontline of the climate crisis, asking world leaders to take urgent and meaningful action for climate action and ocean protection,” Frank told GlacierHub.
Noor-Mohamed saw the video-showing as more symbolic. “We seem to be shouting into the void as governments are not taking action,” she commented. She continued, “but at the same time, the message was sent to the planet itself in that area … as an assurance that someone is fighting for them.”
This isn’t the first time that glaciers have physically been used as a form of publicity. In early 2020, endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh swam a kilometer of a lake atop a glacier in East Antarctica to call attention to the international climate emergency. In 2018, the Indian military hosted a yoga class at Siachen Glacier as part of an event for International Yoga Day. The glacier is located in a contested location on the India-Pakistan border, so the event was meant to symbolize a peaceful future in the region. Back in 2016, acclaimed Italian pianist Ludovici Einaudi played a concert while floating in the water with the backdrop of the Wahlenbergbreen glacier in Svalbard. The concert was meant to draw awareness to the melting ice formations in the Arctic, and demand their protection.
Glacial stunts like these may not have a wide audience present to view the actual events, but they are an important part of the conversation around glacial decline.
Glaciers can serve as a barometer to understand the ripple effects of climate change around the world. In an essay about her time aboard the Arctic Sunrise, Mya-Rose Craig wrote, “[the effects of glacial decline] will also be felt all around the world… What’s happening in the Arctic isn’t staying in the Arctic.” Her statement captures how glaciers can be emblems of broader problems. Likewise, scientists have placed the Arctic as one of the regions that needs to be prioritized because of its cascading effects on weather conditions worldwide, according to Laura Meller, the Nordic Oceans Campaigner from Greenpeace.
— Mya-Rose Birdgirl Craig (@BirdgirlUK) October 6, 2020
Glacial degradation is a physical impact of the climate crisis. But more than chunks of ice, glaciers are powerful symbols of pristine nature that can touch people. Highlighting a place where climate change is most evident sends a clear message to the world about the need for action. When activists swim, project, or play on top of a glacier in Svalbard, ordinary people across the world can catch a glimpse into the Arctic that they would otherwise never experience, understand just how much is at stake, and feel motivated to protect it.