First, Iceland’s Ok glacier was memorialized with a funeral in August 2019. Only a month later, mourners gathered for Switzerland’s Pizol glacier. Ten days ago, a coffin containing a vial of meltwater sat on the steps of the state capital building in Salem, Oregon in memory of what used to be Clark Glacier.
“The funerals for Ok and Pizol spoke to us: they directly inspired the funeral for Clark Glacier and our founding of the Oregon Glacier Institute,” Anders Carlson, OGI president and one of the organizers of the funeral, told GlacierHub. He continued, “Those ceremonies got international media attention and yet the same thing is happening in our own backyards. Our goal is to make people in the U.S. aware that we have glaciers in the Lower 48 — this isn’t only happening far away in Iceland or Switzerland.”
The funeral for Clark Glacier took place in two locations on Sunday, October 18. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the organizers opted to livestream the proceedings and keep in-person attendance at a minimum. There were close to 300 digital attendees.
A group of five, led by OGI’s head of field operations Aaron Hartz, trekked up toward the now red-black rockface formerly blanketed by the icy-blue glacier, but was forced to turn back due to intense wind and rain. They stopped for a moment of silence near the trailhead instead.
— OPB Science & Environment (@OPB_Sci_Env) October 19, 2020
At the state capitol, a team of four black-clad attendees gathered. “The imagery that inspired the rally at the state capitol was a photo of Ruth Bader Ginsburg lying in state at the Supreme Court, this black casket in front of this white building — that was powerful. [Oregon’s] state capital is white marble and so we put a casket holding the meltwaters of Clark to lie in state there,” Carlson told GlacierHub.
In order for ice to be considered a glacier, it must be perennial, originate on land, and move under its own weight. Clark has ceased to meet those requirements. After a survey in August of this year, OGI declared it dead.
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Clark Glacier used to be visible from the trailhead to South Sister, one of three peaks popular with hikers that make up the Three Sisters in Oregon’s Cascade Range, and sat at an elevation of 9,000 feet. It was named for William Clark; a neighboring glacier, also on South Sister, is named for Meriwether Lewis.
Little information is available online about Clark and other glaciers in Oregon because there is no government agency responsible for tracking the glaciers and their health. “Part of the problem is we’ve been kind of forgotten. Many people who live in Oregon don’t know we have glaciers. There isn’t even an official number of glaciers in Oregon,” Carlson told GlacierHub.
Nevertheless, snowy peaks are important to those who live in Oregon. “Oregonians, indeed all residents of Cascadia (southern British Columbia to northern California) love their snow-covered volcanoes, though most people in the region think of the annual snowpack (less about the glaciers per se),” Thomas Love, professor emeritus of anthropology at Linfield University in Oregon, told GlacierHub. “Seeing our volcanic peaks bare in late summer is saddening.”
“Oregonians identify with these snow- and ice-covered peaks, which are turning into a landscape more akin to Mordor,” Carlson said, emphasizing their cultural importance.
Beyond their cultural significance, glaciers also keep forests healthy and forest fires at bay. Clark’s meltwater fed into the McKenzie River, whose watershed was ablaze this year. If more glaciers are lost, the state’s natural defenses against fires will dry up and future fire seasons will only be more devastating.
Glaciers are also important to Oregon’s economies. Glacial meltwater flows into rivers that generate hydroelectricity. The ski industry generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year. Agricultural and ranching operations use irrigation dependent on glacier melt, and commercially fished salmon will suffer if the glaciers that keep rivers cool for their spawning warm up due to a lack of chilly glacial meltwater infusions, threatening the species and those whose livelihoods depend on them.
“People think of glaciers as being in Alaska and in Glacier National Park, but they’re also in Oregon and we’re intimately tied to them,” Carlson told GlacierHub.
As these critically important icy giants melt away, some people, like Mark Carey, professor of environmental studies at the University of Oregon, wonder if glacier funerals encourage solutions-minded thinking or put too great a focus on the past.
“When attention to glaciers focuses on death and loss, the framing lacks forward-looking progress and inspiration for the future. It can focus on nostalgia for the past rather than solutions for the future,” Carey told GlacierHub.
Carey recognized the potential that a glacier funeral has to attract attention to the industries and parts of society endangered by glacier loss, especially in the Lower 48 where glaciers are often overlooked. But, he was weary of such events not being enough to counter the lack of climate policy in the United States and of their capacity to distract from efforts to pinpoint the drivers of and solutions for glacier change.
“We as a society need to do more than document glacier loss. We need to push for real action to counter the systemic enabling of capitalist extraction and atmospheric contamination, as well as systemic racism that endangers some more than others,” said Carey.
When the first domino fell as a group of scientists was inspired to commemorate the first loss of an Icelandic glacier to climate change, they set in motion a series of events that has yet to topple the final piece of the chain. “We need to stop using carbon and start taking it out of the atmosphere. We need a fundamental, philosophical change in how we operate and think. We’re part of nature and need to think about how we’re going to coexist,” Carlson said. It is yet possible that the changes needed are just a bit further down the line.