Requiem for a glacier

Earlier this week, mourners gathered in Iceland to commemorate the loss of Okjökull, the glacier, which has “died” at the age of about 700.

Mourners fixed a plaque as a warning to the future stating: “Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years, all our main glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

The dedication, ends with the date of the ceremony and the current global concentration of carbon dioxide in the air – 415 parts per million.

A 1901 geological map of Iceland indicated that at that time this glacier had covered an area of 38 square kilometres. Now it is no more: it has melted and disappeared into the ocean.
Climate change is definitely happening: it is now almost unstoppable. It is no longer a theoretical prediction of the future – it is today’s reality which we must face head on.

The symbolic commemoration of the “death” of an Icelandic glacier is a warning: climate change hits all of us in one way or another. The global increase in temperature is melting glaciers and icebergs which will, in turn, increase the sea level and threaten low-lying land. This will have an impact not just along the coast but also further inland.

We constantly read how various low-lying countries are considering how they could face this threat. Cities such as New York, Miami, Tampa, Boston, New Orleans, Amsterdam, Mumbai, Stockholm, Buenos Aires, Dakar, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Cancun, (to name just a few) could vanish and millions of persons would be displaced.

What about Malta? A rising sea level could wipe out coastal facilities – tourism being the hardest hit. A number of coastal residential areas would also be considerably impacted: Marsalforn, Xlendi, St Paul’s Bay, Għadira, Sliema, Gżira, Ta’ Xbiex, Msida, Birżebbuġa, Marsaskala and Marsaxlokk, together with parts of other localities – would be hit with an intensity depending on the extent of the sea level rise.

I am informed that Malta’s power station at Delimara is at approximately four metres above sea level.

A small sea level rise could possibly limit damage to tourism infrastructure and coastal facilities but if the rise is substantial, it could hit the low-lying residential areas and possibly much more.

Projections for sea-level rise vary as they are dependent on the actual increase in global temperatures. The Paris Climate Summit had pinned its hopes on a maximum temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial age. Unfortunately, this is now wishful thinking, as we are moving towards much higher temperature increases.

The minimum projection is for a rise in sea level of around 500 millimetres –  which could rise even to as much as seven metres! These projections are being constantly revised by the scientific community, depending on actual rise in temperature and revised projections.

Malta has an obvious direct interest in taming climate change and yet it follows policies which send out the clear message that it does not care. The current spending spree on the development of the road infrastructure is a case in point because it will only serve to increase the number of vehicles on our roads. More vehicles, more emissions: signifying an increased direct contribution to climate change.

The rise in sea level has already wiped out a number of uninhabited low-lying islands in the Pacific. Other island states – from Fiji to the Marshall Islands, the Maldives to the Bahamas, Tuvalu, Kiribati and many more – are under an imminent threat.

Even Malta and Gozo will have to join the queue as nature will not discriminate: it will hit all of us without exception.

published in the Malta Independent on Sunday: 25 August 2019

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