When people walk towards the glaciers today, it is perhaps not to marvel but to mourn their disappearance.
Glaciers around the world, from the US state of Oregon to the Swiss Alps, have been burial grounds as people praise once mighty bodies of ice that have been pronounced dead.
In 2019, such ceremony took place on Iceland’s Okjökull glacier, believed to be the first to disappear due to climate change. Mourners unveiled a plaque announcing that all major glaciers in the country are expected to follow over the next 200 years.
The psychological strain caused by the observable loss of iconic winter landscapes has been called “climate grief” by Panu Pihkala, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki in Finland who specializes in eco-anxiety.
Although for decades communities have felt “unease and unease at the changing seasons” due to climate change, that anxiety has turned into mourning as snow and ice recede visibly, Pihkala explained.
The grief over the loss of winter will spread more widely as global warming increases. The North Pole, that mythical Arctic winter wonderland, is heats up three times faster than the world average. In the not-too-distant future, cultural depictions of European and North American Christmases, with people bundled up in hats and scarves skating on frozen lakes or sledding down snowy hills, might be a thing of the past.
Eco-anxiety and climatic mourning
Weather grief is hard to overcome because it anticipates loss that often hasn’t happened yet, Pihkalu said. He notes that this year there was a lot of snow in Finland, but last year there was very little. This adds to an existing anxiety of wanting snow but not knowing if it will ever come, a feeling which Pihkala says has a specific word in Finnish, “lumiahdistus”.
Climate mourning concerns “solastalgia” – a combination of the word comfort and the Greek word for pain, algos – a term coined by environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht to describe the psychic pain caused by the loss of the environments in which we find comfort.
“As opposed to nostalgia – the melancholy or homesickness felt by individuals when separated from a loved home – solastalgia is the distress produced by environmental change,” Albrecht and his co-researchers wrote in a 2007 article in Australasian Psychiatry.
Solastalgia refers to the grief experienced at the disappearance of the world we once knew.
But with the observable loss of glaciers and snow-capped landscapes, this solastalgia has morphed into what some researchers also call “ecological grief”.
These eco-emotions are also driven by deeper material and cultural loss. Indigenous peoples in Alaska, for example, experience real fear as melting sea ice threatens communities with both displacement and loss of what the polar researcher Victoria Hermann called “a way of life handed down from time immemorial.”
Climate change and cultural loss
For the Sami community, who live near the Arctic Circle, snow is vital, especially when it comes to their traditional reindeer herding culture.
“If the reindeer are not herded in hard snowfall or hard frost, the basis of the whole livelihood fades”, says Klemetti NäkkäläjärviSami cultural anthropologist at the University of Oulu in Finland, in a lecture on climate change and the Sami people.
“Climate change equates to cultural change for many indigenous peoples,” he said ahead of the 2021 UN climate conference. Having lived the Sami way of life, Näkkäläjärvi said he saw ” changes every day”, including loss of language due to climate-related displacement.
The disappearance of mountain glaciers from Kilimanjaro to the European Alps also has a particular psychological impact.
Indigenous communities like the Sami are hard hit by losses from global warming
While there is a cultural attachment to mountains and their “multitude of different ecosystems”, glaciers make these landscapes “unique in people’s imagination”, notes Giovanni Baccolo, postdoctoral researcher in glaciology at the University of Milano- Bicocca in Italy.
“Glaciers are literally another world,” he added, “the icons of the mountains.” But as they retreat, it has “impoverished” our identification with mountain landscapes, Baccolo said. Once these ice caps have melted, future generations will not draw the Alpine mountains “with a white hat”.
Baccolo posts photos on social media comparing today’s glaciers to those of a century ago.
“The retreat of glaciers is an extremely powerful symbol of the environmental consequences of climate change,” he said. “There is no denying that when we look at comparisons showing drastic retreat of glaciers, we are overwhelmed.”
Can activism help address climate grief?
Losing winter landmarks such as glaciers alerted people to the impending climate change.
As Iceland’s Okjökull glacier memorial plaque says: “We know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we have done it.”
Sören Ronge, coordinator of Protect Our Winters Europe, a climate advocacy group based in Innsbruck, Austria, acknowledges “climate anxiety” but seeks to “engage people in climate advocacy and push governments to find solutions “.
All over the world, glaciers are retreating, like here in Indian Kashmir
For Pihkala, climatic grief can lead to resistance, but it depends on the psychological resilience of activists.
“If they feel anxiety and sadness, that often also leads to guilt,” he said, describing the process of recognizing that we are all part of the climate emergency.
Baccolo believes that witnessing the staggering rate of melting glaciers has, at the very least, radically increased our awareness of the climate crisis and our contribution to it.
“We are sad,” he said, referring to the funeral of the missing glaciers. “We are seeing an incredible piece of nature disappearing and we know we have a part to play in that.”
Edited by: Jennifer Collins