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Melt: The Social Life of Ice at the Top of the World

Cryohuman Relations


Ok, once a glacier, no longer qualifies as such, due to rapid melting.

This research, which I began in 2016, is about the loss of ice in Iceland. Ice is a substance that renders visible rising temperatures; it can be measured, its retreats photographed, its depths plumbed and its duration—or lifespan—calculated. And it is melting: nowhere faster, and faster than expected, in the Arctic. Ice’s physical changes and the geohydrological implications associated with it are now regular media features as news of catastrophic melt continues to mark our times. But what is the social meaning of lost ice in the frozen places where it has dominated landscapes, shaped lives and conditioned encounters with land, resources and livelihoods? In this project, I draw together expert reflections from scientists, quotidian experiences from Icelanders and elemental encounters with ice to create a portrait of what I call “cryohuman relations.” 


My research on renewable energy transitions focused on what policy makers and experts call climate change “mitigation” —efforts to limit the sources of global warming, such as emissions.My Melt project looks to the other side, or “adaptation,” to the effects of climate change.

The Melt project led me to develop, with Dominic Boyer, the documentary film Not Ok: A Little Movie about a Small Glacier at the End of the World and to create the Okjökull memorial.

NASA handout image taken on August 1, 2019 showing the top of the Ok Volcano where the Okjokull glacier has melted away throughout the 20th century and was declared dead in 2014. NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

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