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Warmer Winters and Vanishing Snow Breed Climate Grief

Stuart Braun |
Temperature records this northern winter will increase ecological grief and anxiety for people living in once snowy regions. But could these feelings spur climate action?

This year's festive season in the Northern Hemisphere felt like spring in many places, with New Year's Day the hottest on record in several European countries including Denmark, Latvia and Poland.

Meanwhile, 2022 was another year of record warmth and ice melt across the Arctic and Antarctica.

So it's no wonder that when people trek to a glacier today, it may not be to stand in wonder but to mourn its passing.

Glaciers across the globe, from the US state of Oregon to the Swiss Alps, have been sites for funerals as people eulogize once-mighty bodies of ice that have been pronounced dead.

In 2019, such a ceremony was held at Iceland's Okjökull Glacier, said to be the first lost to climate change. Mourners unveiled a plaque announcing that all the country's main glaciers are expected to follow in 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 specializing in eco-anxiety.

Though for decades communities have experienced "uneasiness and discomfort at the changes in seasons" due to climate change, this anxiety has shifted to a grieving as snow and ice visibly recede, Pihkala explained.

Grief over the loss of winter will spread more widely as global heating increases. The North Pole, that mythical winter wonderland in the Arctic, is warming three times faster than the global average.

Cultural representations of European and Northern American Christmases, with people bundled up in hats and scarves skating on frozen lakes or sledging down snow-covered hills, could soon be a thing of the past.

Eco-anxiety and climate grief

Climate grief is difficult to overcome because it anticipates a loss that often hasn't quite occurred, said Pihkala. He noted that in early 2022 there was a lot of snow in Finland, but the previous year there was very little. This adds to an existing anxiety about wanting snow but not knowing whether it will ever come, a feeling that Pihkala noted has a specific word in Finnish, "lumiahdistus."

Climate grief relates to "solastalgia" — a combination of the word solace 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 environments in which we find solace.

"As opposed to nostalgia — the melancholia or homesickness experienced by individuals when separated from a loved home — solastalgia is the distress that is produced by environmental change," wrote Albrecht and his co-researchers in a 2007 paper in Australasian Psychiatry.

 A person practices ski-joering at the Avoriaz resort in the French Alps A person practices ski-joering at the Avoriaz resort in the French Alps

Solastalgia refers to the grief experienced at the disappearance of the world we once knewImage: JEFF PACHOUD/AFP

But with the observable loss of glaciers and snowscapes, this solastalgia has transformed into what some researchers are also calling "ecological grief."

These eco-emotions are also driven by deeper material and cultural loss. Indigenous people in Alaska, for example, are experiencing real fear as melting sea ice threatens communities both with displacement and the loss of what polar researcher Victoria Herrmann called "a way of life passed down from time immemorial."

Climate change and cultural loss

For the Sami community, who live close to the Arctic Circle, snow is their lifeblood — especially in terms of their traditional reindeer-herding culture.

"If reindeer are not herded in hard snowfall or hard frost, the foundation of the whole livelihood fades away," said Klemetti Näkkäläjärvi, a Sami cultural anthropologist at the University of Oulu in Finland, in a lecture on climate change and the Sami people.

"Climate change equals cultural change for many Indigenous people," he said ahead of the UN climate conference in 2021. Having lived the Sami way of life, Näkkäläjärvi said he sees "changes every day," including the loss of language due to climate-related displacement.

The disappearance of mountain glaciers from Kilimanjaro to the European Alps also has a peculiar psychological impact.

A Saami child feeding reindeer A Saami child feeding reindeer

Indigenous communities like the Sami are hard-hit by losses due to a warming worldImage: PantherMedia / Pawel Opaska

While there is a cultural attachment to mountains and their "multitude of different ecosystems," glaciers make these landscapes "unique in people's imagination," noted Giovanni Baccolo, a postdoctoral researcher in glaciology at the University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy.

"Glaciers are literally another world," he added, "icons of mountains." But as they retreat it has "impoverished" our identification with mountain landscapes, Baccolo said. Once these ice caps melt, future generations will not draw alpine mountains "with a white hat."

Baccolo posts photos in social media comparing glaciers of today to a century ago.

"The retreat of glaciers is an extremely powerful symbol of the environmental consequences of climate change," he said. "It is undeniable that when we look at comparisons showing the drastic retreat of glaciers, we are overwhelmed."

Can activism help to process climate grief?

Losing winter landmarks such as glaciers has alerted people to the immediacy of climate change.

As the memorial plaque at Iceland's Okjökull Glacier reads: "We know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did 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 speaking up for the climate and pushing governments for solutions."

A wide view of the glacial moraine that feeds into the Stod River, one of the tributaries of the Zanskar RiverA wide view of the glacial moraine that feeds into the Stod River, one of the tributaries of the Zanskar River

Glaciers around the world are receding, as here in India's Kashmir regionImage: Thomas L Kelly/robertharding/picture alliance

For eco-anxiety researcher Pihkala, climate grief can lead to resistance, but this depends on the psychological resilience of the activists.

"If they feel anxiety and sadness, it often leads also to guilt," he said, describing the process of acknowledging that we all are participating in the climate emergency.

Baccolo believes witnessing the shocking pace of glacier melt has, at least, radically increased our awareness of the climate crisis and our contribution to it.

"We are sad," he said, referring to funerals for disappeared glaciers. "We see an incredible element of nature disappearing and we know that we have a role in this."

Edited by: Jennifer Collins

Courtesy: DW

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