Although Iceland is the mildest of the Arctic countries, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a significant portion of the island is covered by an ice sheet, which is a permanent fixture all year round. Precisely 11% of the total land area is covered by glaciers.
These massive ice sheets have affected the climate, formed the landscape, and provided unlimited freshwater to locals throughout Iceland’s history. Today, they have another important role since glaciers are a beloved playground for adventurous people and a major attraction for Icelandic tourism.
What Is a Glacier?
Glaciers are also known as ice caps, but believe it or not, they aren’t formed from liquid water. A glacier begins as fresh snow that has fallen in places where it will never melt, like the tops of mountains or the Icelandic Highlands. Over time – which can be decades or centuries – this snow simply continues to accumulate and compress under its own weight. As it compresses, it’s transformed into ice. As this process continues, the ice will increase in depth and density, sometimes growing to be hundreds or thousands of meters thick.
Why Are They So Blue?
Since glacial ice forms by compression, its physical attributes are different from normal ice. The enormous compression forces all the air bubbles out of the ice. Without these bubbles, light can travel deeper into the ice without anything blocking its path.
Air bubbles reflect the full spectrum of light, making us perceive the ice as white, as happens with snow and frozen water. When the light can pass through the ice undisturbed, however, the ice absorbs the red light, making us perceive it as blue, which is the other wavelength.
Why Are Glaciers So Craggy?
The sheer weight of the ice sheet causes the glacier to slide down the hills and slopes, moving like a slow river of ice. At the same time, it slowly deforms the landscape underneath itself. This movement also causes deep cracks and crevasses in the body of the ice, which is how glaciers become the wild, craggy masses that we can see in Iceland.
What Are the Glacial Ice Caves?
Glacial ice caves are formed as meltwater flows through the crevasses of a glacier, carving tunnels and holes into the ice. Significant amounts of meltwater form every year during the warmer season or following increased geothermal activity under the glacier, which isn’t uncommon in Iceland.
This warmer water flushes through the channels in the glaciers and widens them, leaving large, empty spaces behind. In the cold season, the water freezes, leaving behind these spectacular caves that stabilize and become safe to visit during the winter. The official ice cave season in Iceland lasts from early November until early April every year.
When Is the Best Time to Visit the Glaciers and Ice Caves?
Iceland’s glaciers are permanent fixtures all year round. In fact, they’ve been in the same place for thousands of years and they can be visited at any time of the year. Glacier hiking, ice climbing, and snowmobiling tours are offered with multiple departures all year, every year. The glaciers look almost the same in summer as in winter and the conditions are always icy. It doesn’t matter if it’s winter or summer when you visit a glacier, but the landscape itself will be different, of course.
For ice caves, the best season is winter. As explained above, ice caves need to be completely frozen in order to stabilize. Most glacial caves are short-lived attractions since they form in winter and will most likely collapse in spring.
Most ice caves are full of water and impossible to access in summer. This is when the meltwater returns, creating new caves. At the same time, the constant movement of the glaciers causes nonstop change. Once an ice cave collapses, it will never return in the same form.
There are, however, some ice caves that can be accessed in summer, including a man-made ice tunnel on Langjökull glacier. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to predict whether or not a natural ice cave will be safe to visit outside of winter.
Is It Possible to Visit a Glacier Without a Guide?
No. If you’d like to set foot on a glacier, you’ll need to book a guided tour that guarantees your safety. Because glaciers are slowly but constantly moving, they can be dangerous. As they glide forward, the surface can change in an instant. Large ice blocks can crack, snow bridges can collapse, and crevasses can change in mere minutes. On top of this, small earthquakes can occur multiple times every day and geothermal activity isn’t uncommon beneath the glaciers.
It doesn’t matter how much hiking experience you have. Absolutely no one should go out on a glacier without a trained and experienced local guide by their side. Local glacier guides are trained to navigate this challenging terrain safely and to identify any signs of danger that you might be unaware of. They’re equipped to solve any issue that could come up during a glacier tour. On top of that, during the tour, you’ll be wearing safety gear as well.
What Are the Most Well-Known Glaciers in Iceland?
Iceland has some of the most accessible glaciers in the world. All of them have their own special attributes that make them ideal for specific activities. Iceland has 269 named glaciers, which includes the ice caps and their outlet glaciers. Some of the largest of these are easily visible from Iceland’s Ring Road.
Iceland’s wonderful UNESCO World Heritage site, Vatnajökull, meaning the “water glacier,” is home to the country’s highest peak, Hvannadalshnjukur. It also hides some active volcanoes beneath its enormous ice sheet.
Vatnajökull is by far the largest glacier in Iceland, covering 8% of the land with an area of 8100 km2 (3100 sq. mi). The glacier is approximately 400–1000 m (1300–3300 ft.) thick and covers some of the highest peaks in Iceland. Iceland’s largest active volcano, Öraefajökull, hides under the Vatnajökull ice cap and reaches a height of 2110 m (6920 ft.) above sea level.
Vatnajökull has more than 30 named outlet glaciers, which are gorgeous and many of them easy to access. You’ll find most of the glacier walking tours in Iceland explore Vatnajökull’s glacier tongues for precisely those reasons. Vatnajökull’s most famous outlet glaciers are located in and near Skaftafell Nature Reserve. Svínafellsjökull, Skaftafellsjökull, and Falljökull are the ultimate locations for glacier hiking and ice climbing tours as well as ice cave tours. These guided activities depart from the Skaftafell Visitors Centre.
Svínafellsjökull, the “pig mountain glacier,” is approximately 1000 years old. It has served as a filming location for popular movies and TV shows like Batman Begins, Interstellar, and Game of Thrones. Sadly, since 2019, the glacier itself has been inaccessible due to the danger of a landslide, so no tours currently operate there. It’s still safe to drive close to it, though, to get a glimpse of the glacier and its ice-filled lagoon from the safety of the parking area.
Falljökull, the “falling glacier,” is situated a few minutes’ drive from Svínafellsjökull. What makes it especially beautiful is the steep elevation down which the glacier drops relatively quickly, revealing its sheer crevasses, giant ice sculptures, and impressively wild terrain. This makes it an especially beloved location for glacier hikes, ice climbing, and photography.
Accessible by a short walk from the National Parks Visitor Centre, Skaftafellsjökull is the most easily accessible glacier tongue on Vatnajökull. This glacier hiking tour location offers spectacular landscapes all year round. Although hiking on a glacier requires a professional local guide, anyone can get close to Skaftafellsjökull and admire the tip of the glacier up close and personal.
Langjökull, “the long glacier,” is the second largest in Iceland and is closer to Reykjavík than any other glacier. Langjökull’s ice sheet covers an area of 953 km2 (592 sq. mi.) and is about 580 m (1902 ft.) thick at its widest point. The glacier’s highest peak reaches up to 1450 m (4760 ft.). Unlike the other glaciers, Langjökull stretches over a wide and relatively flat area and doesn’t have many distinctive peaks, valleys, or glacier tongues.
Most of this glacier is covered by snow all year round and its surface is ideal for snowmobiling any time of year. Since the glacier’s basecamp is only a 30-minute drive from Gullfoss waterfall, a Langjökull snowmobile or ice cave tour is a very popular add-on for the famous Golden Circle tour.
In terms of covered area, Hofsjökull, the “temple glacier,” is the third largest of Iceland’s ice caps. In terms of volume, it comes in at second place, beating Langjökull. Hofsjökull, however, is lesser-known since it’s situated far away from any inhabited places in the remote Highlands area. It sits between the two largest glaciers in Iceland, Vatnajökull and Langjökull, and is quite difficult to access most of the year.
Hofsjökull covers an area of 925 km2 (574.7 sq. mi.) and its highest summit reaches up to 1765 m (5791 ft.). Under the ice cap hides one of Iceland’s largest volcanoes. Its central caldera measures approximately 7×11 km (4.3×6.8 mi.) but hasn’t erupted for the last 12,000 years. Hofsjökull’s meltwater feeds þjórsá (Thjorsa), Iceland’s longest river. Due to its unfortunate location, there are no guided tours that operate on Hofsjökull.
The fourth-largest glacier in the country is Myrdalsjökull, the “mire valley glacier.” Although it’s much smaller than Vatnajökull, it’s almost as popular as its big brother thanks to its great position close to the capital and next to the Ring Road.
Mýrdalsjökull covers Katla, one of Iceland’s most infamous volcanoes. This furious giant has erupted every 40–80 years over the last millennium and is believed to be overdue for an eruption, which could happen anytime soon. But don’t worry, Katla hasn’t been showing any signs of unrest, and scientists are monitoring the volcano closely.
Mýrdalsjökull’s most well-known tongue is the 10-km (6.2-mi) long Sólheimajökull, the “glacier of the sun’s home.” The outlet glacier descends from a height of about 1300 m (4265 ft.), showcasing rugged glacial formations. As one of the bluest and most easily accessible outlet glaciers in Iceland, Sólheimajökull is an incredibly popular glacier hiking destination.
Eyjafjallajökull is a relatively small glacier – less than a tenth of the size of Vatnajökull. The glacier became incredibly famous in 2010, though, when the volcano under the ice cap erupted violently, disrupting the air traffic across most of Europe for more than a week. Since the name Eyjafjallajökull is quite a tongue twister, it became a meme when newscasters around the world failed in their attempts to pronounce it on live news.
The glacier’s summit reaches an elevation of 1651 m (5417 ft.) and the ice cap covers an area of about 100 km2 (39 sq. mi.) with many outlet glaciers. Today, the volcano is calm and there are guided snowmobile tours offered on the glacier.
At 1446 m (4744 ft.) in height, Snaefellsjökull, “snow mountain glacier,” is among the smaller glaciers in Iceland. Despite its size, it has gained worldwide fame, the credit for which goes to the volcano of the same name that sits underneath the ice cap. The actual volcano hasn’t erupted for thousands of years but remains one of the most famous volcanoes in the country.
The French novelist Jules Verne wrote a science fiction novel in the 19th century that became incredibly famous and was translated into all civilized languages. The story is about the volcano that lies under this glacier. In the novel, Snaefellsjökull serves as a tunnel onto the Earth’s core. This tunnel goes all the way to the other side of the planet where it resurfaces in the Italian volcano, Stromboli.
The glacier itself measured around 22 km3 (5.27 cu mi.) back in the early 20th century. Sadly, due to global warming, it’s been shrinking at a furious pace. Today, it’s lost more than half of its mass and is now only 10 km2 (3.86 sq. mi.) in size and only about 30 m (98 ft.) thick. If the trend continues, Snaefellsjökull glacier will be mostly gone by 2050.
Throughout the spring and the summer, guided hiking tours are offered on Snaefellsjökull. Unlike the short, easy glacier hikes on Vatnajökull and Myrdalsjökull, this is a strenuous climb for hikers that want to reach the summit of Snaefellsjökull glacier. We’d only recommend this hike for experienced hikers, but it’s the adventure of a lifetime, for sure!
Okjökull was a glacier, but it was declared dead by glaciologists in 2014. The “jökull” (meaning glacier) was removed from its name so today, the 1200-m (3937-ft) summit is marked simply as “Ok.”
Thirty-five years ago, the glacier stretched out over 15 km2 (5.79 sq. mi.), but this has all disappeared. It was the first – but sadly, not the last – glacier on Earth to be officially recognized as a victim of global warming. Dominic Boyer from Rice University made a documentary about it with the title Not Ok. To officiate the loss, a plaque called “A letter to the future” was installed on August 18, 2019, with the following inscription:
Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier.
In the next 200 years all our 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.
Are Iceland’s Glaciers Melting?
Yes. For the last several decades, Iceland’s glaciers have been shrinking and thinning at an increasing rate. When glaciers melt faster than snowfall can accumulate to create new ice, the ice mass becomes thinner. Year after year, it will continue to shrink until the glacier loses the weight that powers its movement.
By definition, a glacier is a flowing mass of ice. It’s so heavy that its own weight makes it move according to set dynamics. When the glacier dies, the living mass becomes “dead ice” and will transform into a simple snowcap, which is what happened to Okjökull glacier. Since the disappearance of Okjökull in 2014, 56 more small glaciers have vanished in Iceland.
The remarkable shrinking of Iceland’s glaciers can most clearly be observed in the outlet glaciers that have retreated to higher elevations, which could be hundreds of meters or even kilometers over the past decades.
Glacier lagoons are created at the tip of the glacier, growing larger year after year. Jökulsárlón, Vatnajökull’s most famous glacier lagoon, emerged in 1934 and expanded from a small pond to become Iceland’s deepest lake. Since 1970, the lake has quadrupled in size and continues to grow.
“Iceland’s total glacier-covered area has shrunk by roughly 2000 km2 (772 sq. mi.) since the end of the 19th century. We now lose about 40 km2 (15.4 sq. mi.) annually, which is quite a remarkable area to become deglaciated each year,” said Tómas Jóhannesson, the head Icelandic Met Office’s glacier group. If the trend continues, most of Iceland’s smaller glaciers will disappear within decades and all of the ice could vanish from the country by the end of the next century.