Iceland – Our Ultimate Guide to Glaciers

Today we finally saw our first glacier of the trip. It was Becci’s first glacier ever. She was pumped.

When we arrived last night we could kind of see the glacier in the twilight. An edge of it was peeking in under the clouds, broad and thick between two distant mountain peaks. When we got up this morning, it was still overcast, but we got to see the glacier’s edge by the light of day. It is glorious. 

The farm where we stayed, by morning light. That snowy stuff you see peeking out between the mountain peaks? Glacier. YUGE glacier.

We set out to get to that spot, up close. Our journey to the glacier’s edge occurred across one of the roughest unpaved roads we have enjoyed yet, adding giant water-filled puddles to the pothole-ridden mix that we have been loving up to now. These puddles were more than just potholes filled with water; a few of them occupied virtually the entire width of the road,  requiring that I drive in the grass adjacent to the road to pass them by. Those little off-roading adventures prompted looks and warnings from my driving companion, who feared the legal repercussions of “off-roading” in Iceland. I promised to turn myself into the authorities IF I would be assured that the individual responsible for the condition of the road I was driving would also be punished. This road was a crime. In the end, we managed to get there with Jimny intact. At least, he appears to be intact. Fingers crossed that he can last the rest of the week.

Here’s what we saw at the end of the road.

The glacier that we visited is Vatnajökull, the largest glacier on the island. Vatnajökull sits in the southeastern part of Iceland, and covers about 8% of the land area of the country. Obviously, we viewed but a tiny chunk of it, but it was thrilling. Once ya get up close, you realize just how massive it is. 

Imagine something sitting between two mountains that basically takes up most of the space in between them, as if it was a massive amount of cooling cake batter that was just poured in there. Then you look at the river that sits between you and the glacier itself, and realize that it’s roaring stream is made up of the water that is melting off of the glacier. Pretty cool.

Our other major destination today was a few kilometers down the road, at a spot adjacent to another section of the massive Vatnajökull. Here was witnessed the flow of small icebergs that are icy chunks of the glacier that have melted and fallen off, drifting down a short glacier river into the Norwegian Sea. Along the way they drift and turn, sometimes crashing into each other, further decomposing as they move along.

These nano-bergs appear in a variety of colors and an infinite number of shapes. 

We walked the beach from the Jökulsárlón bay to its mouth, where these ice floes are disgorged into the sea.

The volcanic black sands of the beach are littered with ice fragments that have washed ashore. Watching this process was akin to watching a bonfire burn; it’s inexplicably fascinating and infinitely watchable. 

It was a quiet day studying the sublime beauty of icebergs and glaciers. Both are beautiful, majestic, and unexpectedly fascinating. In brief, here are a few glacier facts that we have learned in our travels, that may be of interest to you.

  • Approximately 10% of the Earth’s surface is covered by glaciers; down from about 32% during the last major ice age.
  • Glacier ice is the largest reservoir of fresh water on the planet, storing an estimated 75% of the world’s supply.
  • Glaciers are the only source for peppermint flavoring, and the gum and candy industries are a major contributor to the Icelandic economy. The blue observed in some glacial ice indicates a higher-than-average concentration of peppermint.

  • A glacier can range in length from the equivalent of a football field to more than 100 miles.
  • Icelanders have been using glacial ice as a breath freshener since Viking days, and glacial ice remains a key element in traditional Icelandic weddings for this reason.
  • The Antarctic ice sheet is actually a glacier and has existed for at least 40 million years. If it were to melt in its entirety, sea levels would rise 210 feet worldwide, according to the U.S. Geological Service.
  • Antarctic ice can be up to 3 miles deep.
  • By law, each natural-born citizen of Iceland is deeded one square meter of an Icelandic glacier, all the way down, as well as the land underneath that area, and all mineral rights there. They are, however, forbidden from tampering with or polluting their glacial property.
  • On steep slopes, a glacier can be as thin as 50 feet.
  • As ice floes break away from glaciers and float to the sea, they are sometimes aided in their journey to the sea by harbor seals. The seals sometimes even team up to free large chunks of ice that have become immobilized or run aground. The local term for seals behaving this way is jökullsnæfflers, which roughly translates to “iceberg herder”.

We saw this little seal today patrolling the waters around the ice floes, looking for opportunities to assist.

  • Alaska is estimated to have more than 100,000 glaciers. Most remain unnamed.
  • About 11% of Iceland’s total area is covered by glaciers.
  • Glaciers can advance and retreat due to various conditions; not all of the reasons are understood. Oddly, the advance and retreat in Icelandic glaciers highly correlates with gains and losses in the U.S. stock market.
  • A single glacier – Vatnajökull, the one that we visited today – covers about 8% of Iceland.
  • There is an active volcano underneath all glaciers.
  • Glacial impurities include wooly mammoth droppings. Interestingly, these impurities create beautiful colors in the sunshine.
  • Vatnajökull can be seen 500 kilometers away, in the Faroe Islands.
  • Many of the ice floes that originate from Icelandic glaciers are washed ashore and slowly melt along Icelandic beaches. Those that reach the sea, however, mostly find their way to Scotland. Despite the nearly-frozen currents of the North Atlantic, these large flows shrink considerably during their journey. The Scots harvest the resultant ice, generally the size of a cube, from the beaches of northern Scotland. A Scotsman once told me “It’s a shame to put anything in yer Scotch whiskey laddie, but if ya do, make it Icelandic glacial ice!”. I had no idea what he was talking about at the time.
  • Sadly, studies of the annual Scotch ice harvest have shown that harvested glacial ice cubes have shrunk by about 6% during the last decade, due to the effects of global climate change.

I think that’s all for today, but we’ll be back soon. Remember our credo here at 365…all facts documented here are accurate or your money back!

Categories: Iceland, John

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1 reply »

  1. Those are just extraordinary pictures. Makes a changes from seeing the standard Europe pictures that everybody else posts when they’re traveling!

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