Iceland not only has the most active volcanoes in all of Europe and countless impressive waterfalls, but also 13 large and several small glaciers that cover a total of about 11% of Iceland's land area. Volcanoes lie dormant beneath many of these glaciers.
How do glaciers form?
One factor is particularly important for the formation of glaciers: long-term, low temperatures! This is because glaciers consist of meter-high layers of ice that form when fallen snow cannot thaw in summer, freezes and thus forms small crystals. Over the years, more and more layers of snow accumulate and are compressed by their weight into thick masses of ice. During this process, air is squeezed out of the cavities between the snow and the glacier ice usually takes on a bluish and sometimes even slightly greenish color due to the low air content.
Different types of glaciers are distinguished.
- Valley glaciers: Glaciers often located in valleys and are quite long.
- Foreland glaciers: Glaciers that flow flat out of relatively steep valleys.
- Plateau glaciers: glaciers that lie on high mountains
- Slope glaciers: glaciers "hanging" on steep rock faces
- Kargletscher: Usually wide glaciers that are often located in high mountains. They owe their name to their bowl-like shape. Kargletscher are remnants of large valley glaciers that have lost their glacier tongue.
- Outlet glaciers: Form at the edge of ice caps or ice sheets when the ice must flow through relatively narrow outlets.
- Ice sheets: cover large parts of (flat) land masses
What glaciers are there in Iceland?
Vatnajökull is not only by far the largest glacier in Iceland, but also in all of Europe. With its 7,700 km² it covers about 8 % of Iceland's land mass and is on average between 400 and 1,000 meters thick. The highest point is on the glacier plateau Bárðarbunga at an altitude of 2,000 meters. The glacier is located in the southeast of the country and is so large that many of the approximately 40 associated glacier tongues have their own names. These glacier tongues include the following:
- Öræfajökull: largest glacier tongue, in the southeastern national park.
- Dyngjujökull: one of the largest glacier tongues
- Breiðamerkurjökull: outlet glacier that fills the famous Jökulsarlon lagoon,
- Falljökull: steep glacier tongue, strongly split, The best place for longer hikes
- Svinafellsjökull: one of the most picturesque glaciers in Iceland, filming location for many movies and series
Langjökull, whose name means "long glacier", is the second largest glacier in Iceland. It is located in the west of the highlands and is about 1.5 hours from Reykjavik. This makes it the closest glacier to Iceland's capital. Beneath the ice, some of which is 580 meters thick, lies a volcanic system. The glacier is covered with snow all year round, which makes it the perfect destination for snowmobilers. In addition, the glacier is home to the largest man-made ice cave in the world.
Iceland's third largest glacier is located in the central highlands, making it quite difficult to access. The nearly 1,000 km² of almost circular ice cover can only be visited in summer and even then should only be traveled after detailed planning and with an experienced guide. At the glacier's edge, several mountains stretch upwards, including Blágnípa in the west, Arnarfell hið mikla in the south and Miklafell in the east.
With an area of about 595 km², Myrdalsjökull is the fourth-largest glacier on the Nordic island. It is located right next to Eyjafjallajökull. Under the glacier cover lies the volcano Katla, which is probably the most active volcano in the northern hemisphere. Nearby is the valley of Thorsmörk, which is considered one of the best hiking areas in all of Iceland. One of the most famous glacier tongues of Myrdalskökull is Sólheimajökull. Solheimajökull is about 10 km long and 2 km wide. It is located about 2 hours drive from Reykjavik on the southwestern side of Myrdalsjökull and is easily accessible via the ring road. The tongue is rugged with many crevasses and sometimes even has small ice tunnels and caves. Solheimajökull is one of the glaciers most affected by climate change: In the last 10 years, it has receded about a kilometer. Other glacier tongues include Kötlujökull, Öldufellsjökull, Sandfellsjökull and Höfðabrekkujökull.
Drangajökull is the only glacier in the Westfjords and the only one in Iceland lower than 1,000 meters. Nevertheless, with an area of about 200 km², it is the fifth largest glacier in the country and, unlike the other Icelandic glaciers, it has not become smaller. Due to its location southwest of Hornstadir, however, it is also difficult to access, but there are tours from Isafjördur to the glacier.
Eyjafjallajökull is world-famous at least since its eruption in 2010, which paralyzed air traffic all over Europe. It is located right next to Myrdalsjökull in southwestern Iceland and, at 78 km², is the country's sixth-largest glacier. The 100 km wide ice cap is 1615 m high at its highest point. The two glaciers are connected by a popular hiking trail called Fimmrvöðuháls.
With an area of about 48 km², Tungafellsjökull is the seventh-largest glacier in Iceland. It is located on the Sprengisandur highland road, northwest of Vatnajökull. Most of the glacier lies at an altitude of 700-800 meters and is about 70 km long and up to 30 km wide. The glacier is accessible by road only in summer, and even then heavy rains can make it difficult or even impossible to reach.
The glacier volcano is located in the west of the country. Its area is 32 km² and it reaches a height of 1350 meters. The glacier lies to the west of the glacier Langjökull and is separated from it by þórisdalur, where Grettir, the Saga hero is said to have stayed.
This 22 km² table mountain with a glacier cap is located in the west of Iceland. From the 1.675 m high glacier top, you have a fantastic view over the surrounding areas. Like many other glaciers, Eiriksjökull has several glacier tongues that extend in all directions. Climbing the glacier is quite challenging, as there is an elevation gain of 1,300 m in 10 km. Normally this is undertaken from the west side.
Thrandarjökull is a 22 km² glacier in southeast Iceland, 20 km from Vatnajökull. One of the longest and largest rivers in the east, the Hamarsá, comes from this 1,236 m high glacier.
Tindfjallajökull is a 19 km² glacier volcano up to 1,462 m high in the south of Iceland adjacent to þórsmörk. Meanwhile, it is one of the smallest glaciers in Iceland, but still a popular destination for mountaineers and skiers.
The 15 km² glacier partially covers the volcano of the same name north of Myrdalsjökull. Nearby are the warm springs of Landmannalaugar and Hrafntinnusker. The well-known trekking trail Laugavegur leads over the glacier.
Snaefellsjökull is one of Iceland's smallest glaciers with an area of 11 km², but it is one of the most famous glaciers. The glacier is an active volcano that has built up during several eruptions over the last 80,000 years. The glacier became famous through the movie "Journey to the Center of the Earth" by Jules Verne, in which it represents the center. Snaefellsjökull is part of the national park of the same name, established in 2001, and is the only glacier on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Driving on the glacier is prohibited unless you have a permit from the park ranger. The surroundings of the glacier also have a lot to offer: Hilly lava fields, beautiful black and white sand beaches, unique waterfalls and many animals, such as seals and birds can be found here. Unfortunately, this glacier is also shrinking at an alarming rate. Climbing the glacier is very demanding and takes 5-7 hours.
Development of the Icelandic glaciers
Iceland has been completely covered by ice for most of the last 3 million years. During the last ice age 21000 years ago, Iceland was covered by a large ice sheet that probably extended far beyond the coasts. During the climatic optimum 3000-8000 years ago, the average temperature in Iceland was 2 °C higher than in the 20th century, which led to the almost complete disappearance of glaciers except for the ice caps on the peaks. Around 500 BC, there was another cold period in Iceland, during which the ice caps expanded again. From the beginning of Iceland's settlement (~847 AD) until the 13th century, there was another warm period followed by a small ice age from the end of the 13th century until the end of the 19th century. This ice age led to a renewed expansion of the ice caps.
In 1890, the last little ice age ended and the glaciers retreated again. Despite the steady rise in temperatures in Iceland, there was a small interruption in the years between 1960 and 1990, when the melting of the glaciers stopped. The area loss of Icelandic glaciers was greatest between 1904 and 1945. Since the year 2000, the glaciers have again experienced a strong loss, which is steadily increasing. The glacier ends of Vatnajökull have thus shortened by 1-4 kilometers since 1890, and the surface of its southeastern glacier tongues has subsided by 150-270 meters between 1890 and 2010. To protect the glaciers from melting, there are some approaches. For example, forests are being planted around the glaciers to absorb warm air.
Statistically, the earth could soon cool again and cover Iceland with new ice.
Activities around the glaciers
There are many exciting activities to do in, on and around the glaciers. However, it is important that no matter how experienced you are, you never enter the glaciers without a licensed local guide, because glaciers can be dangerous!
Every year during the winter months, some glaciers create stunning ice caves. These ice cave glaciers are Langjökull, the Kötlujökull (outlet glacier of Mýrdalsjökull), Breiðamerkurjökull and the Falljökull (outlet glacier of Vatnajökull). The most famous ice cave is located at the foot of Breidamerkurjökull. The crystal ice cave is known for its clear turquoise blue color, which also looks so spectacular due to the incidence of light through the rather thin ice roof. It can be visited from November to April. Also very popular is the Katla Ice Cave in Kötlujökull, an outlet glacier of Myrdalsjökull. The rather new cave impresses with its unique formations and even leads to a second ice cave. This cave can be admired all year round.
Glaciers: Solheimajökull, Langjökull (ice tunnel), Breidamerkurjökull, Myrdalsjökull (Kötlujökull), Falljökull
If you prefer to drive a little faster over the glaciers, you can book a tour with a snowmobile. However, it is important to note that people between the ages of 6 and 18 and people without a driver's license are only allowed to ride as a passenger on the snowmobile tours.
Glaciers: Langjökull, Vatnajökull, Myrdalsjökull, Eyjafjallajökull
Hiking on the Icelandic glaciers is possible all year round. The most popular glaciers for this are located on the south coast of Iceland. These include the Solheimajökull glacier tongue on the Myrdalsjökull glacier and Svinafellsjökull. But also on the other glaciers many tours are offered.
Glaciers: Sólherimajökull (Myrdalsjökull), Falljökull (Vatnajökull), Svinafellskökull, Eyjafjallajökul, Snaefellsjökull
If you want a little more thrill or just like climbing, you should try ice climbing on Iceland's glaciers. The most popular glaciers for ice climbing are Svinafellsjökull and Solheimajökull. Although ice climbing is also possible all year round, in winter you have the additional special opportunity to climb on frozen waterfalls.
Glaciers: Solheimajökull (Myrdalsjökull), Svinafellsjökull, Vatnajökull, Skaftafell
A wide range of excursions to the glaciers can be booked directly with us - just contact us! For more ideas, please have a look at our further selection of excursions. Find inspiration for your next round trip to Iceland here.