Iceland’s Glaciers Shrink Every Year Skip to content

Iceland’s Glaciers Shrink Every Year

Forecasts say that the Icelandic glaciers will completely disappear in 200 years if the climate continues to warm. Icelandic scientists are working on more detailed forecasts on the development of the country’s glaciers in collaboration with their Nordic colleagues.


The glacial lagoon Jökulsárlón, aka Breidamerkurlón, is formed by the meltwater from and the icebergs that break off Breidamerkurjökull, a sub-glacier of Vatnajökull. Photo by Páll Stefánsson.

Iceland’s three largest glaciers, Hofsjökull, Langjökull and Vatnajökull, react differently to the warming climate. The height above sea level is the most significant factor, Morgunbladid reports.

Langjökull, in the western highlands, has the lowest altitude, stretching to a height of 1,400 meters. Glaciologist Thorsteinn Thorsteinsson at the Icelandic Meteorological Office said Langjökull has therefore shrunk faster than the other two.

Hofsjökull is located in the central highlands in addition to its highest peak being at an altitude of 1,800 meters and therefore the melt is slower. Even so, it has lost five percent of its size, ten cubic kilometers of ice, in the past 15 years.

However, as the employees of the Icelandic Meteorological Office recently measured the outcome of the past winter in the northern Hofsjökull, they determined that its size had grown by 1.73 meters.

This is an improvement of 18 percent compared to the winter average in 1988-2010, according to preliminary numbers, which are considered a good indication for the development of the entire glacier.

The above average outcome did not come as a surprise to Thorsteinsson. “Not in light of the weather conditions, especially after Christmas. The country has been subject to significant precipitation and there has been quite a lot of snowfall in the highlands.”

The growth in the same area after last winter was only 0.98 meters, which was the lowest result since the winter outcome was first measured in Hofsjökull in 1988.

Last summer the most significant glacial melt since 1988 was reported in Hofsjökull. Ash emitted by the volcanic eruption Eyjafjallajökull furthered the melt, impacting the annual statistics, which have never been as low as last year.

As for Vatnajökull, it is by far the largest of the three glaciers and in fact also the largest glacier in Europe and the largest glacier in the world outside the Arctic regions.

The glacier, its rivers and the areas through which they flow are now all part of a huge national park, Europe’s largest, which opened in 2008.

Vatnajökull has an altitude ranging from sea level to up to 2,100 meters on Hvannadalshnjúkur, Iceland’s highest peak.

Thorsteinsson said very rapid melt has been recorded in Breidamerkurjökull, one of its sub-glaciers, as it has the lowest altitude, but overall, Vatnajökull doesn’t lose as much of its size annually in proportion to the other two glaciers.

Yet, the development is the same in all three cases—the glaciers are shrinking year after year, Thorsteinsson concluded.

Click here to read more about the condition of Iceland’s glaciers.

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