Exploring Iceland’s Glaciers – South Coast

glaciers iceland

Iceland is home to many breathtaking natural wonders, including the glaciers that carve their way through the raw lava fields, providing the magnificent contrast Iceland is known for; fire and ice. 

In this guide you will find everything you need to know about the glaciers on the south coast of Iceland. We will provide essential information and tips for making the most of your icy experience.

Eyjafjallajökull glacier

Famous for its eruption in 2010, that disrupted air travel all across Europe, Eyjafjallajökull is a glacier with a big and well documented past. Eyjafjallajökull is the first glacier you will come across when travelling from Reykjavík city to the South Coast. It is not advisable to hike on Eyjafjallajökull itself without an experienced guide, but you can easily admire it while driving along the South Coast. If intrigued you can pay a visit to Eyjafjallajökull Visitor Centre to learn about the volcano´s history and its impact on the local environment. 

At the root of Eyjafjöll mountain you can also enjoy a relaxing, warm bath in Seljavallalaug nature pool before moving on to the next pitstop. 

glaciers iceland
photo by Golli

 

Sólheimajökull glacier

Sólheimajökull is a popular destination for glacier hiking and ice climbing adventures. From Reykjavík city it takes approximately two and a half hours to drive to the glacier, making it an ideal day trip for those looking to experience Iceland’s glaciers without venturing too far from the capital. Sólheimajökull glacier lies between two volcanos; Katla and Eyjafjallajökull and is close to the town of Vík. Its relatively easy to access the glacier but never venture on the glacier without proper preparation and equipment. 

Mýrdalsjökull glacier

Mýrdalsjökull is another impressive glacier worth exploring. This glacier is an ice cap covering the volcano Katla, which usually erupts every 40-80 years. Guided tours offer the chance to venture onto the glacier’s surface, where you can marvel at its ice formations and panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. Between Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull you will find the popular Fimmvörðuháls pass. The 24 km [15 mi] hike of Fimmvörðuháls is very popular and takes you from Skógar to Þórsmörk national park through the highlands. 

 

photo by Golli

Vatnajökull glacier

Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Iceland and one of the largest glaciers in Europe. Covering an area of approximately 7,900 km2 (3,100 sq mi), it dominates the southeastern part of Iceland. Within Vatnajökull National Park, you’ll find many opportunities for glacier exploration, including guided ice cave tours, glacier hikes and even private tours through the famous Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon.

Nestled beneath the glacier is Skaftafell, an oasis of greenery where you will find a beautiful camping spot with a view of the glacier, an array of hiking trails and a visiting centre. 


Langjökull glacier

Even though Langjökull glacier is not really one of the south coast glaciers, it is well worth the extra journey. Langjökull glacier is located in the remote highlands of Iceland and is the second largest ice cap in the country, with ice that is up to 580 m thick. Under the ice are two or more volcanic systems and during an Ice Age some volcanoes of this system covered the plains with lava. The lava field in question is about 7,800 years old and is called Kjalhraun lava field.

The access to Langjökull glacier may be limited during the winter months due to rough conditions. That being said, no matter the conditions, it is always advisable to visit the glacier with a guided tour as an experienced guide will know all safety precautions and be able to provide the necessary equipment. 

Tips for glacier exploration

  • 1. Safety first
    Glaciers can be unpredictable and dangerous so the safest way to enjoy everything the glaciers have to offer is with an experienced guide. Always make sure you have the right equipment and follow rules and guidelines. 
  • 2. Dress appropriately
    The weather in Iceland is known for its unpredictability, even during the summer. Before heading out for any adventures make sure you dress accordingly. This means layers and being prepared for sudden changes in temperature and weather conditions. 
  • 3. Respect the environment
    This is a good rule to follow no matter what kind of adventure you embark on. Help preserve Iceland’s pristine landscapes by following the “Leave No Trace” principle. Read and follow signs, don´t leave trash, do not vandalise anything in nature you stumble upon and stay on designated paths and roads. 
  • 4. Book in advance
    Glacier tours and activities can fill up quickly, especially during the busiest tourist season. Make sure you book your tours, activities and accommodations in advance. 
  • 5. Stay informed
    When travelling to Iceland the best thing to do in order to keep safe is to stay informed. Keep an eye on weather forecasts and road conditions, especially if you’re planning to venture into more remote areas or plan on longer hikes.

It is certain that exploring Iceland’s glaciers will be an unforgettable experience. Whether you´re taking it slow while hiking across the ancient fields, venturing into ice caves or racing across the glaciers on a snowmobile, make sure to take it in and you´ll be left in awe of the wonders of nature. 

 

photo by Golli

 

 

Exploring the Unique Geography of Iceland

Northern lights by a waterfall in Þingvellir, Iceland

Iceland lies on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. The land formed due to volcanic eruptions along the ridge of the North Atlantic Ocean. Due to volcanic activity, deglaciation, and earthquakes, the land is constantly evolving. Iceland is located between latitudes 63-68°N and longitudes 25-13°W in Northern Europe, making it an ideal place to see the northern lights in the wintertime. Its eight geographical regions are the South, the Southern Peninsula, the Northeast, the Northwest, the West, the Westfjords, the East, and the Capital Region. The Highland of Iceland, a 42,000 km² [16,000 mi²] area of lava fields and mountains, takes up about 40% of the land. Approximately 25% of the country is under official protection, mainly as national parks. Vatnajökull National Park, Þingvellir National Park, and Surtsey island are designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Population distribution in Iceland

Due to the Highland being uninhabitable, Iceland’s population of over 399,000 primarily lives along the coasts and surrounding islands. The capital, Reykjavik, and its suburbs host 64% of the population or about 255,000 people. Other large cities include Reykjanesbær, with a population of 23,000 and Akureyri, in the north of the island, with a population of 20,000. The rest live in smaller towns and rural communities. In addition, Iceland has over 30 islands, six of which are inhabited: Grímsey island, Hrísey island, Heimaey island, Flatey island, Vigur island, and Æðey island.

Gunnuhver, geothermal hot spring in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Gunnuhver hot spring.

Iceland’s energy and water

Iceland has an extensive amount of unpolluted freshwater resources. The tap water is fresh and ready to drink, and geothermal water is used to heat 85% of houses. Iceland is known for being the world’s largest green energy and electricity producer per capita. Iceland’s renewable energy provides almost 100% of its electricity production from hydropower and geothermal power.

The climate in Iceland

Iceland’s climate is classified as subarctic, with short, cool to mild summers and cold winters. In the capital region, the average temperatures in the summer are 10°C [52°F] and in the winter 0°C [32°F].

Lakes and waterfalls in Iceland

Iceland has over 60 lakes that exceed 2.5 km² [one mi²] in size. The largest is Þingvallavatn, with an area of 84 km² [32 mi²] and at its deepest point, 114 m [374 ft]. Out of thousands of mountains, the highest peak is Hvannadalshnjúkur, with its highest point at 2,110 m [6,920 ft]. Due to the many mountains and hills, you can find over 10,000 waterfalls in Iceland, the tallest being Morsárfoss in Vatnajökull National Park, towering at 240 m [787 ft].

The Icelandic Horse, Iceland
Photo: Golli.

The flora and fauna of Iceland

The only native wild mammal in Iceland is the Arctic Fox. Some of the more prominent animals include the Icelandic horse, the Icelandic sheep, the Icelandic sheepdog, cattle, goats, and 75 species of birds, including Atlantic puffins, skuas, and ptarmigans. Iceland has a rich marine life in its lakes, rivers, and oceans: over 270 species of fish, whales, dolphins, and seals. Fish is one of the country’s main exports, making it crucial to its economy.

Iceland’s greenery consists primarily of moss, downy birch, aspens, and flowers such as the Mountain Aven, Alaskan Lupine, and Marigolds. Despite the cold climate, geothermal energy makes it possible to grow vegetables and fruit outside, including potatoes, carrots, beets, rhubarb, cauliflower, and broccoli. Fruit grown outside includes wild berries like blueberries, crowberries, and redcurrants. Using geothermal energy, tomatoes, cucumbers, leafy greens, and herbs are grown in greenhouses.

Volcanic Eruption in Reykjanes Iceland, 2023
Photo: Volcanic Eruption in Reykjanes Peninsula, 2023.

Iceland: The land of fire and ice

Iceland has 269 glaciers, including Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull. This massive glacier is 8,100 km² [3,100 mi²] but sadly continues to decrease in size due to climate change.

In Iceland’s geothermal areas, there are hot springs and geysers. Forty-one volcanic systems are believed to be active in Iceland, the largest being the Bárðabunga system, responsible for most of the country’s largest lava fields. Some of Iceland’s most active volcanoes are Hekla, Katla and Grímsvötn. The volcanic systems on Reykjanes peninsula have had the most activity recently, erupting every year since 2021 after laying dormant for eight centuries. Its eruption on January 14th, 2024, caused lava to flow into the town of Grindavík. Three houses burned, but the town had been evacuated two nights prior. This was the first time lava entered an inhabited area since the eruption in Vestmannaeyjar islands in 1973.

 

Reykjavík Hosts Cryosphere Symposium on Climate Change

Vatnajökull Grímsfjall Grímsvötn Bárðarbunga Kverkfjöll Jöklar Jökull Vísindi

The 2022 Cryosphere Symposium will take over Reykjavík’s Harpa this week with lectures and events on ice, snow, and water in a warming world. Organised and funded by the Icelandic Met Office, the World Meteorological Organization, the UN, and other partners, the conference also features events open to the public. The symposium intends to highlight rapid changes occurring in all components of the Earth’s cryosphere, the portions of the Earth’s surface where water is in frozen form.

The symposium will include presentations on the latest scientific results on changes occurring in the cryosphere all over the planet as well as new technologies. Besides lectures, there will also be panel discussions and events open to the public. Tonight at Bryggjan Brewery, four specialists will share experiences from the field and give the audience insight into glaciological work. The presentations, which are open to all, will be in English, and attendees are invited to ask questions in a relaxed atmosphere.

The conference’s full program is available on the Cryosphere website.

Skeiðarárjökull Fastest Retreating Glacier of Last Year

iceland glaciers

In a newsletter from the Melting Glaciers project, Skeiðarárjökull was singled out as the fastest-retreating glacier last year, having lost some 400m of its eastern tail.

In their 2021 overview of the state of Icelandic glaciers, the Meteorological Office of Iceland stated that glaciers in Iceland have been receding for at least a quarter of a century and that this pattern is one of the clearest forms of evidence for climate change in Iceland. The only significant exception to this trend was in 2015, when Icelandic glaciers were either in equilibrium, or even experienced slight growth.

Since 1995, Icelandic glaciers are estimated to have lost a total of 8% of their total volume.

Breiðamerkurjökull, the glacier that terminates in the popular tourist attraction Jökulsárlón, also experienced significant loss last year, shrinking around 150m.

Melting Glaciers is a cooperative project between the Icelandic Meteorological Office, Vatnajökull National Park, the Ministry of Environment, Energy, and Climate, the University of Iceland’s Institute of Earth Sciences Glaciology Group, and the Southeast Iceland Natural History Museum.

Effects on Ocean Among Primary Climate Concerns for Iceland

Waves crashing over Reykjavík lighthouse

Ocean acidification, increased frequency of landslides, and possible changes to ocean currents are some of the impacts of climate change that could most affect Iceland, according to the country’s experts. Responding to the newly released report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Iceland’s Environment Minister Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson says government around the world need to step up their response to the climate crisis.

The PICC’s newest climate change report, intended as a resource for policymakers, compiles the latest data on climate change. Compared to the panel’s earlier reports, its findings are categorical about climate change being caused by humans and about the severity of the consequences it has in store.

Ocean acidification as concerning as warming

Tómas Jóhannesson is Director of Glaciology and an expert on the avalanche team at the Icelandic Met Office. He says the impact on the ocean surrounding Iceland is one of the biggest concerns regarding the local impact of climate change. The earth’s ocean’s have absorbed around 90% of the heat that has accumulated due to the increased greenhouse effect.

Considering Iceland’s dependence on the ocean, its acidification as a result of the carbon it absorbs from the atmosphere could be a long-term issue for the country. Acidification can affect the survival of smaller ocean organisms, in turn affecting the survival of fish and sea birds. “The acidification of the sea is unequivocal and is just as much a reason to stop emissions as warming,” Tómas stated.

Read More: Iceland’s Plan to Become Carbon Neutral by 2040

Weakening currents and more frequent landslides

Weakening and even halting ocean currents is an unlikely but significant change that could occur as a result of continued global warming. Changes in the Atlantic Ocean’s system of currents, known as the AMOC, could affect climate and precipitation in Iceland and its tipping point is not known, according to Tómas. “The possibility of this is one of the reasons why it is very urgent to take action to stop this development.”

Global warming could increase the risk of landslides in Iceland, especially as permafrost in mountains and glaciers thaws. Warmers winters that bring rain rather than show could magnify that risk. “We are seeing landslides in areas where we have not expected landslides to occur or they were previously rare.” Whether the devastating landslides that occurred in Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland last winter are a result of global warming is, however, uncertain, according to Tómas.

Iceland must address agriculture and fisheries

Responding to the IPCC report, Iceland’s Environment Minister Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson called it “yet another confirmation that we need to do even better.” Energy exchange in fisheries and agriculture are two areas where Iceland needs to achieve better results, he told RÚV. Road transport, however, “has gotten off to a much better start and is beginning to yield results,” the Minister added. He added that authorities must ensure climate measures do not come down harder on low-income or marginalised groups.

Iceland’s Glaciers Lose Four Billion Tonnes of Ice Per Year

The Glaciological Society's spring trip to Grímsvötn on Vatnajökull glacier.

Iceland’s glaciers have lost about four billion tonnes of ice on average for the past 130 years. They’re the planet’s fastest-shrinking glaciers outside the polar ice caps, and about half the loss of volume has occurred in the past 25 years, according to a new article published in Frontiers in Earth Science.

Scientists from the University of Iceland’s Institute of Earth Sciences, the Icelandic Meteorological Office, National Land Survey of Iceland, and the National Power Company of Iceland have collected measurements and research of Icelandic glaciers for the past decades and published an article in Frontiers in Earth Science. They trace the glaciers’ development from their largest at the end of the 19th century to now. In total, the glaciers have lost between 410-670 billion tonnes of ice from 1890-2019. The glaciers receded quickly during the first part of the 20. century but natural climate pattern fluctuations slowed their recession from the sixties to the nineties. Since then, they’ve receded quicker than before due to global warming.

The Glaciological Society's spring trip to Grímsvötn on Vatnajökull glacier.
Golli. The Glaciological Society’s spring research trip to Grímsvötn on Vatnajökull glacier.

About half of the ice mass loss happened from autumn 1994 to the autumn of 2019, about 220-260 billion tonnes of ice, which amounts to about 10 billion tonnes per year. The glaciers have lost close to 16% of their volume in this period. “So we’re seeing swift changes now, due to climate change. Since 1995, all the glaciers have had a negative mass-balance and have been shrinking,” Guðfinna Th. Aðalgeirsdóttir, professor of geophysics the University of Iceland and the article’s primary author, told Vísir.

The research is based on size, volume, and glacier surface measurements gathered over the past decades. Based on that data, scientists extrapolated the likely development of glaciers in the preceding decades. The result of the research is that on average, Icelandic glaciers shrink faster than most glacial areas in the world, outside of the polar ice caps.

According to Guðfinna, glaciers melting is one of the most evident results of global warming in the world. Even if people managed to contain their emission of greenhouse gasses and prevent further global warming, glaciers would continue to melt for decades while they acclimatised to the new conditions.

Golli. The Glaciological Society’s spring research trip to Grímsvötn on Vatnajökull glacier.

Global warming is not the only factor in Icelandic glaciers melting. Scientists found that Vatnajökull glacier lost 3.7 billion tonnes of ice during the Gjálp volcanic eruption in October 1996 and over the summer of 2010, twice the usual amount of ice melted due to the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. Geothermal activity, glacial lagoon calving, and ice cap friction with bedrock also added to the loss of ice mass.

Individual glaciers have gotten thinner by dozens of metres in the last century. Vatnajökull has lost 45 meters, Langjökull 66 metres, and Höfsjökull 56 metres for the past 130 years. During that time, Vatnajökull has lost 12% of its volume, Langjökull 29% and Höfsjökull 25%.

The glaciers don’t shrink linearly, and their volume fluctuates every year. Despite an overall recession in the past decades, glaciers gained mass in the winter of 2014-2015. That winter saw several low-pressure systems arriving one after the other, bringing large amounts of precipitation and was followed by a relatively cool summer. That was the last time Iceland’s glaciers gained mass over winter and the only such winter for the past 25 years.

Guðfinna told Vísir this trend could continue and even grow clearer on a planet that’s heating up. “we see the weather extremes grow bigger each year due to climate change and that increases the yearly variation in the glaciers.”

The science committee of the Icelandic Science and Technology Council’s 2018 report on how climate change would affect Iceland forecasted that Icelandic glaciers would disappear in the coming centuries if the emission of greenhouse gasses continues the way it has. Vatnajökull might last the longest, especially its highest peaks.

Globally, melting glaciers might raise ocean levels, on average, one metre in this century. The development in Iceland is less clear. Due to factors such as land rising when the weight of glaciers is lifted, ocean levels might rise less, even drop in some places. Land rise due to glaciers melting might make volcanic eruptions more frequent. How exactly the ocean levels might change around Iceland is unknown because it depends on how quickly the polar ice caps melt, especially the south pole.

The Glaciological Society's spring trip to Grímsvötn on Vatnajökull glacier.
The Glaciological Society’s spring research trip to Grímsvötn on Vatnajökull glacier.

Iceland’s Glaciers Shrunk by 800 Square Kilometres in 20 Years

In the past 20 years, the surface area of Iceland’s glaciers has decreased by around 800km2, an area roughly the size of the Reykjanes peninsula. The data comes from a report by Iceland’s foremost glacier researchers that presents an overview of the country’s glaciers at the end of 2019. The report shows that glaciers in Iceland have been retreating rapidly for 25 years, what its authors assert is “one of the most obvious consequences of a warming climate.”

Iceland’s glaciers reached their maximum area since the island’s settlement at the end of the 19th century. Since then, their surface area has decreased by almost 2,200km2 (849mi2). In recent years, the glaciers have been shrinking at a rate of 40km2 each year, equivalent to around 7,500 American football fields. When it comes to the retreat of their edges, Hagafellsjökull eystri in Langjökull ice cap and Síðujökull and Tungnárjökull in Vatnajökull ice cap hold the 2019 record, retreating by 150m (492ft) last year alone.

Glacier lagoons grow as glaciers retreat

Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, a popular tourist site, started to form in the mid-1930s because of the retreat of Vatnajökull glacier. The Breiðamerkurjökull outlet glacier retreats rapidly where it calves into the lagoon, as much as 150-400m (492-1,312ft) in 2019. On average, Jökulsárlón and Breiðárlón, as well as some smaller lagoons in the area, have grown by 0.5-1km2 (0.2-0.4mi2) annually in recent years.

The report was based on measurements done by The Institute of Earth Sciences, University of Iceland, the Icelandic Meteorological Office, the National Power Company of Iceland, the South East Iceland Nature Research Center, and the Iceland Glaciological Society.

The full report is available in Icelandic and English.

New Research Projects Vatnajökull’s Surface Area in 2300

Europe’s largest glacier could be nearly gone by the year 2300, according to new doctoral research carried out in Iceland, RÚV reports. If Earth’s average temperature rises by four degrees Celsius, the glacier could be nearly gone within the next three centuries. The research is set to be published in the Journal of Glaciology shortly.

Vatnajökull glacier, located in Southeast Iceland, covers an area of 7,900km2 (4,900mi2), or about 8% of the country’s surface area. The glacier, alongside the country’s next-largest glaciers, Hofsjökull and Langjökull, has shrunk more over the past year than it has yearly over the past decade.

The study’s researchers modelled the glacier’s potential shrinkage based on different scenarios. They concluded that if Earth’s average temperature rises by two degrees, Vatnajökull’s surface area would decrease by 30-60% by the year 2300, the variance depending on other factors such as precipitation. If the temperature rises by four degrees Celsius, however, the glacier’s surface area is projected to decrease by 60% and up to nearly 100%.

“It really matters a lot for the country’s glaciers, whether we manage to keep emissions within the limits that the Paris Agreement has decided, to keep warming within two degrees, or if we continue to emit as we have been doing,” stated Guðfinna Aðalgeirsdóttir, Professor of Glaciology at the University of Iceland and one of the study’s authors. “If nothing is done that’s the way we are headed, and greenhouse gases will cause temperatures to rise about four degrees by the turn of the next century.”

Rising temperatures will act faster on Iceland’s other glaciers, according to Guðfinna. “Hofsjökull and Langjökull lie lower [in elevation] and they are smaller and they will probably decrease by 70-80% by the end of this century. So they will respond much faster than Vatnajökull.”