A Guide to Glaciers in Iceland

A lake on top of Bárðarbunga on Vatnajökull glacier.

What are the names of Iceland’s best-known glaciers, and how do these epic natural formations come to be? Which glacial activities can you take part in during your vacation? Read further to uncover just why this nation is known as Iceland, and learn about the mighty glaciers found all across the country. 

Iceland is known to many as the land of fire and ice; a striking, antithetical blending of molten fire and crystal-blue ice. 

In fact, this relationship is closer than it may at first appear. Many of its ferocious volcanoes rest beneath enormous vistas of frozen water known as glaciers, shielding fiery giants from view when dormant, and creating powerful natural spectacles upon erupting. 

It is these enormous ice caps that dominate around 11% of the island’s landmass. Travelling down the picturesque South Coast, you will see glaciers like Mýrdalsjökull, Eyjafjallajökull, and Vatnajökull from Route 1 – or the Ring Road – which is the major thoroughfare that circles the entire island. 

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

However, there are glaciers to be found in the far west, the Central Highlands, and in the North, meaning that wherever you are in the country, ice is never far away. In total, there are around 270 named glaciers in the country. 

Speaking of names, Icelandic ice caps are often christened with labels that, frankly, appear unpronounceable to those without a rudimentary knowledge of Iceland’s mother-tongue. With Icelandic being a fairly literal language, rest easy knowing that Jökull simply means glacier, which is always placed after a descriptor. You will find translations for each of Iceland’s best known glaciers below. 

As a semi-related sidenote, Jökull has remained a popular boy’s name for many years, continuing the tradition of naming local children after natural features. 

How do glaciers form?

Hiking a glacier is one of many great activities during winter in Iceland
Photo: Skaftafell 5-Hours Adventure Glacier Hike

You will only find glaciers atop land, in locations where snow persists long enough to transform into ice. As the decades go by, layer upon layer of pearlescent white snow compresses, changing its density. 

As this snow and ice tends to form along sheer mountainous slopes, glaciers are propelled by their own weight, thus moving little by little each year. The ice cap remains persistent because more snow falls atop the ice than slips away. Despite this, the glacier’s movement creates crevasses and moulins within the ice.

In Iceland, it is often the case that glaciers end with their own lagoon. This is where large chunks of ice break away from the main body, creating meltwater that forms its own waterbody. These glacial lakes are attractions in themselves, drawing visitors to look upon their gentle aesthetic and floating icebergs. 

What glaciers can be found in Iceland?

An aerial view of a glacier in Iceland
Photo: Volcanoes, Waterfalls and Glacier Landing – Helicopter Tour from Reykjavik

There are many glaciers in Iceland, and each of them are as gargantuan as they are fascinating to learn about. Before reading on further, be aware that many glaciers have what are known as glacier tongues, or outlet glaciers, which are parts of the original ice cap that have drifted separately down a valley. 

Vatnajökull (“Water Glacier”)

Covering a total of 7,900 sq km, Vatnajökull is the biggest, most voluminous glacier in Iceland. It just so happens to be the second-largest in Europe, exceeded only by the Severny Island ice cap off the northern reaches of Russia. Vatnajökull is, in fact, so humongous that it covers 10 different volcanoes and has over 30 outlet glaciers trailing from it.

Breiðamerkurjökull is one such outlet glacier, at the bottom of which sits the beloved Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. This tantalising water body is among Iceland’s star sites, ethereal as it is with buoyant icebergs and epic surrounding views. The lake is home to a wild seal population, and there are a variety of boat tours available that take you right up to where Breiðamerkurjökull breaks away into the lagoon.  

Eyjafjallajökull (“Island Mountain Glacier”)

A lady looks on Eyjafjallajökull
Photo: DT 03 Thorsmork and Eyjafjallajokull

Those who remember 2010 will remember Eyjafjallajökull from the countless news bulletins that covered its cataclysmic eruption. Given that many broadcasters had trouble even attempting to pronounce its name, the stratovolcano was designated an easier sobriquet – E15 – titled as such because of its fifteen letters. The 2010 eruptions caused significant disruptions to air-travel across Europe, wrecking vacation plans and stranding passengers across the globe. Somewhat ironically, one of the only airports that remained operational was Iceland’s Keflavík International Airport given the fact the ash plume was blowing in the other direction.

While this was the latest eruption, Eyjafjallajökull has exploded many times before, most notably in the years 920, 1612, 1821. Despite its unpredictable and explosive history, Eyjafjallajökull is actually one of Iceland’s smaller ice caps, covering only 80 sq km. It can be seen while travelling along the South Coast.  

Langjökull (“Long Glacier”)

Guests in the ice tunnel
Photo: Into The Glacier

Langjökull is the closest glacier to Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik, and the second largest in Iceland. It is named after its elongated shape, covering 950 sq km at an elevation of 1300 ft. Plus, it’s easily accessible from the Golden Circle sightseeing route, presenting guests with the opportunity to explore the glacier alongside other famed sites like Þingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall. 

It is possible to visit Iceland’s only artificially-made ice tunnel with Langjökull. As opposed to the naturally-formed ice caves beneath Vatnajökull or Mýrdalsjökull, these caverns and tunnels were created by huge drilling machines for the intended purpose of hosting the many visitors who arrive to Iceland each year. 

The tour is called Into The Glacier, and sees guests driven to the tunnel in large, specially-made treaded vehicles capable of travelling across smooth ice. Aside from experiencing the ice-tunnel, there are many other activities available atop Langjökull, including: snowmobiling, glacier hiking, and skiing.

Snæfellsjökull (“Snow Mountain Glacier”)

carbon neutral Iceland 2040
Photo: Golli. Travellers heading into Snæfellsjökull National Park

Like Vatnajökull to the east, the westerly-located Snæfellsjökull glacier is the centrepiece of its own national park. Its dense ice sheet shields a powerful stratovolcano that last erupted approximately 1800 years ago. 

On clear days, free of mists and clouds, the devil-horn peaks of Snæfellsjökull can sometimes be seen from Reykjavik. If the weather is fitting, be sure to look out for this 1446 m [4744 ft] landmark across the lapping blue waters of Faxaflói Bay. 

Those who have read Jules Verne’s classic science-fiction story, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, will know Snæfellsjökull as the entry-way to the molten core of our planet. The adventure begins when Professor Otto Liedenbrock discovers a secret note within the pages of an Icelandic saga. The note reads: 

Go down into the crater of Snaefellsjökull, which Scartaris’s shadow caresses just before the calends of July, O daring traveller, and you’ll make it to the centre of the earth.  

Open throughout the year, Snæfellsjökull National Park was established in 2001, joining the ranks of Þingvellir National Park and Vatnajökull National Park as recognised areas of supreme natural beauty. It covers 183 sq km of lava fields, glacier ice, black sand coastlines, and hardened craters. 

Mýrdalsjökull (“Bog Valley Glacier”)

Katla Ice Caves
Photo: Golli. Katla ice caves in South Iceland.

Mýrdalsjökull is found halfway along the South Coast, looming over the remote yet scenic coastal village of Vík í Mýrdal. Beneath its vast ice sheet sits Katla volcano, one of the more historically active volcanoes in the country. Since 930 AD, Katla has erupted twice each century, meaning an eruption is overdue. 

Mýrdalsjökull comes in fourth place when ranking Iceland’s biggest glaciers. It covers approximately 600 sq km, and thus comes hand in hand with many outlet glaciers. 

Famed for its ash-stricken ice, Sólheimajökull is one of the glacier tongues that trail off Mýrdalsjökull ice cap. It is one of the most popular spots for glacier hiking tours in the country, as well as conceals the Katla ice caves beneath. 

What tours are available on Iceland’s glaciers? 

 

There are many ways to discover Iceland’s glaciers other than seeing them when driving by. 

In fact, it is encouraged to actively explore these immense natural features by taking one or two tours that directly bring you to them. So, what activities do visitors get up to atop the ice? 

Glacier Hiking Tours 

Photo: Golli. Hiking towards the glacier’s edge

Equipped with walking poles and a pair of spiked crampons, locals and visitors alike have been hiking up Iceland’s glaciers for decades. Traversing these magnificent ice giants by foot allows for guests to experience the vistas up-close and personal, as well as get a healthy dose of physical activity during their holiday. 

From atop Iceland’s glaciers, guests are privy to incredible and majestic perspectives over the adjacent landscape and coastlines. Ultimately, they are the best viewpoints that money can buy. 

Regarding safety, it is important to know that you should NEVER attempt to hike up a glacier alone. 

These features are scarred with fissures and crevasses. Sometimes covered by thin ice. It is an environment that might pose a significant threat to anyone unaware of the best routes. Always book a glacier hiking tour with a certified operator. You remain safe during your trip, and your guide will offer you countless tidbits of information about how glaciers form, and how best to enjoy them.

Ice Caving Tours 

A man inside an Icelandic ice cave
Photo: Skaftafell Blue Ice Cave & Glacier Hike

While hikers experience Iceland’s glaciers from the surface, ice cavers discover the sapphire caverns beneath. Ice caving tours tend to be at a more gentle pace than glacier hiking, and some even have pre-built walkways to aid accessibility. Ice caving is at its most dramatic during the winter, and in the summer, many actually melt away, making them impossible to enter. 

Stepping inside these crystalline caverns allows guests to look upon curling walls of blue and white ice. Inside, you can appreciate the natural way they twist and turn beneath the surface. The reason why they are so blue is because the ice is ancient and extremely dense. This means that it has had time to absorb each and every colour of the spectrum – except for blue, leaving that as the only tone visible. Some ice caves in Iceland, such as those at Katla, are speckled with black ash, creating some truly abstract scenery. 

Before booking an ice caving tour, it is important to realise that ice caves and glacier caves are different things. Ice caves describe caves that have ice in them, while the latter are those specifically found as part of ice caps. However, for all intents and purposes, the term ice cave tends to be used for both. 

Ice Climbing Tours 

Skaftafell Ice Climbing
Photo: Skaftafell Ice Climbing & Glacier Hike

Finally, ice climbing tours present the chance to scale the wide, domineering walls of Iceland’s glaciers by way of spiked boots and double-sided ice axes. If you have a good fitness level and desire to conquer physical obstacles, ice climbing is the sport for you.

There are various routes available up the ice, some that are suited to beginners, and others that require more experience. Ice climbing takes discipline, so listen closely to how your guide instructs you on how to ascend. They will provide you with all of the necessary kit. But bring a waterproof jacket and trousers, as well as a hat and gloves. 

Snowmobiling Tours

A man rides a snowmobile across a glacier in Iceland
Photo: Unforgettable Golden Circle & snowmobiling – A Private Tour

Speed-freaks have only one true option when it comes to maximising their time atop Iceland’s ice caps – Snowmobiling

Given the amount of terrain that snowmobilers can cover in little time, this form of travel has become immensely popular. Through snowmobiling, guests can see far more of the ice cap than would otherwise be possible hiking. And, of course, they can have great fun doing so as they skid across the ice at heart-racing speeds. 

These adrenaline-fuelled tours are open to experienced and beginner riders. If you are over 18 years old and have a driving licence, you are free to operate a snowmobile yourself. If not, you can always ride as a passenger on the back seat. 

In Summary 

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

Exploring Iceland’s glaciers should be considered a must-do activity by anyone spending significant time in the country. Doing so allows guests to gain an appreciation of the wondrous geological forces that have shaped the island. Plus, it presents the chance for them to revel in otherworldly beauty – vast vistas of crystal ice and snow. 

Before you head off, make sure to check out these incredible glacier tours available across Iceland.

Gas Pollution and Water Level Rise Near Mýrdalsjökull Glacier

Katla volcano

Hot water is flowing out from the geothermal system underneath Mýrdalsjökull glacier in South Iceland and conductivity remains high. Activity has, however decreased as compared to several days ago and there are no signs of volcanic unrest, RÚV reports.

An earthquake swarm was detected beneath the glacier last week, with the largest quake measuring M 4.4 and occurring on June 30 at 2:45 AM. Earthquake activity in the area has calmed since but continues nevertheless, with M 3.1 and M 2.2 earthquakes detected around 11:00 PM last night.

Gas pollution has also been detected near the site, and the Icelandic Met Office is warning travellers against being in the Katla volcano area due to the associated gas pollution risks. The Met Office also warns of a possible rise in water levels in Múlakvísl river due to the geothermal activity beneath Mýrdalsjökull.

All Quiet on the Katla Glacier Following Yesterday’s Quakes

Katla volcano

No significant earthquakes were registered in the vicinity of the Katla caldera last night. A natural hazards expert at the Icelandic MET Office has told RÚV that it is “impossible to say” whether yesterday’s three earthquakes were an isolated event or the beginning of something bigger.

Road to the Katla Glacier closed

The Katla caldera in South Iceland has calmed down significantly since the earthquake swarm yesterday morning. Seismic activity began to diminish significantly yesterday afternoon, with only a single small tremor having been recorded since midnight, RÚV reports.

Kristín Elísa Guðmundsdóttir, a Natural Hazards expert at the Icelandic Meteorological Office, told RÚV that it was “impossible to say” yet whether yesterday’s earthquakes were an isolated event or the start of something bigger: both possibilities must be kept open.

The National Commissioner’s office declared an uncertainty phase after the earthquake swarm yesterday; three earthquakes over M4 were recorded yesterday morning. The road to the Katla glacier has been closed and travellers are advised to keep their distance from the glacier’s roots.

As noted by RÚV, the earthquakes were likely caused by hydro or geothermal energy as opposed to the movement of magma. The quakes originated in the watershed area of the Múlakvíslar river. According to Kristín, however, there is currently no indication of an imminent run. “We are not seeing much change in Múlakvísl. The electrical conductivity is not high,” Kristín observed.

Activity in Mýrdalsjökull may be accompanied by gas pollution, RÚV notes.

“So there is absolutely every reason for people to exercise caution if they are near the glacier. There is an uncertainty phase in force at the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management, and people are advised not to hike on the Katla Glacier. It is both because of the gas, which can be very dangerous, but also because we cannot be sure that something else will happen.”

The Icelandic MET Office is on duty 24 hours a day and monitors the situation closely, Kristín added.

Three Earthquakes Over M4 at Katla Volcano

Katla volcano

The aviation colour code above Katla volcano in South Iceland has been raised to yellow following an earthquake swarm at the site this morning. Preliminary figures measured the strongest earthquake at M4.5. No volcanic unrest was detected and there are no indications a glacial flood has begun from beneath Mýrdalsjökull glacier.

The earthquake swarm began at 9:41 AM this morning under Mýrdalsjökull. The origin of the earthquakes is the northeast section of the Katla caldera and the earthquakes were felt in Þórsmörk. Although there are no indications that an eruption or glacial flood is imminent, it is not advisable to be at the base of the Katla glacier due to possible gas emissions and floodwater from Múlakvísl river.

Read More: A Volcano in the Backyard

A similar earthquake swarm occurred in Katla caldera in August 2016. No flood occurred in connection with that swarm. The last big glacial flood in Múlakvísl occurred in July 2011. Katla’s last eruption (that broke through the ice that covers it) was over 100 years ago, in 1918. Its eruption frequency during the last 1,100 years is, however, one eruption per 50 years.

Travel Ban to Mýrdalsjökull Lifted

Katla volcano

After a meeting with Iceland’s Meteorological Office, authorities in South Iceland have lifted the travel ban which was in place following increased seismic activity from Katla.

Significant earthquakes were recorded under Mýrdalsjökull this Sunday, October 16. The largest of the recent quakes was measured at 3.8M. Because of this increased activity, Katla, one of Iceland’s most dangerous volcano systems, was placed under special monitoring and trips to the region were temporarily suspended.

Notably, this affected many ice cave tourist trips.

Read more: Increasing Seismic Activity under Mýrdalsjökull

Increased seismic activity meant both an increased chance of glacial flooding and also potential exposure to volcanic gases. Now, however, authorities believe the disturbance have passed and trips to the area can resume.

The authorities recommend that tourism operators carry with them gas meters and be ready to leave the area if conditions change.

Katla Calm After Largest Earthquake Since 2017

Katla volcano

Seismic activity under Katla volcano was calm last night, after the area’s largest earthquake since 2017. The earthquake was measured under the northeastern rim of the volcano’s caldera and several small aftershocks followed.

“There’s little news since last night,” Hulda Rósa Helgadóttir, Natural Hazard Expert at the Icelandic Met Office, told RÚV. “There was an earthquake at ten past seven that was of magnitude 4 and several aftershocks followed, the largest being 3.4 at quarter to eight, but since then it’s been fairly calm.” Hulda says no volcanic tremor has been detected at the site. Water measurements from the area also show no indication of volcanic activity.

Read More: A Volcano in the Backyard

Katla has erupted at least 21 times in the past 11 centuries. The last eruption to break through the ice on top of the volcano occurred in 1918. A more recent, though fictional, eruption has happed in Katla, however, in the popular Netflix series of the same name.

On Dry Land

Katla Netflix

In 2002, Baltasar Kormákur stood on the red carpet in San Sebastian in Spain. He was dressed in his best suit and smiling at the cameras, having just sold the distribution rights to The Sea to America and the UK. It was the biggest distribution deal that any Icelander had signed for a single movie. He was 36 years old. In demand – and miserable.

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Icelandic Series Katla Premieres on Netflix Today

Katla Netflix/Lilja Jónsdóttir

Just ten years ago it was unthinkable that a foreign company as big as Netflix would be interested in producing an Icelandic TV series for the global market, according to director Baltasar Kormákur. Icelandic series Katla, co-written and co-directed by Baltasar, premieres on the streaming platform today. The fictional drama takes place in Vík í Mýrdal, South Iceland, during a volcanic eruption so intense it starts melting a glacier from which “mysterious elements” start to emerge “with consequences no one could ever have foreseen.”

Katla is the first Icelandic television series produced by Netflix in collaboration with Reykjavík Studios. Containing ten episodes, the series was written by Baltasar along with Sigurjón Kjartansson, Davíð Már Stefánsson and Lilja Sigurðardóttir. Lilja and Baltasar also directed the series alongside Börkur Sigþórsson.

“It’s an idea I got quite a long time ago and was playing around with,” Baltasar told RÚV. “What if the glaciers would melt and we have no idea what’s under them. Then it developed. I knew it wouldn’t be easy because it’s heavy in production.” Then Baltasar received a call from Netflix and the idea suddenly became a real possibility.

Baltasar describes Katla as a combination of folktale, science fiction, and psychological “noir mystery,” a form he says provided lots of freedom. “We stuck to a certain realism in terms of what the situation would be like after one year of a volcanic eruption. But then we let go of the reins and it was as if the team filled with energy, it was a lot of fun.”

Netflix Gives First Glimpses of Upcoming Icelandic Series Katla

Katla Netflix/Lilja Jónsdóttir

Netflix has released the first photographs from the upcoming series Katla, its first-ever original series from Iceland. Created and directed by the award-winning Baltasar Kormákur (Trapped, Everest), the eight-part drama takes place in Vík, South Iceland, following a violent eruption of the volcano Katla.

“One year after the outbreak of a violent eruption of the subglacial volcano Katla, the peace and tranquility in the small town of Vík has been dramatically disturbed with the eruption still active,” a Netflix plot summary of the series reads. “The ice near the volcano has been melting, the area has been evacuated and only a few remaining people manage to provide the necessary community service in the village, which is now only accessible by crossing the Markarfljót river. The grand area has turned out to be somewhat apocalyptic and Vík is declared a danger zone. Mysterious elements, that have been deeply frozen into the glacier from prehistoric times, start to emerge from the melting ice with consequences no one could ever have foreseen.”

Katla Netflix/Lilja Jónsdóttir
Netflix/Lilja Jónsdóttir.

Katla stars Guðrún Ýr Eyfjörð, better known as the musician GDRN, Íris Tanja Flygenring, Ingvar Sigurðsson, Þorsteinn Bachmann, Sólveig Arnarsdóttir, and Swedish actors Aliette Opheim and Valter Skarsgård. Filming began early last year but had to be suspended due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It resumed later in the year with a reduced crew and social distancing precautions.

Katla Netflix/Lilja Jónsdóttir
Netflix/Lilja Jónsdóttir. Director Baltasar Kormákur (left) and starring actress Guðrún Ýr Eyfjörð on set.

Though the premise of Katla is fictional, it’s not at all far-fetched that an eruption from the volcano could have catastrophic consequences. A Katla eruption in the year 822 AD was likely responsible for widespread famine, plague, and freezing temperatures across Europe. An eruption at nearby Laki in 1783 affected the climate across the northern hemisphere for a year, and is now believed to have been a catalyst for the French revolution.

Katla Netflix/Lilja Jónsdóttir
Netflix/Lilja Jónsdóttir. Ingvar E. Sigurðsson of Trapped fame is also in the series.

Baltasar Resumes Filming of ‘Supernatural Volcano Drama’

Baltasar Kormákur is set to resume filming his eight-part Netflix series Katla, RÚV reports. Described as a “supernatural volcano drama,” the series stars Guðrún Ýr Eyfjörð, better known as the musician GDRN, Íris Tanja Flygenring, Ingvar Sigurðsson, Þorsteinn Bachmann, Sólveig Arnarsdóttir, and Swedish actors Aliette Opheim and Valter Skarsgård. The Everest director is releasing the series through his own production company, RVK Studios.

Katla follows the lives of the residents of Vík, on the south coast of Iceland, a year after the Katla volcano erupts. As a glacier near the volcano begins to melt, many in the village are forced to evacuate, while the stalwarts who remain try to keep the village, which has largely become a ghost town, alive. The melting glacier uncovers long-hidden secrets, however, all of which have unexpected consequences on the characters.

According to a recent interview with Deadline, Baltasar began working on the series before the COVID-19 pandemic reached the Nordic countries and was able to complete a few weeks of filming before having to put the production on hold. He anticipates needing three additional weeks to complete filming, which will conclude in July.

The production has been able to resume with a reduced crew and social distancing precautions. The sheer size of RVK Studios is a particular boon in circumstances such as these; at 45,200 square feet, it’s one of the biggest studios in Europe and is located in an isolated area. “So, we could control very easily, or actually very clearly, the number of people in the space,” Baltasar explained to the film industry publication. “I came up with kind of a colour-coded spacing system so that people wearing the same colours know which group they are and they are only allowed in certain spaces. There will never be more than 20 people with the same colour. This way, we could segregate the studio down to four main spaces and we minimised the crew and try to keep the two-metre distance.”

The cast and crew were also all tested for the virus before filming resumed, the set and equipment are regularly sanitised, and everyone’s temperatures are checked every morning. Baltasar said he believes his cast and crew are “honestly…more safe on that set than anywhere else. I live with four children so we vary from six to eight at home and you can’t keep them in the house. I think that because of the quarantine and the measures we did on set, it actually became a very safe spot.”

Asked how filming amidst the coronavirus crisis compares with other challenges that he’s faced on previous projects, Baltasar told Deadline that “It is in some way very similar. When I was making Everest, I remember saying, let’s bow our head to the mountain and accept what it gives you. You can’t fight nature, you have to respect it and work with it, unafraid. And the same goes with the ocean in Adrift and The Deep. And now with the virus.”