The Vatnajökull Glacier

Date 29 October 2023

The Vatnajökull Glacier

The Vatnajökull Glacier

Vatnajökull is more than just a glacier: this colossal ice cap, located in southern Iceland, covers 8,400 km² making it the second largest ice cap in Europe.

If you have a chance to visit “the glacier of the lakes” you will be awed by the raw power of this landscape.

The dance of light within its ice caves is a delight for the senses with spectacular shades of blue, while the icy peaks of the glacier alternate between blazing white and the jet black of volcanic rock and ash.

Vatnajokull: a colossal ice cap

Le Vatnajökull : plus grand glacier d'Europe

To get a sense of scale, 8,400 km² is just about the size of the island of Corsica... For an island like Iceland, this is huge, and in fact the ice cap represents 8% of the total surface of Iceland.

Given its size and the many glacier tongues emerging from it, there is a debate among specialists who theorize it is in fact an ice sheet...

In some places, this huge glacier reaches a thickness of almost 1 kilometer! This ice cap is also world-famous for its beauty and sheer size, and has been the location of many film shoots (Interstellar, Batman Begins, etc.)

Vatnajokull: as fragile as it is dangerous

Le Vatnajökull : un glacier fragile

All glaciers are under a very real threat from global warming, and Vatnajokull has been receding in recent years, simply melting away.

Historically, the glacier is actually bigger today than it was in the 9th century. From the 13th to the 20th century, during the “Little Ice Age”, the glacier expanded steadily until the early 20th century when it began to shrink back due to global warming and the strong volcanic activity of the last century.

How could volcanoes make a dent in this, you may wonder? It's because the ice cap is so large, it actually covers several active volcanoes!

Rising to 2110 m, Öræfajökull is the largest volcano in Iceland. In the last 10 years, the Bárðarbunga and especially the Grímsvötn volcanoes were the stars that got all the press attention with several eruptions.

The 2014 eruption of Bárðarbunga lasted 6 months, spewing 1.4 km³ of lava onto the glacier, while Grímsvötn erupted relentlessly in 1996, 1998, 2004 and 2011...

The Grímsvötn volcano is also the site of a subglacial lake of the same name. When a subglacial eruption causes this lake to overflows, this in turn causes what Icelanders call “jökulhlaups”: brutal and devastating “torrential floods”.

These floods are increasingly common and feared by Icelanders for good reason. In 1996, the jökulhlaups of the Skeiðará River triggered by the Grímsvötn eruption caused considerable damage and lasting trauma for locals.

To get a sense of scale for the 1996 Jökulhlaup: the Skeiðará River flow rate increased 100-fold in two hours, reaching 45,000 m3/s which is more the Mississippi River but without the colossal riverbed to match it... The flood is devastating, destroying everything in its path, including a whole 10 kilometers of roadway near Skaftafell.

So it's not hard to understand why Icelanders are wary of the sleeping dragons on their island...

Vatnajökull's lagoons and glacier tongues

Le Vatnajökull : les langues glaciaires

Any trip to Iceland will involve a visit to at least one glacier, and if you had to pick one it would be the biggest, Vatnajökull!

The king of glaciers has many treasures: lakes, lagoons, canyons, waterfalls, icebergs, ice caves, glacial tongues... We've picked out a select few of the wonders you can find Vatnajokull:

Getting up close and personal with one of Vatnajokull's glacier tongues is something you won't soon forget. If you had to pick one, the Svínafellsjökull glacier tongue is the easiest to get to and a wonder to behold.

As for lagoons with a serving of icebergs, Jökulsárlón is a must-see, and the beach nearby (AKA the Diamond beach) is dotted with shining jewels on its black sand.

In Skaftafell you'll find the largest "sandur" in the world, the “Skeidararsandur” with its 1300 km², which is the source of the dangerous Jökulhlaups mentioned previously.

Things to do in Vatnajökull

Le Vatnajökull : les activités

Of course, there are plenty of hiking trails, whether in Skaftafell Park or near tourist hotspots like Jökulsárlón or Fjallsárlón.

The glacier and its surroundings are easy to get to as most of the points of interest are located along the southern portion of the famous Ring Road. So you won't need to rent a 4x4 vehicle to approach the glacier.

As for the best time to visit Vatnajökull, you can go there all year round! Some outings such as the Skaftafell hiking trails are more accessible in summer, but on the other hand, visiting an ice cave can only be done in winter.

A winter trip to the Vatnajökull can be a great experience, and some sites like the Jökulsarlon lagoon are really worth seeing when the cold freezes everything over.

Many hiking trails take you around the glacier's edge, but there are a lot of activities on the glacier itself, such as:

  • Ice cave tour
  • Glacier hikes
  • Kayaking in the lagoons

These outings require professional guides accompanying group tours, so they aren't free. Here are a few examples of half-day and full-day trips to Vatnajokull:

Vatnajökull National Park

Le par national du Vatnajökull

Vatnajökull Park officially became “Vatnajokull National Park” on June 7th, 2008. The other two national parks in the country are Snaefellsjökull National Park and Thingvellir National Park, but they were quickly overshadowed.

Stretching over 15,000 km², it became not only the largest national park in Iceland (covering 15% of the country) but also in Europe. Vatnajökull National Park includes:

Suffice to say, there's a lot going on here. Vatnajokull National Park is a showcase of the country's lagoons, rivers, glaciers, volcanoes and all the natural wonders that Iceland can offer!