Glaciers are truly impressive natural wonders of the world, and Iceland is home to 269 of them. Covering approximately 11% of the surface area of Iceland, impressive ice fields, ice caps, piedmont and cirque glaciers are all waiting to be explored. Read on to learn more about glaciers in Iceland or book one of the glacier tours to experience them for yourself!
Though you may not think it, glaciers are constantly moving and changing, albeit very slowly. The movement of glaciers is due to gravitational forces, motion at the base of the glaciers and melting of the ice itself.
The speed of a glacier's movement highly depends on the ice thickness, basal sentiment properties, surface slope, temperature of the ice, and, finally, weather and season. The summer season velocity is often higher than winter, causing bigger glacier outlets to move as fast as 1 meter per day. But usually, the movements are extremely slow and unnoticeable to the casual observer. Now you know why we say "glacial pace" to describe anything ultra-slow!
Glaciers cover approximately 11% of Iceland's overall land mass and about 1/10th of the dry land on Earth. Iceland is home to 269 named glaciers, most of which come in various shapes, types and sizes. The largest ice cap in the country, Vatnajökull, holds the title of Europe's largest glacier, covering an area of around 7,900 sq. km, about three times the size of Luxembourg.
For such a stunning natural attraction, glaciers are created in a surprisingly straightforward way. The simplest explanation for how glaciers are formed is through a decade-long process of accumulation and compression of snow. It occurs in conditions where snow falls in the same spot year-round, causing the layers of snow layers to become tightly packed.
The compression then forces the snow to re-crystallize and form into “grains”. If you’re thinking of sugar, you’re on the right track: They are similar in size and appearance to sugar grains. With time, these grains will enlarge and the air pockets between them will get smaller. This causes the snow to slowly compact and the density increases.
After about two years, the snow will have turned into “firn”. This is the state between snow and glacier ice. Firn is about two-thirds as dense as water. The density will then continue to increase as, over time, the larger ice crystals become even more compressed, causing the air pockets to get even smaller.
You might imagine glaciers as monolithic blocks of ice, but part of their beauty comes from their distinct features. Glaciers are as unique as the snowflakes they are made from and appear in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Understanding the individual qualities of a glacier can offer greater insight into its geology and history!
As their name suggests, these glaciers develop in high mountain regions. They often flow out of ice fields that can span over several peaks or even across a whole mountain range. As you might imagine, they’re particularly awe-inspiring!
Examples of mountain glaciers in Iceland:
Located in the northeastern part of Iceland, Eiríksjökull can be found right in the middle of the Hallmundarhraun lava field. The Eiríksjökull Glacier forms Iceland's biggest table mountain with a glacier shield. Climbing Eiríksjökull creates a real challenge even for experienced hikers.
Glaciers are often compared to rivers, a particularly apt comparison to valley glaciers. These bodies of ice glide down valleys and can stretch for hundreds of miles. Some locals describe their shape as tongue-like as they twist and turn their way down the valley.
Valley glaciers can flow down beyond the snow line and sometimes even reach sea level. When one flows far enough to reach the ocean, it’s often called a “tidewater glacier.” These can then become the origin of icebergs at sea, where they can continue their journey for centuries under the right conditions.
Examples of valley glaciers in Iceland:
This glacier, located in the southern part of Iceland, is an outlet of the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier and is easily accessible by the Ring Road from Reykjavik. It is situated only 2 hours from the country's capital near the town of Vik. The most popular activities on the Sólheimajökull are glacier hiking and ice climbing.
Svínafellsjökull Glacier, one of the most popular glaciers in Iceland, offers a unique hiking experience. The glacier, which covers an area of 10.8 sq km (4.2 sq mi), faces the irreversible effects of global warming and is constantly retreating and getting smaller. Fun fact - the contrasting landscape of the Svínafellsjökull Glacier was featured in the popular HBO series Game of Thrones, as well as blockbuster movies Interstellar and Batman Begins!
The Falljökull, or "Falling" glacier, is situated in the eastern part of Iceland. It is a popular hiking destination with very steep inclines, offering an adrenaline-boosting activity for experienced hikers.
The Hoffellsjökull Glacier is located in the southeastern part of Iceland. It covers an area of 924.8 sq km (357.1 sq mi). Throughout the 20th century, the Hoffellsjökull Glacier was comprehensively researched by glaciologists who were keen to find out more about the water cycle around the glacier itself, and its prominence in history has remained ever since.
The Fláajökull Glacier, also known as “Sloping Glacier” is an outlet of the Vatnajökull Glacier in the southeast of Iceland. The Fláajökull Glacier is popular for hiking and offers fantastic views of the surrounding icy landscape.
The Dyngjujökull Glacier is located in the northeast part of Iceland and is best known for its seismic activity. Its name translates to "shield volcano glacier," and there have been speculations in 2014 that an eruption may occur below the glacier's surface.
Skeiðarárjökull Glacier is an outlet glacier on the southern part of the Vatnajökull ice cap. The glacier is quite big, but like the other glaciers in Iceland, it's been impacted by global warming and has retreated rapidly over the last few decades.
Morsarjokull Glacier, located in the east of Iceland, is another outlet of the Vatnajökull Glacier. Morsarjokull Glacier is especially famous for its glacier lagoon, Morsárlón, and the highest waterfall in Iceland at 240 meters, Morsárfoss. Morsarjokull Glacier is rapidly retreating and has a high risk of avalanches.
Piedmont glaciers are glaciers that spill into quite flat plains from steep valleys and then spread into bulb-like lobes. They are formed when ice streams down a steep valley and runs out into a flat plain. Some piedmont glaciers are remarkably symmetrical, and it's truly a sight to behold.
Examples of piedmont glaciers in Iceland:
Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier is a piedmont glacier portion of a larger glacier, Vatnajökull. Located in the southern part of Vatnajökull National Park, the Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier stands at 752 meters high above sea level and covers an area of 16.8 sq km (6.5 sq mi). The result of this glacier's retreat is the famous glacier lagoon nearby, Jökulsárlón.
Fjallsjökull is an outlet glacier of the larger glacier, Oraefajokull. It is located in Vatnajökull National Park, close to Skaftafell. On this glacier, you can find beautiful ice formations and dramatic landscapes with an amazing view of the mountains nearby. There is an impressive glacier lagoon close to the glacier called Fjallsárlón.
Kvíárjökull Glacier is located in the southeastern part of the country. There's also a small glacier lagoon right next to the glacier's edge that has been forming over the last few decades.
These glaciers are typically found high on mountainsides and tend to be quite wide rather than long. They take their pretty French name from the bowl-like hollows they occupy. In a geological sense, a Cirque is a steep-sided hollow on a mountainside or at the head of a valley, formed by (you guessed it) glacial erosion.
Ice aprons are glaciers that hang from high mountainsides and are relatively small in size. They are often wide rather than long and have been known to cause avalanches due to the steep incline on which they stand against.
When glacial ice is covered by debris, it sometimes forms what we call a “rock glacier.” They are usually formed in steep valleys where both rocks and soil can fall from the hills into the ice, resembling sprinkles on an ice-cream dessert!
Ice caps, often a subject of climate-related conversation, are essentially miniature ice sheets. They cover less than 50,000 square kilometers or 19,305 square miles. Ice caps mainly form in subpolar and polar regions that have high elevation and, consequently, are quite flat.
Examples of ice caps in Iceland:
Eyjafjallajökull Glacier is located in the southern region of Iceland. Covering an area of 77.9 sq km (30.1 sq mi), Eyjafjallajökull is the 6th largest glacier in Iceland. Like other glaciers in Iceland, Eyjafjallajökull Glacier is constantly retreating.
Vatnajökull Glacier, located in the southeast of Iceland, is the oldest and biggest glacier in Iceland. Although the glacier is retreating, it still covers an area of 7899.9 sq km (3050.2 sq mi), which equates to around 8% of Iceland. The thickest point of Vatnajökull is almost 1 km (950 m) long! Even though it's getting smaller every year, it still has a prominent effect on Icelandic life and culture. There are 30 outlet glaciers of Vatnajökull in total! Vatnajökull is known for impressive sights and combinations of glacial, volcanic, and geothermal activity.
Snæfellsjökull glacier is located in the westernmost part of Iceland. This glacier-covered stratovolcano is over 700.000 years old. Snæfellsjökull is a retreating glacier and covers an area of 10.8 sq km (4.2 sq mi). Snæfellsjökull Glacier was famously featured in Jules Verne's book "Journey to the Center of the Earth" in 1864.
The Mýrdalsjökull Glacier is located in the southern part of Iceland and is the country's 4th largest ice cap, covering around 600 sq km (232 sq mi). It covers Katla, one of Iceland's most active volcanoes. Mýrdalsjökull Glacier is open for all kinds of adventurous activities, such as glacier hiking and ice climbing. The two major outlets of this glacier are Sólheimajökull and Kötlujökull.
Standing in the Westfjords in the northwest part of Iceland, Drangajökull is the largest glacier in the north. It covers an area of 159.8 sq km (61.7 sq mi) and is, in fact, the only glacier in Iceland that has not retreated in recent years.
These are quite similar to ice caps, but the difference lies in how they flow.
Like other bodies of water, the flow of ice fields is influenced by underlying topography. These glaciers are pretty easy to locate in Iceland: Langjökull, the second largest glacier in the country, is an ice field.
The word “stream” suggests a small amount of slow-running water, but ice streams are enormous masses of flowing ice – sometimes close to 20 meters in width and 150 meters in length. They are quite sensitive to environmental changes such as the loss of ice shelves at their terminus or a changing volume of water that flows beneath. Ice streams are set within an ice sheet, so they are surrounded by ice that is flowing very slowly.
The glacier lagoon is a unique topographic feature that only appears in certain conditions. Iceland’s most famous glacier lagoon is, of course, Jökulsárlón, which flows from the glacier tongue known as Breiðamerkurjökull in Vatnajökull Glacier National Park. As the ice crumbles into the ocean, it melts into icebergs, creating a pool of floating blue and white chunks of ice streaked with ash.
Other examples of glacier lagoons in Iceland:
Heinabergsjökull glacier is located off the beaten track in the southeastern part of Iceland. It is an outlet of the Vatnajökull Glacier and the nearby glacier lagoon. Heinabergsjökull is known for its beautiful landscape and breathtaking views.
Thanks to climate change, it’s no secret that glaciers around the world are receding at an alarming rate. In 2014, the Okjökull ice cap melted away completely, the largest disappearance (but by no means the only) of a glacier in Iceland. Since then, it’s been stripped of its suffix jokull (“glacier”) and is now known simply as Mt. Ok! According to some research, deglaciation in Iceland occurs at a rate of about 40 square kilometers per year. Because of this, climate change scientists are predicting the disappearance of many more glaciers in Iceland over the next twenty years.
The decline of polar bears swimming ashore is also a big indicator of Icelandic climate change. We only have to look to Landnámabók (The Book of Settlement), an Icelandic Saga, to see that polar bears used to cross the pack ice from Greenland regularly.
During the “Great Frost Winter” of 1917-1918, 21 bears were listed and it’s fair to say that more arrived unlisted or undetected. Since 2000, the reduction in pack ice has changed things: Now, in a typical year, there are no visiting bears. In 2016, just one polar bear made her way ashore – the first known visitor for several years.
The 2012 documentary Chasing Ice showcases how the glacial landscape changes over a short period of time. In this movie, the environmental photographer James Balog, along with a crew of young adventurers, takes up the task to capture climate change with the camera. As a result, they captured the biggest glacier calving ever caught on camera.
Even from a purely aesthetic point of view, glaciers are of immense value – crystal structures that you can admire from a distance or up close as you’re walking on (or even through!) them.
However, there is a lot more at stake here than the loss of natural beauty. Glaciers and sea ice perform an important function when it comes to holding back the pace of climate change: Melting glaciers cause sea levels to rise, playing havoc with the planet’s ecosystem; and accelerating the influx of fresh water to oceans and threatening corals, fish, and local wildlife.
Even more, glaciers reflect the light, keeping our planet cool. 27% of all sun rays reaching our planet's surface are being reflected by white surfaces (snow, ice of the glaciers, deserts, clouds). So, in case all the glaciers melt, our planet will get significantly warmer.
Like many of our planet’s treasures, glaciers give us far more than we realize.
Iceland’s glaciers are some of the most accessible glaciers in the world. Explore the top of a glacier and all its nooks and crannies on a glacier hike. Delve deep beneath the ice in a spellbinding ice cave. Zoom through the snow in Iceland’s icy wonderland. You can even go sea kayaking among the icebergs!
Some of the most popular activities in our repertoire are our glacier hikes in Iceland. A certified glacier guide can introduce you to all the special features of an ancient glacier. From soot-streaked ice formations to deep crevasses, discover the unique Ice World on top of a glacier. Our glacier tours hike on the Vatnajökull Glacier and its many outlet glacier tongues including Sólheimajökull.
Without glaciers, of course, we wouldn’t have ice caves as well! As glaciers shift and melt, the meltwater runs through the weak parts of the ice, leaving behind a cavern or tunnel that runs through the glacier. These gaps are known as ice caves and are often large enough to explore. From October to April, ice cave tours are one of the most popular activities in Iceland.
Another wildly popular activity you can enjoy year-round is snowmobiling on top of a glacier. Thrillseekers can snowmobile on the surface of several of Iceland’s glaciers. Langjökull is a few hours’ drive from Reykjavik and makes a terrific day trip. Another popular destination for snowmobiling is Vatnajökull, where you can combine snowmobiling with glacier hiking, trekking, or visiting Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon.
Did you know that you can sea kayak in the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon? The protected waters and floating giant icebergs make this an activity worth exploring. Grab a paddle and wander among the huge icebergs, dressed in brilliant blue, dazzling white and ashen charcoal. Keep your eyes out for friendly seals!
You can hike on glaciers in Iceland all year round. There are plenty of popular glacier tours offering glacier hiking, ice climbing, and ice caving activities on a glacier. We do not recommend walking on a glacier alone as it could be dangerous, with hidden crevices and puddles that are a lot deeper than you might think. The professional guide will walk you safely through the glacier and provide you with all the necessary glacier equipment, such as crampons and helmets.
The biggest glacier in Iceland is Vatnajökull. It covers an area of 7,900 sq km (3,050.2 sq mi) which comprises around 8% of all of Iceland. The thickness of Vatnajökull ranges between 380 to 400 meters. Vatnajökull is a popular tourist destination for various glacier activities, such as glacier hiking, ice climbing, and ice caving.
There are many glaciers in Iceland, but Vatnajökull, Langjökull, Mýrdalsjökull, and Eyjafjallajökull are the major and most popular ones.
Glaciers in Iceland are located in the south, southwestern, central, and northeastern parts of Iceland. The biggest glacier in Iceland, Vatnajokull, is located in the southwestern part, Mýrdalsjökull is in the south, and Hofsjökull and Langjökull are right in the center of Iceland.