Iceland has glaciers. Not as many as Greenland (thankfully), but more than the French Alps.
What are glaciers?
Well, basically they are large bits of ice that don't go away during the summer. The scientific definition is something about annual melt not exceeding annual accretion over the very-long-term. This means that the winter snow doesn't completely melt in the summer and is then compressed into ice by the time the next winter's snow starts falling.
Ice. Yay. So far, so boring. Except that glaciers are anything but boring. They create some of the most dramatic scenery in the world. What could be more dramatic than the sight of a hundred thousand tonnes of ten-thousand-year-old ice pouring (in hyper-hyper slow motion) over a cliff as gravity pushes it towards the sea? Our point precisely.
Then of course there's the extra exciting fact that several of Iceland's glaciers are sitting on top of active volcanoes. That's terrible planning on the part of Mother Nature; but it makes for spectacular eruptions, amazing ice formations, blue lakes of melt water and truly weird rocks. The infamous – and very easy to pronounce – Eyjafjallajökull (literally Island Mountain Glacier) is one such example.
The largest glacier in Iceland
Southeast Iceland is home to Europe's largest glacier, Vatnajökull (literally Watery (or Lake) Glacier), which covers over eight percent of the entire country. It is the largest glacier in Europe by volume, at 3,100 cubic kilometers of ice (hard to imagine, right?). But it is shrinking fast, like all its other cousins… except one. For unexplained reasons, Drangajökull in the Westfjords of Iceland is not shrinking. The reason may, or may not, lie in the fact that Drangajökull is the only Icelandic glacier entirely less than a kilometer above sea level. Could temperatures be rising faster at mountaintop level?
To put the size of Vatnajökull into perspective, Iceland's 13 glaciers cover 11% of the country, and Vatnajökull alone covers over 8% of Iceland. It is very big.
But why should you, the prospective visitor, care about our glaciers? Well, we're glad you asked!
Firstly, and most simply, they're awesome to look at from a distance. Whether spying Drangajökull peeping over the mountains across the bay from the town of Ísafjörður, or driving past Vatnajökull on your way to see its famous glacial lagoon, where icebergs calve majestically into a lake full of ducks and seals before passing under the suspension bridge and out to sea, there really is no better word than ‘spectacular'.
Secondly, you can have a glacier adventure, on a glacier! Snowmobiling, ice climbing, and super-jeeping are all year-round possibilities and not to be missed if you like your adrenaline pumping. You can even try summertime skiing or dog sledding if you like.
Thirdly is the fact that most of our famously powerful and majestic rivers and waterfalls are powered by their melt water. Not only are they lovely to look at, but we generate our electricity from them too.
Finally is the fact that they are the most erosive force on earth and seeing them up close gives you a hint at why our landscape – and the landscape of many other places which were encrusted in glaciers during the ice age – look the way they do today.
In Iceland we spend a lot of time saying the country's name is wrong and assuring folks that we have lovely summers and mild winters, and don't live in igloos – which is all absolutely true. But when it comes to our glaciers, Iceland is the perfect name; and it really is one to be proud of!