The Magnificent Glacier Tongues of Iceland
In recent years, glacier tongues have received an increasing amount of attention from the scientific community and academics, as well as from tourists in Iceland and the general public.
The mounting interest is not surprising as glacier tongues carry and preserve important historical and geological information and are tremendously fascinating at the same time. This is easy to understand considering the massive tongue falls more than sixteen hundred meters, and yet crawls at a speed less than that of a snail. As this body of ice moves forward, it reveals hundreds of mysterious deep blue crevasses and makes strange and mysterious sounds as if the tongue is speaking a language from another dimension. No wonder they have grabbed the imagination of both novelists and filmmakers alike.
Iceland’s easily accessible glacier tongues
There are only a handful of places on the planet where you can easily get to a glacier tongue. And even fewer where you can drive a car along the main road to a parking lot that is only a few minutes’ walk from a spectacular view of such a wonder. Even though we have many mountains with snow-covered peaks during summer, we consider six ice caps to be our primary glaciers and around ten secondary ones. They are found throughout the country while the six main ones are located in the Highland—Iceland’s interior. The largest one, Vatnajökull, is a humongous icecap covering an area of more than eight thousand square kilometers.
Each primary glacier is divided into smaller outlet glaciers on all sides, with a separate name and distinctive characteristics. From most of the outlet glaciers, captivating glacier tongues extend to the surface below, often forming a lagoon at the end of their tongues. One of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, is a lagoon by the glacier tongue Breiðamerkurjökull, which is a part of the Vatnajökull icecap. Breiðamerkurjökull feeds the lagoon with icebergs, as they finish their long and slow journey from the icecap and move toward the shore to melt where the Glacial Lagoon meets the ocean at Diamond Beach.
Monitoring glacier tongues
Today, glacier tongues are often referred to as indicators of global warming. In recent years, most of the larger ones in Iceland, Skaftafellsjökull and Svínafellsjökull, for instance, have retreated at an unprecedented speed, coinciding with the rising temperature in the northern hemisphere. A good visual indicator of how fast this is happening can be made by comparing old photographs of the tongues. Since the forties, Icelandic scientists started researching glaciers systematically. However, Danish scientists had gathered valuable information from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Apparently, glacier tongues have expanded forward and retreated throughout the centuries. These were all “natural” changes in harmony with the changes initiated by mother nature. Today, on the other hand, global warming is considered to be primarily human made due to pollution arising from a conventional source of energy, and it is believed to be a significant force regarding the retreat of glacier tongues.
A fascinating natural force
For a long time, one of the most popular descriptions for Iceland as a destination has been “the land of ice and fire.” It is not surprising that an island that lies along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, with its northernmost part inside the Arctic Circle has many glaciers and tons of volcanoes that erupt on a regular basis. When volcanoes erupt under an icecap, it results in the melting of the thick ice and leads to massive floods that transform the landscape. Since the “ice and fire” phrase was developed long before George R.R. Martin wrote his magnificent saga A Song of Ice & Fire that lay the foundation for the Game of Thrones series, it was no surprise to Icelanders that two of our most spectacular glacier tongues, Svínafellsjökull and Sólheimajökull were chosen to depict the cold world “North of The Wall” in the HBO series. Svínafellsjökull was also a filming location for Interstellar, showing a hostile and challenging world far away from earth.
Best place to view glacier tongues and glaciers
For anyone interested in viewing, and perhaps walking on a glacier tongue, Skaftafell National Park located in Southeast Iceland is by far the best place to do so. Keep in mind that one should NEVER enter a glacier tongue without professional guides and appropriate equipment. Skaftafell and its surrounding area are probably one of the most fascinating regions in Iceland for anyone interested in glaciers, glacier lagoons, outlet glaciers, and glacier tongues. During the winter, you can visit mysterious ice caves situated at the edge of and under the glacier tongues. Around the area, there are professional companies that offer exciting walk-on-the-glacier tours as well as ice cave tours. So, if you want to add some serious adventures to your travel itinerary, a glacier tongue would be a good one to include.
Words and photos: Einar Páll Svavarsson
Einar Páll Svavarsson is a political scientist turned photographer and writer with decades of interest and experience traveling in Iceland. Einar is the owner and creator of one of the largest information website about Iceland, Hit Iceland – www.hiticeland.com.