research

Iceland: Volcanoes and Glaciers

In early September 2019, I visited southern Iceland for a week. As part of my research into Viking Age history, the legends and mythology, landscape has been important in shaping Icelandic legends. I was fortunate enough to see some of archaeological and cultural history of National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik, ride Icelandic horses, visit several iconic waterfalls and tour the some of the unique Icelandic landscape.


Southern Iceland boasts stunning waterfalls, glaciers and volcanoes. The largest glacier in Europe, Vatnajökull is located within Vatnajökull National Park which contains the largest and most active volcanoes in Iceland. On the southern side of Vatnajökull, the glacier completely covers the volcano beneath. Known as Öræfajökull, the glacier enveloping the volcano is also the highest peak in Iceland with the mountain peak, Hvannadalshnúkur reaching 2, 000 m above sea level. Although peaks in Iceland are not high but European standards, the entirety of the huge glacier Vatnajökull, envelops several active volcanoes. The size of Vatnajökull is impressive with the Ring Road skirting the edge of the glacier along the coastline from just east of Vik and continuing past Hof which was the furthest extent of our tour.

A closer view of a southern outlet glacier of Vatnajökull and the tallest peak Hvannadalshnúkur visible on the left with the glacier spreading across the flatter meadows below the mountain ridges.
The path of the outlet glacier from Vatnajökull as it spreads across the landscape below, an impressive thick wall of glacier.
A clear image of the passage of the glacier has carved through the mountain ridge with the peak of Hvannadalshnúkur obscured by low cloud in the background.
A smaller, glacial outlet carves a path through the basalt rock, the slow progression of the glacier and force required for the rock to be worn down or moved over time is incredibly impressive.

Myrdalsjokull, is the fourth largest glacier in Iceland and located further west toward Reykjavik than Vatnajökull but the outlet glacier, Sólheimajökull is popular for glacier walks and all-year tours with frequent monitoring of the nearby active Katla volcano located beneath the distant ice cap of Myrdalsjokull. The outlet glacier Sólheimajökull is easily accessible via sign-posted valley entrances off the main the Ring Road along the southern coastline with a 20 minute hike to a glacial lagoon.

The 20 minute hike to the Sólheimajökull glacier includes traversing the edge of the lagoon formed by glacial melt. Each year the size of the lagoon increases with warmer global weather influencing the temperature and extent of thawing and glacial melt each year. In Iceland, the constant volcanic activity means that the glaciers are often streaked or covered in volcanic ash and these are known as “dirty glaciers” due to their black streaked appearance from frequent volcanic eruptions. The lagoon is also formed from volcanic sand and large pinnacles of volcanic ash are common on the glacier surface.

Sólheimajökull glacier where it meets the lagoon is visibly streaked with volcanic ash revealing the older glacier layers of pale blue beneath.
A closer example of the height of the glacier itself as we hiked across the front edge and the volcanic ash that covers the surface of the glacier.
An example of a large cavernous opening in the glacier used by experienced climbers for tours. A large mound of volcanic ash is obvious in the foreground.
A narrow crevices visible while walking across the glacier surface also shows how freely melt water flows through the glacier and the entire structure is constantly changing form.
This stretch of the Myrdalsjokull continues another 22km toward the pole. In the near distance, a large pinnacle of volcanic ash with the uneven glacial surface covered in ash typical of the “dirty” glaciers.
The expanse of the glacier continues toward the basalt mountain ridges but the passage the glacier has carved through the surrounding rock is impressive.
A good view of the observable layers in the glacier with the alternating ash deposits and glacial layers
Contrast between the surrounding mountain ridges of the valley and the glacier outlet as it progresses through the landscape
The surrounding mountain ridges have numerous waterfalls which empty into the outlet glacier, the larger expanse of Myrdalsjokull also extends across many of the surrounding mountains behind where we were hiking
View from the surface of Sólheimajökull glacier tracing a narrow crevices extending back toward the ice cap of Myrdalsjokull
As we headed back from the hike, it began to rain. The rain began to quickly melt the glacier carving these flowing tunnels into the surface of the ice we were walking across.

The final view looking back to Myrdalsjokull as the weather closed around the glacier and lagoon, rain and light snow obscuring much of the way back we had come.

A short video on Solheimjoskull glacier showIng some of the surrounding landscape filmed despite the incredible strength of the erratic wind across the glacier threatening to knock me down if not for the crampons holding fast in the ice.

2 thoughts on “Iceland: Volcanoes and Glaciers”

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s