Vatnajökull - A view from our expert author

Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, Vatnajökull, Iceland by David Sam, VisitSouthIceland, The otherworldly black, white and blue landscape of Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon alongside Vatnajökull © David Sam, VisitSouthIceland,

Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Europe and the third largest in the world (after the ice caps in Antarctica and Greenland). The glacier’s entire surface area is 8,300km² (3,400 square miles), which covers roughly 8% of the country (about the size of Puerto Rico). The ice averages 500m thickness, but is more than 1,000m deep in some places. Scientists guess the volume of the ice to be around 3,300km³, which is a greater volume than Africa’s Lake Victoria. The glacier is so massive that each of the many tongues have their own names and are referred to as separate glaciers. Unlike other glaciers that are formed by accumulated and firmly packed snow, Vatnajökull is a remaining piece of the last ice age – part of the polar ice cap that formed Iceland’s coasts and terrain.

Vatnajökull embodies all the extremes of Iceland – the highest elevation, the coldest temperatures, the biggest volcanic eruptions, the highest precipitation, and fastest winds – it is one of the most exotic things foreigners can experience in Iceland.

The name ‘Vatnajökull’ means either ‘lake’ or ‘water glacier’ – so many of the lakes and rivers you encounter in Iceland all originate from this one gigantic hunk of ice, but there are also a number of lakes beneath the ice, formed by the heat that wells up from the seven active volcanoes under the glacier. The most active is the fissure system near Mt Grímsfjall (1,719m) at Grímsvötn, the same name given to the many under-ice lakes that fill the calderas from previous eruptions. This strange phenomenon is truly the ‘fire and ice’ of travel-brochure headlines: regular bursts of magma from beneath several heated lakes beneath an even thicker layer of ice. The situation is quite unique and causes some amazing catastrophic events, like the jökulhlaup. Mt Barðarbunga (2,009m) is Iceland’s second-highest mountain and another impressive volcano fissure that holds the world record for maximum lava flow in one eruption. Mt Kverkfjöll (1,929m) in the north shows the most visible signs of activity, with steam pouring up out of the ice. Iceland’s tallest mountain, Mt Hvannadalshnjúkur (2,110m), lies beneath the southernmost section of the glacier (Oræfajökull) but has not erupted for almost 300 years. It is a classic ‘cone’ strato-volcano and is considered Iceland’s most ‘violent’ volcano, despite its long era of peace and quiet. 

Vatnajökull embodies all the extremes of Iceland – the highest elevation, the coldest temperatures, the biggest volcanic eruptions, the highest precipitation, and fastest winds. It is one of the most exotic things foreigners can experience in Iceland – there’s something about driving along a ribbon of highway with giant licks of ice spilling down towards you. Up close, Vatnajökull can show itself as a snowy field of white, or expose all the gorgeous colours and strange shapes of compressed ice. Also, the view from the top – over the ocean or the mountainous interior – is superb.   

Vatnajökull glacier, Iceland by Ollie Taylor, ShutterstockVisitors can take guided wallking tours on Vatnajökull glacier, the largest glacier in Europe © Ollie Taylor, Shutterstock

Nobody can say who the first people to cross the glacier were, since the early Icelanders were known to have scoured every last bit of their country. The first recorded north–south crossing was in 1875 by Icelandic guide Páll Pálsson and the Scottish explorer W L Watts. This was followed by the 1932 ‘Cambridge Expedition’ in which a few English students made a traverse journey across and back in just five days. Since then, the glacier has attracted the attention of several masochists: in 2004, explorer Cameron Smith completed the first solo east–west crossing in winter.

Of all the glaciers in Iceland, Vatnajökull is receding the fastest – every summer, locals can point to where the ice reached in the previous year. Pushing aside the uneasy jokes about global warming, there is a real urgency to visit – evident in the recent jump in European tourists who come specifically to see the ice.  

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