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Visitors can take guided walking tours on Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe © Ollie Taylor, Shutterstock
Climb the vast glacier that covers the southeastern region of Iceland.
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. 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 – 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.
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. Feel free to explore, but put safety first. Pay particular attention to the weather conditions and bring the proper gear with you.