Jökursarlón Lagoon, Vatnajökull Glacier, Iceland

The Faltering of Europe's King Glacier

cold rest
It focuses on a floating ice bank in the Jökursarlón lagoon, off the Vatnajökull glacier.
mini icebergs
Freshly released ice patches from the Vatnajökull glacier in the Jökursarlón lagoon.
on Icelandic land
Visitors walk along the shore of the Jökursarlón lagoon.
the possible landing
Seabirds rest on an ice shelf in the Jökursarlón lagoon.
pure ice
Guide Karl Gudmunsson displays an ice fragment from the Jökursarlón lagoon.
Boreal solemnity
Visitors to the Jökursarlón lagoon pose for a group photo.
Zodiac with passengers approaching Vatnajökull glacier.
One of the whimsical icebergs in the Jökursarlón lagoon.
Zodiac passengers admire an iceberg subject to the forces of Vatnajökull, permanent from erosion.
watching the ice pass
Moment of contemplation on the edge of the Jökursarlón lagoon.
Visitors to the Jökursarlón lagoon walk along a rocky shore.
Only in Greenland and Antarctica are glaciers comparable to Vatnajökull, the supreme glacier of the old continent. And yet, even this colossus that gives more meaning to the term ice land is surrendering to the relentless siege of global warming.

The road that descends from Höfn to Iceland's south coast no longer winds along the deep fjords of the east as it once did.

The narrow spaces between the frigid North Atlantic sea and the foothills of the slopes widen and give way to the first large alluvial surfaces, endless black sands, mottled by random colonies of pebbles that, by the time of June, the flows created by summer ice take over of assault.

We passed more farms set against the slopes and, here and there, irrigated by gentle waterfalls. Again, over steep mountains with verdant bases and snow-capped peaks.

We advance through these boreal domains, still and always marveling at the imposing landscape, when, suddenly, we notice the first fronts of ice rivers that shyly insinuate themselves between narrow valleys.

At the level of the coastal road, the scenery returns to the predominant green, but there is little doubt that the majestic Vatnajökull is hidden behind the mountain range.

Visitors on the shore of the Jökursarlón lagoon, Iceland

Visitors walk along the shore of the Jökursarlón lagoon.

Jökursarlón and Host Karl Gudmundsson

From then on, the vision repeats itself a few times, until we reach the vicinity of the Jökursarlón lagoon, where the glacier loses its timidity and approaches the sea that probes with dissident icebergs that float with the tide and currents.

Some, fearless, even cross the adjoining straits and, with the ebb of low tide, venture into the great North Atlantic. Others remain solidary in a vast community of patches of blue ice.

Iceberg da One of the whimsical shaped icebergs in the Jökursarlón lagoon, Iceland

One of the whimsical icebergs in the Jökursarlón lagoon.

In the vicinity of the lagoon, Karl Gudmundsson welcomes us in the trailer used by the company that serves as a counter and changing room. As we prepare for the zodiac inflatable boat excursion in Jökursarlón, we go into playful mode with the host and guide.

In Iceland's winter and less touristy season, Karl is a fisherman. It works from the Westman Islands, off the center of the south coast. Our comment on the similarities of the dialects inspires him to vent curious: “our Icelandic, if it resembles any other language, it will be Norwegian and Danish, but it is not that close.

You know, I was once at a table with people from Norway, Sweden and Denmark and they got away with it perfectly. Only I didn't catch anything. It's funny because we have the same ancestors but we continued to use the more archaic forms.

In fact, that's a bit how they see us. To a Norwegian or a Dane, Icelanders are all farmers or fishermen. To me, to be honest, I'm glad they think we're like that!”

Between Icebergs to the southern front of the great Vatnajökull glacier

More passengers arrive. Karl tries to get them into the zodiac.

And the zodiac in water. We set sail at low speed to the heart of the lagoon, zigzagging between icebergs of all shapes and sizes.

Until we approach the glacier's vast front that we glimpse extending up the slope, we imagine that even close to its supreme heights, the icy hill of Hvannadalshnukur (2119 m), the highest in Iceland and its neighbor to the west, the Grimsvötn volcano which, in 2004, massively melted the ice and caused real river floods.

Zodiac with passengers, Vatnajökull glacier, Iceland

Zodiac with passengers approaching Vatnajökull glacier.

The Jökulsarlón lagoon that we plowed is less than a century old. It is fed by Breidamerkurjökull, one of the thirty tongues of the great Vatnajökull glacier, the supreme glacier on the European continent, with an incredible surface area of ​​around 8100km2, neither more nor less than 8% of the territory of Iceland.

Vatnajökull arises in the wettest part of Iceland, the southeast. Its southern slope receives annual rainfall exceeding 4000 liters per square meter.

Only one other Icelandic glacier, Myrdallsjökull, receives more rainfall and releases more water into the ocean than the southern slope of Vatnajökull. In such a way that the Olfusa, Iceland's highest flowing river, would take upwards of two hundred years to carry all the water from Vatnajökull to the North Atlantic.

The northern slope of Vatnajökull is much drier. This difference explains the asymmetry of ice thickness: 800 meters on average in the south and only 500 meters in the north.

This also explains why the Vatnajökull oscillates to balance itself, being 17 meters above sea level in the south and only 500m in the north.

zodiac passengers

Zodiac passengers admire a block of ice from the Vatnajökull glacier, subject to the permanent forces of erosion.

fire under the ice

Even stranger: as with several other glaciers in Iceland, the Vatnajökull survives despite the existence of several active volcanoes below its glacier cap.

In 1996, one of them, Grimsvötn, gave rise to a massive torrent that flooded the alluvial plains to the south. In 2004, and 2011, this same volcano had considerable eruptions with plumes of smoke and ash that reached 20km in altitude and interrupted air traffic for several days.

Vatnajökull's Recess in Unthinkable Times

Until some time ago, the ice from Vatnajökull reached the sea. In the mid-70s, the colossus retreated.

Volatile arms of water that drained towards the ocean caused another violent flooding of the landscape. They forced the construction of a huge viaduct to complete the Ring Road that goes around Iceland in 1339km.

Seal in Jökursarlón lagoon, Iceland

It focuses on a floating ice bank in the Jökursarlón lagoon, off the Vatnajökull glacier.

Karl can barely remember when the glacier entered from the sea. Seals, these, were present in both sectors of the ecosystem. Karl spots a specimen dozing on a flat slab of ice.

Get as close as you can, enough that the onboard camera zooms can help photographers.

The animal is little or not bothered by the distant harassment. One or the other turns their heads in the direction of the boat and then returns to their original pose. Karl returns his sacred respect.

He picks up an almost transparent stone from the water and enlightens outsiders about its incredible purity and antiquity, often renewed, by the way.

Guide displays ice lagoon from Jökursarlón, Iceland

Guide Karl Gudmunsson displays an ice fragment from the Jökursarlón lagoon.

The great Vatnajökull has been retreating and, contrary to what you might think, volcanoes have little or nothing to do with this reality that worries the international community, Icelanders in general.

And, in particular, those of Höfn and other villages close to the Vatnajökull, which depend on the balance between the millenary volume of the glacier and that of the offshore sea.

Damage to the Old Icelandic Way of Life

In recent times, as temperatures in the Arctic rise at a faster rate than in any other part of the planet, not even the king of glaciers resists.

In the offshore North Atlantic, warming waters meant that only the most resilient fish species remained. This is, however, the least of the problems. The glacier has melted in such a way that the land has risen from the sea and it is increasingly difficult to move the deepest trawlers in and out of the port of Höfn.

Simultaneously, the extreme reduction in the volume and weight of the Vatnajökull has been causing the drainage of millenary fjords, the alteration of underground sediments and even damage to the city's canalization.

The damage is so serious that the Icelandic authorities have decided to secure a new port in Finnafjord, in an inhospitable setting on the east coast of the island. This, bearing in mind the future capitalization of international maritime traffic intensified by the melting of the Arctic ice cap and by the systematic navigation of commercial and even tourist vessels.

Sung Celebration of the Greatness of Vatnajökull

A group of Icelandic singers in fraternization visit that scene with the purpose of registering with the icebergs in the background. The photographer on duty has some work to do to align them in the ideal frame, as well as to catch the participants' attention at the same time. It finally achieves it.

Visitor group photo Jökursarlón lagoon, Iceland

Visitors to the Jökursarlón lagoon pose for a group photo.

Soon after, the entourage, all in dark suits, shares impromptu jokes. Reorganizes itself and offers to foreigners present there an unforgettable choir recital. As suddenly as they had appeared at those stops, they return to the bus and, like us, hit the road.

There is so much more to discover in southern Iceland and around its largest glacier. The vast Skaftafell National Park is the most famous in the country and provides many other stunning scenery along the glacier's southern front, which is over 100km.

If it's not the ice, it's the thaw. Vatnajökull's frigid water feeds countless mountain rivers with adventurous paths.

We leave the car in an almost empty parking lot and overcome a steep trail that follows the flow of one of these streams. A kilometer later, we end up in a rocky dead end and see the stream crashing down an improbable cliff.

There flows one of the most eccentric waterfalls on the island, Svartifoss, surrounded by hexagonal columns of basalt formed by lava flows that have cooled very slowly but now collapse without warning and all too often, which is why the authorities have limited the approach to the black walls.

We return to the car and the Ring Road. Gradually, Vatnajökull is left behind. The waterfalls it feeds, these, continue to plunge from waterlogged precipices, for many more kilometers.

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