Formed thousands of years ago, Vatnajökull is by far the largest glacier in Iceland and the largest glacier mass in all of Europe. It covers an area of roughly 8,000 qs km (5,500 sq miles) and is almost 1000m thick at its deepest point, with an average thickness of 500m and a total ice volume of 3300 cubic kilometers. The landscape under the glacier is an undulating plateau generally reaching 600-800 m above sea level with numerous valleys and canyons.
Volcanoes in Vatnajökull
There are also a number of large active volcanoes under the ice cap including Öræfajökull (2110 m), Bárðarbunga (2020 m) and Grímsvötn which has the highest eruption frequency of all the volcanoes in Iceland.
The latest eruption in Grímsvötn was in May 2011 and so far the strongest one for the last 100 years. It began with 12 km high plumes accompanied with multiple earthquakes and an ash cloud rising up to 20 km.
The 1996 eruption of Grímsvötn caused a massive jökulhlaup releasing 3000 billion cubic liters of water within a few hours, carrying with it giant icebergs down to the lowlands and over Highway 1, destroying the bridges along the way. Vatnajökull is also home to Iceland’s highest mountain, Hvannadalshnúkur on the southern edge of the White Giant. At 2110m (6,922 ft.) it is a popular climb for locals and visitors alike. It also provides the backdrop to our most popular trips.
The Icecap is Melting
Like so many other glaciers around the world, rising temperatures and reduced snowfall mean that this ancient icecap is melting. In one of the most recent reports from the Icelandic government's Committee on Climate Change, it warns that by the next century, Iceland's glaciers will no longer exist. Vatnajökull is estimated to be melting at a rate of one meter per year and many of its outlet glaciers are melting at an even higher rate. The continued climate change could quicken its fate. Iceland’s location may make it a more ideal place to adjust to a warming climate, however the people here are conscious of the dramatic effects of global warming.
Vatnajökull Glacier Tongues
Vatnajökull has several glacier tongues or outlet glaciers including Falljökull, Svínafellsjökull and Virkisjökull. Glacier Guides operates glacier hiking and ice climbing tours on these outlet glaciers. The British Geological survey has been monitoring Virkisjökull and Falljökull since 2009 when Glacier Guides began operations here. You can read about their findings and follow their studies here.
Walking on Vatnajökull
It is amazing to experience the power of nature when you find yourself embraced by this giant ice mass. Feeling its energy and infinite strength as an eroding force makes you feel humble as never before. Getting to know Vatnajökull up close is a truly unique experience that everyone should enjoy. Its brittle surface erases your footsteps in one day so your path never leaves a scar... now that's the way to travel.
For more information about the largest National Park in Europe, visit Vatnajökull National Parks official website, which provides helpful information including hiking routes in the Skaftafell area.