All You Need to Know About Glaciers in Iceland
Updated: Apr 20
Glaciers in Iceland cover about 11% of the country’s area and are a central part of how Iceland has developed as a nation. You will find many different types of glaciers in Iceland, even a glacier that isn’t a glacier anymore.
Glaciers are amazing natural wonders that have been around us humans for as long as we can remember. Glaciers in Iceland are central to the country’s identity as the Land of Fire and Ice. We can hike on them, drink their meltwater, and even go inside them! But what exactly are glaciers? Read on to find out.
What is a Glacier?
The definition of a glacier is a massive body of ice that stays frozen throughout the year, even if they do partly melt in the summer. One interesting thing about glaciers in Iceland (and glaciers in general) is that they are actually moving, like very slow and cold rivers.
The weight of a glacier on top of a mountain is quite destructive. You can see how ancient glaciers in Iceland have left their marks on many mountains in Iceland. Many mountains in Iceland have valleys that have been carved out by the slow-moving glaciers from the last ice age.
As glaciers in Iceland move forward, they break off pieces of the mountain underneath them. They then transport those rocks away via the glacier rivers that are found at the bottom of most glaciers. Many of these rivers later create one of the 10 nature highlights of Iceland: glacier caves that we can explore in the winter.
Types of Glaciers
A glacier will always be a thick sheet of ice. However, depending on how it looks and behaves, it will be sorted into a sub-glacial category. These categories are:
Ice sheets – unconstrained glaciers covering more than 50,000 square kilometers.
Ice caps – unconstrained glaciers covering less than 50,000 square kilometers.
Ice domes – Literally a dome of ice on top of an ice sheet or ice cap.
Ice streams – fast-moving, unconstrained ice bodies that drain the main body of ice. Can be hundreds of kilometers long and relatively flat with a thickness of “only” up to 2 kilometers.
Ice fields – like an ice cap, but it is constrained to the mountains, hills, or valleys around it.
Outlet glaciers – like an ice stream but constrained on the sides by bedrock.
Valley glaciers – a body of ice that drains the main body of ice into a valley that is constrained by exposed bedrock on most sides.
Piedmont glaciers – these are the results of valley glaciers spilling out on relatively flat plains.
Cirque glaciers – glaciers that are formed in indentations of mountains, like the craters from a volcano.
How and Why Were They Formed?
Surprisingly, many glaciers in Iceland are remnants of the last ice age, which covered the Northern Hemisphere 10,000 years ago.
Glaciers are typically formed in areas where temperatures remain below freezing. And where there is enough precipitation, of course. This means that the area gets a lot of snow that never melts away, which over time means that many layers of snow get stacked on top of each other.
The lower layers will be compressed by the weight of the upper layers. That will eventually start to form an extremely dense and beautiful sheet of ice that becomes the basis for the glacier. The longer this area stays permanently below zero, the larger the glacier is going to become.
That also means that when the area gets warmer, the glacier slowly starts to melt. This is generally referred to as the glacier retreating or receding. This is a regular occurrence for the Iceland glaciers in the summer, but it becomes a problem when the winter isn’t long or cold enough for it to recover.
In the glaciers in Iceland, we can see this in many places, like Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon has been formed in the place of an old outlet glacier from Vatnajökull. Here you can see and touch an Iceland Iceberg in a large lagoon.
How Many Glaciers are There in Iceland?
The short answer is that there are roughly 269 named glaciers in Iceland. This doesn’t mean that there are 269 separate ice bodies on the island, since some of them are connected to each other. Many of them are outlet glaciers that are connected to an ice cap or an ice field.
A lot of glaciers in Iceland are connected to the largest glacier in Europe: Vatnajökull. This regent of the glaciers in Iceland has roughly 30 outlet glaciers connected to it, which are often called “glacial tongues”. All in all, this massive body of ice is almost 8,000 square kilometers in size. Tindfjallajökull is the smallest one with a shy 19 square kilometers.
Even though you can’t reasonably expect to visit all these glaciers, you should make space for some of them on your Iceland road trip bucket list.
Which Glacier Types are There in Iceland?
You will find a large variety of glaciers in Iceland, which is partly due to the ever-changing geology of the island.
The big glaciers in Iceland are the ice caps, tightly followed by the Ice fields. There are five glaciers in Iceland that are classified as ice caps today:
Iceland has an abundance of mountains and valleys, so it’s no surprise to anyone that there are more than a few valley glaciers in Iceland:
Imagine tipping a bowl of yogurt on a table. That blob that comes out and creates a nice semi-circular shape on the table is an accurate representation of how a piedmont glacier would look as it “spills out” on a large plain surface. Some piedmont glaciers in Iceland include:
Just like ice caps, ice fields are incredibly large and are often the main body of ice. The difference is that they are constricted by the surrounding area and are often made up of a series of valley glaciers. The most prominent ice field in Iceland is Langjökull, which is a favorite among Iceland glacier guides.
How are Glaciers in Iceland Evolving?
Global climate change is the main reason for the impact on glaciers globally. In Iceland specifically, geological factors can also have a significant impact. Regardless of their evolution, touring a glacier is one of the best things to do in Iceland in the winter.
Global Climate Change
All glaciers in Iceland are shrinking in size and are predicted to be completely gone within the next 200 years if nothing changes. Some research suggests that the glaciers in Iceland are declining in size, with 40 square kilometers per year. Other research implies that there will be a short period of recovery for the glaciers as the earth moves into a cold period.
Regardless of what is going to happen, the current, measurable state of the glaciers in Iceland is that they are slowly melting away. This gives rise to more glacier lagoons, like Fjallsarlon in Iceland at the foot of the outlet glacier Fallsjökull which is a part of Vatnajökull.
Only one of the glaciers in Iceland has lost its status as a glacier after it completely melted away in 2014. Okjökull has been renamed “Ok” (or Mount Ok in proper English). It has thus officially been demoted from glacier to mountain by removing the suffix “jökull” which means “glacier” in Icelandic.
The glaciers in Iceland are also under constant barrage from continuous geological activity. Sitting on top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland has an abundance of rumbles from when the tectonic plates are moving. Apart from earthquakes, glaciers in Iceland are also subjected to the many volcanoes on the island. The land of fire and ice stays true to its name as we find many volcanoes being buried underneath thick ice caps.
When a volcano under any of the glaciers in Iceland erupts, the heat from the magma and lava will quickly melt massive amounts of ice. It then creates something called glacial floods, or “jökulhlaup” (glacier run) as they’re called in Icelandic. These floods can be incredibly damaging to nearby settlements but are often anticipated, so people can take the necessary precautions.
Which are the Best Glaciers in Iceland?
If you ask us, all glaciers are the best glaciers in Iceland. However, different glaciers can be best for different reasons, so we decided to compile a short list of glaciers in Iceland and why they are the best:
Vatnajökull is the biggest glacier in Iceland. And it is, without a doubt, the best glacier in Iceland since it “contains” many of the other glaciers and is one of the 30 natural wonders of Iceland.
Snaefellsjökull is a glacier that carries an incredible amount of mysticism. It was the target for Jules Verne’s book “Journey to the Center of the Earth”.
Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull are close to each other and are both on top of incredibly active volcanoes. If you are looking for a thrill, this is where to hike: right on top of one of the most powerful forces on earth.
Svinafellsjökull is an outlet glacier from Vatnajökull and is one of the most popular glacier walks in Iceland. It offers some incredible views and amazing ice formations.
Langjökull is at the top for being one of the favorite areas for snowmobile exploration of a glacier.
Visiting Glaciers in Iceland
Getting around to all 269 glaciers in Iceland will be impossible. If you want to have a fighting chance of discovering as many as possible, you should rent a campervan in Iceland and hit the road.
If you are looking to maximize your experience, the best choice would be to get a 4x4 camper rental. This way, you can traverse the Icelandic highlands and get to see the glaciers that most visitors miss. You can also take glacier trips in Iceland if you want to get that extra special experience. Your adventure, your choice.