The Vatnajokull glacier is receding by about 150m every year at the moment. At Jokulsarlon the receding tongue has left a lake behind it and that lake is filled with icebergs. Yes, icebergs!
So we went on a salamander ride through the icebergs. Being big fans of The Mysterious Benedict Society books we were pretty thrilled by the salamander-ride itself, but that experience paled beside the complete awesomeness of being amongst icebergs. We learnt that the blue ice has been recently under water while the white, and less tightly packed ice, has been exposed to the air. As the ice melts and the bergs flip the blue pats are exposed to the air. We touched and tasted berg ice that is about 1500 years old.
The glacier itself is surrounded by a nimbus of reflected light even though it is currently a bit of a mucky colour. The surface of the glacier is covered with ash from the recent volcanic eruptions and this hasn’t yet been covered by snowfall. The bergs show strata of earlier eruptions with startling clarity – including a really thick band which we assume came form the eruption in the 1300s that dwarfed the Vesuvian eruption that swamped Pompeii and completely changed the face of Iceland.
After lunch we went on the second part of our glacier adventures – a walk on the Svinafellsjokull glacier. The first step was strapping on crampons and being issued with ice-axes; and then off we set over the glacier. The glacier was a wonderland of creases, crevasses, holes and bridges. Because of the eruption only a few months ago everything is coated in a layer of ash so it wasn’t a classic white walk but it was amazing nonetheless.
At first we thought the walk was relatively tame. But after a bit of training in using our crampons – the duck walk, the old lady walk and the ballerina glide – we got more adventurous. We walked over some very scary ice bridges and ravines with drops of 90m to the side. We saw holes, we saw caves, we saw cones of mud formed as the liquid in ice holes freezes upwards. It was absolutely amazing. And all to the accompanying crunch of the crampons biting into the ice. The only other sound was the occasional roar from under-ice rivers – not mild trickling sounds but serious, rushing roars.
The have a special word in Icelandic for ‘glacial melt flood’ and driving underneath the glacier you can see why. Huge boulder-strewn plains scoured flat by enormous force. The sheer power was really driven home to us as we crossed the black sand desert – a simply endless black plain scoured clean of everything by glacial floods. It was a bit sad to think though that only a few tens of years ago the plain met the edge of the glacier and now the glacier sits a few kilometres back. It is completely sobering to realise that the glaciers are melting at such a rate that the ground is actually rising beneath them as it is relieved of the enormous weight of ice pressing down on it.
But those are worries for another day. We had an absolutely wonderful, exciting time today. As we proceeded back to the edge of the glacier, Declan said “We can’t stop travelling at the end of the year – there are too many things like this to do in the world!”