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A day spent in the Vatnajökull National Park

Cold, wet and windy, but stunning nature!

storm 8 °C
View Northern Lights Explorer - Iceland 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

We weren't woken in the night for the light,s so presumably there weren't any – although I am not entirely convinced someone in the hotel is actually monitoring the night sky...

The weather this morning was atrocious. Not so much cold (in fact it was 8C), but wet and extremely windy (19 metres per second!), and as the day went on and we all got wetter and wetter, with the scenery obscured by low clouds (“behind that mist is such-and-such glacier...”), the faces of the passengers became more and more weary. We do seem to have more than our few share of miserable buggers in the group though!)

The first stop was to look at some glacier icebergs in a lake in the dark in the rain... whoopee!


The next stop was somewhat better, but it was still raining and rather too dark to take decent pictures at the beautiful black pebble beach full of smaller clear icebergs and a dead seal.


At over 248 metres, Jökulsárlón (literally "glacial river lagoon") is a large glacial lagoon filled with floating icebergs and it is the deepest lagoon in Iceland. The scenery here was well worth getting soaked to the skin and pretty cold in the process for. We even saw the very rare Little Auk – Rocky-Rock got very excited as it was his very first sighting.

Since the 9th century, the glacier is believed to have moved nearly 20 kms from its original position further north. Initially, during what is often referred to as 'The Little Ice Age' (when the climate cooled considerably from 1200 until 1900), the glacier advanced with the erosion of its eastern part and the sediment being carried forward by the river Jökulsá. Then, with climate change and all that, the glacier retreated rapidly from 1920 until 1965, leaving a lagoon up to 190m deep where the glacier snout had been, exposing large distances of moraines on either side of the lagoon. In the 23 years from 1975 to 1998, the lagoon almost doubled in size, from 8km² to 15km². The lagoon is constantly furnished with floating iceberg from the calving glacier whose edges are ca 30m high.


If you are interested, this link gives an explanation of the various terms used to describe glaciers: http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2004/1216/glaciertypes/glaciertypes.html

This is another location used as a setting for scenes in various blockbusters: Tomb Raider, Batman Begins, A View to Kill and Die Another Day. It is not surprising why famous directors would choose this amazing location as a backdrop! This extremely picturesque glacial lagoon at the southern end of the Vatnajökull glacier is regarded as one of Iceland's greatest natural wonders.


Hofskirkja - Turf church at Hof
Hofskirkja is the last turf church in Iceland built in the old style. Constructed in 1884 by the carpenter Páll Pállson, with the lock and hinges of the church door made by Þorsteinn Gissurarson, who was a well-known blacksmith. The walls of the church are made from rocks and its roof is stone slabs covered in turf. The reredos in Hofskirkja Church was painted by the artist Ólafur Túbals.

Hof in Öræfi has been a ecclesiastical site for almost 700 years, and is first mentioned in a cartulary from 1343. The church is dedicated to saint Clement.


Bárðabunga eruption
At the Information Centre, we were shown a film about the volcanic eruption in 1996: On the 30th September, many small tremors were felt at the Bárðabunga volcano, and by 2nd October, a plume of ash was seen coming from the glacier. In the next few days, frequent implosions under the glacier ice in the crevasses caused the water in Grímsvötn Lake to rise by several metres. Even though it had been expected that a large glacier burst would follow the eruption, the speed of the flood took everyone by surprise when it finally occurred on the 5th of November. Only about 15 hours passed between the start of the flood until it reached its maximum level. 50,000 cubic metres per second of water travelled at up to 9 kms/hr, and on its way took out the Gigjukvis bridge on the main circular highway, effectively cutting off people living in Eastern Iceland. Within a few minutes, the bridge was turned into a heap of twisted metal. However, with true Icelandic efficiency, the bridge and highways was re-opened within three weeks.

The bridge before

The bridge after

Vatnajökull National Park
Vatnajökull is an alpine environment (we saw a few cute little ptarmigans running about) as well as Europe's largest glacier. With an area of about 12,000 km², it is the largest national park in Europe. Vatnajökull (meaning Glacier of Rivers) is the largest and most voluminous glacier in Iceland, covering more than 8 percent of the country, and Iceland´s highest peak at 2,100m, Hvannadalshnjukur is in the national park.


The average thickness of the ice is 400 m, and under the ice cap there are seven volcanoes (mostly active - gulp) including Grimsvotn, Iceland's most active since the Middle Ages, with eruptions in 1996, 1998 and 2004. The last eruption, in May 2011, caused the volcanic plume to reach as high as 20 kms into the atmosphere. During the last ice age, numerous volcanic eruptions occurred underneath Vatnajökull, creating many more subglacial eruptions. Also underneath the glacier is an ice cavern system several km long.


“Bright light, indescribable beauty, serenity. These words are often used by people to describe a near-death experience. And by people that we've taken to explore Europe's largest glacier. Heaven. Iceland. They're both a lot closer than you think.” So say the Vatnajökull website, although I am not sure the comparison to a near-death experience is a good selling point, especially when you are describing a visit to an active volcano.

Here are more movie references: The glacier was used as the setting for the opening sequence (set in Siberia) of the 1985 James Bond film A View to a Kill (in which Bond (played for the last time by Roger Moore) eliminated a host of armed villains before escaping in a submarine to Alaska), Die Another Day (where it was used for a BMW chase scene), Tomb Raider and Batman Begins - in addition to the reality-TV series Amazing Race. The glacier was used as a shooting location for the second season of the HBO fantasy TV series Game of Thrones, and Dettifoss (in the national park) was also the setting for the opening scenes of the 2012 film Prometheus.


Posted by Grete Howard 09:37 Archived in Iceland

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