Inside the Iceberg at Jökulsárlón

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Jökulsárlón literally “glacial river lagoon” is a large glacial lake in southern part of Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland. Situated at the head of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, it developed into a lake after the glacier started receding from the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. The lake has grown since then at varying rates because of melting of the glaciers. It is now 1.5 kilometers away from the ocean’s edge and covers an area of about 18 km2. In 2009 it was reported to be the deepest lake in Iceland, at over 284 meters, as glacial retreat extended its boundaries. The size of the lake has increased fourfold since the 1970s. It is considered as one of the natural wonders of Iceland.

The lake can be seen from Route 1 between Höfn and Skaftafell. It appears as “a ghostly procession of luminous blue icebergs”.

Jökulsárlón has been a setting for four Hollywood movies: A View to a Kill, Die Another Day, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and Batman Begins, as well as the reality TV series The Amazing Race.

The tongue of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier is a major attraction for tourists.

The first settlers arrived in Iceland around AD 870, when the edge of the tongue of Breiðamerkurjökull glacier was about 20 kilometers further north of its present location. During the Little Ice Age between 1600 and 1900, with lower temperatures prevailing in these latitudes, the glacier had grown by up to about 1 kilometers from the coast at Jokulsá River, by about 1890. When the temperatures rose between 1920 and 1965, the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier tongue rapidly retreated, continually creating icebergs of varying size, thus creating a lagoon in its wake around 1934–35. The lake is over 200 meters deep where the glacier snout originally existed. Glacial moraines became exposed on both sides of the lake. In 1975, the lake was about 8 km2 in area and now it reportedly stands at 18 km2 at the edge of the glacier tongue.

The Jökulsárlón lake provides outstanding views of the ice cap, a vast dome of ice that rises to a height of 910 meters. It spills to the lagoon 19 kilometers away from the jagged glacier hill to the edge of the water line. The lake developed only about 60 years ago, when the entire area was less than 30 meters of glacier, which was only 230 meters from the Atlantic Ocean, and 3.2 kilometers away from Vatnajökull. Vatnajökull was at the shore line of the ocean and dropped icebergs into the ocean. However, it started drifting inland rapidly every year, leaving deep gorges en route, which got filled with melted water and large chunks of ice. These icebergs gather at the mouth of the lake’s shallow exit, melt down into smaller ice blocks, and roll out into the sea. In summer, icebergs melt and roll down the channel into the sea. The lake does not freeze in winter. Ice water and soil make a unique ecological phenomenon. Jökulsárlón Lake, the “glacier lake”, is now reported to have doubled in size in the recent 15-year period. The huge blocks of ice that calve from the edge of Vatnajökull are about 30 meters high, which fills the lagoon stocked with icebergs. Some icebergs appear naturally sculpted on account volcanic ash from ancient eruptions that partly covers them.

Given the current retreat rate of Vatnajökull, likely a deep fjord will develop where Jökulsárlón is now. This retreat is also posing a threat to the National Highway Route 1 of Iceland. The lagoon is 75 kilometers to the west of Höfn town and 60 kilometers east of Skaftafell. It is accessible by the ring road, Route 1, that goes across the lake, and where parking facilities have been provided for visitors. It is also known as the “tourist conveyor belt”. Isolated large blocks of icebergs can be seen on the black sand beach, sometimes called “diamond beach” because of ice chunks scattered on the sand.