While in Reykjavik recently, we had the incredible opportunity to visit Langjökull, the second-largest of Iceland’s four glaciers.
We’d passed the glacier on several other tours, and that was one of the most surreal experiences. You’re looking out the window at the mountains and the vast sky above, when something twinges in your brain and you realize that white sky you’re looking at isn’t sky at all.
Like an optical illusion, the image twists and it slowly becomes apparent that the snow-white bit behind the mountains is land.
As it was an unbelievably mild December—any Icelander you ask about the weather will point out the obvious: global warming—the chance of seeing a real, nature-made ice cave was small. So we opted instead for the man-made ice cave created by the tour company Into the Glacier.
While it sounded way less cool than a natural ice cave, it turned out that this man-made cave provides an unprecedented look into the life of an ice cap!
The journey from Reykjavik was long, but we started to get excited when we reached Húsafell, where we met the staff and they outfitted us with snowsuits and thick shoe coverings. (It felt like wearing two pairs of shoes.)
From there, a bus took us to the monster truck that would transport us to the glacier. It was a James Bond-like experience just to climb onto one of these things.
The monster truck then transported us up into the mountains, at which point a crow started to follow the truck. The tour guide (who told us to call her “Goody” since we couldn’t pronounce her name) explained that a pair of crows were so used to the trucks that they often followed them.
We stopped at base camp for one last bathroom break, and Goody explained how the glacier has its own climate. I didn’t really understand what she meant until we all climbed back on the monster truck and headed on. The ground switched from dark brown to snow-white instantaneously, and within minutes, it was snowing and the monster truck was buffeted by wind.
It was slow going across the glacier, and when we finally stopped and stepped outside, I felt like we were on National Geographic.
Visibility was low, and I couldn’t even see the entrance to the cave. When I did see it, I started to get a bit scared.
I was about to descend beneath 20-25 meters of pure ice.
Thankfully, Goody explained that the glacier was really quite safe. For example, during an earthquake, the glacier is the safest place to be, since it actually sits on top of the land and will move with it.
And so we descended.
The first stop was to outfit our shoes-within-shoes with spikes.
Then we were off!
Since there’s no way I can possibly explain this experience in full, I’ll go with the highlights:
1. The layers. The glacier is made up of layers upon layers of compacted snow and ice. And, like the rings of a tree, the layers are easily discernible from inside. This makes it easy to date the glacier.
On our trip, we got to see the thick line of dark gray along the cave walls that was made by a layer of ash settling on the glacier when Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in 2010. This was especially fun for me, because I was one of the thousands of people stranded in mainland Europe during the eruption in 2010! You can read about my experiences back then here and here.
Want to know the funniest part? While all air traffic of Europe came to a screeching halt, things went largely unchanged for Iceland, because Eyjafjallajökull is at the southern edge of the island, and the wind carried most of the ash to Europe.
2. Drinking from a glacier. Goody advised us to bring a water bottle, and I was one of the few who did. When we reached a small fissure in the glacier, beneath which ran a babbling stream, she took my water bottle and dipped it right in. I got to drink ice-cold water straight from a glacier! Take that, Ice Mountain!
3. The echo. The deeper we got into the glacier, the louder the echo. To demonstrate the effects, Goody sang us an Icelandic lullaby. It felt like a moment straight out of Lord of the Rings.
4. The fissures. Of course, ice breaks. We’ve all seen it crack. And it’s no different for an ice cap. Within the glacier, there are giant fissures—big enough for a truck to drive through. And the ice cave give us the opportunity to walk through them.
The ice cave has to be constantly maintained, because snow keeps covering the entrance. Workers continually have to dig it out, which means the entrance tunnel is far longer than it originally was.
Even with maintenance, the guides say the cave will be gone within 10 years.
And the glacier itself? Global warming is taking its toll, and Langjökull is expected to be gone in about 100 years.
It’s a sad state of affairs, as smaller glaciers act as harbingers or early indicators of changes to come. If you’d like to read more about that, check out this site that explains it much better than I can.
Into the Glacier works to offset the carbon footprint of their operations by planting 5,000 trees a year. In fact, the entire country is incredibly sustainable and forward-thinking. It’s inspiring, and I hope the rest of the world will take note.