To talk about the highlights of 2020 in Iceland, or anywhere for that matter, is a strange feeling. Especially when the majority of our thoughts have centred around a global pandemic and political transitions. However, if there was ever a year to celebrate the good stuff, it’s 2020. And trust me, despite all that is going on, there are things to be thankful for this year here in Iceland.
My colleagues and I debated whether this type of post was even appropriate given the current mood. But, why not? There was certainly a lot to be grateful for here in Iceland. The Icelandic government handled the pandemic as best they could, protected many people from the disease, and doing their best to protect most from financial ruin. On a personal note, I have plenty to be thankful for. I got engaged this year, inside a newly discovered ice cave no less. So, in Iceland at least, we think that a Highlights of 2020 in Iceland post is just about appropriate. From newly discovered ice caves, to a changing phase in the Northern Lights strength, to an increased onus on environmental protection, there’s plenty to be thankful for. Read on to see why we think this post is absolutely necessary to showcase at the moment.
Before I continue I just want to acknowledge that 2020 has been a game changer. That’s for sure. There were plenty of challenges. In fact, if I was in a more pessimistic mood I would write a much larger post on the challenges of 2020. Our little company, Hidden Iceland, has suffered and struggled. Along with virtually every travel related company in Iceland (and much of the world!), there were times when we had to wonder whether we’d get through it all. Thanks to the handling of the pandemic by the Icelandic government we are cautiously optimistic for 2021. Especially with a vaccination program now beginning within Iceland.
But this post is not about survival, it’s about celebration. In my opinion, there are more than enough blogs about holding on and dreaming of the future at the moment. So hopefully this post will acknowledge these challenges but provide a silver lining of sorts too. If you are looking for a more specific COVID-19 post maybe check out our Understanding Iceland’s Current COVID-19 Restrictions post or check out the Iceland government’s COVID-19 website.
Without further ado. Here is a short list of Hidden Iceland’s Highlights of 2020 in Iceland. We hope you enjoy.
Highlights of 2020 in Iceland
The below list is in no particular order and of course only covers a few of my personal favourites. If you have any additions you think are worthy of mention, feel free to get in touch or comment at the bottom.
The Sapphire Ice Cave Survived!
If you have read any of our blog posts on the fragility of blue ice caves in Iceland you’ll be acutely aware that it is very rare indeed for the same ice cave to be used from one year to the next. Especially with the increased melting rate that we’re seeing due to climate change. On the plus side, it means that each ice cave season (November to March) is unique for the visitor. And since every ice cave is never the same as the last it gives variety to our guides too.
However, since the winter ice caves melt and collapse in the warm spring and summer months each year, it leaves a big question mark over what we will find the following winter. To date, the local ice cave explorers, Local Guide of Vatnajökull that we partner with have managed to find a new and impressive ice cave every year that we operate. They can range from small enclosed blue holes to sweeping archway cathedrals to snake like tunnels. One thing is for sure, they are always blue and always beautiful. The ‘problem’ if you want to call it that, is that the location often changes too, meaning our future ice cave tours have to be very quickly amended depending on the difficulty to get to them and the time it takes.
For the 2019/20 winter season we were very fortunate to take our customers to the Sapphire Ice Cave (image above). It was massive and blue, but pivotally it was easy to get to as well. A 30-40 minute walk on relatively flat ground. This meant we could provide an ice cave option to the majority of our customers, even the less adventurous ones. It also gave us time to see a few other impressive spots during the limited daylight hours like the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and Diamond Beach.
After the winter season ended and summer progressed in 2020, we held our breath for what new ice cave we would have for the upcoming season. None of us would have believed we would get the same cave 2 years in a row. For example, our 2018/19 cave was a nearly 2 hour walk over uneven ice much further along the glacier. And our 2017/18 ice cave was on a completely different glacier and required a lot of maintenance to access. Back in 2016/17 the ice cave was quite accessible but really quite small.
But thankfully, and why the Sapphire Ice Cave made it onto the Highlights of 2020 in Iceland, it returned for this winter (2020/2021). It did however, completely transform over the summer. After all, this ice cave was not immune to the melting and collapsing that I mentioned before. But, thanks to the way it was formed (sub-glacial water flow) the remains of last years ice cave gave rise to an even bigger ice cave, just 100 metres further back.
Below you can see the ‘new’ Sapphire ice cave. It’s hard to even compare. They look completely different in my opinion, aside from the colour of course. So we got managed to get the variety like always and the beauty like always, but didn’t have to search out new locations for the year ahead. Trust me, this is a highlight for the guides who work tirelessly to explore and maintain the caves.
The Northern Lights Enter A New Stronger Cycle
All you need to spot the Northern Lights in Iceland are clear skies and darkness. You may have heard that old adage before? And it is a true statement. With a tiny population and little infrastructure, you don’t have to travel far to get an unencumbered sky for your nightly hunt. Sure, the weather may stop you from getting that all important picture but it’s safe to say that if you’re willing to stay in Iceland long enough, you’ll eventually see a great display. We recommend giving yourself at least a week in Iceland to maximise your chances. The 2019/20 winter season was a phenomenal year for our Northern Lights tours. In fact, our newly launched Golden Circle with Northern Lights Add On was a particular hit with our customers.
But what if I told you that, as of winter 2020, the Sun is now entering a new, more active, cycle. A cycle that for all intents and purposes means stronger and more frequent Northern Lights. Sounds good to me.
So what does that mean?
Basically, the sun runs through an 11 year solar cycle like clock work. 11 years of reducing activity, then 11 years of increasing activity. And 2019/20 was the Earth’s solar minimum i.e. lowest level of solar activity, meaning less likely to see strong Northern Lights. And yet, we had an incredible winter with lots of great pictures to prove it (see above).
So when I tell you that as of pretty much now, the strength of the Northern Lights is going to increase (from now until around 2026) then you can see why this is a cause for celebration and why I’ve added it to the Highlights of 2020 in Iceland. It’s barely the middle of winter in 2020 and we’ve already had some truly incredible nights, including on Christmas Eve!
Environmental Protection and Climate Action Take Precedence
Iceland has always cared very deeply for their limited resources. Whether that’s the physical landscape or the utilisation of their renewable energy options (geothermal & hydro). So to add this to the Highlights of 2020 in Iceland list may seem a bit strange. However, the new actions being taken in Iceland are something to celebrate anew.
What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest….stand up!
This is an often heard joke as Iceland (until recently) had very little trees anywhere in the country. In fact, less than 3% of the country is covered in trees to date. For many centuries, the people of Iceland assumed this was because of the climate and the soil. However, the more historians and geologists learn about Iceland the more they are realising that Iceland was once dense with vegetation. Some are suggesting there was as much as 30% of the land covered in trees before settlement.
These days, the Icelandic government, committed to fighting climate change and environmental degradation, are on a mission to reforest Iceland. More trees were planted this year than any other year, despite all the restrictions. Estimated at more than 4 million! That’s not bad for a tiny nation with barely 350,000 people. In comparison, 2019 saw just under 4 million trees planted and 2018 had less than 3 million. Even some of our Hidden Iceland guides got in on the action in the late summer. At this rate, Iceland’s forests will become a part of the landscape once more. Most people are aware of tree’s ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere but here in Iceland they take on multiple roles. They reduce soil erosion and notably catch volcanic ash from being blown onto farms and over crops. If you’ve been in Iceland during an ‘ash storm’ on a windy day you will understand how meaningful it is to get a physical barrier like trees.
Secondly, the Vatnajökull National Park, which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019, is now fighting against over-tourism and the effects it has on the local environment. As of October 2020, numbers of tourists that can enter ice caves and walk on glaciers will be capped with quotas assigned to companies. There’s also a call for more legitimate qualifications and environmental policies for the companies operating in the area. Hidden Iceland, already committed to leaving each place untouched, gained Vakinn Accreditation in December 2020 to further improve our operational efficiency. These is leading to many other companies are now following suit, which can only be positive for all operators and the industry.
And finally, Iceland has furthered its commitment to achieving Climate neutrality by 2040 (40% by 2030). This is one of the most ambitious targets of any developed nation and will far exceed the binding commitment set out in the Paris Agreement in 2015. Some of these actions include cutting edge carbon capture, increased domestic fruit and vegetable growth using geothermal energy, electrification of the transport industry and of course, more trees.
To End The Year
We hope you enjoyed some our favourite parts of 2020 in this Highlights of Iceland in 2020 post. There are of course far more things that can be added. In this post I just wanted to focus and elaborate on some of my favourites. Of course we could spend a long time talking about the decisive action taken by the government to keep COVID-19 cases down and the advent of the vaccine making its way to Iceland. We could even talk about how lovely it was to go to the normally crowded spots in the country with very little other tourists around. But, is that really what you want to be reading about…again? I thought not.
If you can think of anything else that was new to 2020 that is worth a mention feel free to mention it below.
Hi, I’m Ryan Connolly; Co-Founder and Marketing Manager of Hidden Iceland.
I’ve guided in multiple countries around the world and stepped foot on all 7 continents. My passion for the outdoors, science, nature, glaciers and volcanoes has led me to study and write about Iceland. I have been interviewed in Forbes, Conde Nast Traveller and Travel Pulse on various subjects.