Glaciers all over the world are retreating, but it’s not too late! In fact, there are few places left on earth where we can still hike on our planet’s depleting ice stock. Iceland remains one of these places. So many of these icy frontiers have been lost to the higher melting rates and become impossible to reach for the normal traveller. These days, many are only accessible for accomplished mountaineers, or those willing to pay top dollar for a Helicopter flight.
However, Iceland, in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, is one of the last remaining places where glaciers can still be explored by tourists. Iceland has a unique combination of majesty and accessibility that makes it one of the best destinations in the world for Glacier Hikes. So, when we say ‘while stocks last’ we mean it quite literally. After all, Iceland isn’t immune to the rising temperatures either.
If you have already been inspired to jump on a plane and want to make your way to Iceland (if you are reading this post-COVID-19 lock down) you can check out our glacier related tours that enjoy a little adventure and some popular sights along the way. If you want to learn more about these ever changing ice giants, read on!
Why are glaciers melting so fast?
Glaciology is a complex beast. The truth is, there are a number of factors that have caused our glaciers to ebb and flow over the millennia. On average, our planet has a major ice age every 100,000 years or so. In fact, the last one ended very recently – around 12,000 years ago. Outwith these periods of icy proliferation, temperatures fluctuate regularly meaning glaciers can advance or retreat. The last significant fluctuation ended at the beginning of the 19th century. This followed a period of advancement – lasting 400 years. This is referred to by geologists and historians as the ‘Mini Ice Age’.
However, today’s fluctuations are very different from the past. The world’s glaciers have been getting smaller and smaller since this mini ice age ended. The ebb and flow is a natural process, that much is true. But this time it’s different. This time it’s war. A war waged by human beings on the planet’s resources. The effects are all too apparent in the retreat of the glaciers (the melting rate). This has been getting worse since the industrial revolution began – around 1750. By the year 2000, the changes became very noticeably indeed. Glaciers have retreated for a myriad of complex reasons in the past, now they retreat for one, human-made climate change.
When will all glaciers disappear?
It will be a long time before all glaciers worldwide disappear completely. As for exactly when, the jury is still out. This depends on a number of factors. For example, the glaciers in Patagonia will likely be long gone before the giant ice sheet of Antarctica disappears. The temperate glaciers of New Zealand will have made way for entire rain forests, long before Greenland finally lives up to its ironic name.
The rate of retreat is ever increasing. Records are being broken year after year. This trend is set to repeat itself for the foreseeable future. Countless scientific bodies have collected data which all point towards the same conclusion.
In Iceland, you can see the evidence first hand. Local scientists say that all the ice in Iceland would be gone by as early as 2200. This may seem like a long time from now but considering many of these glaciers have been around for thousands of years it’s telling that they will disappear in a fraction of the time it took to form.
Glacier lagoons – a one time offer!
Glacier lagoons are popping up in different places all over the world. None more prominently than in Iceland. The Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in the south east corner of Iceland is a popular destination for holiday makers. The swirling waters carry huge icebergs from Breiðamerkurjökull out to the ocean, eventually depositing them on the nearby black sand beach lovingly named the Diamond Beach by the locals. This has created one of the most impressive spectacles in the modern world. But it hasn’t always been this way.
Glacier lagoons are a product of rapid retreat. As Iceland’s glaciers retreat into the mountains towards cooler temperatures they leave behind huge depressions in the landscape. These depressions fill with melt water creating temporary wonderlands. Right now is the golden age of glacier lagoons. You can also witness these gems in other parts of Iceland, including Fjallsárlón and Sólheimajökull.
But, they won’t be around forever, as glaciers continue their migration into the mountains, these beauties will disappear. And sooner than you think. After all, glacier lagoons, filled with icebergs, still need a glacier to feed them with new ice every year. If the glacier disappears completely, the icy lagoon simply becomes another lake. So visiting these wonders may not be an option for the next generation. For better or worse, iceberg-filled glacier lagoons are a one time offer from mother nature. The last remnants of a forgotten glacier landscape.
Climate change – the debate?
How can we be so sure? Isn’t climate change still up for debate? Earlier in this piece a reference was made to the cyclical nature of our world’s temperature, with an ice age every 100,000 years. Why should we worry if it’s a natural process then? How can we be responsible for the retreat this time around?
Sadly, the answer is clear. There is very little debate in the scientific community regardless of what the media may portray. In fact, climate change data is as resolute as the data confirming that the world is round. And yet, just like with the flat earth ‘theorists’, the climate change debate can be just as susceptible to misinformation too. But, all research points overwhelmingly in the same direction. The current changes affecting our climate are largely anthropomorphic. Human made. Not naturally occurring. Effectively, it’s our fault! Sadly, sometimes even the best of us have trouble accepting responsibility though.
Will hiking on Iceland’s glaciers make it worse?
It might seem counterproductive then, to strap on some crampons and go glacier hiking or ice climbing. Hearing the crunch of the ice under your feet, as you stab and break the surface of these mighty giants, might seem callous and insensitive. But the truth is that this effect is negligible. Similar to walking on your lawn and disturbing the grass believe it or not.
In actuality, the fuel in your car, the flight you arrive on, and the electricity that powers your laptop all contribute to climate change far more. They are all part of a broader picture that is responsible for the destruction of many natural phenomena all over the world. With melt rates of up to 16cm per day in summertime, direct contact with Iceland’s glaciers could never rival the damage caused by rising temperatures and pollution.
That said, choose wisely when picking which company to explore the glaciers with! The tourism industry is filled with many sustainable tour companies. So pick the ones that care deeply about the environment you venture into. Hidden Iceland being one of them.
Sadly, there are the unnamed few that focus on profit over sustainability. To avoid them there is one easy tip. If the price is too good to be true, then it’s probably at the detriment of your experience, or even worse, the environment.
Raising our consciousness
On the contrary, visiting the final frontiers of our long history of ice ages is one way to help raise our collective consciousness on the topic of climate change. Witnessing the effects first hand is a sobering thing. Listening to tales of your guide, about the changes they have seen over recent years, and literally watching ice crash into the water in front of your eyes is bound to leave a profound effect on all who are a part of it. Every trip we take onto the glacier is with the utmost respect and with the intention of creating memories that will last a lifetime, even if the glacier you hiked on doesn’t.
Will this fleeting experience invoke a sense of urgency and change your attitude to individual responsibility? We certainly believe so. The glaciers are not lost yet.
Iceland is probably one of the best places in the world to see the effects of climate change, this much is clear. But it is also one of the few places where people from all walks of life can get up close and personal with glaciers. Perhaps those born today, are part of the last generation that will be able to do so.
Iceland leads the way
This tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean may be one of our best chances for hope inthe midst of global climate effects. Iceland is often referred to as the ‘Land of Renewable Energy’ as well as its more tourist friendly moniker, ‘The Land of Fire and Ice’. Coincidentally both nicknames are apt due to their connection with Iceland’s volcanoes and glaciers.
Despite having a population of less than 400,000, Iceland is a world leader in the progressive science around renewable energy. There are a number of programmes that look not only into sustainability, but also into reversing the effects of climate change. The well known geothermal power stations utlise the heat of the volcanoes to generate around 40% of Iceland’s energy. The more hidden and less publicised hydroelectric dams utilise the meltwater from the glaciers and generate around 55% of the country’s energy needs. There are few other developed countries in the world that can boast such a high reliance on renewable sources. That is just half the story though.
Iceland isn’t stopping there. They are at the cutting edge of technology when it comes to carbon capture too. The Carb Fix programme has been underway since 2006 in one form or another. This is a relatively new science that allows Iceland to capture approximately one third of the carbon emissions from the third largest geothermal power plant in the world, and prevent their release into the atmosphere. Production is ramping up and their ability to capture more carbon dioxide is expected in the coming years. Couple this with the subtle art of creating tropical ecosystems in greenhouse powered by renewable energy and Iceland is becoming more and more self-sufficient as they explore the natural resources that they are blessed with.
The take away
A trip to Iceland will undoubtedly shock and awe most visitors, creating memories that will change you forever. Through adventure on moving glaciers and active volcanoes, coupled with an increased understanding of our natural ecosystem, you will leave Iceland profoundly impressed and hopefully inspired. It would seem that natural change is inevitable but economical country wide change is also possible at the same time. Iceland is proving it! The war isn’t over, and humans all over the world are defecting, to fight for mother nature.
Unforgettable beauty, shocking reality and inspiring hope are all takeaways from a visit to iceland.
I’m now inspired – what tours can I join?
To experience Iceland’s glacier hikes first hand you have a number of options with Hidden Iceland.
You can join along on our action packed day trip on the South Coast: Fire and Ice which includes a moderate glacier hike for around 2.5 hours.
If you want to spend more time exploring these icy giants then our Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon 2 day tour dedicates 4 hours on the ice to really allow you to experience the glaciers. The rest of the time is spent walking along the glacier lagoon. Watching ice wash onto the diamond beach and seeing the must see sights of the south coast of Iceland.
If you are wishing to join us in the winter then we swap out the glacier hike for a chance to step inside a blue ice cave on the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon & ice cave discovery 2 day tour.
Finally, if you prefer a private trip you can check out our private itineraries that can be planned to suit your needs completely.
My name is Joe Kane. I am the Lead Guide for Hidden Iceland. Normally I am charged with Hidden Iceland’s safety protocols but during the global pandemic I was inspired to share my passion on line, while I can’t share it in person. I have guided on multiple glaciers in both Iceland and New Zealand. I feel most at home in colder climates and love to teach my guests all about this ever changing landscape.