The glaciers of Iceland continually attract visitors from around the world, but aside from their scale and beauty, what makes these spectacular natural features so fascinating? Read ahead for six interesting facts about Iceland’s glaciers.
Iceland’s Glaciers may be Alien Landing Sites
Due to their vast size, otherworldly beauty and the bizarre and fascinating shapes that form across their surface, it is little wonder why those with a belief in the supernatural feel a mysterious energy coming from Iceland’s glaciers. This feeling was so strong that paranormal enthusiasts gathered in their thousands at the foot of one of these icy giants, convinced it was to be the landing site for aliens.
The movement started when a British man and regular traveller to Iceland, Dillon, claimed to have been approached by extraterrestrials who told him the time, date and location that they would be coming en masse to earth: sunset on November 5th, 1994, at Snæfellsjökull Glacier.
The early 90s was a time in which television psychics were all the rage, and many mediums claimed to communicate with the voices of the dead and the otherworldly. In Iceland, such mediums had existed for hundreds of years, speaking with ghosts and Hidden People. Dillon, therefore, made his claims in a country and climate with many willing to believe him.
Even so, the number of those who believed him was surprising; a conference of over five hundred attendees discussed in earnest what would happen if aliens did arrive. It was taken so seriously that the gathering was attended by members of the US Army, British Police, and even CIA personnel.
When the night came, thousands flocked to the Snæfellsnes peninsula and gathered around the twin-peaked glacier of Snæfellsjökull. Camera crews from around the world, including CNN, had their cameras pointed to the darkening skies, waiting for the moment that a spacecraft would descend onto the ice. At homes across the country, people were glued to their television screens, wondering if life as humankind had always known it was about to change forever.
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Of course, it didn’t. Even so, it is a testament to the mysterious, magical energy of Iceland’s glaciers that so many thought that one would be the natural landing site of an otherworldly species. And who knows; maybe Dillon just misheard the date.
Iceland’s Glaciers Contain Secrets of its Volcanic History
Iceland’s glaciers are vividly coloured, with the gleaming whites of fresh snow, the electric blue of newly frozen ice, and black streaks of ash from eruptions centuries past. While, to glacier hikers and snowmobilers, this colouration only adds to the beauty of their excursions, to scientists it holds vital secrets to understanding Iceland’s volcanic history.
This country’s frequent eruptions have released vast amounts of ash, some of which settled on and froze into the ice. By studying the strata in glaciers, therefore, it is possible for geologists to identify which volcanoes erupted and when, how long they went on for, and how much ash they released into the atmosphere.
Not only does this information allow us to predict and prepare for future eruptions, but it also adds some fascinating colour to world history. The Laki eruption in 1783, for example, released such a vast ash cloud that it meant Europe endured a year without summer, plunging France into the famine that ultimately sparked the French Revolution.
Evidence of this turning point in world history can be found streaked across Iceland’s glaciers.
You’ve Probably Seen Iceland’s Glaciers Before
Unless you do not and never have owned a television, it’s very likely that you’ve seen Iceland’s glaciers before. Their incredible beauty and the starkness of their landscapes have not gone unnoticed by film producers and television networks, and they have been featured on the screen many a time.
Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in the country and the most voluminous in Europe, has proven the most popular filming location for icy escapades. Most recently, it represented lands North of the Wall in the HBO hit, Game of Thrones; parts of it were also used to animate the Wall itself.
The ice cap was also used in the opening sequence of the 1985 James Bond film A View to Kill. Later in the movie, one of Vatnajökull’s glacier lagoons, the beautiful Jökulsárlón, is featured. This incredible site, often called Iceland’s crown jewel, was also used in Die Another Day, Lara Croft’s Tomb Raider and Batman Begins.
Glaciers Can Stop Volcanic Eruptions
When volcanoes erupt under Iceland’s glaciers, the effects can be catastrophic; look to Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, which in spite of being a relatively modest eruption, halted air travel for weeks and poisoned crops and livestock across Europe. Glaciers can, however, stop eruptions releasing ash into the atmosphere altogether.
Take, for example, Katla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, which has erupted twenty times since settlement. The peak sits beneath the third largest glacier in the country, Mýrdalsjökull, meaning when its eruptions break the surface of the ice, the ash cloud is enormous and incredibly destructive.
The thing is, the ice cap is so heavy and dense that often, it cannot achieve this; Katla has not managed to melt itself a path to open air since 1918. This is in spite of the fact that it has erupted at least three times since then, in 1955, 1999 and 2011.
Barðabunga volcano, under Vatnajökull glacier, is similar. In 2014, it was clear to volcanologists that the magma chamber beneath it was ready to burst, and soon after, aerial photographs revealed a depression in the ice around the crater, proving that the glacier was melting.
Then, something very unusual happened, which had never been observed before; the lava seemed to change direction, and force a path through the earth to a place it could erupt, away from the ice cap in the lava field of Holuhraun. Scientists are still not agreed on what happened, although one theory speculates that the pressure of Vatnajökull was greater than that of the surrounding rock, making it easier for the magma to melt through that instead.
Iceland’s Glaciers May Be Gone in Less Than a Century
Unfortunately, a conversation about Iceland’s glaciers cannot go ahead without a bit of doom and gloom, as the consequences of human contribution to climate change are having a catastrophic effect on them. Throughout the twentieth century, over ten per cent of the ice cover in Iceland was lost, and in the first decade of this century, a further three per cent has disappeared.
Yes, the earth’s climate fluctuates, and yes, Iceland’s glaciers have grown and shrunk correspondingly, but the exponential rate at which they are being lost means that the effects of the industrial revolution are the primary cause of this rapid loss.
The Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is one of the best examples of this. Today, it is the deepest lake in Iceland and covers an area of over 18 square kilometres (seven square miles), yet it did not even exist until around 1935; the recession of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacial tongue is the reason why it exists and is still growing.
On glacier hiking tours of Sólheimajökull, guides can show visitors just how much the glacier has receded over the past year alone.
Langjökull, in the wet and windy southwest, is under most threat; according to some estimates, it could be gone in fifty years. In spite of this, many efforts are being made to save it, including the planting of surrounding forests to absorb the warm carbon dioxide flowing towards it. Some scientists believe it is too little too late, but others remain hopeful.
If there is a slither of silver lining to this ominous cloud, it’s that one of the country’s glaciers is defying the odds and not retreating: Drangjökull the triumphant.
The Glaciers Weigh Iceland Down
The melting of Iceland’s glaciers is having a very unusual effect on Iceland; it is causing the whole country to lift up from the ocean. This is because ice – and water generally – is a substantial material, and even comparatively small losses mean that a considerable amount of weight is lifted from the earth.
The rates at which Iceland is rising almost defy belief. In 2015, it was discovered that south-central Iceland had an uplift of over three centimetres a year. Even in coastal regions, such as the village of Höfn, there was a significant increase in the land’s height; it is currently rising at one centimetre a year. As more of the glaciers melt, these numbers are only expected to become more dramatic.
These rates of uplift are largely higher than the worst sea level rise predictions, meaning Iceland is at least safe from that aspect of runaway climate change. Again, this is not the greatest silver lining.