Vatnajokull is Europe’s largest glacier, over 8100 km2. The glacier covers more than 8% of the country and the average thickness of the ice is 400 m, with a maximum thickness of 1000 m. Iceland’s highest mountain, Oraefajokull (2110 m) is located in the southern periphery of Vatnajokull.
Vatnajokull is classified as an ice cap glacier. No other glacier in Iceland, with the exception of Myrdalsjokull glacier, has more precipitation fall or more water drain to the sea than on the south side of Vatnajokull. In fact, so much water is currently stored in Vatnajokull that even Olfusa, the river with the greatest flow in Iceland, would need over 200 years to carry it all to sea.
As with many other glaciers in Iceland there are several volcanoes under the ice cap. One of them, the Grimsvotn volcano was the source of a large glacial lake outburst flood (Jokulhlaup) in 1996. There was also a brief, but considerable eruption of the volcano in the beginning of November 2004. In May 21, 2011 a volcanic eruption started again in Grimsvötn. The plume reached as high as 20 kilometres and disrupted airtravel for three days.
The source of Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon
Vatnajokull has around 30 outlet glaciers flowing from its ice cap. One of these outlet glaciers is Breidamerkurjokull that ends in the world famous Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland.
Vatnajokull National Park
The Vatnajokull National Park was established in 2008. It covers 14% of Iceland, making it one of Europe’s largest national parks. Along with Vatnajokull glacier itself, the park encompasses surrounding areas including Skaftafell in the south and Jokulsargljufur in the north.
It’s greatly varying landscape makes it unique in the world. Nowhere else is there such a combination of dynamic ice cap and outlet glaciers, frequently active sub-glacial volcanic activity that can lead to massive outburst floods, and scenic mountain grandeur.
Ice caves in Vatnajokull
Everyone who has seen photos of ice caves knows it is one heck of a sight. With Vatnajokull being the largest glacier in Europe, it makes for one of the best places to witness such a natural wonder. Each year, visitors grab the opportunity to witness a naturally formed ice cave in Vatnajokull National Park.
Note: Ice caves only form in winter, when the glacial rivers retract and the water freezes. Their locations, shapes and sizes constantly vary, making them a characteristic and a unique sight to behold.
If you plan on trying your luck of seeing an ice cave in Iceland, please do so under professional guidance; the weather and circumstances can pose a great security risk if not handled properly.
Check out our complete guide to the South Coast.