Sarlat stole my heart. There's something about this little medieval…
The Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is something of an oxymoron.
It’s a popular tourist attraction that is both a prime example of climate change and a natural work of art.
Jökulsárlón, which means “glacial river lagoon”, is a large glacial lake between Skaftafell and Höfn in southeast Iceland (almost 400 kilometres from Rekjavik). It’s filled with icebergs that have broken off from the glacier next to the lagoon.
It’s the reason I chose the south coast route on my first road trip in Iceland. I had to see the stark beauty of this otherworldly place.
So, this is new
The glacier lagoon didn’t exist some 80 years ago.
Before then, a big glacial tongue off the Vatnajökull glacier reached almost to the ocean’s shore. Some time in the 1930s, it started receding. As it retreated, it cut a gorge which filled with melted water and ice.
Now, the glacier is about 1.5 kilometres (o.9 mile) away from the ocean, and the lake covers an area of about 18 square kilometres (almost 7 square miles). It’s the deepest lake in Iceland at over 250 metres (800 feet).
About 500 square metres (1600 feet) of ice breaks off the glacier every year.
These changes are not exactly happening at a glacial pace.
This Google time lapse map gives you a good idea of the impact, just since 1984 (click on the arrow).
Visiting the Glacier Lagoon
Despite all of the scary climate change stuff, the glacier lagoon is undeniably beautiful
The icebergs come in all shapes and sizes. The colours vary from white to many shades of blue depending upon the light and the density of the ice. Some of them have black stripes due to volcanic ashes from ancient eruptions.
If you’re driving, you can’t miss the lagoon — it’s just off the Ring Road and there’s plenty of signage. There are parking lots on two sides of the lagoon, and it’s free to park and take a walk around.
From roughly mid-May through October, you can take a lagoon tour in one of four amphibian boats. If you look to the far right in the photo above, you can see one of them.
The term “amphibian” means that the boats load up on land, and then drive right into the lake and start floating. The tours last 30 to 40 minutes and gives you a great view of the icebergs. The tours run every half hour in high season, so you don’t really need to book in advance. In October (not high season) when I visited, they were running every hour, and I had to wait a couple of hours for my turn. It was well worth it.
There are also zodiac tours that can get you much closer to the icebergs, and to the glacier itself (weather and safety permitting). These run every half hour from June to the end of September. But, because the zodiacs are fairly small, it’s a good idea to book one of these tours in advance.
Eventually, the icebergs float out to sea, and some of the fragments get stranded on the beach across from the lagoon. Since the ice gets all polished from the waves, it’s easy to see why they call this “Diamond Beach”.
With pounding surf and strong winds, a visit to the beach is a different experience from the lagoon. For one thing, you have to be careful not to get swamped by a wave like this guy did seconds after I took this shot (just wet feet, in this case). By crossing the highway, you go from the ethereal feeling of the lagoon, to the wildness of the ocean. But I do recommend that you save some time to wander the beach as well.
The Glacier Lagoon has been called a natural wonder of Iceland. And it is.
Despite the ominous reasons for its existence, you can’t help but be in awe of its beauty.
It changes with the season and the light, and with the climate. I’d like to go back.
Before it’s just a lagoon.
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