Vatnajökull National Park

Facts, History, Geology, Geography and more.

Vatnajökull National Park was named after Europe's most voluminous ice cap and in 2008 it became a protected national park. The protected area today is ~14,000 km², approximately the size of Northern Ireland. Prior to 2008 the area was mostly covered by two separate parks, Skaftafell (est. 1967) in the south and Jökulsárgljúfur (est. 1973) in the north.

 

Currently there is a parliamentary bill proposed to incorporate the area into a huge Central Highland National Park that would cover 40% of Iceland's area, around the size of Switzerland.

 

We live and operate our trips towards the south of the ice cap in south-east Iceland, and so we'll focus more below on our backyard. On the map below, you can see the many glacier outlets and valleys around which we offer group trips, as well being able to customise options.

For number key and descriptions, click on the map below (visitvatnajokull.is)

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With the national park (Icelandic: Vatnajökulsþjógarður) being so large, covering nearly 14% of Iceland it inevitably would contain some of it's volcanoes. At present there are 10 central volcanos, 8 are under the ice itself. When the subglacial volcanoes erupt, they heat up and melt the ice above producing temporary lakes which outburst in an almighty flood called a 'Jökulhlaup' (translated as 'glacier run'). These will carry huge amount of sediment, primarily ash and carry it out onto the large glacial braided river plains. These outwash plains were named 'Sandur' , and now this term is used the world over along with 'Jökulhlaup'. The term 'Sandur' was derived from the very active Skeiðarársandur which extends 56km along the coast from the puffin hotspot of Ingólfshofði, Öræfi to the picturesque mountain in the west of Lómagnúpur. See the bottom right of the map above. In 1996, there was a monstrous Jökulhlaup originating in the Grímsvötn volcano, as a large lake formed and suddenly released creating at one point a peak discharge of 40,000 m³/s, or about 16 Olympic-sized swimming pools per second. This Jökulhlaup has been actively depositing material since the Holocene (~12,000 years ago), and in that time it has deposited about 100-200km³ of glaciovolcanic sediment at an average rate of 1km³ per century (equivalent to ~29,000 50kg cement bags).

Our passion is exploring the glacier outlets and the surrounding terrain, the glaciers which we have experience in accessing include (going from west to east), Skeiðarárjökull, Skaftafellsjökull, Svínafellsjökull, Virkisjökull, Falljökull, Kvíárjökull, Hrútárjökull, Fjallsjökull, Breiðamerkurjökull, Skálafellsjökull, Heinabergsjökull, Fláajökull and Hoffellsjökull. 

Many of these glacier outlets descend from the top of Iceland (peaking at 2110 m.a.s.l), which happens to be the caldera (20km wide at ~1900 m.a.s.l) of the mighty active volcano, Öræfajökull (translated as 'wasteland glacier' volcano). The translation aptly describes the character of the volcano when it erupted in 1362 for the first time since settlement (874). Since 1362, it had a smaller eruption in 1727-28, and numerous episodes of activity. The volcano lies outside of the main volcanic zones/belts in Iceland, in the Skaftafell- Fjallsárlón area. The geological nature of the volcano means the eruptions are explosive, and if that wasn't troublesome enough for the locals it is filled with up to 4km of snow and ice in the caldera. This huge volume of snow and ice means that activity and/or eruptive episodes can produce jökulhlaups. 

As we head further west past all the canyons and glaciers descending from Öræfajökull, we come to Breiðamerkurjökull. You've probably seen the 'wide-mouthed glacier' before at the movies, it's famous for the stunning lagoon, Jökulsárlón into which the ice calves frequently to produce icebergs. Jökulsárlón is connected by a channel to the North Atlantic Ocean, and so the country's deepest lake is also a mix of fresh- and seawater. The salinity reduces the lake's ability to freeze, in addition to this the strong tidal flow means the icebergs here are frequently active, more so than many other iceberg lakes.

The glaciers between Breiðamerkurjökull and the port town of Höfn are less frequently visited, and are some of our personal favourites, with them having a very different character to those steeply flowing from Öræfajökull. Here the glaciers have come down off the Vatnajökull plateau and have carved out valleys through long extinct central volcanos down to the large grazing farms of the district. There have been numerous quarries into the older rock east of Breiðamerkurjökull, one of which became the cladding of the Central Bank of Iceland. In the early 1900s, a crystalline mineral was discovered locally known as 'Iceland Spar' and was used locally in public buildings as well as in the manufacture of optical instruments abroad. During this time Vatnajökull was being researched extensively through multiple expeditions and collaborations between Icelandic and Swedish meteorologists, geologists and geographers and led to many new findings about the unique aspects of Vatnajökull in comparison to other ice caps around the world.