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Chasing icebergs in Iceland

Another blast from the past

in essay , Thursday, November 30, 2006

This article was written in 2005, originally for the web, but then pulled and modified for publication in Iceland Geographic. Unfortunately the magazine faded out of existence before it could be published (or even accepted, although it was in theory accepted)

I first came to Iceland six years ago. In the unexpected, luminous ambience of a midsummer late evening arrival at Keflavik, I felt a little apart and distant from the befuddled masses who were “only” going to Iceland: for me, and a few others, Iceland was simply a stepping stone to Greenland. The journey to Reykjavik did little to change my mind. Perhaps in reply to my disdain, the black, colourless landscape blanketed itself in drizzly, low clouds.  If I wasn’t prepared to show some respect, Iceland was not going to reveal itself to me yet!  But why Greenland?  I could reply in one word: icebergs.  The sights I had seen some years before in Antarctica, of fantastic colours and shapes floating in mirror still, crystal clear water under a midnight sun were always in my mind. I wanted to see this again. Whilst I did find what I was looking for in Greenland, and much more besides, I had no idea then it was much closer at hand.


Several years later, having realised what I was missing out on, I decided to visit Iceland properly. An opportunity to join a photographic workshop with leading Canadian landscape photographer Michael Reichmann, and local specialist Daníel Bergmann was the perfect chance. Some days into this journey, we were driving down Highway 1, in a pretty barren landscape, with the sea some distance off on the left, and a low range of hills close on the left. Suddenly Daníel directed us to turn left, and we clattered off the highway. Getting out of the vehicles, and climbing to the top of the ridge, suddenly a awe-inspiring vista opened up: the Jökulsárlon lagoon, full of icebergs, full of wonder, right there at our feet.  This is the best way to meet Jökulsárlon for the first time, rather than the far less spectacular initial sight from the highway bridge.


Forward to July 2005, and it is already my fourth or fifth visit. It is always special, but this time, emerging from two days of constant downpour, it is magical. Leaving the car park and the Highway 1 bridge far behind, we have wandered for several hours along the west shore of the lagoon, vaguely hoping to approach the ice cliff where Breiðamerkurjokull meets the water, shedding icebergs of all shapes, sizes and colours. We cannot help but stop frequently, captivated by the endless display of fantastically sculpted shapes. We are halted by the site of a berg gracefully rotating as melting shifts its balance, to present a fresh cobalt blue underside to the world. Many icebergs show dark streaks, of gravel and ash that settled on the glacier during its slow progress to the lagoon. Some are jet black, others pristine white. Small fragments of clear ice dot the shore, looking like exotic crystal sculptures.
We continue our walk.  The thick clouds that were sweeping in just an hour ago have miraculously vanished, revealing a clear blue evening sky. The water is now quite still, and acts as a giant mirror to the ice, the sky and the mountains in the distance. It is a long way to the ice front, or rather to an outlook from which it can clearly be seen, and we continue to make our way along the pebble beaches.


Even by Icelandic standards Jökulsárlon is a new feature in the landscape. Correctly termed a proglacial lake, it started to form in 1933, as the Breiðamerkurjokul retreated, leaving open a trench through which seawater could flow. By the end of the 20th century it covered over 17 square kilometres, and continues to expand as the glacier retreats. Scientific surveys have revealed a deep narrow trench extending 25 km inland – were the ice to fully retreat, a spectacular fjord would be revealed. However, nothing can be predicted with certainty about the future evolution of the region. Both global and local continuing climate change is likely, but what form they will take, and what consequences this might have, is less clear. Sediment carried into the lake might reduce its volume, which in turn could slow down the melting of the icebergs. On the other hand, coastal erosion, a result of the lack of sediment carried into the sea since the lagoon’s formation, might lead to a wider breach into the ocean, in turn leading to an increase in melting. Breiðamerkurjokul is an outlet glacier from the Vatnajokull ice cap, and changes in – or under – the ice cap are also directly reflected in the behaviour of the glacier. For now, we can enjoy the wonderful scene that nature has created, but any sense of timelessness or tranquillity is an illusion.


The effects of the glacier’s retreat are also clear where the Breiðamerkursandur meets the ocean. Previously, the sediment transported by the glacier matched that taken away by the tides. Now there is very little to counter the costal erosion, and the power lines, road and bridge are potentially threatened. Plans are being drawn up to reroute the road and the power lines, and to build coastal defences – but ultimately it has to be questioned if this could do more than postpone the inevitable victory of the sea.

We have reached a wide, flat area of gravel and pebbles, from where the ice cliffs can be seen, although they’re still a long way off. This lagoon is bigger than it looks back from the road. Directly in front of us, reflected in the still water, is a big, white, triangular berg. It looks just like a classic view of the Matterhorn, back home in Switzerland, reflected in a lake. It’s getting late, so we decide to stay here for a while just to appreciate the scenery before heading back. As we sit there, in the distance something is moving towards us. It turns out to be a small group of eider ducks, which proceed to come right up to us, checking out these strange apparitions, and stay a while, swimming back and forward in front of us, sometimes diving, and eventually drifting off again. It is incredible – we have never before managed to get anywhere near to these ducks, but here, in such idyllic settings, they have come right up to us.


Jökulsárlon is a firm fixture on the Icelandic tourist trail. Although it is quite a trek from Reykjavik and other classic locations such as Geysir and Gulfoss, in summer during the daytime a constant stream of tourist busses arrives at the car park near the bridge. Some will take a few snapshots, wander over to the café and sit waiting to leave. Many take a trip out onto the lagoon in the bright yellow amphibious boats that give you an up-close experience of the icebergs. It is busy, full of people enjoying their vacation. It is also a good place to watch out for seals, which venture into the lagoon from the ocean. But you need only to wander a little way from here, along the moraine ridges, which encircle both the east and west margins, to find a peaceful spot. For the more addictive, the moraine offers plenty of places where you can discretely pitch a tent for the night, without spoiling other people’s view, and protected from the wind.


Finally, and full of images both in our heads and in our cameras, we walk back along the shore to our campsite. At this time of night, there is not a soul to be seen. The ever-present roar of heavy trucks rushing along Highway 1, just the other side of the ridge, turns out in fact to be the sound of the ocean waves crashing on the beach. We’re in Iceland, so of course the weather has turned, but it is of no matter. Jökulsárlon has many characters, depending on the weather: dazzling under a clear summer sky, peaceful on a quiet evening, mysterious and otherworldly when enveloped in fog. A quick meal cooked over a camping gas stove turns into a luxury dining experience from our perch overlooking the iceberg-filled lagoon.


The following morning we pack up and head over to the café for breakfast. Before we head off though, there is one last highlight waiting for us. On the ocean side of the bridge, remnants of icebergs carried by the Jökulsa River end up briefly on the beach. The contrasts of the smooth, eroded, white, blue, or crystal clear ice against the black sand are another delight to be savoured. Finally, after much lingering, we head off down the road towards Höfn. Amidst all this change, one thing is sure: we will be back.


Posted in essay | Travel on Thursday, November 30, 2006 at 09:59 PM • PermalinkComments (2)