Iceland Part One – Ice

Arriving in Iceland, just under two weeks ago after years assuming that this was pretty well top of any photographer’s bucket list, I can admit to feeling a bit underwhelmed. The area around Keflavik, the airport, is the flattest, drabbest part of the island and in our long drive around the south coast, as the landscape started to reveal itself through the grey clouds, the most obvious reference was the Isle of Skye where we had been a couple of months before- it seemed to be a bit like Skye, but with less stand-out one offs like the Old Man of Storr.

And then something made us park in a fairly unassuming lay-by where there seemed to be a few people heading up an embankment to look at something- we followed like the sheep that are everywhere on the Island and found this:

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We had stumbled on the exact reason we were in that part of the country, for this is the view looking from overhead at the Glacier Lagoon of Jökulsárlón.

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What you see in the pictures is an astonishing natural story. The huge expanse of white at the back is Breiðamerkurjökull a Glacier which itself is part of a much larger one, Vatnajökull. This last is the largest Ice cap in Europe covering 8% of the whole country and so large that it actually has several active volcanoes underneath it.

Probably because of global warming, the Glacier is retreating and has created this quite temporary attraction. Vatnajökull used to reach down to the sea and each summer, Icebergs would melt from the Glacier and float off into the ocean. Then in around 1948, as the Glacier retreated away from the beach, this lagoon started to be created and has grown rapidly, particularly in the last fifteen years when it has doubled in size.

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Geologists are divided about what will happen next. Many say that in twenty years or so, with further warming and further Glacial retreat, the lake will no longer be next to the edge of the Glacier and so will dry up. Others argue that it will continue to grow, or that what we are seeing here is the creation of a fjord.

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Whatever, the case, I can’t think of a place I have been where the natural processes of the planet are so obviously on display. the movement of the ice, for a start is fascinating to watch. You can see it yourself, if you like, on their live webcam. The Icebergs you see are enormous on the surface, but in fact up to four fifths of their size is below the surface and they move as they melt- at one moment while we were watching there was a huge crash as one rolled over.

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It means that each time you visit, it will look different and yet in out terms the greater changes are slow. It takes five years for a typical Iceberg to slide down the Glacier where it has been for a thousand years and then shrink and re-freeze over successive seasons to reach a size where it can pass out to the sea.

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In this picture:

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you can actually see the history of some of this journey as the black track marks on the Glacier behind lead down to the Iceberg which produced them. They are black because of those volcanoes I mentioned earlier- many of the Icebergs have lines of ash etched into them from centuries old explosions beneath the Glacier.

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Some of the icebergs are also a totally surreal blue which is the sign that they are made of particularly compacted ice with all of the air squashed out of it so that it refracts the light with that colour.

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An obvious effect of all of this for a photographer is a set of astonishing views which make you want to revisit again and again- I managed four stops in just three days, but most of all, you want to see it at different times of year- we were here in the summer, but in winter it freezes over and you get the Northern lights- I have to go back for that. At that time of year, you also have the chance of seeing many more seals- there is just the one, popping his head up if you can find him, in the shot above.

I had to satisfy myself with the almost midnight sun (sunset was actually around ten to twelve, but it never gets even close to dark) This light went on for hours and allowed me to create images like these and the one above- looking at these, it is difficult to believe that they are some of the least photoshopped pictures in my portfolio- this is what it actually looked like:

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Then if you walk a few hundred yards by Iceland’s smallest river you can get to the black sand beach where these 1000 year old giants end their journey as sharp shards of ice melting on the beach.

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There are other, less visited, Glacier lagoons in the area and we also went to this one at Fjallsárlón. This is smaller and amazing in a different way with so little room for the Glaciers to move, it feels like it is all going to spill over the edge.

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This one in disturbed colour infrared:

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Watching all of this Glacial activity makes you want to get closer to the great thing itself. All around the area, as you drive around you see Glacial tongues- bits of the Glacier which are seeping out between the mountains. It is highly dangerous to explore these on your own, but you can go with a trained guide and we took the opportunity to walk up the tongue of Fláajökull with Sindri Ragnarsson from the excellent Glacier Trips company.

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This is a real adventure- we had to take a boat across a small meltwater lake to the edge of the Glacier and then suit up with helmet, harness, crampons and ice axes, before climbing up onto the glacier. In the summer, the conditions change every day and in fact the tour had been impossible for the previous two. On the day we went, we could see where giant holes and crevasses had opened up below in the previous twenty four hours. When you listened you could hear the melt below, amplified by the ice to sound like a torrent beneath your feet.

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This summer melt is part of the normal process each year, but as we got up higher we could also see the full extent of the Glacier’s retreat in the last few years- the hills in the distance in the melt-water lake are called moraines- they are made up of rocks which were deposited by the Glacier several years ago when it reached its furthest extent before heading back on its slow retreat inland. Sindri told us that every year the scene here is dramatically different and the challenges he faces climbing up are ever changing.

For us as visitors, the challenge was what made this so much fun of course- we even got the chance to do a small bit of ice climbing up one of the small hills on which the Glacier has thrown up this year. We needed to pull ourselves vertically up the ice using our axes-  a moment of real triumph when we reached the top.

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