Iceland is an island of amazing natural phenomena such as volcanoes, lava fields, glaciers and earthquakes, but there is no better place to learn about man’s effect and relationship with nature than visiting the Crystal Ice Caves in Iceland with GlacierAdventure.is.
The cave itself was a stunning mixture of blue, gold and black ice, shaped by nature over thousands years as the weight of fresh snow compressed the layers below. The tour also showed us the tangible and very real effects that global warming and climate change are having on this island and the wider planet.
We left Hotel Rangá early in the morning and made the long four hour drive along the Icelandic Ring Road. Heading east afforded us stunning views of waterfalls such as Seljalandfoss and Skogafoss, the black sand beach of Reynisfjara and basalt columns of Reynisdrangar and finally the stunning glacier lagoon at Jökulsárlón.
We arrived at the Hali Country Hotel just before 11am in time for a wintery sunrise and to meet out local guide, Hawk. I think his actual name is Hauk, but he insisted we call him Hawk. I briefly wondered if I could insist he call me Falcon or Condor, but being called Tim I’m pretty sure I would just have been called Tit, so I moved on.
Hawk is a very local guide. So local he started the tour pointing across the car park to show us his family home. Assuming no one lives in the car park, I don’t think we could have got a more local guide.
During the summer it is possible to access the glacier by hiking. However, to reach the Crystal Ice Caves in Iceland during winter requires some serious wheels, so our little group boarded the Minivan on Steroids that was THE PUMA.
All aboard Smart Car’s attempt at building an estate version of a monster truck, we started out on our 40 minute drive up the mountain and onto the Breidamerkurjökull glacier. This is an outlet glacier for Vatnajökul, the largest glacier in Europe. The drive itself felt like a rollercoaster as we negotiated steep inclines, almost vertical drops and black ice patches with a begrudging dominance. However, Hawk kept everyone relaxed by being driver, tour guide and DJ, playing us some traditional Icelandic Folk music when he wasn’t telling us about the area.
We were very lucky with the date of our visit. The previous cloudy night had kept the mountain relatively warm. As the clouds seeped away during the morning to expose the sun, we were kept as warm as can be hoped for when you’ve made a life choice to go up a mountain, on a glacier, in January, in a country literally called Iceland.
There was a moderate wind which picked up the loose snow and whisked it over the glacier to give the mountain a dramatic and ethereal feel. As we approached the Ice Caves we could see the snow skimming over the entrance to the cave. The tour provided us with a hard hat and crampons (which were tough to fit ourselves) which were working overtime as we descended into a small, snowy hole.
Our real luck with the weather was the amount of sunshine on the day. The entrance to the cave has a massive ice wall which catches the light of the sun and shines bright gold. The lower parts of the wall are a deep, dark blue. This blue colour is due to the purity of the ice and the lack of air bubbles and minerals in the ice allowing for light to travel straight through. Blue light has the longest wave length it gets trapped inside the ice, giving that beautiful blue hue.
After taking somewhere between 1 and 2 billion photos we moved inside the cave to the main hall. Due to the natural turns and twists of the cave, the main hall has almost no natural light coming in from the outside but is brilliantly light by the blue light travelling through the ice.
We noticed that the ceiling was peppered with black “sheets,” as Hawk explained that they were layers of ash from Iceland’s’ many volcanic eruptions. Essentially the layers of ice within the glacier were historical records of Iceland’s past, like the rings on a tree. At the depth of the cave that we were in it’s estimated that the Ice closest to the floor of the cave is around 1400 years old.
The caves are formed every summer when temperature increase and the long winter nights turn into long summer days. Some of the glacier’s ice melts and the water tries to find a way down the glacier and to the sea below. The water forms small holes in the glacier and eventually forms rivers in and under the glacier which create the caves. In winter, there is no unfrozen water on the glacier, the caves ice over and allow us to visit these amazing places.
Hawk explained that we were quite lucky with the timing of our trip. The unusually warm winter this year meant we were lucky to be able to visit the cave at all. Until a week before our visit, the cave was still flooded with water. That’s right; due to the warm weather, ice up a mountain on a glacier in Iceland was melting in December and early January.
During the drive to and from the glacier Hawk explained more about the effect that global warming has had on the glacier and the local environment. Over the last 20 years the glacier has been retreating up the mountain, shrinking in size every year. Hawk pointed to now empty mountain creeks and ridges where the Glacier ran all the way down to the sea but is now barren except for this years’ snowfall.
Some of the consequences of a melting glacier can create a global problem. Interestingly it does have a positive effect in that Iceland, which is a country that is actually on the up… literally. The effects of the ice melting and running away into the sea means that Iceland is getting lighter and is growing vertically by approximately 1.5cm every year.
The trip was timed beautifully so that our return to our drop off point took us past the stunning beach at Jökulsárlón at sunset. Jökulsárlón is a glacier lagoon which opens up to the black sand beach at the estuary of 3 glaciers. It is famed for having small icebergs breaking away from the glacier and washing up on the beach.
On our return, Hawk offered to make a stop to appreciate the sunset on the beach (but everyone wanted to get back, so we drove back on our own after). He also said we were quite lucky: until about a week ago there were no icebergs in the lagoon or on the beach as it was too warm and the ice had all melted by the time it reached them.
The Crystal Ice Caves were such a unique experience, (Rachel had trouble sleeping the night before as she was so excited) that it was a highlight of our visit to Iceland.
Thank you to Glacier Adventure for sponsoring our trip to the Crystal Ice Cave. However, this was an amazing experience and all opinions in this article are honest and our own.