Nearly 11.1% of the total land area of the island of Iceland is covered by glaciers and ice caps. It accounts for an area of around 11,400 square km out of the total area of 103,125 square km. Many of Iceland’s glaciers and ice caps hide volcanoes beneath them. Volcanic activity in such areas can lead to the sudden production of meltwater that can cause massive floods. Iceland's glaciers/ice caps are also a major tourist attraction. Vatnajökull is the largest ice cap/glacier of Iceland.
The Largest Glaciers/Ice Caps In Iceland
Vatnajökull is Iceland’s largest ice cap by both surface area and volume. It is also Europe’s second largest ice cap after Russia’s Severny Island ice cap. Vatnajökull covers an area of 8,300 square km in south-east Iceland, an area that accounts for about 8% of the total area of Iceland. The ice of the Vatnajökull has an average thickness of 380 m and is 950 m thick at its thickest part. Vatnajökull and its surrounding habitat were brought under protection with the establishment of the Vatnajökull National Park in 2008. Volcanoes remain hidden beneath the Vatnajökull. Glaciovolcanism makes the region highly vulnerable to flooding.
Langjökull is Iceland’s second biggest ice cap by area. It is located to the west of the Highlands of Iceland. The ice cap has an area of 953 square km and a volume of 195 cubic km. It has a maximum thickness of 580 m. At its highest point, the Langjökull has an elevation of 1,450 m above sea-level. It is the closest large ice cap to Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland. Langjökull is located in a mountainous area and has two or more volcanic systems beneath its surface. Some volcanic features can be seen at the surface of Langjökull.
Hofsjökull is Iceland’s third biggest glacier. Like the Langjökull, it is also located to the west of the Highlands of Iceland. It covers an area of 925 square km and a volume of 208 cubic km. The highest point in the Hofsjökull is at 1,765 m. The ice sheet covers a volcano with which it shares its name. Several rivers originate at Hofsjökull including the longest river of Iceland, the Þjórsá River.
With an area of 596 square km, Mýrdalsjökull is the fourth largest Icelandic glacier. It is located in southern Iceland to the north of Vík í Mýrdal, Iceland’s southernmost village. Mýrdalsjökull’s highest elevation is at 1,493 m above sea level. Like many other Icelandic ice caps, Mýrdalsjökull also covers an active volcano with a caldera called Katla. The volcano last erupted in 1918.
Iceland’s northernmost glacier, the Drangajökull, is its fifth largest glacier/ice cap. It occupies an area of 160 square km southwest of the Hornstrandir peninsula in the Westfjords region. It has a maximum elevation of 925 m. It is the only glacier in Iceland whose entire stretch is located below 1000 m of altitude and also the only one that has still not retreated in recent years.
Effect of Climate Change on Iceland’s Glaciers/Ice Caps
Like in most other parts of the world, the Icelandic glaciers and ice caps are also retreating rapidly due to climate change. The rising temperatures are causing the ice in these glaciers to melt so that the surface area of these glaciers is reducing. Since glaciers are the source of many rivers in Iceland, the glacial retreat will have long-term catastrophic consequences on Icelandic life. Also, as the Icelandic glaciers attract tourists to the country, a decay of such glaciers will reduce tourism and have an adverse effect on the economy.