The Staggering Beauty of Iceland’s Glacier Lagoon

Cloudy skies over Jökulsárlón

Even in a country well known for its astounding natural beauty, Jökulsárlón stands out. The combination of majestic floating icebergs, the giant icy blue lagoon, the contrasting black of the sandy shore and the soaring dome of the nearby Vatnajökull ice cap is so breathtaking, it hardly seems real.

It’s no wonder this amazing lagoon is one of Iceland’s most popular natural wonders. Jökulsárlón’s hypnotic beauty draws tourists, photographers and film crews alike to its shores. It has been featured in advertisements, movies, and even on a postage stamp – not to mention, of course, countless computer wallpapers across the world.

Sunset over Jökulsárlón

It hardly comes as a surprise that such stunning locations as the Jökulsárlón lagoon and the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier from which it springs have provided the backdrop for a number of memorable scenes in popular movies. These include the Bond films A View to a Kill and Die Another Day, as well as Batman Begins, Beowulf and Grendel and Tomb Raider. These movies, along with various commercials, have helped bring the world’s attention to this amazing place. And no wonder! As you can see from these photographs, there’s really nowhere else quite like it on Earth.

Icebergs in lake

The beautiful, translucent color of icebergs – like those here in the Jökulsárlón lagoon – is the result of light hitting the tiny crystals that make up the ice. The colors depend on the light source, so that in bright sunlight, the ice will appear white, while at sunset, it may look yellow or orange. The blueness we often see in icebergs comes about because of the way light travels through ice or snow and is most prominent in icebergs that are either made up of water that has melted and refrozen again, or those that have many air gaps in them. Contrary to popular belief, the blue color has nothing to do with an iceberg’s age.

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Ice and rocks in Jökulsárlón

Looking at it now it may be hard to believe, but as recently as a century ago Jökulsárlón (which means ‘glacier lagoon’) did not exist. When the first people came to Iceland around 1,100 years ago, the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, which feeds the lagoon, was 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of where it is now and much closer to the sea. It wasn’t until the 1920s that warmer temperatures caused the glacier to begin its retreat, leaving the lagoon of meltwater in its wake.

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Ice on the glacier at sunrise

The retreat of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier and the subsequent creation of the Jökulsárlón lagoon are evidence of a warming climate. Since the 1970s, melting ice has increased the lagoon’s size by four times, and has made it the deepest lake in Iceland, with a depth of more than 248 meters (814 ft). The lagoon now has a surface area of about 18 square kilometers (6.9 square miles) and is still growing fast.


Image: PAkDocK

An iceberg seen from the shore

Today, the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier stops over 3 kilometers (2 miles) away from the ocean. At its head, icebergs break off, or ‘calve’, into the lagoon, where they slowly move towards the sea. The size of these icebergs is easy to underestimate, as only about a tenth of each one shows above the water’s surface.

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Ice floats on the lake

These enormously large blocks of ice collect at the shallow channel that leads from the lagoon to the ocean until they melt down enough to drift into the sea. In the wintertime, when the lagoon freezes over, the icebergs remain stationary, locked in the ice until warmer weather releases them.

Sunset and ice

An ice chip sits on the frozen surface of the lagoon in this picture, reflecting the colors of the Arctic sunset. Jökulsárlón’s surface has been gradually lowering over the years to become the lowest point in Iceland, at 200 meters (600 ft) below sea level. This means that the lagoon, which was once simply a lake, is now affected by the ocean tides, and is a mixture of both fresh and salt water.

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Iceberg with black ash

The icebergs that make their way into the lagoon contain the ancient ice of the glacier, some of it up to 1,000 years old. Sometimes, the icebergs, like the one pictured above, are streaked with ash – the product of long-ago volcanic eruptions – which has remained trapped within the glacier until now.


Image: PAkDocK

Mirror-like lake

When the icebergs break away from the glacier front, they can be a massive 30 meters (98 ft) high. However, the influx of warmer seawater with the tide means that the icebergs melt and reduce a lot faster than they did before the lagoon was tidal.

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Image: @PAkDocK

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Iceberg on the shore

Here, a piece of glacial ice sits on the black volcanic sand surrounding the lagoon, a tiny fragment of what may well have started its journey as a colossal iceberg. Ice caps, glaciers and icebergs are all melting at accelerated rates since world temperatures began to rise. Since the 1980s, Iceland itself has witnessed a rise in its average summer temperatures of between 0.5 and 1 degree Fahrenheit. Worryingly, the meltwater draining into the Jökulsárlón lagoon is steadily increasing its size to the point where it now threatens to engulf Iceland’s main highway.

Floating blue iceberg

Yet, whatever the causes and potential hazards of the Jökulsárlón lagoon, there’s no denying its spectacular beauty. And one of the most popular ways for people to experience this beauty is to take a boat tour around the lagoon.

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Arrow-shaped iceberg and reflection

The boat tours allow people not only to gawp at the floating icebergs at close range but also to experience the lagoon’s abundant wildlife, which includes seals and Arctic terns. These animals are attracted to the lagoon by the abundant fish that are washed into it with the tide. Herring, salmon and trout are just three of the fish species found in Jökulsárlón, swimming among the icebergs.

Aurora over ice reflected in glacier

In case another reason to visit Jökulsárlón were necessary, Iceland’s proximity to the North Pole makes it one of the best places in the world to see the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. And as this photograph clearly shows, the lagoon is one of the most beautiful places in Iceland to see the spectacular light phenomenon.

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Aurora over Jökulsárlón

Although the Northern Lights are there all year round, they are only visible during the seasons when the sky is dark and clear enough. Photographer Örvar Atli Þorgeirsson, who took this amazing shot, recommends March for its combination of long nights and good weather.

Whether your interest is photography, astronomy, wildlife, geology or just experiencing the stunning beauty of nature, Jökulsárlón offers something for everyone. And if for some reason you can’t make it there in person, there are always the breathtaking photographs by others – like those we’ve gathered here.

If you’re interested in seeing and photographing the glacier and lagoon for yourself, IcelandAurora Phototours, who kindly let us use some of their pictures for this story, can be contacted at this website: icelandaurora.com.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

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