Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Iceland’s Vatnajökull: Europe’s Newest National Park

Field Notes contributor Rachel Walker recently spent a week in Iceland visiting some of the country’s natural wonders and will be writing several posts on her explorations.

On June 7, 2008, Iceland established Vatnajökull National Park. Europe’s newest and largest national park, it joins the existing Skaftafell National park, Jokulsargljufur National Park, and the Vatnajökull glacier.

A map of Iceland shows Vatnajokull in the southeastern part of the country.

A map of Iceland shows Vatnajokull in the southeastern part of the country and the volcanic trends that are so formative to the country's geography.

The new park covers a 12,000 square kilometer area—more than 12 percent of the Iceland’s surface, and Iceland’s tallest peak, Hvannadalshnúkur (2110 m), is located in the southern periphery.

The enormous area is a natural wonder smorgasborg: raging waterfalls, expansive peaks, glacial valleys, volcanoes, hot springs, and, of course, glaciers.

The Svartifoss waterfall spills over columnar basalt in Vatnajokull National Park.

The Svartifoss waterfall spills over columnar basalt in Vatnajokull National Park.

 

The Jokulsarlon lagoon, where ice falling off of the glacier drops into a giant lake at one of many tongues of the Vatnajokull glacier.
The Jokulsarlon lagoon, where ice falling off of the glacier drops into a giant lake at one of many tongues of the Vatnajokull glacier.
View from the Foss Hotel Skafatell, located in the national park, on a sunny day.

View from the Foss Hotel Skafatell, located in the national park, on a sunny day.

Iceland’s glaciers are retreating. From 1958 to 2000, the Vatnajölull glacier has retreated 328 square kilometres, shrinking from 8,538 square kilometres to 8,160 square kilometres. Still, this namesake glacier remains Europe’s largest. At its thickest, Vatnajökull is about 1,000 meters, and on average it measures between 400 and 500 meters. It covers seven active volcanoes, which cause enormous floods when they erupt (in 1996, the Grimsvotn volcano erupted so violently it lifted the glacier and caused torrents of floodwater to burst forth; the destruction caused significant death and obliterated a major section of the road).

In short, this is a fascinating area with myriad research subjects. It’s also a beautiful place to take a walk. But given the volatile weather, getting a good glimpse of the natural wonders is not guaranteed.