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  • Einar Páll Svavarsson

Jökulsárlón glacier and iceberg lagoon and all you need to know

Updated: Jan 11


Jökulsárlón glacier / iceberg lagoon
Jökulsárlón glacier / iceberg lagoon

Jökulsárlón is an iceberg lagoon in southeast Iceland. This large glacial lake is one of Iceland's most popular tourist attractions, and for a good reason. The lagoon is one of a few places on the planet where you can get close to a glacier and icebergs without entering a wilderness or having to travel to remote areas like the Icelandic Highland. Easily accessible, Jökulsárlón is located on the Ring Road, the main road that goes around the coastline in Iceland. In Icelandic, Lón means a lagoon. Jökulsárlón is usually full of icebergs that constantly break away from the edge of the glacier tongue Breiðarmerkurjökull outlet glacier that is part of Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap in Europe. It is a great place to visit and a stunning tourist attraction. It is the perfect place to take spectacular photos, to see the northern lights, to learn about nature and geological forces, and to go for a short hike. Even if Jökulsárlón was the only natural wonder in Iceland, it alone would be worth the trip to this Arctic island. Many times I have seen how visitors are overwhelmed after viewing this remarkable natural phenomenon. Even if you stay for a few hours, it is often difficult to leave. It is a place you can stop by and enjoy for hours on end. Along with Landmannalaugar and Gullfoss, it is the jewel in the Icelandic crown of natural wonders.

Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is in the South Region on the map of Iceland
Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is in the South Region on the map of Iceland

A stunning work of nature

Jökulsárlón is one of the most interesting places to visit in Iceland - the December violet low light look
Jökulsárlón is one of the most interesting places to visit in Iceland - the December violet low light look

In any sense, geological or otherwise, the lagoon is new. This might sound odd, but it has only been around for a few decades, and in a few more decades it might be gone. Its development by the forces of nature took a bit longer, though, possibly a few thousand years, but as a natural wonder, it has a short lifespan. Contrary to stagnant waterfalls that don’t change for centuries, even thousands of years, it is a living thing. It is a natural wonder deepening on forces such as temperature, high and low tides, and precipitation. Several centuries ago, the glacier tongue and the outlet glacier that you see on the farthest side of the lagoon reached the Atlantic coastline. This is right where the bridge on the Ring Road spans the short glacial river Jökulsá, the river that connects the lagoon with the ocean. At the beginning of the 4th decade of the last century, the glacier started melting, retreating, declining, and revealing the lagoon. From then on, the lagoon became larger as the glacier tongue shrank and retreated, in a way moving from the coastline toward the mountains where it is today. In the seventies the lake was eight square kilometers. Today the lake covers 18 square kilometers and is Iceland's deepest lake at approximately 248 meters. Eventually, the glacier tongue will retreat fully to the mountains and no longer deliver icebergs to the lagoon.

Sunsets are stunning during summer around midnight
Sunsets are stunning during summer around midnight

How was the lagoon made?

The glacier tongue has moved towards the mountains
The glacier tongue has moved towards the mountains

When you drive toward the lagoon on Ring Road no. 1 (great vacation road trip) from the west, if you look north you will see many small hills on your left. These hills prevent you from seeing the lagoon until you reach the bridge. If you were passing by this place at least one hundred years ago, you would have seen ice or a glacier tongue above the hills. At that time the tongue was progressing toward the shoreline, in the process pushing the soil in front of the ice and below the ground into the hills, or the moraines as they are called. As the ice cap, the outlet glacier, and the glacier tongue were moving over thousands of years, the ice was forced through the ground like a giant bulldozer digging a huge hole. And then everything stopped right by the moraines. At the same time, the temperature shifted and the glacier started to retreat, leaving a hole in the ground full of glacial water. This is the lagoon that is known today as Jökulsárlón or the Glacier Lagoon.


The role of the ocean

The short Jökulsár river - At low tide, the currents in the lagoon draw the icebergs toward the river by the bridge
The short Jökulsár river - At low tide, the currents in the lagoon draw the icebergs toward the river by the bridge

Since the Vatnajökull ice cap has many other outlet glaciers and glacier tongues crawling toward the lower land, we might ask: what’s so special about Jökulsárlón? One of the main reasons is the fact that the ice is at sea level and the ocean has access to the lagoon by the shoreline. At high tide, the warmer seawater flows into the lagoon and blends with the much colder glacial water. The seawater not only makes the lagoon look cleaner but also falls to the bottom of the lagoon and contributes to the breakup of the tongue. At low tide, the currents in the lagoon draw the icebergs toward the river by the bridge, flushing them out into the ocean and on to Fellsfjara beach, often called Diamond Beach. There the icebergs have a short life as the seawater is much warmer than the lagoon. At high tide, the force of the river and glacial water prevents the icebergs from leaving the lagoon. You can easily see this if you stop by the lagoon for a few hours. You will experience how the low and high tides shift the currents under the bridge.

Northern Lights are spectacular at the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon
Northern Lights are spectacular at the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon

The role of precipitation

At times of massive precipitation, the outlet glaciers and the glacier tongue progress and spread out over the land
At times of massive precipitation, the outlet glaciers and the glacier tongue progress and spread out over the land

One of the most important factors for any glacier is the snow that falls on the ice cap each year. This enhances the ice cap and increases its size. At times of massive precipitation, the outlet glaciers and the glacier tongue progress and spread out over the land. This is what occurred south of Vatnajökull between the 14th and the 19th centuries when many farms fell victim to fast-crawling glacier tongues. This was a period of cold weather and major changes in the area. Afterwards, another period started where the glacier tongues started to retreat as the precipitation could not keep up with the warmer temperatures pushing the glacier tongue back to the mountains.


Full of life in the cold and deep lagoon

Many photographic oppertunities you will find at Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon
Many photographic oppertunities you will find at Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon

Many visitors might think of the lagoon as a lifeless lake because of how cold it is. But nothing could be further from the truth. The lagoon is full of life and is teeming with herring, trout, salmon, and krill drifting from the sea with the tides. Often many seals are playfully enjoying their day in the water, and thousands of seabirds are nesting nearby, especially Arctic terns, skuas, and gannets. After you’ve enjoyed the lagoon, a walk to the shore, to Diamond Beach, is well worth it to view the melting icebergs moving around on the black sand pebble beach.


What makes Jökulsárlón so interesting?

Photography is a joy by the lagoon Jökulsárlón
Photography is a joy by the lagoon Jökulsárlón

The fascination lies in the icebergs constantly falling from the glacier tongue and into the lagoon, melting, rolling, and floating the one and a half kilometers toward the Atlantic Ocean. The depth of the lagoon helps the huge icebergs to float toward the ocean. Here you must remember that only 10% of the iceberg is visible on the surface; the rest is hidden in the water. When the icebergs melt, the balance sometimes changes and the icebergs roll upside down, which is a spectacular sight. Sometimes the lagoon is overcrowded with icebergs, each with its character and form, and sometimes it is almost empty. Sometimes you see black lines or even totally black icebergs. This is ash that fell on the surface of the ice cap from a volcanic eruption that happened a long time ago. When you are standing by the lagoon, it is as if you are viewing and following nature's working hours. Although many glacier tongues are retreating because of climate change, the progressing and retreating have been going on around the planet for millions of years. However, one of the effects of climate change is an increase in ocean temperatures in the northern hemisphere, and that is why Breiðamerkurjökull is retreating faster than normal.


Access to the Jökulsárlón lagoon is as simple, but parking and facilities are a disgrace

Jökulsárlón glacier and iceberg lagoon
Jökulsárlón glacier and iceberg lagoon

If you take the Ring Road no. 1, you cannot miss Jökulsárlón as it is practically on the main road between Skaftafell and the town of Höfn í Hornarfirði. By any measure, it is an impressive sight and a fascinating natural wonder. But, despite its immense popularity as a tourist attraction for many decades, the facilities around the area have long been a disgrace. Parking has always been unsatisfactory and still is. Restroom and toilet facilities remain limited and shabby. Refreshment facilities are still far from acceptable. The hiking paths and tracks are not marked. Even though the Icelandic Government spent a huge amount of money to purchase the land around the lagoon, this unacceptable state of affairs is an embarrassment for the Government and the Icelandic travel industry as a whole. So, if you are planning to visit you need to be prepared. Go to a restroom beforehand, take refreshments with you if you intend to stay for a few hours, and arrive early in the morning to get a decent parking space.

The facilities around the area have long been a disgrace. Parking has always been unsatisfactory
The facilities around the area have long been a disgrace. Parking has always been unsatisfactory

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