Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and the nearby Diamond Beach is an extraordinary place made of blue ice and black sand. These phenomenal landscapes are created by the Vatnajökull Glacier. Even in a land filled with incredible sights, this lagoon stands out. Like the glaciers that surround it, the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is continually shifting and changing with the seasons and with time.
Black Sand Beach
The first thing that will strike you is its black beach. I love black sand beaches, and there’s something moody and enigmatic about them. When I visited my first black sand beach in New Zealand as a child, I wondered why the sand was coloured the way it was. Now I know – the sand is made from basaltic magma, which is black. So the fine black grains of sand on the beaches of Jökulsárlón start their life as liquid magma, spewed out of a volcano.
The Secret Life of Glaciers
Because the Earth is continually moving, it creates unique landscapes like the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. Iceland’s exploding volcanoes created the raw material for the fine black sand thousands of years ago. Once the magma cooled, glaciers started to form. All glaciers start their life as snow that piles in on itself year upon year. Over long periods, the compressed snow then becomes glacier ice.
Although glaciers seem like unmoving things to us, they are continually moving. The daily cycles and seasonal cycles all affect significant change on them. And, as they move, they grind the ground beneath them.
After millennia of being ground underneath the weight of the glacier’s blue ice, the rock below slowly, but inevitably turned into the fine sand we see today.
The Blue Ice Giants of Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
The glaciers do more than create fine black sand for us to sink our feet in. (Ok, admittedly the sand was way too cold for us to take off our shoes, but one can imagine!) They also, ever so often, break off into smaller chunks and fall into the lagoon.
These icebergs of varying sizes, floating in the crystalline waters of the Jökulsárlón lake, make up one of the most impressive and unique sights in all of Iceland.
Though environmental processes can take a long time, in a land of extremes, like Iceland, they can happen over quite short timespans. Scientists had dated many of these brilliant blue ice structures back to the 1930s when the industrial age was well underway in Europe. Maybe they were the result of glacier melt due to global warming.
Climate Change in Iceland
The Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is both a beautiful wonder and a harsh reminder of the damage we are doing to our Earth. The pace with which the lake enlarges every year has accelerated since the 1970s and is a definite sign that global warming is taking its toll on our fragile arctic environment. Nevertheless, this did not detract from its beauty. Now, for someone from a tropical country, seeing an iceberg was a milestone. The last and only time I had seen an iceberg before visiting this lagoon was when I watched Titanic.
Why is Blue Ice, Blue?
The icebergs are scattered over the beach and float in the ocean, coming in many shapes and sizes. Many were huge and had exciting colouring. The coolest ones had striations all along their sides like they were cross-sectioned so we could see the story of their formation laid bare. All were brilliant blue at their core.
Many of the icebergs had brilliant white tops sometimes followed by bright blue or blue-green centres, striped occasionally by black sediment. The brilliant blue/blue-green centres were what fascinated me the most. I’ve never seen ice that blue, what makes it so? How can something, like water, which we usually perceive as white or transparent, become this richly coloured?
The Optical Science Behind Blue Ice
So, here is the puzzle – if glaciers are formed from compacted snow, why are icebergs that fall off the glaciers blue? When we look at the glaciers themselves, they are white. What is the reason for the glacier’s blue colouring?
Why is Snow White?
To answer the question above, we first have to look at why snow is white.
Infinitely many snowflakes make up what we see as snow. Because these flakes are tiny and loosely compacted, they cause entering light to bounce from snowflake to snowflake. No colour is absorbed or reflected consistently, and eventually, all wavelengths are reflected, resulting in white light.
However, when snow falls on already compressed snow, something interesting happens. The snowflakes at the bottom become more and more compressed as it turns into ice. Ice, unlike snow, has a consistent structure that can predictably reflect visible light.
How is Blue Ice Formed?
As the air gets squeezed out from the lower layers of the iceberg and individual snowflakes press into each other, each snowflake starts to recrystallise. As the snow pile gets older, the crystals become larger, and the air pockets (which cause the chaotic reflection of light) become smaller. Eventually, this compacted snow ends up with a predictable molecular structure that absorbs all wavelengths except blue. The light that’s reflected out then is thus of the most brilliant blue you’ll ever encounter in nature.
This blue ice takes a long time to form, requiring at least a hundred years. So we usually can’t see it, since it’s in the heart of a glacier. However, when a chunk of glacier eventually breaks off, its ultra-compact centre gets exposed to light. And then we can see this beautiful phenomenon of blue ice.
A Landscape of Icebergs
We had a wonderful time in Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. It was funny being among so many large chunks of ice strewn randomly around. It’s not a common sight we encounter every day – or ever, really, unless you live far north. And there was something about this set up that made every visitor behave like a child-like how it was when we were seeing the world for the first time.
On our stroll along the beach, we saw many people touching the icebergs, trying to pick up large bits of ice that were floating in the water and even some adults attempting to taste the ice. It is not something I would recommend, but I can see the intrigue thousand-year-old ice might hold for some tastebuds.
The other fantastic thing about the lagoon was how still and crystalline clear its water could get. Scientists say the impressive reflective qualities of the lagoon is the result of the mixing of fresh and saltwater. When the water is completely still (sadly, it rarely is due to the boat tours in the lagoon), you can almost feel like there’s another world in reverse on the other side.
When to go to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon?
We recommend getting to the lagoon as early as you can, as it gets filled up with people pretty quick, especially on a beautiful, sunny, summer’s day. I can’t think of another season to view this place. I think you need the crisp, strong sunlight to bring out the icebergs and the crystalline quality of the black sand.
We spent quite a lot of time strolling in the sand, marvelling at this beautiful wonder. The sun was so bright I almost felt like it was possible to go for a swim in the lake – but this is not possible of course. Eventually, we had to leave this crystalline wonderland – for another fantastic activity – Puffin watching!
FAQs for the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
The Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is in South Eastern Iceland. It is by the mighty Vatnajökull Glacier, located in the Vatnajökull National Park.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is quite a distance from Reykjavik – it will take you about 5 hours to drive from the capital to the lake.
Blue Ice is essentially compacted snow. As snow becomes compressed under its own weight, its crystalline structure changes, affecting the way light is reflected. [Read more…]
Black Sand is made out of basaltic magma. The black sand at the Diamond Beach is formed by glacial processes which grind the hardened magma into fine grains. [Read more…]