Iceland Air’s Glacier Hike and Northern Lights Tour

As part of their push to encourage tourism in Iceland, Iceland Air now offers a variety of one-day excursions that travelers can embark on whether they are visiting Iceland specifically, or taking a stopover on their way between Europe and North America.  These one-day tours offer a variety of options for experiences, including which places to visit and what types of activities to take part in.  For all of them, the general idea is the same; a bus picks tourists up at various hotels in Reykjavik, and gives visitors what basically amounts to a one-day “Taste of Iceland”.

My tour of choice was the Glacier Hike and Northern Lights tour, which offers a lot of what I was looking for out of my time in Iceland.  The Northern Lights is something I had never seen before.  In America, we hear about such phenomenon occasionally. Roughly once a year, we will hear in the news about a particularly strong solar event occurring, and the potential for the Northern Lights to be visible much farther from the North Pole than is typical.  Sometimes that zone would even reach the Northern parts of the United States, and news outlets would provide maps of where the lights could potentially be visible.

For years, living in Chicago, such stories would provide a particular brand of torment for someone that is curious about seeing the Northern Lights.  It is not possible to see the Northern Lights from such a large, lit up city.  One would need to travel somewhere less populated. To get outside the populated metropolitan area, I theoretically would be able to travel in any direction, but it makes little sense not to go North, as the lights get better the farther north one travels. However, North of Chicago is Milwaukee, and the area in between the two cities is populated enough to make it less than ideal for viewing the phenomenon.  So, the prospect of getting in a car and driving out to see the Northern Lights was always a multi-hour trip.  Some combination of time constraints, or frequent wintertime cloudiness in the Midwest always stopped me from driving up to Central Wisconsin (or Central Michigan) to try to see the Northern Lights.

The tour started like every one of the Iceland Air excursions, with a mid-sized bus going from hotel to hotel picking people up.  The bus went to about six different hotels to make pick-ups, finally leaving Reykjavik around noon.  The tour group was quite mixed.  There were a couple of other Americans, a few Canadians, and even two people from France on our tour, but the majority of the group was from Great Britain.  I have relatively little experience traveling to Europe (this trip, and a trip to Italy, Austria, and Germany in 2012), but on both occasions I ended up hanging out with tourists from the UK, specifically England.  I don’t know what that says about America, or who I am as a person, or if it is just due to a common language, but I am curious to see if that happens again next time I go to Europe.

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Driving East out of Reykjavik, towards Iceland’s South Coast area, the first thing I notice, which is common throughout Iceland are lava fields.  Across much of Iceland, the land is covered with ashes from previous volcanic activity.

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The previous day, I had learned at the Volcano House in Reykjavik that Iceland is one of the most volcanically active places in the world, as it sits on the ridge between the North American and Eurasian plates, which are drifting apart from one another.  In geologic terms, this is actually happening quite quickly.  On average, a volcano occurs somewhere on the Island once every 5 years, and as the plates pull apart, the Island is literally growing at a rate of 2 cm per year. 50 years from now, Iceland will be 1m wider than it is now!

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About 30 minutes into the trip, the bus passed by the hotel where one of the scenes in the 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty took place.  In the movie the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupts, and Walter is lucky enough to have been picked up by a friendly local to escape before being covered in ashes. In real life, this gigantic volcano erupted quite explosively in 2010.  In the most unfortunate of circumstances, the wind happened to be coming from the Northwest that day, and the ashes covered the sky over Great Britain and much of mainland Europe halting air traffic for several days.

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The next stop on this tour was Skógafoss, one of Iceland’s largest waterfalls. Iceland is not only a hot spot for volcanoes, but it is also a hot spot for waterfalls. This is due to the glaciers, which cover 15% of the land area of the island, the terrain and relatively moderate maritime climate. Waterfalls like this can be found all over Iceland, and they probably look even more amazing in summer, when the ground appears lush and green!

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The main event of this tour, the Glacier hike, worked for me on multiple levels.  I love being outside, hiking and getting some exercise.  There are many times, when on vacation, I purposely try to find the most strenuous activities possible.  I especially do this when I am on a cruise or in some other kind of vacation package, where I know an activity does not need to be super challenging, or even that physically exhausting for them to be labelled as such.  I also got to try something new, hiking with crampons.  Now, I am not sure they were absolutely necessary for this particular hike, as back in Colorado I had hiked in areas that were steeper and more slippery and gotten by without them.  But, I did learn how to use them, how to attach them to my hiking boots, and how to walk with them on, a good thing to know for future activities down the road.

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In addition, the glacier, and what our tour guides told us about it was quite fascinating from a scientific perspective.  Apparently, this particular glacier is receding at a fairly rapid pace.  Along our hike, the tour guides pointed out where the glacier used to end in past years compared to where it ends now.  As recently as 2010, the glacier covered nearly all of the area near the entrance of the park that we traversed before getting onto the current glacier.  When this portion of the glacier melted, a gigantic lake was left behind in the lower lying area.

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The tour guides then informed us that we are actually witnessing a the formation of a fjord.  Roughly an hour into the hike, we had climbed to roughly 100m above sea level. However, the ice was thicker, somewhere between 150m and 200m.  Over time, the ice had pushed the land beneath it below sea level. Once these glaciers melt, the area will be under water, creating a fjord in this very spot.  This is one of many spots where this process is happening as we speak.

As a weather enthusiast, who had studied meteorology, I asked the tour guides what the primary mechanism was for the melting glacier.  Specifically, I asked if it was reduced winter snowfall or warmer summer temperatures.  They indicated that both were contributing factors, but also mentioned that, since temperatures in Iceland are commonly quite close to freezing, the area was starting to see precipitation fall in the form of rain (as opposed to snow) more frequently.  I could sense that, as even on this February day, the snow I stood upon was quite wet.

But that was not even the most fascinating scientific aspect of this tour.  Almost everyone is familiar with climate change, and it’s become the subject of sometimes-ridiculous debate.  The most fascinating thing I learned about this glacier is that fact that, due to the presence of volcanic ash, the glacier is creating terrain that is constantly changing.  Here, volcanic eruptions spill out on top of the ice, causing ice to melt faster in some areas.  The ice then flows in a manner that brings more ice into areas that are currently in “valleys”.  Even when there is no new volcanic activity, the cycle of ice flow and differential melting can happen rapidly enough that each year the terrain of any given section of ice is significantly different from the previous year.  Literally, if I were to return to Iceland at the same time next year, and come to this very glacier, the hike would be significantly different, as the terrain would have been significantly modified.  Amazing!

The glacier hike concluded a little after sun down, which was right around 6:00 P.M. After the hike, the tour bus took us to a hotel restaurant in the area for a traditional Icelandic meal.  To my surprise, the meal did not involve fish.  For some reason, I had this impression that since Iceland is an island in the North Atlantic, it would be a place where almost every meal consisted of fish.  Instead, the traditional Icelandic meal was a hearty meat soup.

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On the tour bus, I learned that the Icelandic cow, which is a special breed of cow that is smaller than the ones most of the world is familiar with is quite popular on Icelandic farms (they actually once voted in favor of keeping the cow over switching to a more efficient Norwegian cow).  In addition to these cows, many farms also keep lamb and sheep.

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After dinner we drove in search of an ideal place to view the Northern Lights.  This involved driving around and looking at weather conditions in a manner that actually seems reminiscent of storm chasing.  We drove around for hours, and every time it felt like we had found the right conditions (i.e. clear skies), something would change.  At one point, sometime between 9 and 10 P.M., as drove through an area where it suddenly started to snow!  At 11:30 I was in despair.  We were clearly headed back into Reykjavik, and I thought we were just going back to the hotel.  After all, the tour does not guarantee that the Northern Lights will be seen.  It can’t be guaranteed.  The weather is always changing, and the solar activity, which leads to the Aurora phenomenon, is also quite variable.

Oddly enough, though, just after midnight, we pulled into a pier on the far West end of town, along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, on a peninsula.  Our tour guide informed us that we would now be able to view the lights, and, sure enough, they appeared. I was unable to capture them on camera in a manner that would do this amazing natural phenomenon any justice.  I mostly just sat there, in awe, watching the lights glow and move from side to side along the horizon.  I thought about how amazing this phenomenon was.  I wondered if people who lived here took it for granted, noticed it less, the same way many people become less appreciative of what is in their own back yards.  At the end, I just thought about what an amazing day it was, from when the tour began, over twelve hours ago, until now, ending with this amazing light display.

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