Just outside the southern village of Vík í Mýrdal lies one of the most stunning non-tropical beaches on Planet Earth. Reynisfjara is neatly nestled as a set of coves, protected by a fortress of geometric basalt columns, and features a shoreline full of polished black pebbles. Formed long ago when boiling lava oozed from a nearby volcano, the jagged volcanic rock was hardened by the cold ocean current and polished over time by lapping waves. Out toward the horizon, a set of sharp spires pierce the surface of the water — Icelandic legend says that these monuments formed when mischievous trolls hauled a three-masted ship out to sea before becoming petrified as the sun rose.
Covering 8% of Iceland’s land mass, Vatnajökull is not only Iceland's largest glacier, but the largest in Europe. It’s also the continent’s largest National Park, forming in 2008 when two existing parks (Skaftafell in the south and Jökulsárgljúfur in the north, as well as several nature reserves) were integrated to become Vatnajökull National Park. The glacier’s maximum volume was recorded in 1930, and has been in decline ever since, losing an average of 15 meters of thickness over the past 15 years as a result of rising global temperatures. At this rate, the glacier could be completely lost within the next few lifetimes, leaving nothing but small, finite ice caps on its tallest peaks.
Breiðamerkursandur is a glacial outwash plain in southeast Iceland, fed by the enormous Vatnajökull glacier to the north. A constant stream of giant ice blocks calve off of the glacier and float down Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and out to sea, before washing back up on Breiðamerkursandur (or Diamond Beach), where they contrast beautifully with the fine black sand beneath them. These icebergs are gradually eroded by the Atlantic tides to create sculptures of all shapes and sizes, and have caused the beach to become one of the island’s most popular tourist destinations. As the ice melts and new chunks are washed ashore, the beach can transform completely from one day to the next.
The Mývatn district lies on the western border of Iceland’s Northern Volcanic Zone, which is an extension of the Mid Atlantic Ridge. Earmarked primarily by an expansive geothermal lake, the region was created about 2300 years ago by a large fissure eruption that flooded the area with basaltic lava. The unusually shallow Lake Mývatn supports a wealth of waterfowl and rare plants due to rich sources of energy and nutrition. Subglacial eruptions during recent Ice Ages are responsible for most of the geological formations nearby, which take the shape of table mountains, palagonite ridges, and an assortment of caves and natural hot springs.
Iceland’s combination of high mountains, large glaciers, and a North Atlantic climate with thaw/freeze cycles and abundant precipitation has created more than 10,000 waterfalls, perhaps none more spectacular than the horseshoe shaped Goðafoss (or Waterfall of the Gods). The falls are fed by the river Skjálfandafljót, which runs through a 7,000 year old lava field from the Trölladyngja volcano before dropping from a height of 17 meters. Legend says that in the year 1000, a Viking politician named Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði declared Christianity the official religion of Iceland, proving his devotion by throwing statues of Norse pagan gods from the top of the roaring falls.
After 6,342 years of dormancy, the Fagradalsfjall volcano in southwest Iceland erupted for most of 2021. Located on the Reykjanes Peninsula just 40 kilometers from Reykjavik, lava fountains from the volcano could be seen clearly from Iceland’s capital city, but posed no threat to its residents. The self-contained lava flows at Fagradalsfjall gave the public an amazing opportunity to study the tectonic forces pulling Iceland apart, and an up-close look at the youngest land on Earth being forged before their eyes. The eruption has proven to be unique among the volcanoes monitored in Iceland so far, and is expected to develop into a shield volcano in the future.
From Breiðamerkursandur to Fagradalsfjall, Iceland is full of spectacular scenery. Unfortunately, rapidly changing climates mean that Iceland’s glaciers could be completely lost within the next few lifetimes, leaving behind nothing but small, finite ice caps. We documented some fragile ecosystems on a lap of the island in December 2021, and teamed up with Found Bubbly and The Nature Conservancy to shed light on environmental impacts as part of their Our Planet is Amazing campaign.