Europe History Iceland

Go Into the Glacier before it’s gone

Glaciers are melting all over the world due to climate change. Average global temperatures are on the rise. When the air temperature is above 32º F/0º C, glacial ice melts the same as home freezer ice. Langjökull Glacier in Iceland is 200,000 km cubed/47,983 miles cubed of ice. That will take a long time to melt, but not that long. At current warming rates, over half the glacier will melt by 2065. When we planned our trip to Iceland, we found a one of a kind experience. We hope what our kids saw will remind them when they reach their parent’s age what glaciers used to look like.

Into the Glacier* is a one hour tour of the largest man-made ice tunnel in the world at Langjökull Glacier. This an incredible chance to venture inside a glacier.  You will go descend to a depth of 82 feet (25m) below the ice. The tunnel is 500 meters long or a bit longer 1/4 of a mile, and it is the largest tunnel of its kind in the world. Walking through the tunnels takes about an hour. As you traverse through the ice you will see pristine blue ice that is about 35 years old.

Tip Time: If you are coming from Reykjavik the drive is a little under two hours if the weather is good. Getting from base camp in the glacier vehicles took us only about 30 minutes because it was summer. If you’re coming during the winter from Reykjavik, this tour could take 7-12 hours. I know this seems like a large range but better to be prepared in case there is a lot of snow.

The tunnels opened for educational purposes. Visitors can  experience glaciology and witness first hand the effects of climate change. Project leaders working with the Icelandic government hope visiting will increase environmental awareness. Scientist have also been using the tunnel system to conduct research.

On an overcast day in Iceland our two families arrived in Husafell for our adventure. Husafell has a small cafe and you can buy a ticket including a buffet meal, or buy food separately. This is also the last stop to use a proper toilet. At the base camp they have chemical toilets and inside the Glacier there is one lone port a potty. 

If you visit in the summer and your rental car is a 4×4 vehicle, driving to Klaki base camp is an option. Since we had rented a large van that was not four wheel drive, we used the shuttle bus to the base camp. After seeing how rough the road was that we had to traverse I am glad we didn’t try to drive ourselves.

Tip Time: This is only an option for the summer months, as the road closes to traffic from October through mid June. The drive is very steep, narrow, with large holes that create hazard. If we had drove ourselves I would have been afraid we were going to roll the vehicle.

When you arrive at Klaki Base Camp, you check in and then if necessary equip yourself with their clothing. They have large waterproof parkas, and boots. 

The weather in Iceland is always unpredictable even in the summer. After reading reviews we felt that wearing waterproof/resistant clothing would be enough. What we didn’t expect was how wet we would all get. Some of us had full waterproof clothing† on which held up better. We had some kids with cold fingers. My family is a bit more used to being cold since we ski. But our traveling companions with water resistant jackets ended up getting a lot more soaked. Our youngest member will be happy if he never sees another glacier. So if you don’t have or want to pack extra clothes, I would use the ones provided. If you go anytime other than summer, I would definitely wear full cold weather gear.

Once dressed and ready to go you will board an enormous repurposed NATO missile launcher. They have full GPS, some have wifi and they can even navigate in a blizzard when there is no visibility. In the winter the guide said there are many tours they run without any visibility.

Looking for a more adventurous experience? Instead of taking the glacier monster truck you can arrive by snowmobile. Only adults 18 and older, with a valid drivers license, can select the snowmobile option.

Why can’t AT&T be like this?

As we rode toward the entrance, the near perfect cellular signal was amazing. I can’t get any signal bars in my son’s high school in New Jersey, but a glacier in Iceland, four bars! Pro tip: a tweet at AT&T comparing poor home signal to Langjökull glacier will not fix the problem.

Upon entering the tunnel you will walk a short distance on mats until you reach a staging area. Be careful, the mats can still be slippery. Inside the temperature was around 30º F / -1.1º C.  Everyone received crampons to place over the bottoms of their boots. They have a variety of sizes, including kids sizes. There are benches that you can sit on while you put the crampons on. Since water is dripping you may end up getting a bit wet. 

As we began to walk deeper we came to the first large cavern that was lit by LED lights installed in the ice. Our guide told us that it took 4-8 workers working every day of the week, 14 months to complete. In total Into the Glacier required 4 years of continuous work before it was ready to open. 

We visited what was their original chapel built into the ice that is no longer in use. The ice never stops moving and caused problems including cracks, shifting and flooding. A new chapel replaced the old one in a new section of tunnel. Our guide sung from inside the old chapel to show the amazing acoustics. 

Next we visited a crevasse that is 132 feet deep (40 meters) and is at least 1,000 feet (300m) long.  We also learned about the constant maintenance required to keep the tunnels open. Over time in another 10 years they will become inaccessible. 

After a few more minutes of walking we came to the new chapel (shown at the top of this post) built two years ago. This was one of the highlights of the tour. A chapel carved into the glacier and illuminated. You can see up close all the fascinating layers alternating between white, grey, and blue. They do allow couples to get married in the chapel, which makes for some amazing wedding photos. 

About halfway through the tour, our guide gave a short presentation about the current state of glaciers. It was educational and a bit scary to see how quickly the ice is disappearing. Looking at the size of this glacier today versus what it will be in a little over 40 years was eye opening. 

How to get to Into the Glacier

We stayed in Borgarnes which is about an hour away from Husafell. There are several tour operators that provide a full day tour from Reykjavik. From the capital the drive is under 2 hours, as long as the weather is good. This being Iceland, our guide told us of winter tours that lasted several more hours than planned, due to poor weather conditions. Even on the day we visited in July a few snow flakes started to fall as we were boarding the vehicles to return to base. If you are going in any season other summer, be aware it could take longer than normal to reach the tunnels and return home. 

Expected Darth Vader to come down this Hoth-like tunnel

* This is one of the safest way to show kids the inside a glacier. In the summer, Into the Glacier is one of the only options. You can visit other Icelandic glaciers during winter, but they are unstable during summer.

† Dave removed waterproof gloves from our suitcase, since I was as usual close to the max weight limit. We thought we would be ok with our thinner driving or knit gloves. This was a mistake.

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