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How Ice Caves Evolve in Iceland

Iceland’s stunning ice caves are constantly changing.  Truly leaving each visitor with a unique experience that cannot be replicated.  Making the phrase “a once-in-a-lifetime experience” totally accurate!  However, do you know how ice caves evolve in Iceland?  Today our Ice Pic Journeys team would like to educate you on that very topic.  Come along with us!

Glaciers are Alive!

Glaciers are a dense body of ice that remains in place all throughout the year.  Although they remain in the same place overall, they are far from being static.  In fact, glaciers are characterized by the simple fact that they are always moving.  And Iceland ice caves evolve even more rapidly too!

Additionally, glaciers are formed when the amount of snow turning into ice exceeds the amount that melts.  To illustrate, every year, snowfall turns into ice on top of the glacier.  Next, the new ice on top pushes the older ice underneath forward, making the glacier move under its own weight.  Furthermore, as this happens the surface of the ice breaks apart and cracks.  Therefore, the glacier ends up being full of ragged cracks, crevasses and large seracs.

Meanwhile, the ice also pushes rocks and gravel which shapes the surrounding landscape.  However, keep in mind this takes place over thousands of years.  For instance, the oldest glaciers in Iceland being roughly 2,500 years old.  Further, glaciers advance in some years and retreat in others, depending on snowfall, temperature, and weather.  So you could say they wax and wane like the moon.

Likewise, in recent years most glaciers in the world have been retreating.  For example, this is the case for all glaciers in Iceland as well.  In fact, our glaciers have been melting at an alarming rate since the year 2000.  Also likely the reason why ice caves evolve so quickly as well.

Sad Fact: If the glacier starts to melt at a faster rate than it produces ice then it is at risk of disappearing, or dying.  For instance, this was the fate of an Icelandic glacier named Okjökull that was declared dead in 2014.  Extremely alarming to witness glaciers melting away in your lifetime, that’s for sure!

Weather Effecting Glaciers

Our Ice Pic Journeys team is always on a continuous mission to provide awareness surrounding our beautiful features.  One of the many reasons why we encourage anyone visiting Iceland to ensure they find their way to one to witness the once-in-a-lifetime beauty! 

Moreover, it’s important to note that due to the Gulf Stream, the Icelandic weather is quite temperate.  for example, with mild winters and temperatures that are just around freezing.  Even in wintertime, the temperature at the glaciers may be above freezing therefore affecting our glaciers negatively.  This affects how ice caves evolve massively, with huge changes weekly, or even daily!  Although the ice caves may get larger and wider in the process. 

However, the ice can also melt to the degree where the roof of the Iceland ice cave becomes too thin and eventually breaks.  Which in turn makes the cave smaller again or completely inaccessible if it collapses.  First, visitors can see a hole in the ice.  Second, this hole evolves into an ice arch once the ground ice melts.  After the ice arch gets thinner it collapses until finally you are left with an ice valley.  Eventually, the ice cave and its arches disappear completely, while another ice cave may be forming simultaneously. 

Third, the pictures you have seen of ice caves through the years in Iceland are of caves that no longer exist.  But the beauty about that is that no ice cave looks the same and everyone’s experience is unique!  Even if you visit the same cave twice with a week or two in between, it will look completely different each time.  And how freaking AWESOME is that?!  Note: It’s important to only visit an ice cave with a qualified guide who knows the area well.  Who understands how ice caves evolve and can provide you with safety gear.  Also point out the dangers, such as quicksand or unstable ice that you shouldn’t go near.

How are Ice Caves Formed?

Ice caves evolve just like life does in the most simplistic way.  In short, its birth is by water, then time makes ice caves evolve, and then there is the death.  Large glaciers may also have areas of smoother sheets of ice which in turn puts less stress on the ice.  But where it cascades down the side of a mountain you’re sure to see thousands of cracks in all shapes and sizes.  To illustrate, even on the large sheets of ice there will be small holes on the surface.  Then on warmer days, and especially in summer, the surface of the ice will melt in the sunshine.  However, this results in water finding a weakness in the ice and carving its way through the glacier.

Additionally, more ice melts and the months go by.  Next, the tunnels that the meltwater makes become wider and larger, eventually becoming wide enough to fit a human or even a small house!  Furthermore, the tunnels are often circular and are called moulins (from the French word for mill).  They are mostly vertical and carve their way through the glacier until the water exits at the base of the glacier out to a river, lake or the sea.  Say hello to the birth of the next Iceland ice cave!

Moulins are the most common way for an ice cave to be formed.  While they can pose a threat to hikers at the top of a glacier, with its vertical drop.  However, they can often be entered from the other side at the base of the glacier where the water is exiting.  Likewise, during summertime, the ice cave may still be full of water.  But in winter or during colder temperatures the waterflow recedes and visitors are left with stunning ice tunnels to explore. 

Our Ice Pic Journeys team often has an ongoing “Ice Report” with updates on the current ice caves that are accessible.  That way, you can have an idea of what the ice caves look like today, and follow how much they change over time.

How Ice Caves Evolve Day to Day

Each ice cave is different from the next, varying in size, shape, and location.  Therefore they will all have varying lifespans.  Firstly, some ice caves might only exist for 3-4 weeks.  Secondly, others might exist for up to a year and a half.  Thirdly, the main factors that affect the longevity of the ice cave are as follows:

  • Season
  • Rain Levels
  • Amount of Sunshine
  • Temperatures
  • Shape and Size of the Iceland Ice Cave
  • Surrounding Earth Dynamic
  • Location of the Ice Cave 

Meanwhile, the last point of where the cave is located is crucial.  Locations could be at the edge of a glacier, on top of the glacier, next to a sandy moraine where the sand can protect the ice, or next to a waterfall that helps to erode the ice quicker.  For instance, a layer of black sand or ash from previous volcanic eruptions helps to insulate the ice.  Meaning it will melt slower and last longer and help ice caves evolve slower.

Since, many of Iceland’s glaciers are subglacial volcanos, or are situated close to active volcanoes, there’s a lot of sand and ash to be found both at the glacier’s edge as well as embedded into the ice.  In the same way, looking through the ice you may be looking at a layer of ash from a volcanic eruption hundreds of years ago.  Why?  Because it has been trapped in the ice when another layer of snow froze on top of it.  And then the ice itself can be anything from crystal clear, to a deep blue, with white air bubbles or jet black sand, or a mixture of all of it.

Today we are thrilled to share with you a time-lapse video showcasing specifically how Iceland ice caves evolve.  The video was shot by our friend Kieran Baxter.  Take note folks that this happens quicker than you think which is exactly why we can never promise a specific ice cave or what it will look like by the time you visit.

Ice Cave Types

There are different types of ice caves, with varying dynamics in the surrounding landscape.   All of which will heavily influence how Iceland’s ice caves evolve.  to illustrate, as you see above with the glacier river ice cave.  This is where a river is flowing through the cave itself and you walk on a sandy or rocky riverbed.  Also, you could be exploring an ice tunnel.  Here, you are walking on the ice itself and there’s no water running through it anymore.

Some ice caves have a waterfall inside, which shapes the cave continuously each day.  Whereas, other ice caves are a vertical sinkhole or a moulin ice cave.  Likely,  you may be exploring that type by abseiling into it from above.  Similarly, crystal ice caves have super clear ice and are only found at the height of winter, between November and March.

Along with, you might also explore a crevasse ice cave which is more common in summertime.  Maybe even a canyon ice cave where the walls have broken down and created a smaller cave in parts.  In conclusion, you can find very picturesque ice features such as ice arches, the remains of a larger cave, the arches are the last remaining bit of an ice cave and disappear in a matter of a few days.  Likewise, the shape and size of each one is truly unpredictable, leaving you with a unique experience each time you visit!

Remember to check out our Guide to Iceland Ice Caves for 2024!

Visiting Iceland Ice Caves

Ice caves are accessible all year round.  But they are at their most spectacular during wintertime, from November to March.  Why?  Because the blue colors are extenuated.  During the spring, summer and autumn you can visit the ice caves that our Ice Pic Journeys team continually find while scouting for new ice caves. Be aware, that these may be harder to reach so are only accessible in longer or private tours.  And if you need ideas on what to wear on a glacier tour head back to our previous blog post or our Amazon Storefront for ideas!

Ice Cave Professional Photos

When you visit to witness how Iceland ice caves evolve, you’ll likely want to catch the experience on film.  However, due to the lighting inside the cave, which may often be limited, photos taken on a regular phone camera may not come out as well as you’d like. With this tricky lighting situation, it’s important to have a good camera so that you’re able to adjust the exposure and the camera settings to get the best results.

All of Ice Pic Journey’s tours are led by a guide who is also a professional photographer.  Therefore, they can immortalize your experience through good quality photos, taking away all your stress about getting good photos on your own.  If on a private tour, you can also discuss with your guide what kind of photos you are after.  For example, maybe you want to have natural light or artificial ones.  Or perhaps adding some fun colors for a particular look, or even play with some light painting inside the ice cave!

Some people choose an ice cave as the location for an Iceland marriage proposal or even a wedding ceremony!  Can you believe it?!  And you can hardly choose a more dramatic backdrop for those pictures than Iceland’s natural winter wonderland. Whatever you’re after with your photos, our Ice Pic Journeys is sure to deliver the perfect photo package!  Feel free to check out our Glacier Tours or contact us for something more custom!


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