Snæfellsjökull: The Glacier that Launched a Thousand Stories

• Dispatch #16 •
Iceland’s smallest glacier, climate change, and the importance of nature in human imagination

We might as well be the last people on earth. We were at Snæfellsnes in the western part of Iceland, which is home to many national sights including Snæfellsjökull, the country’s smallest glacier.

We first stopped at Eyri, known for being one of the early settlements. The descendants of the settler, Vestarr, lived here and were called Eyrbyggjar. You can read about this in the Eyrbyggja saga, one of the great Icelandic sagas depicting the settlement and habitation of the country. During the 18th century, there was a leprosy hospital nearby, which operated until 1848. With such a variety of natural resources, such as the mountain, the nearby water, and an abundance of space, it’s easy to see why early settlers would choose this place.


Not far was the sandy and rocky Djúpalónssandur beach, which looked as though it could be a set from many a fantasy film. The walkway was littered with rough and smooth pebbles, and rocky formations nearby can make one think of dragons and dinosaurs. I can almost imagine the creative epiphany of the people who wrote the early Icelandic sagas. There was a lot to write about, and beauty such as this should be recorded for generations to remember.

Djúpalónssandur beach
walking towards Djúpalónssandur beach

It was morning, though at this time of the year, Iceland’s sunrise came late. But when it finally came, the glacier was a wondrous sight to behold. The pristine white of the ice set against the clear pale blue of the sky was spectacular, especially for me, who grew up in a tropical country. It was as though a thousand soft-serve vanilla ice cream trucks emptied themselves on top of the mountain, inviting you to jump in and feast.

Retreating glacial ice

Unfortunately, because of climate change, the ice is retreating, similar to many other glaciers in that area. In 2012, the Icelandic Meteorological Office reported that Snæfellsjökull has reduced in height by 1.5 meters in ten years. It has also thinned around the edges, by 30 to 40 meters in some places. Compared to the beginning of the last century, Snæfellsjökull was 50 percent bigger in area. By volume, the glacier has decreased by one-third. The glacier could very well disappear in a few decades if global temperatures keep increasing.


Nature and human imagination

Apart from the catastrophic impact of melting glaciers on the planet, I couldn’t help but wonder about their impact on human imagination. As I stood gazing at the smallest glacier on the island, I wonder if this awe was the same that Jules Verne felt when he named Snæfellsjökull as the gateway to the earth’s core in his beloved book, Journey to the Center of the Earth. Staring at the glacier, I can almost visualize Professor Otto Lidenbrock, his nephew Axel, and their guide Hans enter the glacier in their underground expedition to the core.

Verne's fictional gateway to the center of the earth
Verne’s fictional gateway to the center of the earth

Journey to the Center of the Earth was—and is—one of my favorite science fiction novels. I still remember the book report I wrote about it when I was nine years old. While many of Verne’s theories of the earth’s interior have been disproved, I still love how it inspired many a lover of science fiction. His imagination continues to infect legions of readers. For me, it’s fascinating when real life settings become famous because of works of fiction.

Remarkable scenery deserves equally remarkable stories. Nature, apart from ensuring our survival, also ensures our sense of identity. Each time a glacier melts, or a piece of rainforest gets destroyed, or a part of a mountain disappears from mining, we lose a piece of our collective human story on the planet.

Another Icelandic sky
Another Icelandic sunset

Even at the present day, this area retains its mystical character. The village of Arnarstapi, just south of the glacier, it said to be the site of a UFO landing. It’s hard to blame them—with scenery like this, I would dream of aliens, too. Although with climate change, aliens should be the least of their worries.

These brushstrokes!
These brushstrokes!

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