Friday, July 22, 2011

Iceland Chronicles - Part X (Höfn and Jökulsárlón)

Today is Lior's birthday. When she went to the bathroom, we organized presents and blew balloons to make a celebration.

Lior opened the presents and we had birthday cupcakes. We even improvised a candle from a match...

After the ceremony, we want to splurge and have breakfast in a restaurant. It turns out that finding breakfast place (with say pancakes or something similar) in Höfn is impossible. After checking with the tourist information for help, we went to the local supermarket that also had a bakery where we had chocolate/coffee and croissant sandwiches, all of which left a lot to be desired.

We returned to the tourist information and saw the Glacier Exhibition. It was somewhat disappointing, but then we already met glaciers before. After consulting with the nice people at the information, and getting a map of the southern glacier area we set out on our way.

Our first stop was the end of the small peninsula that Höfn is sitting on. The grassy area at the waters edge was full of nesting terns and seagulls. This gave us the chance to see the terns franticly fly around, fighting with each other and going back and forth from the sea with catches in their beaks.

The whole coast for the next ~170km is dominated by the huge glacier to the north of us. The glacier flows towards the coast via numerous "tentacles" shaped appendages. each forming its own valley in the hills. As the glacier has been receding the last century, each of these tentacles leads to a barren area that was plowed by a glacier. Many of them also have small lakes that collect the melting ice.

Our first stop was a small road that drove up to one of the tentacles closest to Höfn. We drove until we got to a river, and then climbed on small hills of glacial sand to watch the lake and the edge of the glacier.

The ground had many stones that suffered freeze-cracks and exploded to smaller shreds.

We continued to the Jökulsárlón (glaciar lagoon). This was a glacial-tentacle that reached the shore, and when it started to recede it created a large lagoon with a small opening to the sea. The lagoon is pretty deep as the glacier dug deep into the ground. As the glacier continues to recede, large icebergs fall off the glacier and float into the lagoon.

We signed up for a boat tour in the lagoon. The boat is a funny looking amphibian truck.

We boarded and wore life jackets. For the short ride to the lake we had to sit down. Once in the water we were free to stand up and move.

It took us a while to realize, but the boat was accompanied by a motorboat that moved ahead and checked for underwater obstacles.

The guide showed us a "fresh" piece of glacial ice. 

We learned that the icebergs spend several years before they get small enough to escape the lagoon. During this time they get eroded by the water flow in the lagoon and melted by the sun from above. The cycles of sun/cold nights in the atmosphere as well as rain and wind cause the exposed part of the iceberg to be opaque and snow-like. On the other hand, the submersed part is clear with blueish color (due to water absorbing longer wavelengths more efficiently). However, as the center of mass of the iceberg changes, it can suddenly flip on its side - leading to complicated combinations.

Moreover, we learned that the bands of black substance on the ice is ash from different volcanic eruptions. The latest one, which made all the glaciers dirty, is the eruption earlier this year (in May). However, deeper stripes are due to much older events.

It was fascinating to watch (first from boat and then from the shore) the shapes and colors of these icebergs.

As we were standing there, a piece of an iceberg split off, and a piece of it made its way down toward the end of the lagoon. There it got stuck on the shallow end, and after a bit of wobbling, flipped on its side and came to a rest. This was an impressive demonstration of how fast the system re-stablizes.

When we realized it was getting late, we decided to have a quick snack somewhere else (as the lagoon was busy with tourists). On the map we saw a small road to another glacial front. This one it turned out also created an iceberg lagoon. But this lagoon was smaller and farther away from the road, and thus less popular. We sat on the slopes overlooking the lagoon, the glacier and the mountains and had a snack and meditated on the nature of ice and wind.

As the clouds passed above the colors and textures of the ice moved with the changing illumination.
Sadly we had to push on. Driving west we reached a small mountain range that stood between the sea and the glaciers. Here we could see the glacier peaking from high gorges between the mountains. Since it was getting very cloudy and late, we skipped closer examination.

As we continued we run into pouring rain and dense fog. When we entered into Skaftafell national park, we could barely see the road. We registered at the campsite, and asked about restaurants (to continue to celebratory day). The three options in reasonable distance were a very small cafeteria in the park headquarters, an all-you-can-eat salad bar in a small store few kilometers away, and the restaurant at the hotel across from the later option. We decided to be posh and eat at the hotel. The food was expensive, well served, and reasonable although not great.

When we came out from dinner the rain subsided, and when parking for the night we saw a nice rainbow.

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