There are several places in Iceland where a person feels small compared to the nature surrounding him. One of the most prominent, if not the most prominent, is in the Vatnajökull glacier, the largest glacier in Europe and most impressive in Iceland. With an area of 8100 square kilometers, the glacier covers about 8% of the island's land mass.
Near the glacier everything seems to be large scale, the enormous mass of ice, Iceland's highest peaks and all the signs of volcanic activity that occurs under the thick ice.
Under the glacier, as with many of Iceland's glaciers, there are volcanoes. Volcanic lakes, such as Grímsvötn for example, were the source of great flooding in a large eruption that occurred in 1996.
During the last Ice Age, many volcanic eruptions occurred under the Vatnajökull ice cap and have created special flat top mountains such as Mount Herðubreið, which, during the last Ice Age, was covered beneath the glacier and is now entirely exposed.
The thickness of the glacier is 400 meters on average, but in some places, the ice reaches a thickness of a full kilometer. When an eruption occurs, the lava hits the ice from below and melts it as it ascends. The melting ice creates a massive surge of water that washes into rivers causing huge erosion areas on the southern coasts of the island.
The southern part of the glacier is the highest peak in Iceland, Hvannadalshnúkur towering to a height of 2110 meters. The area is part of Skaftafell National Park. Bouldering enthusiasts can choose from several climbing routes that the park offers.
Inexperienced climbers are recommended to take a guide with them, as there is a danger of falling into the crevasses in the ice.
Vatnajökull was declared a National Park in June 2008. It is the largest national park in Europe and covers 13,600 square kilometers, the main purpose is to preserve the glacier and its surrounding environment.
The park offers six visitor centers and service areas that link to the park in four main areas. Skaftafl visitor's center, mentioned earlier, is located at the southern end of the park. There are future plans to open more visitor centers near the town of Höfn, which is located further east.
Measurements show that as of 1930 the Vatnajökull glacier is shrinking. Volcanic activity is the main cause of melting ice but global warming and higher relative temperatures prevent the renewal of the glacier.
Besides the amazing scenery, many tourists visiting Vatnajökull take advantage of a snowmobile trip on the glacier. Several companies also offer Jeep tours on the ice.