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Sapphire ice cave in Iceland

If you haven’t heard about the ‘Sapphire’ ice cave in Iceland yet, you will once you arrive. It’s worth coming to Iceland for that reason alone. Add in the Northern Lights, a snowy landscape and a remote location (perfect for social distance holidays) and you have an incredible trip awaiting you. So this blog post is more of a love letter to Iceland’s now ‘most famous’ ice cave (above). An ice cave that, despite the trials of a warm summer and the effects of climate change, has survived for 2 successive winters. This is a rare occurrence, trust me. I had the pleasure, as a local tour guide, of getting to explore this ice cave both seasons and inspect it up close and personal. And I’m here to say, based on everything I’ve seen in both years, I’m quietly confident that the Sapphire Ice Cave will be here for a 2021/22 season too. That means if this winter (2020/21) is a little too early for you to get to Iceland you may still get to see this wonder of nature next winter. This is a bold statement. More bold than you could know, I promise you. I’ll do my best to explain below, as well as show you some incredible pictures to help you understand my enthusiasm. Btw, I am not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination but I did minor in Physics at University and have had a fascination with glaciers, volcanoes and science in general my entire life. I’m also a professional glacier guide by trade. I’ve run tours to countless ice caves across Iceland and have had the honour of being the first to discover a few myself (long melted away now). So to say I have an understanding of the process in which an ice cave is formed would be an understatement. What is an ice cave? The Sapphire ice cave is just like any other ice cave that the best tour operators take customers to in Iceland. Big, blue, beautiful and remote. But it differs in one key way, it survived the summer! You might be scratching your head right now thinking, “But aren’t glaciers thousands of years old?” and concurrently, “If an ice cave is part of a glacier, doesn’t that mean these are ancient structures too?” Hidden Iceland It’s a good thought process. Glaciers in Iceland are hundreds or thousands of years old. BUT, they are constantly moving. They are also constantly melting. In fact, the ice you see flowing on a glacier (at very slow speeds) is usually only a few hundred years old. That’s because snow accumulation at the tops of the mountains replace the ice that melts away each winter. As the global temperature continues to rise, the melting ice is disappearing faster than fresh snow can replace it, hence why glaciers are disappearing around the world. So if an ice cave is formed inside a glacier that is constantly moving and melting it’s unlikely that they will hang around for very long. In most cases an ice cave is formed when ice in the summer melts and erodes the remaining ice around it. As the warm water cuts deep into the ice over these sunny months they form cavities in the glacier. Then, once the winter comes and the melting slows down, the holes that were formed from the melting are emptied out and a new structure is left behind (an ice cave). Depending on the ferocity of the water flow and the angle that it hits the ice will depend on the shape and size of the ice cave that’s left behind. The below image is a particularly well shaped ice cave to show this process from 2017. You can see the ripples and effect of the water, leaving behind an almost ribcage like cave. It lasted one winter season only. How do we find this year’s ice cave? Some ice caves are cathedral sized arch ways. Some are snake like tunnels. And some are enclosed holes that open up once you get inside them. The Sapphire ice cave closely resembles the latter. The sad thing is that these incredible beauties rarely last very long. Especially now that climate change is making the winters warmer and wetter. Almost without fail an ice cave will melt or collapse in the proceeding summer. In fact, in the 2017/18 winter the ‘Treasure Island’ ice cave didn’t even survive the whole winter (see below). It collapsed in many sections by the end of February and a new ice cave had to be found for the last month of exploration. Basically, in a nut shell, every autumn the local ice cave explorers go out in droves searching for a new ice cave for the upcoming winter season. Thankfully, these veterans are good at what they do and usually find something. What they find is always a question mark though. Will it be as big as last years? Will it be as blue? Is it easy to get to for tourists? These are questions that haunt the tour operators in Iceland who hope to sell tours to these temporary wonders. So you can imagine my elation when the Sapphire Ice Cave survived from one winter to the next. It’s big, it’s blue and it is very accessible, even for those with only moderate fitness levels. A welcome respite from all the bad news of 2020. Why is the Sapphire Ice Cave different? In short, it isn’t different. Just like my description above, the Sapphire ice cave was formed from flowing summer melt water that froze over in winter, leaving behind a stable arched cave. Just like above, the Sapphire ice cave was not immune to summer melting either. And yet it remained. Was it because it was so big last year that even after lots of it melted away there was still a good cave left over? Nope! It is quite simply because this particular ice cave is formed by something called a sub glacial channel (a river under the glacier). This ‘river’ is a flow of water that is an accumulation of lots of different cavities and crevasses with streams of water joining up in the same location. So unlike many other ice caves, this sub glacial channel is very likely to continue to forge it’s own way out of the front of the glacier each year. That suggests that each summer the melt water from the glacier is going to find its way out of the same, or similar, hole in the front of the glacier. That also means the surrounding ice will be moulded and shaped by it every summer too. So even if the glacier melts lots this summer, it’s likely that the ‘new’ Sapphire ice cave will be formed a few hundred metres behind this years. That’s what happened this summer in any case (see below for what it looked like in 2019/20). Don’t get me wrong, the glaciers are melting at unprecedented rates. And as the glacier moves and collapses these sub glacial channels can dry up or find a new route. However, the location of this particular ice cave also lends a helping hand to its longevity. Namely, it’s near a mountain side. The mountain forces the glacier ice to move in the same way each year (the mountain warps the ice) so the replacement ice is likely to act in the same way each year. This (hopefully) suggests that the Sapphire Ice Cave will be here next winter too! That is until the glacier disappears completely in that area of course. Sapphire Ice Cave 2022/23 I say that last statement with a pang of despair as it is a notion that is becoming all too familiar in my line of work. There was a very similar ice cave called the ‘Crystal Ice Cave’ (see below) that was formed in the exact same way but on the opposite side of the glacier. The locals rejoiced that they had found a quasi-permanent fixture for ice cave season each year. Every summer, the water flowed through a sub glacial channel and every winter it left behind a beautiful blue ice cave. However, in 2016, after almost 10 years of faithful service this ice cave disappeared too. The cold hard fact is the glacier had just melted so much in the previous years that there was simply not enough ice in that area to create a new ice cave again, regardless of water flow. If I’m honest, I was devastated to learn it had gone for good. So nowadays we’ve jumped to the opposite side of the glacier where the ice is still present. This particular glacier is dozens of kilometres wide btw and has a lagoon in the middle to contend with so despite all the melting, there is plenty of glacier ice to explore. In the yesteryears, we may have been foolhardy and announced that the Sapphire Ice Cave was now ‘the’ ice cave to visit and promote it accordingly each year. Unfortunately those days are over. So when I say that I believe the Sapphire Ice Cave will be there for a 3rd consecutive winter season (2021/22) I can assure you, it is a bold statement. I was even tempted not to publish this article, as my colleagues and friends will call me out on my crystal ball approach to predicting next years ice caves. Nevertheless, I am confident that we will see one more year of this epic ice cave. Fingers crossed! Conclusion I guess my conclusion is that if you want a guaranteed ice cave that is big, blue, beautiful and easy to access then get your butt to Iceland as soon as you can. This winter (2020/21) might be too early but 2021/22 may be the perfect chance for you. You never know, it may be the last time we get a cave this special and easy to get to. See you there! Ryan Connolly is Co-Founder of Hidden Iceland. Hidden Iceland specialises in private trips, taking you to some of the hidden gems of Iceland with a passionate and experienced guide. If you would like to be a guest blogger on A Luxury Travel Blog in order to raise your profile, please contact us.

Ryan Connolly

Ryan Connolly is the Marketing Manager and Co-Founder for Hidden Iceland. Hidden Iceland is a carbon neutral travel company that specialises in private or small group tours that take you across the whole of Iceland. Hunting for the Northern Lights, discovering ice caves, hiking on glaciers and walking to the tops of volcanoes are some of the more adventurous activities Hidden Iceland take part in. But many of their customers also enjoy relaxing in natural hot pools, enjoying local cuisine and chance encounters with the wildlife too. Ryan has guided in many different countries and is proud to have stepped foot on all seven continents in his pursuit of new terrain. He is a qualified Glacier Guide, Wilderness First Responder and permanent resident of Iceland.

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  1. You could create an upmarket paint chart from all the shades of sapphire in these pictures, each one so slightly individual. I’d love to visit an ice-cave like this. Did one in Austria a few years ago and it had a throne in it which made it very “Game of Thrones.”

    1. Yeah, it’s so hard to even focus on one part of the cave because every angle brings with it a new colour variation and sparkle.

      I’ll need to check out the Austrian ice caves one of these days. Sounds cool.

  2. Absolutely fascinating. It never occurred to me that there would be ice cave hunters going out every autumn eager to track down new caves. I suppose it’s all a bit like truffle hunting but in much colder conditions.

    1. I can honestly say I’ve never heard it be compared to truffle hunting but it’s a good analogy. But instead of sniffling dogs and pigs we use pick axes to break into the surface of the ice.

  3. Very worrying that you think the glacier will soon disappear. One small piece of hope today is that at least Joe Biden is promising that the USA will rejoin the Paris Agreement. Much more is needed but at least it is a start.

  4. It’s sad to hear that such a wonderful cave will eventually disappear. Hopefully more people will get to see it before it’s gone. Do caves like this also come into existence on a regular basis? Or does it take a long time to form and then find it since it constantly moves?

    1. Hey Reginald,

      Yeah, it’s always a shame to say goodbye to an ice cave that is so incredible.

      These types of ice caves are often found after much searching but to find an ice cave this big and in such an easy to access location is rare. In 2018 our preferred ice cave was an hour walk on the ice just to get to. Not fun on a windy day, I can tell you.

  5. How stable is this cave? Been a natural mass (and let’s not forget it’s moving, albeit very slowly), my worry would be that it could give way at any time. I know you’d probably have to be very unlucky, but the risk is still there surely?

    1. Great question Mark,

      In the winter the ice comes to an almost complete stop which helps prolong the shape of the cave. The fact that it’s very cold also helps reduce melting.

      With that all said, you are correct that the cave, being a natural structure has the ability to collapse. Therefore, a group of trusted guides or rangers who are qualified glacier guides check the cave every morning before any customers go near it.

      They also maintain it using glacier cutting techniques. i.e. keeping the access to the cave safe, breaking off chunks of ice that are loose and closing off sections of the cave that become unsafe.

      Overall, when a cave is chosen to explore a lot of variables are taken into account. One of the most notable ones is the shape of the cave itself. If the cave is a perfect archway with weight distributed all the way to the ground then the chances of a collapse are close to zero, being such a strong structure. They’re more likely to melt in this case rather than break. However, if the cave is a collection of blocks of ice squeezed together these are more likely to collapse during the season. So we tend to avoid these types of cave structures.

      In summary, there are lots of variables to take into account and the local guiding teams do their best to stay on top of them. There are of course always risks when entering a wilderness setting so it’s always good to stay cautious regardless.

      Thanks for the question.

    2. Thanks, Ryan… that’s reassuring to hear. I guess it’s a very measured risk. I would imagine early in the day and during winter, you’d probably be about as safe as in any building in Iceland.

    3. That’s a good way of looking at it. You’re also always with a qualified glacier guide as you’re walking through too so the ice cave is being assessed in real time too.

  6. I have been to Iceland 7 times and every time I come I find something new from down town Reykajvic to black beach and elephant rock to the tectonic plates and whale watching and the tour of the Golden circle and blue lagoon I’m hoping to see the puffins this year I tell everyone Iceland is my 2nd home love the country and people

    1. Oh wow, 7 times. That beats most tourists around the world.

      If you’re dying to see puffins then make sure you arrive maybe late June or early July. You can see them before and after these dates too but this is when they are in full swing for certain.

      The Latrabjarg cliffs and Vigur island are two incredible places in the Westfjords if you haven’t been to this forgotten part of the country yet. Otherwise, the Westman Islands and Ingolfshofdi are great places along the south coast.

      Hope that helps.


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