Writing On The Walls Of Ice: History Reveals Itself In Katla Ice Cave

Writing On The Walls Of Ice: History Reveals Itself In Katla Ice Cave

Hannah Jane Cohen
Photo by
Art Bicnick

It’s a rare occurrence to see relics of the past untainted by the present. The trenches of World War I have long since been covered in wildflowers. The east side of the Berlin Wall riddled in graffiti. The Terracotta Army oxidised to a dull grey.

“Though I couldn’t understand the language, the pages of the glacier’s memoir were right in front of my eyes.”

A glacier remains, perhaps, the only perfect record of times long gone. Each layer, compressed unfathomably tight, provides an untouched reconstruction of the time it last glistened under the sunlight. In each bubble, a microcosm of a past atmosphere forms. In each dark layer, a sprinkling of tephra tells the story of a volcanic eruption long-forgotten. It’s through glaciers that scientists, like leafing through the pages of a book, have pored over the eons of the Earth.

Snow and sleet

But the idea of traversing the millennia of Iceland’s geology was, to be blunt, far from my mind as I set off to the Mýrdalsjökull glacier early one Friday morning. I was very much stuck in the present, fiddling with my coat, worried as I watched the sky hurl sleet and snow down onto the windshield as we travelled southwards on Route One.

Our destination was the Katla ice cave. As we turned into Vík, which was engulfed by fog, it seemed like weather was conspiring against our glacier hike. Arriving early, I huddled in the car, desperately hoping for some sunlight to emerge.

The abyss beckons

Buried deep within the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, Katla is one of the most active volcanoes in the country, having erupted, on average, every 50 years—the last time being in 1918. As we boarded the Super Jeep that would drive us to the cave this reality hit me. We were walking onto a time bomb. But Hákon, our guide, laughed off such concerns. I chose to follow his lead and face the void head on.

As we turned onto the glacier, the clouds parted fatefully, lighting up the sky. While I’ve seen my fair share of glaciers, their stupefying expanse never fails to take my breath away. The sunlight reflected off the pristine snow and the remnants of fog coalesced with the sunlight, forming an all-engulfing white abyss. There was no ground, no sky, just an endless expanse of white with one Super Jeep crawling slowly through it. 

A marble tomb

It didn’t take long to come within view of the ice cave. Clumsily putting on our crampons in the calf-deep snow, we trudged towards Katla. From afar, the entrance resembled a black smudge on a white canvas, but as we advanced, it assumed a mystical quality.

Surrounded by imposing black and blue ice, entering the glacier felt like tiptoeing into a marble tomb. Cold and ominously dark, with grandiose icicles adorning the walls, it was hard to imagine that this cave had formed naturally, and wasn’t the lair of a supervillain. Despite being a small space, the cave’s high arches made it feel airy, and the dark heavy walls, regal. I looked up and followed the dripping of an icicle to an overhanging wall, and it was in this moment that I realised something significant had slipped under my radar.

Rife with bubbles

The deep ice contained layers upon layers, some dark and foggy, some rife with bubbles, and some without. Each one contained years of history. I wondered what the temperature one milky seam had been the day this snow fell. Above all that was a jagged sheet of blue—was it windy, when it formed? In some areas, tectonic stress had moved the layers perpendicular to the ground. Sharp cracks made others appear uneven. Near the top was a sharp black slab. Was this the most recent Eyjafjallajökull eruption? I couldn’t understand the language, but the pages of the glacier’s memoir were right in front of my eyes.

Calling me back to reality, Hákon motioned to a low entrance in the snow beyond. “That’s next year’s cave,” he said. With each season, he explained, the caves melt and reform. Therefore, each year the Katla ice cave changes, revealing new parts while concealing others. The walls of last year told a different story than the walls of this year, and so on. And as the ice continues to accumulate and melt, new chapters wait to be written.

Info: Trip provided by Artic Adventures.

Check Arctic Adventures

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!