The world is full of impressive feats of engineering. Bridges span wider gaps than ever before and skyscrapers compete to be the tallest on the planet. But to build an ice cave inside a glacier takes some doing. You see, not only is the terrain inaccessible and the weather unsuited to building, the glacier itself is continuously on the move – albeit at a snail’s pace. That didn’t stop the team at Into the Glacier from achieving their goal. Here’s how the world’s largest manmade ice cave came about.
Langjökull’s extraordinary ice cave
Langjökull’s extraordinary ice cave was over four years in the planning. It was the brainchild of Baldvin Einarsson and Hallgrimur Örn Arngrímsson who conceived the idea of a manmade ice cave. Visiting Iceland’s glaciers was nothing unusual. Plenty of companies led tour groups up onto the nation’s icy landscape for thrill rides on snowmobiles or hikes to appreciate its incredible natural beauty. But taking visitors inside a glacier hadn’t been possible year-round before, as milder weather brought too great a risk of ice collapses. To see the blue ice and spectacular crevasses from this vantage point throughout the summer, an engineering solution would be needed. Efla, Engineering Consultation in Iceland was brought to the table and initial engineering work began. That’s when the magic happened.
A team of architects, geophysicists, engineers and specialists, amongst them renowned geologist Ari Trausti Guðmundsson. With the finest scientific brains in Iceland working together, a plan started to take shape. State of the art computer modelling techniques calculated what could be possible and months of painstaking preparation refined the idea into something workable. Finally groundwork could commence. Over a period of fourteen months, the construction team worked tirelessly to make the ice cave a reality. 5500m3 of ice was excavated using specialist equipment, a huge undertaking and yet a mere fraction of the volume of ice that makes up Iceland’s second biggest glacier by area. The remote location made this a commute on an epic scale.
The removal of tonnes of firn, the partially compacted granular snow that lies on top of the glacier, presented a particular challenge. The original drum cutter the team built soon proved inadequate for the job. To speed progress, a larger machine designed for cutting sandstone was instead brought in. Heavy plant carried the waste material out to the surface, requiring ventilation shafts to be created in the tunnel to ensure worker safety. In winter regular snowfalls blocked the opening to the tunnel, requiring a massive bulldozer to clear. The construction process was also tricky during the summer months, as meltwater widened crevasses, halting work.
But the end result was more than worth the immense effort. A 500 metre long tunnel, the largest of its kind anywhere in the world, had been carved through decades-old ice. The tunnel’s dimensions are jaw-dropping: it stands 3 metres tall and about 3.5 metres wide. The cave itself is similarly breathtaking, measuring 7 metres high and 10 metres wide. Nothing of this magnitude had ever been attempted before. Though ice caves had been dug elsewhere, their smaller scale meant that much of the work was carried out using hand held power tools. To build on such a scale was a crazy idea but one which exceeded all expectations when it was finally brought to fruition. Even though the tunnels are massive it’s only a friction of the whole glacier, like “a drop in bathtub”.
It’s through that tunnel that today’s intrepid day trippers venture. The ice above their heads is 25 metres thick, but even so there’s a further 200 metres of solid ice beneath their feat. As the glacier creeps, slowly but surely, down the mountain, the tunnel moves with it. Regular maintenance is required to protect its integrity. If you head into the bowels of Langjökull’s body of ice you’ll most certainly be blown away. But take a moment, too, to be wowed by the feat of engineering that made such a sight possible.