with Ryan Newburn
Through Gripping Photos, Ryan Newburn Captures the Depths of Iceland’s Ancient Glacial Caves
“When you look into the walls of an ice cave, you are looking into the past as if you were suddenly inside of a time capsule that had been buried for 500 to 1,000 years,” says Ryan Newburn. “Every air bubble that you see is oxygen from a different time period. Every speckle of ash is from a different volcanic eruption.”
Raised in Omaha, Nebraska, and now based in Reykjavik, Newburn is closely acquainted with the ice caves that surround his adopted home. He first came to Iceland in 2018, training on the enormous Vatnajokull Glacier before working as an expedition guide and eventually launching his own tour company, Ice Pic Journeys, with his fellow American business partner Mike Reid.
Today, Newburn ventures into the frozen caverns with groups, photographing them and the landscape along the way. His images capture the immensity of the arctic masses, their smooth, ribbed surfaces, and the shapely contours of caverns and rivers carving through the ice. Explorers are often seen in the distance, at the end of a rippling, rocky tunnel or precariously posed beneath a cluster of sharp icicles to showcase the scale of the openings.
Occupying such an ancient and always evolving space is an experience that’s difficult to photograph, Newburn shares, because the constant trickle of melting water, the roar of distant rivers, or even the unique interplay of light and glacier are impossible to depict entirely. “Underneath the ice, where the sun cannot penetrate,” he says, “your eyes slowly adjust from the bright sun to the glowing deep blue crystal walls of the ice cave. The more that your eyes adjust, the more saturated the blue gets. It’s a surreal visual experience that you cannot get from any photo of an ice cave.”
While shades of blue dominate most of his images, much of the walls are transparent and crystalline, making it appear as if you could “gaze into it for miles.” This clarity, he explains, is because glacial ice has low oxidation, about 10 to 15 percent only, due to the extreme pressure exerted during their formation that forced much of the oxygen from the snow as it compacted.
Although exploring these spaces is dangerous—Newburn emphasizes the necessity of proper gear and a guide who knows the ins and outs of performing crevasse rescues—it’s also an experience that truly only happens once. He elaborates:
What’s even more unreal is realizing that when you discover an ice cave for the very first time, you are the only human that has ever been inside. On a planet where almost every area of land has been explored, the glacier provides you with never-ending caves and structures to discover. This is because the ice is always melting away and forming something new that didn’t exist yesterday and won’t exist next year. This creates an unending sense of wanderlust of what I am going to stumble upon next when exploring.
Newburn shares many of his glacial adventures on Instagram, and you can find more about his company’s expeditions on its site.
Share this story
Editor's Picks: Animation
Highlights below. For the full collection click here.