Gray Line Iceland - Volcanos in Iceland

Posted by Admin on 08 Jul 2024

All About Iceland’s Volcanoes

When you visit Iceland, you’ll soon see why it’s known as the Land of Fire and Ice.

Iceland is one of the youngest countries in the world and home to some of its most active volcanoes. On average, a major eruption occurs here every five years!

Forged by fire and sculpted by ice, Iceland is a country still in the making, an ongoing construction project fueled by endless rivers of superheated rock lurking just beneath the surface.

Countless colorful volcanoes frequently spark into life around the country, and dramatic lava fields cover more than 10% of the land.

There’s no need to worry, though. You can enjoy exciting close encounters with Iceland’s real “rock stars” in complete safety!

Here’s why….

Volcano in Iceland

Why is Iceland so volcanic?

Iceland is less than 20 million years old and was created by underwater volcanoes rising along the 16,000-kilometer-long Mid-Atlantic Ridge, separating the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.

This enormous rip in the Earth’s surface enables magma (molten rock) to pipe upwards from the planet’s fiery core, almost like an express elevator, right up to the surface.

The Icelandic Mantle Plume powerfully pushes the two tectonic plates apart, growing Iceland’s size by about two centimeters a year.

Magma rushes up to fill the gaps between the tectonic plates, generating volcanic activity on land and under the sea.

Once magma reaches the surface, it’s then called lava.

When the lava cools, it creates a new “crust,” making it the freshest land on the planet.

How many volcanoes are there in Iceland?

Iceland has many types of volcanoes, including stratovolcanoes (the classic cone-shaped peaks like Hekla and Katla) and shield volcanoes, which spread lava far and wide with a lower profile.

Fissure eruptions, like the recent series on the Reykjanes peninsula, are the most common here.

Iceland has over 30 active volcanic systems and more than 130 volcanoes. Many are still active and in different geological stages, making visiting Iceland almost like a trip back in time.

What volcanic features can I see in Iceland?

Because Iceland is so “new” from a geological point of view, you can see several spectacular volcanic features at various stages of development.

These include dramatic black sand beaches, fizzing geothermal areas, gushing geysers, and gigantic rift valleys between towering tectonic plates.

Iceland is one of the few places in the world where these stunning splits in the Earth’s crust are visible on land.

Iceland’s most visible volcanic features are the colorful cones, craters, and lava fields that cover the country, including Kerið, Hverfjall, Dimmuborgir, and Saxhóll.

Where are Iceland’s most famous volcanoes?


The volcano that put Iceland on the map in 2010, Eyjafjallajökull, erupted with such force that air traffic across the Atlantic was grounded for several days.

Eyjafjallajökull is a volcano completely covered by a glacier, so when the fiery lava melted the ice cap, an enormous ash and vapor cloud soon blocked the skies.

The world quickly learned about Iceland’s volcanoes, and many people soon wanted to see Eyjafjallajökull for themselves!

The glacier also feeds the famous waterfalls of Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, which feature on South Coast tours.


One of Iceland’s most active stratovolcanoes, Hekla (the Hooded One), is so large that it has its own weather system, almost always shrouded in clouds.

Throughout Iceland’s history, Hekla has erupted so frequently, often with very little notice, that local farmers on the South Coast called it the gateway to Hell.

More than 20 eruptions have been recorded here over the last 800 years, wiping out farms and communities in the area. Hekla last erupted in 2000.

Hekla is also a central location for “Njál’s Saga,” one of Iceland’s great Viking literary tales.


Katla translates as “Kettle”; its name is a clue that it’s another sub-glacial volcano concealed by a glacier called Mýrdalsjökull on the South Coast.

When eruptions happen here, the magma instantly collides with the ice and snow of the glacier - it’s like a gigantic kettle blowing its lid off!

One of the most powerful volcanoes in Iceland, Katla has erupted roughly every 60 years for the last ten centuries. But Katla has been quiet since 1918, so it’s quite overdue for an eruption now.

The villagers of Vík í Mýrdal live with Katla in their backyard, and they’re always ready to evacuate to the hilltop church if it erupts!


Lurking further inland on the South Coast, Eldgjá (Fire Canyon) is thought to be the site of the most significant lava eruption in the last thousand years and the largest volcanic canyon in the world.

Starting in 939 AD, Eldgjá triggered intense lava fountains shooting high into the sky, creating a lava field covering more than 750 square kilometers.


If Eyjafjallajökull affected air travel in 2010, the Laki eruptions during 1783-1784 had an even more significant impact in Iceland and worldwide.

Vast amounts of lava and clouds of sulfur dioxide were released, causing cataclysmic climate change and famine conditions that killed as much as a quarter of Iceland’s population.

Some historians suggest that the Laki eruption was a factor in the French Revolution a few years later because of the dust cloud’s dreadful effect on summer harvests.


The volcano with the highest frequency of eruptions in Iceland, Grímsvötn, is part of the Laki volcanic system and entirely covered by an ice cap.

When it erupts, the rapid ice melt caused by the lava coming into contact with the glacier creates a spectacular geological feature known in Iceland as a jökulhlaup.

A tsunami of meltwater and ice sweeps down towards the sea, picking up boulders and rocks and crushing anything in its path, including roads and bridges.

If you explore the Ring Road along the South Coast, you’ll see the remains of the Skeiðará Bridge, which was washed away in 1996 and preserved as a monument to the power of jökulhlaup!


Buried under the vast Vatnajökull glacier, Bárðarbunga is one of Iceland’s most active and powerful volcanic systems.

Bárðarbunga is Iceland’s second largest mountain, topping at 2000 meters, last erupting between 2014–2015, and producing a vast lava field.


Imagine waking up at 2 am to see a volcano erupting in the middle of your town!

That’s what happened on Heimaey in the Westman Islands on January 23rd, 1973, when the 155-day Eldfell eruption began.

A fissure eruption ripped through the island, and a new volcano quickly grew. The population evacuated from the harbor in fishing vessels, transporting them safely to the mainland.

Seawater was pumped onto the lava to stop the flow, but not before hundreds of homes had been consumed by fire.

Now, you can walk to the top of Eldfell and discover how much it has changed the island.

Scientists can now predict imminent eruptions far more accurately than in 1973, so there’s no need to worry about unexpected events in Iceland.


The largest active volcano in Iceland, Öræfajökull is also home to Hvannadalshnjúkur, the highest peak in Iceland (2,110 meters), and part of the Vatnajökull National Park.

It has only erupted twice in recorded history, in 1362 and 1728. Still, the first eruption was so severe that it turned the surrounding landscape into a deserted wasteland.

Many of Iceland’s most active volcanoes are covered by ice in the Vatnajökull National Park.


A six-month eruption in 1875 at Askja led to hundreds of Icelanders abandoning their farms and homes to emigrate to North America, with soil, livestock, and rivers poisoned by falling volcanic ash.

NASA later used the desert-like landscapes around Askja to train astronauts for the Moon landings in the 1960s and 1970s.


This volcano in North Iceland was active in the 18th century during the “Mývatn Fires,” an enormous five-year eruption cycle that started in 1724.

The Krafla volcanic system is one of the most active volcanic systems in the country, with another lengthy eruption series between 1975 and 1984.

A constant source of geothermal energy that powers the famous Mývatn Nature Baths, the ground here is still hot to the touch in places!


Looking north from the capital on a clear day, you’ll see the Snæfellsnes peninsula, with the sleeping Snæfellsjökull stratovolcano at its far end.

Snæfellsjökull is one of the famous volcanoes in Iceland, featured in Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne.

The volcano is thought to be 700,000 years old, and there have been three eruptions here in the last ten thousand years, the last around 300 AD.

What’s happening on the Reykjanes peninsula?

Most people’s first sight of Iceland is the Reykjanes peninsula, home to the international airport at Keflavík and the world-famous geothermal spa at the Blue Lagoon.

After 800 years of relative peace in this part of Iceland, there have been a series of volcanic eruptions since 2021.

Reykjanes means “smoking point,” a name that became even more appropriate when the Fagradalsfjall eruption began in March 2021, with lava flowing into an unpopulated area called Geldingadalir.

A second eruption began nearby in August 2022 in the Meradalir valley, followed by a third at Litli-Hrútur in July 2023.

All three were called “tourist eruptions” because they were safe to visit, relatively easy to reach, and did not adversely affect any local people.

The Sundhnúkur eruptions

Another series of fissure eruptions began in December 2023 along the Sundhnúkur crater chain, close to the fishing town of Grindavík.

Thousands of earthquakes triggered evacuation plans in the area, and a second eruption began in January 2024. Lava reached the outskirts of the town and engulfed several buildings.

A month later, a third eruption began, with lava fountains reaching as high as 80 meters, followed by a fourth eruption in March, which lasted 54 days.

A fifth eruption in the Sundhnúkur series began at the end of May 2024 and concluded a few weeks later, at the end of June 2024.

That means there have been eight eruptions on the Reykjanes peninsula since the beginning of 2021, causing disruption and forcing occasional closures at the Blue Lagoon and relocation for most of the residents of Grindavík.

How safe is it to visit Iceland and its volcanoes?

All this volcanic activity might make you think visiting Iceland is dangerous. Nothing could be further from the truth!

In the last 150 years, there have been just two fatalities caused by volcanoes in Iceland - a geoscientist monitoring Hekla in 1947 and a local overcome by carbon dioxide fumes during the Heimaey eruption in 1973.

Scientific monitoring of earthquakes using GPS and measuring underground magma movements and volcanic activity is now highly accurate. This provides plenty of warning for Icelandic residents and visitors and keeps them safe at all times.

Paying attention to these warnings from the Icelandic Meteorological Office and the University of Iceland reduces any public risk from lava flows or gas clouds.

Where can I learn more about Iceland’s volcanoes?

If you want to learn more about how volcanoes form such an integral part of Iceland’s national story, you can visit The Lava Show in Reykjavík or Vík or The LAVA Centre in Hvolsvöllur.

The Lava Show offers an immersive experience where you can see natural lava flowing in front of your eyes, safely presented in a modern building with expert volcanologists ready to explain this natural phenomenon.

The LAVA Centre is located with the legendary volcano Hekla in sight, providing a hands-on, state-of-the-art exhibition with interactive displays and a towering model of the tectonic rift separating the continents in Iceland.

Iceland’s volcanoes have shaped the “Land of Fire and Ice” and continue to offer a stunning visual reminder of the immense power and spectacle of the planet’s volatile geology.

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