Both glaciers and volcanoes are integral to the island of Iceland. The land of fire and ice has been shaped by these most powerful of twin forces. So much so that they are forever ingrained in the identity of Iceland. Volcanoes and glaciers have created the incredible dramatic landscapes that so many visitors come to admire. Geothermal activity heats the island’s water and homes, generates electricity and even grows their vegetables in winter! Iceland’s geothermal pools and hot springs are all heated by volcanic activity deep underground. And both the tourist industry and the power industry rely upon it.
Yet at the same time these explosive forces can have some seriously damaging and dangerous effects. These days the monitoring of volcanoes is well developed. It is almost always possible to predict when an eruption will occur and to prepare for it. Evacuating the area around the volcano and bracing for subsequent effects. Past inhabitants of Iceland have not had it so easy though. In 1784 a catastrophic eruption of the volcano Laki wreaked havoc. Not only for the islanders but for countries in Europe and beyond. The ash poisoned the rivers and the land killing livestock and driving much of the remaining population away. In the UK thousands of people died from the airborne gases spewed out by the Laki eruptions. Even the climate of Egypt was quite drastically affected.
There has been nothing quite as extreme as this is in modern times. However, Icelandic people live with a deep respect for the fragility of life and the awe-inspiring power of nature. Living with volcanoes takes a certain type of mind-set and outlook on life. And the national character of the Icelandic people is all the more unique and interesting for it.
What makes Iceland so very volcanic?
There are some 130 volcanoes across Iceland and its islands. Some are active while others are lying dormant. 32 volcanic systems are currently classified as active In Iceland, so the authorities are pretty busy keeping tabs on them all. A total of 18 volcanoes are known to have erupted since the settlement of Iceland. We say known because there are many volcanoes that lie beneath the glaciers of Iceland. It is possible for an eruption under ice to go undetected.
The origin of all these rumblings, grumblings and explosions stems from Iceland’s position on the Mid Atlantic Ridge. Iceland straddles both the North American and the Eurasian plate. These tectonic plates are slowly drifting apart. As they move away from each other magma rushes in to fill the remaining void. This movement of magma is what creates the volcanic eruptions large or small. Iceland is one of the only places in the world where you can see the meeting of the Earth’s tectonic plates. It is possible to both walk and dive along the fissure created by them. The only other place that you can do this is in the North African rift valley.
How often does an eruption occur?
There are really regular volcanic eruptions in Iceland. There has been one recorded at least every decade since the beginning of the 19th Century. As mentioned though these are on the whole quite well predicted. Island has a robust emergency service in place and when the inevitable occurs they are quick to react. Areas will be quickly evacuated if they are on a flood plain or a lava path. There are in fact few settlements in these danger areas in the first place. The Icelandic people learnt quickly where it was safest to build settlements.
The eruptions are also of varying ferocity too. Some will require evacuation; others will ground flights with their ash clouds while others still will have little visible effect. Iceland’s tour operators are always poised at the ready with helicopters. If an eruption occurs they will take volcano hunters up and over the volcano for an aerial view of the action.
Iceland’s most Famous Volcanoes
A relatively recent Icelandic eruption occurred in 1973 in the Westman Islands in South Iceland. The eruption came out of the blue in the early hours of a January morning. The town was quickly evacuated and although over 400 houses were destroyed the loss of life was very low. Only one person died when the eruption occurred. The rest of the population were taken to safety on the mainland. Today the town has been rebuilt and is a popular and fascinating place to visit.
Eyjafjallajökull the unpronounceable! This is probably the most famous of all of the active volcanoes in Iceland. This is the culprit for that infamous eruption in 2010 that closed down flights across Europe. The volcano dished out clouds of volcanic ash over six days. Flights might have been grounded around Europe but in Iceland many people hopped on helicopter flights for aerial views of the volcano. The eruption is sometimes credited with bringing Iceland further into the public consciousness and increasing tourism to the country.
Also in South Iceland Katla is Eyjafjallajökull’s feisty neighbour. The Katla Volcano lies partially under the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap and is ominously overdue an eruption. When it does go off its lava field stretches to the ocean. This is why the southern coast of Iceland is made up of volcanic black sand beaches. Katla is just south of the Vatnajökull National Park.
So frequent were its eruptions that Hekla was known as the ‘Gateway to Hell’ in the Middle Ages. It is a large volcanic ridge and may well be one of the next volcanoes to erupt in Iceland. Hekla means hooded cloak in Icelandic and the name is thought to have come from the low cloud that often seems to hang above it.
This dormant volcano lies just south of Reykjavik and is an incredible place to visit. This is the only volcano in Iceland that you can enter. Visitors can enter its vast magma chamber by way of a lift descending 120 meters to the cavern floor. The rainbow of colours created by the cooled lava flow is beautiful to see. Copper, iron and sulphur have all been brought to the surface creating swathes of red, orange and purple in the magma chamber walls.
Bárðarbunga lies underneath the Vatnajökull Glacier, Europe’s biggest ice cap. It is part of a vast volcanic system stretching for nearly 100km. No one knows when an eruption occur but it is being closely monitored for activity. Because of its placement under a glacier an eruption could trigger the release of a large amount of water. These sudden volcano triggered floods have a special name and are known as jökulhlaup in Iceland.
Askja in the Icelandic highlands is made up of a series of calderas. This remote part of Iceland is starkly beautiful. One of the smaller calderas in the system is filled with a freezing lake. It is one of the deepest lakes in Iceland and is frozen for much of the year.
Although currently listed as just moderately active Krafla is responsible for much of the geothermal activity in North Iceland. The lovely Lake Myvatn Nature Baths on the Ring Road route are heated by its thermal power. As are the nearby geothermal lava fields were steaming vents and mud pots create a fascinating landscape to explore.