How many volcanoes are there in Iceland? Where have the biggest eruptions been and has anyone died due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland?
Iceland has many active and inactive volcanoes (about 130 all together!) due to it being situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Basically, the country is in the middle of or on top of two tectonic plates and has 30 active volcanic systems running through the island.
Most people are familiar with Eyjafjallajökull volcano after its eruption in 2010 caused a massive disruption in European flights. That eruption may have been a nuisance for many air travellers but in comparison to Iceland’s biggest eruptions in the past it was just (literally) the tip of the iceberg (or well, glacier). Eyjafjallajökull is right next to one of Iceland's most dangerous volcaneos, Katla, in the south of Iceland.
The last big volcanic eruption in Iceland took place between August 2014 and March 2015 in Holuhraun in Bardarbunga, that's in the interior of the country, just north of Vatnajökull glacier.
It is interesting to note that most volcanos in Iceland have female names (Hekla, Katla, Askja...) and although it is Snæfellsjökull volcano that is the entrance to the centre of the Earth in Jules Verne's famous novel, the only volcano you can actually go INSIDE of, is Þríhnúkagígur volcano. Don't miss out on this inside the volcano tour!
No-one has died because of direct contact with a volcano in Iceland (such as being run over by a flow of lava!) but the volcanoes have nevertheless been very deadly indirectly. Following are the 'deadliest' volcanos in Iceland:
Grimsvotn volcano in Iceland
Grímsvötn volcanic system (lakes of Grímur) is the most volatile volcanic system out of the 30 that exist in Iceland. These are sub-glacial lakes in the Vatnajökull glacier area in south-east Iceland and they can not be seen on the surface. The volcano is situated underneath these lakes so whenever it erupts it melts the ice extremely fast, causing extremely powerful explosions and tremendous ash clouds.
The most fatal eruption ever to have happened in Iceland was in Skaftáreldar (fires of Skaftá) in 1783-1784. The eruption took place in a row of craters called Lakagígar (craters of Laki), which form a part of Grímsvötn's volcanic system. These craters run north of Vatnajökull glacier.
Around a quarter of the Icelandic population (9350 people) died due to this eruption in Lakagígar, not because of lava flow but because of indirect causes, such as changes in climate and illnesses in livestock due to poisonous gases and ash. 50% of Iceland's livestock died and famine reigned the country.
The aftermath also had a massive effect globally, causing a drop in global temperatures and spewing sulphur dioxide into the Northern Hemisphere. This caused crop failures in Europe and possibly draught in India. Globally it is estimated this eruption killed over 6 MILLION people. Making it by far the deadliest volcano in Iceland.
The 1783 eruption in Lakagígar is thought to have erupted the largest quantity of lava in a single eruption in historic times and is also the deadliest in historic times.
The area around Lakagígar is breathtakingly beautiful, so if you'd like to see these volcanoes up close and personal, check out this trekking tour from Lakagígar to Skaftafell.
Hekla volcano in Iceland
Hekla volcano is one of the most famous and active volcanoes in Iceland. In the Middle Ages, it was known as 'The Gateway to Hell'. Hekla is in the southwest part of Iceland, only about a 2 hour drive from Reykjavík.
Eruptions in Hekla are extremely varied and difficult to predict. They can last for a few days up to a couple of years. Generally it's considered that the longer Hekla stays dormant, the larger and more catastrophic the opening eruption will be! Basically, Hekla has erupted more than 20 times since the settlement of Iceland in 874, with intervals of 9 - 121 years.
The biggest eruption was in 1104 when the volcano erupted suddenly and without any warning, spewing out millions of tons of tephra.
An eruption in 1300-1301 caused significant damage in Skagafjörður and Fljót and caused over 500 deaths that winter.
An eruption 40 years later caused a lot of cattle death.
1693 saw one of Hekla's most destructive eruptions. Tephra caused lahars and tsunamis and damaged and destroyed farms as well as causing significant deaths in wildlife.
Hekla was dormant for more than 60 years before 1845 when it suddenly burst forth with explosive eruptions, leading to the whole island being strewn with volcanic poisonous ash and causing massive livestock deaths.
The last eruption was on the 26th of February in 2000, causing little destruction.
Katla volcano in Iceland
The volcano Katla is known as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in Iceland. It is located in the Mýrdalsjökull glacier in the south of Iceland and can cause horrendous glacial river floods when it erupts. Those floods can ruin houses and farms.
Katla is one of the largest volcanoes in Iceland and has erupted 20 times in the period between 930 and 1918 at intervals of 13-95 years.
The last big eruption was in 1918 but volcanologists are expecting another one soon - and history tells us that could be catastrophic!
Most of the eruptions have resulted in glacial floods. The severe fissure eruption in 934 was one of the largest lava eruptions in the past 10 thousand years!
Before Iceland's ringroad was constructed in 1974, people feared crossing the southern plains of Iceland in front of Katla because of the frequent glacier bursts and deep river crossings. The glacier outburst after the eruption in 1918 was especially dangerous.
Katla is fairly inaccessible, you'll have to hike to it or fly by helicopter. You can drive south along the ringroad number 1 and reach Skógafoss after a 2,5 hour drive from Reykjavík. If you hike from Skógafoss to Þórsmörk, a route called Fimmvörðuháls, you'll get a view of Katla along the way.
Volcano Tourism in Iceland
Even though you've just read about the destructive powers of Icelandic volcanoes, don't be put off to come to this land of ice and fire. Although volcano tourism had already started in Iceland, with the Eyjafjallajökull eruptions in 2010 it became even bigger, seeing thousands of people hiking, driving, snowmobiling or flying to the craters. Nobody was harmed during the eruption and the people that made the trip got to witness a spectacular show of the forces of nature!
Find all of our volcano tours here.