How many volcanoes are there in Iceland? Where have the biggest eruptions been and has anyone died due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland? Are Icelandic volcanoes dangerous?
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.
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.
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 some of Iceland's most notable, famous or 'deadly' volcanos in Iceland.
Grimsvotn volcano: Iceland's deadliest volcanoes
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: The Gateway to Hell
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.
Eyjafjallajökull volcano: The world-famous one
Picture by Ragnar Þ Sigurðsson
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 situated in south Iceland, right next to one of Iceland's most dangerous volcanoes, Katla.
The 2010 eruption was the largest one in Eyjafjallajökull to date. There have been a few past eruptions, but nothing of a similar scale. A rather small, but long eruption, took place between 1821-1823, that was followed by a big eruption in its enormous neighbour Katla. There were also eruptions in Eyjafjallajökull in 1612-1613 and in the year 920, but not much is known about those eruptions.
Usually Katla erupts right after Eyjafjallajökull, and causes much more damage. Fortunately, that didn't happen in 2010.
Picture by Ingólfur Bjargmundsson
Eyjafjallajökull has become a popular attraction following its eruption in 2010. During the early days of the eruption, hundreds, or even thousands of people made their way to the volcano to watch the eruption. When the eruption really kicked in that became too dangerous, as the volcano started spouting endless amounts of ash, and a bit of lava.
Two new mountains were formed from the new lava. These two mountains got the names Magni and Móði (the same names as Thor's sons have in Nordic mythology). Still today, years later, hikers can feel the warm ground on top of the mountain, and if you dig a little deep then it's warm enough to heat a sandwich!
Katla volcano: The dangerous one
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.
Picture from Wikimedia Commons.
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 - and can cross over Eyjafjallajökull - along the way.
Snæfellsjökull volcano: The entrance to the centre of the Earth
Picture by Hótel Búðir
Snæfellsjökull is, like so many other volcanoes in Iceland, both a volcano and a glacier. Snæfellsjökull is a stratovolcano, that is particularly picturesque. The volcano got worldwide fame in 1864, not due to an eruption but because it was chosen by Jules Verne to serve as the entrance to the centre of the Earth in the classic novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
Snæfellsjökull's last eruption took place around 200 AD (+/- 150 years).
The volcano is surrounded by beautiful lava, and the mountain and its surroundings, all the way down to sea level, is a national park. Due to global warming the glacier has been diminishing in the last few years, and in 2012 the glacier's summit was ice-free for the first time in recorded history.
Askja volcano: The mysterious one with the lake
Picture from Askja Private Tour
It is interesting to note that most volcanoes in Iceland have female names, Hekla, Katla and Askja are all female names. Hekla, Katla and Askja also happen to be some of the biggest volcanoes in Iceland, with the most thunderous eruptions. Askja literally means 'caldera' or a 'box', perhaps fitting since it contains a lake within its caldera.
Askja was virtually unknown, until in 1875 when a massive eruption started. The ashfall was heavy and dangerous, poisoning the land and killing livestock, especially in the East fjords. Ash was blown all the way to Norway and Sweden, and the eruption caused a substantial emigration from Iceland.
The lake in the caldera was formed in the 1875 eruption, and although it was originally warm it has since cooled down and freezes over in wintertime, staying frozen for most of the year. However, there's a smaller, geothermal lake in a much smaller caldera that's called Víti (or 'Hell') that is warm enough to bathe in, and is on our list of the 5 best hot springs in Iceland.
Picture from Askja Super Jeep Tour from Akureyri
In 1907 a couple of German scientists went to explore the lake at Askja on a small boat, but disappeared without a trace. The fiancée of one of them led an expedition in search of them a year later, but had to accept that she wouldn't find any answers. To this day, no bodies have been found in the lake. The lake is 220 meters deep and around 12 square km.
Askja's last volcanic eruption was in 1961.
Tours to visit Askja are popular, it is located in the Icelandic highlands, just north of Vatnajökull glacier on the east side of the country. The tours to Askja leave from Akureyri, Lake Mývatn or Egilsstaðir.
Þríhnúkagígur volcano: The one you can enter
The only volcano you can actually go INSIDE of, is Þríhnúkagígur volcano. Don't miss out on this inside the volcano tour!
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.