Discover fascinating facts about Iceland's volcanoes, one of its hallmark geographic features. Learn about Iceland's volcanic activity, including the most active volcanoes in Iceland today, the Fagradalsfjall volcano eruption in 2021, and the most famous eruptions in history. Find out about volcano tourism and how you can visit these natural wonders in this complete guide to volcanoes in Iceland.
The Land of Fire and Ice, Iceland is a natural wonderland where the freezing forces of glaciers and arctic weather are constantly battling with the Earth's fierce heat. The result is a world of dramatic contrasts across a stark landscape, with a beauty like nowhere else.
Iceland's volcanoes define the nature of the land, creating endless fields of moss-coated lava, sweeping plains of black sand, jagged peaks, hot springs, geysers, and vast craters.
Thousands flock to Iceland to witness its volcanoes and the marvels they create. During eruptions, like the one currently occurring on the Reykjanes peninsula, even more people rushed over for their chance to see one of the Earth's most dramatic and beautiful phenomena.
Iceland has recently experienced a magnificent eruption on the Reykjanes Peninsula, the land that connects Reykjavik with Keflavik International Airport. In the weeks before its explosion, tens and thousands of earthquakes shook the capital and surrounding areas - normally a surefire forecast of imminent volcanic activities.
Although close to the capital, the Fagradalsfjall volcano is thankfully located in a sheltered valley away from any settlements or infrastructure, making its eruption rather undisruptive.
Fagradalsfjall was an effusive rather than an eruptive volcano, meaning its lava oozed and sputtered out of the Earth rather than exploding with a cacophony of ash, fire, and rock.
Of course, the moment Fagradalsfjall volcano went off, everybody wanted to see it. Even though eruptions are quite common in Iceland, they rarely happen close to the capital.
Some tour operators immediately launched private tours to the Fagradalsfjall volcano eruption, allowing guests to approach the spectacular lava flow and marvel over the fiery fountains and molten rivers under the watchful eye of an experienced local guide.
Others have chosen to witness its breathtaking power and beauty from the air by booking a helicopter tour or a small plane tour from Reykjavik Airport. Such trips are expensive but provide the kind of memories that will last a lifetime and photos that will make your social media followers green with envy.
However, most people choose to hike to the Fagradalsfjall volcano. Curious visitors may now take a bus from Reykjavik to the eruption site or pay a small fee to park in a lot near the established trails leading to the best viewing locations. The hike to the volcano observation point takes about 45 minutes and includes a few stretches of steep inclines that some travelers may find challenging.
Those embarking on the journey need to be well prepared. Sturdy hiking boots are essential, as are warm, waterproof clothes. Even if the weather in Iceland is nice when you set out, the conditions can change in a heartbeat.
You'll also need to take plenty of water with you, as they're no shops or glacial rivers en route, and bringing some high-energy snacks is highly recommended. You'll also need a fully charged phone and a camera or drone should you wish to capture the volcano's majesty. The eruption site has been largely inactive since September 2021 but is still worth the journey to experience an example of Earth's wild nature.
If you want to travel to Fagradalsfjall volcano yourself, understand that it's at your own risk. It's much safer to go with a local guide familiar with the landscape and trained for any eventuality. You shouldn't go near it if you have respiratory conditions, as the fumes coming from the eruption can trigger asthma and cause discomfort.
Since its first fissure opened, the primary eruption site at Fagradalsfjall volcano has risen into one vast crater. As time passed, several new fissures opened around it, showing the volatility and unpredictability of Earth's volcanic forces. Authorities are keeping a close eye on the Geldingadalur valley and will suspend the right to visit should the path to it be compromised.
Even so, anyone currently in or soon traveling to Iceland should take any opportunity they get to witness Fagradalsfjall volcano safely. After all, seeing an erupting volcano in Iceland is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Iceland is a product of volcanism as it sits directly across the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This ridge separates the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, and Iceland is one of the few places on Earth where it can be seen above sea level.
Tectonic plates are the crust and the uppermost part of the Earth's mantle. Due to the mantle's convection currents, tectonic plates can move together to form mountains or apart to form oceanic crust. There are 15 major tectonic plates, and North American and Eurasian are two of the biggest.
These two tectonic plates are divergent, meaning that they pull away from each other. As they do so, magma from the mantle rises to fill the space between them, producing volcanic eruptions. This occurs down the length of the rift, as can be noted on other volcanic islands such as those of the Azores and St. Helena.
There are many places in Iceland where you can witness parts of the ridge, such as the Reykjanes peninsula and the Lake Myvatn Area. But Thingvellir is the best as you can stand in a valley between the plates and see the continents' walls on opposite sides of Thingvellir National Park. Due to this divergence between the plates, the valley widens by approximately one inch (2.5 centimeters) every year.
There are approximately 130 active and inactive volcanoes in Iceland. Most of these volcanoes are active, with the only dormant sites found in Iceland's Westfjords.
The Westfjords no longer have any activity because it's the oldest part of Iceland's landmass. This area formed around 16 million years ago and has been pushed away from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Thus, the Westfjords is the only part of the country that has to heat its water with electricity (rather than using geothermally-heated water).
About 32 active volcanic systems can be found under the island in all parts of the country other than Westfjords. In addition to being on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland is also over a hot spot. A hot spot refers to abnormally high magma activity; other famous hot spots are Yellowstone National Park and Hawaii.
The main active volcanoes in Iceland run along a curved central line roughly from northeast to southwest. From north to south, the volcanoes' names are Krafla, Askja, Laki-Fogrufjoll, Grimsvotn, Hekla, Vatnajokull, and Katla, followed by Heimaey and Surtsey on the Westman Islands. Grimsvotn is the most active volcano in Iceland.
Here's a map of Iceland's active volcanoes to make it easier to understand. This is just a rough categorization based on geographical zones:
As we can see on the map above, Reykjavik is situated along the East Volcanic Zone. There are several active volcanoes near Reykjavik, including the recently erupting volcano Fagradalsfjall. The Fagradalsfjall volcano is also the nearest active volcano to Reykjavik, about 18.6 miles (30 kilometers) southwest of the capital.
Volcanic eruptions in Iceland are relatively regular yet unpredictable occurrences. Since the turn of the 19th century, not a decade has gone by without one; however, it's entirely random whether they go off in quick succession or with longer spaces between eruptions.
Before Fagradalsfjall volcano, Iceland's most recent known eruption was the Holuhraun volcano in the Highlands in 2014. Grimsvotn volcano had a short eruption in 2011, and, more famously, the Eyjafjallajokull volcano caused a lot of travel disruptions back in 2010.
The word "known" is used because there have been several suspected subglacial volcanic eruptions at different locations around the country that did not break the ice. Examples include the Katla volcanic eruption in 2017 and the Hamerinn volcanic eruption in 2011.
As much as the prediction and response to Icelandic volcano eruptions have improved, there are still some dangers travelers should be aware of during an eruption:
The threat to human life during volcanic eruptions in Iceland nowadays is minimal. Seismic stations around the country are excellent at predicting eruptions. If a significant volcano such as Katla or Askja shows signs of rumbling, the areas are quickly restricted and closely monitored.
Most towns are far from active volcanoes due to the good sense of early settlers. For example, the south coast of Iceland has very few towns and villages since major volcanoes like Katla and Eyjafjallajokull sit close by. As both of these peaks are under glaciers, the eruptions can cause enormous glacial floods that wipe out anything between them and the ocean.
This causes much of the south to look like a black-sand desert.
These glacial floods (or jokulhlaups as they're called in both Icelandic and English) remain one of the most dangerous aspects of Iceland's volcanoes due to their unpredictability. Subglacial eruptions can occur without anyone knowing, and flash floods can happen seemingly without warning.
Science is constantly improving, and nowadays, areas can be cleared and monitored if a jokulhlaup is suspected. This is why you should never drive on closed roads, even if it's the summer with no visible hazards ahead.
Though most volcanoes are far from population centers, the unexpected can still occur. When it has, Iceland's emergency measures have been incredibly effective, as was the case with the evacuations following the 1973 eruption of the Heimaey volcano in the Westman Islands.
Though the threat to human life in an Icelandic eruption is very low, its broader impacts can still be enormous. Eruptions in Iceland are major world events that can lead to dramatic consequences, even hundreds of miles away.
The elements brought up from the depths of the Earth in these eruptions can poison crops and livestock, thus crippling those who make a living off the land. Holuhraun volcano was blamed for the mass death of thousands of sheep across the country in 2015, an event that seriously threatened many Icelandic farmers' livelihoods.
The ash clouds produced by Iceland's volcanoes can also wreak havoc. When the Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted in 2010, flights were grounded across Europe, causing noticeable economic harm. This, however, was a relatively minor consequence compared to previous ash clouds. For example, the Laki volcano's eruption in 1784 was far more catastrophic.
The most catastrophic Icelandic eruption in terms of human life was undoubtedly the 1784 Laki volcanic eruption mentioned above. It impacted the climate and almost tore the nation of Iceland apart.
Due to the sheer volume of ash, crops across the country were rendered entirely inedible, and the rivers were poisoned. It wiped out half of the livestock, and a third of Icelanders lost their lives to the resulting famine. Another third left the country, most emigrating to North America in hopes of a prosperous new life, far from what appeared to be a dying island.
The ash cloud from the Laki volcano's eruption went right across Europe, causing dense fog that shut down ports, led to intense food shortages, and brought such heat that most foods quickly spoiled. It also poisoned those who worked outside. The UK had lost an estimated 23,000 people to the gases.
The consequences were even more dramatic in France. Its impact on the country's climate caused famines so terrible that many historians consider the 1784 Laki eruption one of the French Revolution's driving catalysts. In Egypt, the eruption lowered temperatures, leading to a lack of rainfall, a dried-up Nile River, and the loss of a sixth of the country's population.
All in all, up to six million people died because of the Laki volcano.
The Westman Islands are a volcanic archipelago, with Heimaey as the only inhabited island. At the time of the eruption, 5,200 people lived there. In the early hours of January 22, 1973, a fissure opened on the edge of town and snaked right through its center, tearing apart roads and consuming hundreds of buildings in flowing lava.
Despite happening in the middle of the night in the dead of winter, the island's evacuation was swift and effective. With the population safely on the mainland, Iceland's rescue teams worked with the US troops based in the country to minimize damage.
By constantly pumping seawater onto the lava flow, they redirected it from many houses. This slowed the flow of lava and prevented it from closing the harbor, which would have forever crippled the island's economy.
Though nearly 400 homes were destroyed and the island's infrastructure was heavily damaged, only one person lost their life due to the Heimaey eruption. Today, the town has been rebuilt and is a center for tourists looking to go whale or puffin watching or learn about its eruption history.
Though the threat of an eruption and concern for its consequences are constants in the Icelandic psyche, Iceland wouldn't be half the country it is today without the volcano systems and geothermal energy.
Much of Iceland's economy and infrastructure relies on the geothermal forces at work here. The vast majority of the country's hot water is pumped directly from the Earth to people's faucets and radiators, allowing for cheap, environmentally-friendly heating. Vegetables, fruits, and herbs are grown year-round in greenhouses, allowing fresh produce even in the dead of winter.
Iceland also produces about 30 percent of its electricity at geothermal power stations. As the rest is hydroelectric, Iceland is one of the world's only countries that almost entirely uses renewable energy sources.
However, this does not mean that the potential of Icelandic volcanoes is always used for good. Heavy industry, particularly aluminum smelting, is slowly increasing in Iceland as foreign entities see the potential in such a tremendous and free-flowing heat source.
Of course, Iceland's tourism industry is also heavily reliant on its volcanoes; after all, you can't be "the Land of Fire and Ice" without the forces of both at work.
Many credit the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull volcano with Iceland's recent boom in tourism, though it crippled the aviation industry at the time. As the volcano's name tangled the tongues of newscasters around the world, millions were shown footage of this country at its most raw, dramatic, and beautiful, inspiring them to witness it further.
Therefore, it's little wonder that much of the tour industry has built up around exploring volcanoes and volcanic regions. These excursions come in a wide variety of forms.
Guided sightseeing tours such as this trip around the Reykjanes Peninsula take you around the area while the guide shares local stories.
This Super Jeep tour will take you to some of the craters in North Iceland from the village of Husavik and includes a caving component where you can learn even more about the processes that occur during volcanic eruptions. Meanwhile, this 45-minute air tour will let you see the Grimsvotn crater, beneath the enormous Vatnajokull glacier, from an unmatched aerial perspective.
The Into the Volcano tour lets you descend into a dormant volcano's vast, brightly-colored magma chamber via elevator. It's incredibly rare for volcanoes to cool in a way that makes this possible, meaning this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those seeking Iceland's nature at its most magnificent.
The vast majority of tours in Iceland usually include volcanoes; the country has so many of them that they are inescapable. All Snaefellsnes peninsula tours, for example, are conducted in the shadow of the magnificent Snaefellsjokull volcano. Throughout all excursions around Lake Myvatn, you'll be able to see parts of the Krafla volcanic system, and Highland hikes will expose you to many more.
Given that Iceland has over 130 known volcanoes, it would take a while to see them all. So we've compiled a list of nine volcanoes we recommend that all visitors to Iceland experience firsthand.
Most people are familiar with the Eyjafjallajokull volcano after its eruption in 2010 caused a massive disruption in European flights. It may have been a nuisance for many air travelers, but it was a relatively minor event compared to Iceland's most significant eruptions in the past.
The 2010 eruption was the largest one from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano to date. There had been a few previous eruptions but nothing of a similar scale.
A small but long eruption took place between 1821 and 1823. There were earlier eruptions in 1612-1613 and 920, but little is known about them.
The Eyjafjallajokull volcanic system is connected to the Katla volcanic system, meaning an eruption here usually triggers an eruption at Katla volcano within half a decade. So far, this has not been the case, although as many sources will inform you, the Katla volcano is well overdue for a mighty eruption.
The Eyjafjallajokull volcano has become a popular attraction following its eruption in 2010. During the early days of the eruption, thousands of people made their way to Iceland to marvel at it, with many hopping on planes and helicopters for the best views.
The only volcano in the world with a magma chamber you can enter is the Thrihnukagigur volcano in Iceland. Dormant for about 4,000 years, there's no risk of an eruption here, making the tours as safe as they are mesmerizing.
Overall, the Thrihnukagigur volcano's magma chamber is about 5,300,000 cubic feet (150,000 cubic meters). It's entered by boarding a small mining lift at the entrance, which will lower you down 390 feet (120 meters) to the enormous cavern base. The bottom covers roughly the same amount of area as a football field, giving you plenty of space to explore. To put these numbers into perspective, the Statue of Liberty can easily fit inside the Thrihnukagigur volcano.
Besides its scale, the most impressive thing about this magma chamber is its vivid coloration. The lava within the chamber held many elements brought up from the Earth's mantle, and their vibrant shades are on full display. The chamber walls are dyed red, green, and yellow by iron, copper, and sulfur.
Photo by Jackmac34
The Grimsvotn volcanic system is the most volatile volcanic system in Iceland. Located under the Vatnajokull glacier in the southeast, its craters are largely invisible beneath the ice. However, the resulting ash clouds are the most significant and most deadly when an eruption occurs.
The Laki volcano mentioned above, which caused worldwide havoc in 1784, is part of this volcanic system.
Photo by Saira
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" due to its regular and explosive eruptions. However, it's also one of Iceland's least predictable volcanoes, with intervals between eruptions lasting anywhere between nine and 121 years.
Since settlement, Hekla has caused havoc on many occasions, spewing out millions of tons of tephra at a time. Its most powerful eruption was in 1104, though eruptions in 1300, 1693, and 1845 were more destructive to livestock, buildings, and human life. The last eruption was on February 26, 2000, but it was relatively minor.
Katla volcano is one of Iceland's most powerful and explosive volcanoes. It has been rumbling for years, with scientists putting out warnings every few months to notify the public of increased activity and remind them that the volcano is long overdue for an eruption. Connected to the same volcanic system as the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, it usually goes off within a few years of its neighbor, with dramatic results.
The volcano sits beneath the Myrdalsjokull glacier in South Iceland and is notorious for its vast ash clouds and catastrophic jokulhlaups when it erupts.
Photo by Jón Óskar Hauksson
Snaefellsjokull volcano is one of Iceland's most visited and beloved volcanoes. Located on the Snaefellsnes peninsula's tip, it provides a dramatic backdrop to many sites in the area and is a national park in its own right because of its beauty.
Snaefellsjokull volcano is particularly notable for its role in culture. Many artists have been inspired by its beauty, most notably the writers Halldor Laxness, who used it as a significant setting in "Under the Glacier," and Jules Verne, who claimed it held a cave leading to the Earth's core in "A Journey to the Center of the Earth."
Perhaps more curiously, thousands believed that at midnight on November 5, 1992, aliens would use the volcano as a landing site. A huge crowd gathered, including camera crews from around the world, for what turned out to be a relatively uneventful night.
Picture from Askja Private Tour
The Askja volcano was unknown until a massive eruption began in 1875. The ash was particularly heavy, poisoning the land and killing livestock across much of the country, especially in the Eastfjords. Its effects were felt as far away as Norway and Sweden. Like the 1784 Laki eruptions a century earlier, it prompted many Icelanders to emigrate to North America.
Today, Askja volcano is best known for the vast lake in the caldera formed in this eruption. Despite its altitude, it remained warm for years; today, it's frozen most of the year. However, a smaller geothermal lake in a nearby caldera, Viti, is warm enough for bathing.
Picture by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
Krafla volcano is a particularly active volcano in North Iceland, having erupted 29 times since settlement. Nine of these eruptions occurred between 1975 and 1984. It's also renowned for its crater lake, also called Viti. The main difference between the two is that Viti in Krafla volcano is a cold lake (beautifully colored in emerald blue), while the Viti in Askja volcano is geothermally heated.
Krafla volcano is a popular attraction in the Lake Myvatn area, visited on many tours due to its proximity to the Namafjall geothermal area. It's 2,684-feet (818-meters) high at its highest peak, 1.25 miles (two kilometers) deep, and its caldera has a diameter of 6.2 miles (10 kilometers).
Picture by Wolfgang Hasselmann
Another popular volcano in North Iceland is called Hverfjall or Hverfell (both are accepted names). It has not erupted for about 4,500 years, despite the volcanic activity around it.
Hverfjall volcano is well-loved because it's easy to hike. The crater is easily accessible from the Ring Road and is just 0.62 miles (one kilometer) in diameter. It only takes about an hour to walk the rim of this popular tephra cone, and it's situated right next to Lake Myvatn.
You can watch the live stream of Iceland's volcanoes online from the comfort of your own homes. Some of them are currently not live, so here are the ones that you can see right now:
Even though you've just read about the destructive powers of Icelandic volcanoes, don't be put off from coming to the Land of Fire and Ice. Iceland's volcano tourism offers some of the most memorable experiences in the country. If you've explored Iceland's volcanoes before, what were your favorite experiences? Let us know in the comments below.