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Hverfjall is a beautiful crater in Iceland.

The Ultimate Guide to Volcanoes in Iceland + The Impact of COVID-19

Verified Expert

Discover a wealth of fascinating facts about Iceland's volcanic history and most famous eruptions, and discover the currently erupting Fagradalsfjall, with this ultimate guide to volcanoes in Iceland.

The Land of Ice and Fire, Iceland is a natural wonderland where the freezing forces of glaciers and arctic weather are in a constant battle with the earth's explosive heat. The result is a world of dramatic contrasts across a stark landscape, with a beauty like nowhere else.

None of this would be possible without Iceland’s volcanoes. Perhaps more than any other force, they define the nature of the land, creating endless fields of moss-coated lava, sweeping plains of black sand, jagged peaks, and vast craters.

Lava snakes away from the eruption of Holuhraun in the Icelandic highlands.

The volcanic forces beneath the earth's surface also create some of the country’s most popular wonders, such as its naturally occurring hot springs and explosive geysers. The consequences of past eruptions have led to even more, such as winding lava caves and cliffs defined with hexagonal basalt columns.

Thousands flock to Iceland to witness its volcanoes and the marvels they have (and continue to) create; during eruptions, like the one currently occurring on the Reykjanes Peninsula, even more rush over for their chance to see one of the earth’s most dramatic and beautiful phenomena. 

Will COVID-19 Impact my Chances to Visit a Volcano? 

Luckily, the volcanic eruption of Fagradalsfjall in Iceland is ongoing as the national restrictions have been lifted and the international restrictions have been eased. Today, if you are vaccinated, have proof of having recovered from COVID-19, or come from one of several approved countries, all you have to do to enter the country is complete a pre-registration form

From here, you can either rent a car or organize a scheduled tour in order to see the volcano spewing lava just a short way away from Keflavik International Airport. While everything continues to be sanitized to a high standard, no other restrictions are in place, meaning you can enjoy your holidays without having to worry about excursions being limited for social distancing or your freedoms being limited.

It is not just Fagradalsfjall at the fingertips of travelers to Iceland looking to witness its volcanic wonder. The Myvatn area, Snaefellsnes Peninsula, and magnificent Highlands are all examples of incredible places where you can marvel over landscapes shaped by the forces of fire. 

Due to the fact that the pandemic is not over and Iceland is simply ahead of the world in its fight against it, these parts of the country promise to be far less crowded than they usually are. Not only will this make your experience here more peaceful and memorable, but it can keep your mind at ease if you still have concerns about social distancing. If this is the case, it is most recommended to book a self-drive tour.

You can learn more about the current restrictions on our COVID-19 information page.

The 2021 Fagradalsfjall Eruption in Iceland

Fagradalsfjall is Iceland's most recent volcanic eruption.

Iceland is currently experiencing a magnificent eruption on the Reykjanes Peninsula, the land that connects Reykjavik with Keflavik International Airport. In the weeks before its eruption, the capital and its surrounding areas had been shaken by tens of thousands of earthquakes, an ominous promise that volcanic activity was imminent. 

At around 21.30 on March 19th, a great fissure opened in the Geldingadalur area at Fagradalsfjall volcano, measuring about 700 meters long and covering a square kilometer. 

Although the Reykjanes Peninsula is a vital part of the country, Fagradalsfjall is thankfully located within a sheltered valley away from any settlements or infrastructure, making its eruption rather undisruptive. 

An aerial view of Fagradalsfjall in Iceland, taken in March 2021.

Adding to this is that it is an effusive rather than an eruptive volcano, meaning its lava has come oozing and sputtering out of the earth, rather than exploding with a cacophony of ash, fire, and rock.

Of course, the moment Fagradalsfjall went off, everybody wanted to go and see it. Even though eruptions are quite common in Iceland, they rarely happen so close to the capital. 

Certain operators immediately launched tours 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 or small plane from Reykjavik Domestic Airport. Such trips, though expensive, provide the kind of memories that will last a lifetime and the kind of photos that will make your social media followers green with envy!

The way that most people are seeing Fagradalsfjall, however, is by simply hiking there themselves. This is where Geldingadalur’s sheltered, remote location becomes a double-edged sword. Though on the very accessible Reykjanes Peninsula, the nearest roads to it have been closed and reaching it requires around two hours of trekking across some very rough terrain both ways, at a time of year when the weather is most unpredictable.

A night time view of the lava rivers of Fagradalsfjall volcano.

As such, those embarking on the journey will 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 there are no shops or glacial rivers en route, and bringing some high-energy snacks is highly recommended. You will also want to ensure you have a fully charged phone on your person, and of course, a camera or drone should you want to capture its majesty on camera.

A shot showing how remote the eruption at Fagradalsfjall is.

If you wish to travel to Fagradalsfjall yourself, understand that you do so at your own risk; it is much safer to go with a local guide who is familiar with the landscapes and trained for any eventuality. It is also highly discouraged to visit if you have respiratory conditions, as the fumes coming from the eruption are the most dangerous aspect of it. 

These can even trigger symptoms in the vulnerable several kilometers away if the winds are strong and direct.

Lava creeps ever further from the eruption site at Fagradalsfjall, and a daring photographer gets it on camera.

Since its first fissure opened, the main eruption site at Fagradalsfjall has risen into one vast crater. However, several new fissures have opened around it, showing how volatile and unpredictable the earth's volcanic forces are. Authorities are keeping a close eye on Geldingadalur and are willing to suspend the right to visit should the path to it be compromised.

Even so, any currently in or soon traveling to Iceland should grab onto any opportunity they have to witness Fagradalsfjall safely. After all, witnessing a volcano erupt in Iceland, particularly one so accessible and mesmerizing, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

How Many Volcanoes Are There in Iceland?

Ash billowing from Holuhraun, a volcano in Iceland.

There are approximately 130 volcanoes in Iceland, active and inactive. About 30 active volcanic systems can be found under the island, in all parts of the country other than the Westfjords.

The Westfjords no longer have any activity because it is the oldest part of Iceland’s landmass, formed around 16 million years ago, and has since 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.

Why is Iceland so Volcanic?         

The lava field at Eldhraun in the Highlands is a perfect example of the effects of volcanoes on Icelandic nature.

The volcanism of Iceland comes from the fact that the country 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 that it can be seen above sea level.

These tectonic plates are divergent, meaning that they are pulling away from each other. As they do so, magma from the mantle rises to fill the space between them in the form of 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.

The Mid-Atlantic Ridge goes all the way through Iceland, meaning that much of it is, in fact, on the North American continent. There are many places in the country where you can witness parts of the Ridge, such as the aforementioned Reykjanes Peninsula and the Lake Mývatn Area, but Þingvellir is the best. Here, you can stand in a valley between the plates and clearly see the continents' walls on opposite sides of the National Park.

Due to this divergence between the plates, this valley widens approximately 2.5 centimeters every year.

How Often Do Volcanic Eruptions Occur in Iceland?

A photo of the most recent major eruption in Iceland, at Holuhraun.

Volcanic eruptions in Iceland are unpredictable but relatively regular occurrences. Since the turn of the 19th Century, not a decade has gone by without one going off, but whether they go off in quick succession or spaced apart is quite random.

Before Fagradalsfjall, the most recent known eruption in Iceland was at Holuhraun in the Highlands in 2014. Grímsfjall volcano had a short eruption in 2011, and, more famously, Eyjafjallajökull caused a lot of trouble 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, such as Katla in 2017 and Hamerinn in 2011.

How Dangerous are Volcanic Eruptions in Iceland?

In spite of their awesome power, the threat to life from the lava of a volcano is basically nil in Iceland.

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 major volcano such as Katla or Askja shows signs of rumbling, the areas are restricted and closely monitored.

Most active volcanoes are far from the towns due to the sense of early settlers. The South Coast of Iceland, for example, has very few towns and villages since major volcanoes like Katla and Eyjafjallajökull sit just to its north. As both of these peaks sit 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; it is a glacial outwash plain.

Reynisfjara beach on Iceland's South Coast has black sands from glacial floods.

These glacial floods - or jökulhlaups as they are called in both Icelandic and English - remain one of the most dangerous parts of Iceland's volcanoes due to their unpredictability. As mentioned above, subglacial eruptions can occur without anyone knowing, and these flash floods can therefore happen seemingly without warning.

Science is constantly improving, and nowadays, areas can be cleared and monitored if a jökulhlaup is even suspected. Therefore, it is obvious and imperative to never drive on closed roads, even if it is summer and there are seemingly no hazards ahead.

Though most volcanoes are a long distance from population centers, the unexpected can still occur. When it has, however, Iceland’s emergency measures have been incredibly effective. Take, for example, the 1973 eruption of Heimaey in the Westman Islands.

The Westman Islands are a volcanic archipelago, of which Heimaey is the only inhabited island; at the time of the eruption, 5,200 people lived there. Beginning in the early hours of January 22nd, a fissure that opened about on the edge of town snaked right through its center, tearing apart roads and consuming hundreds of buildings in the blooming lava.

Despite the fact it happened 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 pumping seawater constantly on the lava flow, they managed to redirect it from many houses. They 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 this fascinating event.

The Land of Ice and Fire, Iceland is known for its volcanic eruptions.

As excellent as a prediction of and response to Icelandic volcanic eruptions has become, there are still some dangers associated with eruptions that travelers should be aware of. Should an eruption occur in Iceland during your stay, it is important to be aware of the wind's direction. Even an eruption in the Highlands can affect the air quality in Reykjavík if the winds are unfavorable, causing respiratory problems in the young, elderly, and those who are prone to them.

It is often recommended that people remain inside with the windows closed on days where the toxicity levels are particularly high.

You can see any warnings about eruptions and air quality on the Icelandic weather website.

Though the threat to human life in an Icelandic eruption is very low, their wider impacts can still be enormous. Eruptions in Iceland are major world events that can lead to dramatic consequences, even hundreds of miles away.

When lava emerges from under ice, the ash cloud is much more destructive.

The elements brought up from the depths of the earth in these eruptions, for example, can poison crops and livestock, thus crippling those who make a living off the land. Holuhraun was blamed for the mass death of thousands of sheep across the country in 2015, which seriously threatened many Icelandic farmers' livelihoods.

The ash clouds produced by Iceland’s volcanoes can also wreak havoc. As was seen in 2010 when Eyjafjallajökull erupted, flights were grounded across Europe, causing noticeable harm to the economy. This, however, was a relatively minor consequence compared to previous ash clouds. Laki’s eruption in 1784, for example, created one that was far more catastrophic.

It went right across Europe, causing dense fogs that shut down ports, leading to intense food shortages, and brought such heat that most foods went quickly rancid anyway. It also poisoned those who worked outside; one of Iceland’s closest neighbors, Great Britain, 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 Laki one of the French Revolution's driving catalysts. In Egypt, meanwhile, the eruption lowered temperatures, leading to a lack of rainfall, a dried-up Nile, and the loss of a sixth of the country’s population.

All in all, up to six million people were killed as a consequence of Laki.

What was Iceland’s Worst Eruption?

The most catastrophic Icelandic eruption in terms of human life was undoubtedly the aforementioned 1784 eruption of Laki. It has an impact on the climate and health of the globe. It 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 poisoned. Half of all livestock was wiped out, and a third of Icelanders lost their lives to the ensuing famine. A further 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.

How does Iceland use its Volcanoes?

Volcanic energy in Iceland is used for its electricity, hot water, infrastructure, industry and recreation.

Though the threat of an eruption and concern for its consequences are constant parts of the Icelandic psyche, without the volcano systems and their geothermal energy, Iceland would not be half the country it is today.

Much of Iceland’s economy and infrastructure rely on the geothermal forces at work here. The vast majority of hot water in the country 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 world produce even in the dead of winter.

Iceland also produces about 30% of its electricity at geothermal power stations; as the rest is hydroelectric, Iceland is one of the world’s few 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 great and free-flowing source of heat.

Of course, Iceland’s tourism industry is also heavily reliant on its volcanoes; after all, you can’t be ‘the Land of Ice and Fire’ without the forces of both at work.

Volcano Tourism in Iceland

Many credit the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull with Iceland’s recent boom in tourism. As it tangled the tongues of newscasters around the world, millions were shown footage of this country at its most raw, dramatic, and beautiful and were inspired to witness it further.

Therefore, it is little wonder that much of the tour industry has built up around exploring volcanoes and volcanic regions. These excursions come in a vast variety of forms; some are guided sightseeing tours, such as this trip around the Reykjanes Peninsula, where you will get to hear local stories about the region, whereas others involve more adventure.

This super jeep tour will take you to some of the craters of North Iceland from the village of Husavík and includes a caving component where you can learn even more about the processes that occur during volcanic eruptions. Meanwhile, this flightseeing tour will let you see Grímsvötn crater, beneath the enormous Vatnajökull glacier, from an unmatched aerial perspective.

Volcanic fumes rise from the earth near Myvatn in north Iceland.

However, the most unique of all volcano tours in Iceland is conducted in no other country; the Into the Volcano tour allows you to descend into the vast, brightly colored magma chamber of a dormant volcano using a lift. It is incredibly rare for volcanoes to cool in a way that makes this possible, providing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those seeking Iceland’s nature at its most magnificent.

It should be noted, however, that the vast majority of tours in Iceland will include, in one way or another, volcanoes. The country has so many of them that they are inescapable. All Snæfellsnes tours, for example, are conducted in the shadow of the magnificent Snæfellsjökull volcano. Throughout all excursions around Lake Mývatn, you will be able to see parts of the Krafla system, and Highland hikes will expose you to many more.

Particularly the Fimmvorðuháls hiking trail runs through the lava created by the most recent eruption at Eyjafjallajökull. Here, you can find two of the newest craters in Iceland, Magni, and Móði.

The Top Nine Most Famous Volcanoes in Iceland

As has been noted, Iceland has over 130 known volcanoes. However, many of these require a closer analysis due to their active nature, unique beauty, dark history, or tour opportunities.

Below, therefore, we have compiled a list of nine volcanoes that all visitors to Iceland are recommended to see. 

Eyjafjallajokull: Iceland's Most Famous Volcano

Most people are familiar with the Eyjafjallajökull volcano after its eruption in 2010 caused a massive disruption in European flights. It may have been a nuisance for many air travelers, but in comparison to Iceland’s biggest eruptions in the past, it was a relatively minor event.

Even so, 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, and there were also eruptions in 1612-1613 and the year 920, but not much is known about these.

The Eyjafjallajökull volcanic system is connected to the Katla volcanic system, meaning an eruption here usually triggers one at Katla within half a decade. So far, this has not been the case, although as many sources will inform you, Katla is well overdue for a mighty eruption.

Eyjafjallajökull 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 over it, with many hopping on planes and helicopters for the optimal view. 

Thrihnukagigur: The Only Volcano You Can Enter

As mentioned before, the only volcano in the world with a magma chamber that can be accessed is Þríhnúkagígur volcano in Iceland. Dormant for about 4000 years, there is no risk of an eruption here, making tours as safe as they are mesmerizing.

Overall, the space within Þríhnúkagígur's magma chamber is about 150,000 cubic meters. It is entered by boarding a small mining lift at the entrance, which will lower you down 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 could easily fit inside Þríhnúkagígur.

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 the vibrant shades of these are on full display; the walls are dyed red, green, and yellow by iron, copper, and sulfur, respectively.

Grimsvotn: Iceland's Deadliest Volcanoes

Laki is part of the Grimsvotn system.Photo by Jackmac34

The Grímsvötn volcanic system is the most volatile volcanic system out of the thirty that exist in Iceland. Located under the Vatnajökull glacier in the southeast, its craters are largely invisible beneath the ice. However, when an eruption occurs, the resulting ash clouds are some of the greatest and most deadly. 

The aforementioned Laki volcano, which caused worldwide havoc in 1784, is part of this volcanic system.

Hekla Volcano: The Gateway to Hell

Hekla volcano in Iceland is one of the country's most explosive.Photo by Saira

Hekla volcano is one of the most famous and active volcanoes in Iceland. It was known as 'The Gateway to Hell' due to its regular and explosive eruptions throughout this period in the Middle Ages. However, it is also one of Iceland's least predictable volcanoes, with intervals between eruptions lasting anywhere between nine and 121 years.

Since settlement, it has caused havoc on many occasions, spewing out millions of tephra tonnes at a time. 1104 was the date of its most powerful eruption, though its eruptions in 1300, 1693, and 1845 were more destructive in damage to livestock, buildings, and human life. 

The last eruption was on the 26th of February in 2000, but it was relatively minor.

Katla: Eyjafjallajokull's Explosive Neighbour

Katla is located under Mýrdalsjökull glacier in south-east Iceland.

One of Iceland's most powerful and explosive volcanoes, Katla, has been rumbling for years; scientists put out warnings every few months to notify the public of increased activity and remind them that the volcano is long overdue. Connected to Eyjafjallajökull's system, it usually goes off within a few years of its neighbor, to dramatic results. 

As mentioned, the volcano sits beneath the Mýrdalsjökull glacier in the south of Iceland, and when it erupts, it is notorious for its vast ash clouds and catastrophic jökulhlaups.

Snæfellsjökull: The Door to the Centre of the Earth

Snæfellsjökull volcano in West Iceland is a beautiful feature.Photo by Jón Óskar Hauksson

Snæfellsjökull is one of Iceland's most visited, famous, and beloved volcanoes. Located on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula's tip, it provides a dramatic backdrop to many sites in the area and is a National Park in its own right for its beauty.

Snæfellsjökull 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 major 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 Centre of the Earth.'

Perhaps more curiously, the volcano has drawn attention from those with a belief in the paranormal. In fact, it was believed by thousands that at midnight on November 5th, 1992, aliens would use it as a landing site. A huge crowd gathered, including camera crews from around the world, for what turned out luckily to be a rather uneventful night.

Askja: Iceland's Hot Spring Volcano

Askja volcano's frozen lake in Iceland's highlandsPicture from Askja Private Tour 

Askja was pretty much unknown as a volcano until 1875 when a massive eruption began here. The ash was particularly heavy, poisoning the land and killing livestock across much of the country, especially the East Fjords. Its effects were felt as far away as Norway and Sweden. Like the Laki eruptions a century earlier, Askja prompted many Icelanders to emigrate to North America.

Today, Askja is best known for the vast lake in the caldera, formed in this eruption. Despite its altitude, it remained warm for many years, though these days, it is frozen for much of the year. However, adjacent to it is a smaller geothermal lake in another caldera called Víti, which is warm enough to bathe in.

Krafla: The Cold Crater Lake Volcano

Víti in Krafla crater volcano in Iceland is a magnificent place to visit.Picture by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir

Krafla is a particularly active volcano in north Iceland, having erupted 29 times since settlement; nine of these eruptions occurred between 1975 and 1984. It is also renowned for a lake in its crater, which oddly also has the name Víti. The main difference is that Víti in Krafla is a cold lake instead of Víti in Askja, which is geothermally heated. Víti in Krafla also has a gorgeous emerald blue color.

Krafla is a popular attraction in the Mývatn area, visited on many tours due to its proximity to the hot-spring area of Námafjall. It is 818 meters high at its highest peak, two kilometers deep, and its caldera has a diameter of ten kilometers.

Hverfjall/Hverfell: Easy Hike-Around Volcano

Hverfjall is a beautiful crater in Iceland.Picture by Wolfgang Hasselmann

Another popular volcano in the north of Iceland is called Hverfjall or Hverfell: both are accepted names. It has not erupted for about 4500 years, despite the volcanic activity surrounding it.

Hverfjall's is well-loved because it is easy to hike for anyone comfortable on their feet; the crater is easily accessible from the Ring Road and just 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 Mývatn.

  • To learn more about the 'Ice' in the Land of Ice and Fire, see this article on Glaciers in Iceland