How many volcanoes are there in Iceland? How often do they erupt? What is the chance of an Icelandic volcano going off on your holiday? Are they safe to visit? Read ahead for the 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 constant battle with the explosive heat of the earth. The result is 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.
The volcanic forces beneath the surface of the earth also create some the country’s most popular wonders, such as its naturally occurring hot springs and its explosive geysirs. 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, even more rush over for their chance to see one of the earth’s most dramatic and beautiful phenomena. Considering how vital they are to the Icelandic nature, industry and character, therefore, we have compiled this ultimate guide to volcanoes in Iceland to answer any questions you may have about these forces of fire.
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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 reason the Westfjords no longer has any activity is 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. Because of this, the Westfjords is the only part of the country that has to heat its water with electricity, rather than using geothermally heated water.
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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 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 walls of the continents on opposite sides of the National Park.
Due to this divergence between the plates, this valley widens approximately 2.5 centimetres every year.
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Volcanic eruptions in Iceland are an unpredictable but relatively regular occurrence. Since the turn of the 19th Century, not a decade has gone by without one going off, but whether they go off in a quick succession or spaced apart is quite random.
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 reason the word ‘known’ is used is 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.
The threat to human life during volcanic eruptions in Iceland nowadays is minimal. Seismic stations around the country are excellent at predicting eruptions, and if a major volcano such as Katla or Askja is showing 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 due to the fact that major volcanoes like Katla and Eyjafjallajökull sit just to its north. As both of these peaks sit under glaciers, the eruptions at them can cause enormous glacial floods that wipe out anything between them and the ocean.
This is what causes much of the south look a black-sand desert; it is a glacial outwash plain.
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These glacial floods - or jökulhlaups as they are called in both Icelandic and English - remain one of the most dangerous parts of the volcanoes of Iceland, due to their unpredictability. As mentioned above, subglacial eruptions can occur without anyone knowing, and these flash floods can therefore happen seemingly without warning.
Of course, science is constantly improving, and nowadays areas can be cleared and monitored if a jökulhlaup is even suspected. It is obvious and imperative, therefore, to never drive on roads that are closed, even if it is summer and there are seemingly no hazards ahead.
Though most volcanoes are a long distance from population centres, 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 centre, tearing apart roads and consuming hundreds of buildings in the blooming lava.
In spite of the fact it happened in the middle of the night, in the dead of winter, the evacuation of the island was swift and effective. With the population safely on the mainland, Iceland’s rescue teams worked with the US troops who were based in the country to minimise damage.
By pumping seawater constantly on the lava flow, they not only managed to redirect it from many of the houses but also prevented it from closing the harbour, 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 as a result of the Heimaey eruption. Today, the town has been rebuilt, and is a centre for tourists looking to go whale or puffin watching, or else to learn about this fascinating event.
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As excellent as prediction of and response to Icelandic volcanic eruptions has become, there are still some dangers associated with eruptions that travellers should be aware of. Should an eruption occur in Iceland during your stay, it is important to be aware of the direction of the wind. Even an eruption in the Highlands can affect the air quality in Reykjavík if the winds are unfavourable, 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.
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 the livelihoods of many Icelandic farmers.
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 food went quickly rancid anyway. It also poisoned those who worked outside; one of Iceland’s closest neighbours, 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 driving catalysts of the French Revolution. 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.
The most catastrophic Icelandic eruption in terms of human life was undoubtedly the aforementioned 1784 eruption of Laki. Not only did it have 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.
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. Vegetable, fruits and herbs are grown year-round in greenhouses, allowing for 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 hydro-electric, Iceland is one of the world’s few countries that almost entirely uses renewable sources of energy. This does not mean, however, that the potential of Icelandic volcanoes is always used for good; heavy industry, particularly aluminium 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.
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.
It is little wonder, therefore, 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 simply 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. This flightseeing tour, meanwhile, will let you see Grímsvötn crater, beneath the enormous Vatnajökull glacier, from an unmatched aerial perspective.
The most unique of all volcano tours in Iceland, however, is one that is conducted in no other country; the Into the Volcano tour allows you to descend into the vast, brightly coloured 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 simply 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 of note is the Fimmvorðuháls hiking trail, which runs through the lava created by the most recent eruption at Eyjafjallajökull. Here, you can find the two newest craters in Iceland, Magni and Móði.
While no eruptions are currently occurring in Iceland, many operators will adapt their tours the moment one starts. Keep an eye on super jeep, plane and helicopter tours if one of Iceland’s volcanoes goes off and you are eager to see flowing lava.
As has been noted, Iceland has over 130 known volcanoes. Many of these, however, 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.
Most people are familiar with Eyjafjallajökull volcano after its eruption in 2010 caused a massive disruption in European flights. It may have been a nuisance for many air travellers, 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 in 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.
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 mesmerising.
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 metres to the base of the enormous cavern. 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 colouration. The lava within the chamber held many elements brought up from the mantle of the earth, and the vibrant shades of these are on full display; the walls are dyed red, green and yellow by iron, copper and sulphur respectively.
Photo by Jackmac34
The Grímsvötn volcanic system is the most volatile volcanic system out of the thirty that exist in Iceland. Located under Vatnajökull glacier in the south-east, its craters are largely invisible beneath the ice. When an eruption here occurs, however, 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.
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 throughout this period. It is also one of Iceland's least predictable volcanoes, however, with intervals between eruptions lasting anywhere between nine and 121 years.
Since settlement, it has caused havoc on a number of occasions, spewing out millions of tonnes of tephra at a time. 1104 was the date of its most powerful eruption, though its eruptions in 1300, 1693 and 1845 were more destructive in terms of damage to livestock, buildings and human life.
The last eruption was on the 26th of February in 2000, but it was relatively minor.
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 to remind them that the volcano is long overdue. Connected to Eyjafjallajökull's system, it usually goes off within a few years of its neighbour, to dramatic results.
As mentioned, the volcano sits beneath Mýrdalsjökull glacier in the south of Iceland, and when it erupts, it is notorious for its vast ash clouds and catastrophic jökulhlaups.
Photo by Jón Óskar Hauksson
Snæfellsjökull is one of Iceland's most visited, famous and beloved volcanoes. Located on the tip of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, 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.
Picture from Askja Private Tour
Askja was pretty much unknown as a volcano until in 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. In spite of its altitude, it remained warm for many years, though these days is frozen for much of the year. Adjacent to it, however, is a smaller, geothermal lake in another caldera that's called Víti, which is warm enough to bathe in.
Picture by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
Krafla is a particularly active volcano in north Iceland, having erupted 29 times since settlement; nine of these eruptions, however, 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 as opposed to Víti in Askja, which is geothermally heated. Víti in Krafla also has a gorgeous emerald blue colour.
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 kilometres deep, and its caldera has a diameter of ten kilometres.
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, in spite of the volcanic activity surrounding it.
Hverfjall's is well-loved due to the fact that it is easy to hike for anyone comfortable on their feet; the crater is easily accessible from the Ring Road, and just one kilometre 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.