Iceland, the ‘Land of Fire and Ice,’ aptly earned its nickname due to the dramatic contrast between its glacial landscapes and seething geothermal activity. A major part of this activity is the presence of a significant number of active volcanoes in Iceland.
From the infamous Eyjafjallajökull, which caused significant air traffic disruption in 2010, to the more recently active Geldingadalir, these volatile landforms play a pivotal role in shaping both the physical landscape and the cultural psyche of the Icelandic nation.
As we delve into this 2024 update, we’ll explore the histories, characteristics, and potential future activity of these fascinating geologic giants. Understanding these restless earth structures is not just about appreciating their raw, natural power but also about knowing the risks and being prepared, especially for those who call Iceland their home or their travel destination.
- Understanding Volcanic Activity
- The 6 Most Active Volcanoes in Iceland
- 6 Other Noteworthy Active Volcanoes
- Volcano Monitoring in Iceland
- Tips For Visiting Active Volcanoes
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Our Final Thoughts on Volcanoes in Iceland
Understanding Volcanic Activity
Before we begin our journey through Iceland’s active volcanoes, it’s important to understand what makes a volcano “active” and how volcanic activity affects the landscape and ecosystems around it.
A volcano is classified as active if it has erupted within the last 10,000 years, a relatively small window in geological terms. This classification is significant as it indicates the volcano still has a magma supply and is potentially capable of future eruptions. Within this classification, volcanoes can further be categorized as dormant (not currently erupting but has the potential to) or erupting.
The volcanic activity in Iceland is primarily driven by the country’s location on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a major tectonic plate boundary between the North American and Eurasian plates. This rift zone, marked by numerous cracks and fissures in the earth’s surface, allows magma from deep within the Earth’s mantle to reach the surface, causing eruptions.
Volcanoes’ Influence on The Land
Volcanic eruptions can significantly influence the surrounding landscape and ecosystems. They can create new landforms, such as volcanic islands, cones, and plateaus, while lava flows and ash deposits can enrich soils, making them incredibly fertile. On the other hand, eruptions can also have destructive effects, destroying vegetation, altering watercourses, and impacting local wildlife.
The frequency, style, and magnitude of eruptions can vary greatly between volcanoes, depending on factors such as the composition of the magma, the structure of the volcano, and the pressure build-up within the magma chamber. As we go through the active volcanoes in Iceland, we’ll touch upon these unique characteristics, offering you a comprehensive look into the dynamic world of volcanology.
The 6 Most Active Volcanoes in Iceland
When exploring the active volcanoes in Iceland, several standout due to their recent activity and historical significance. Let’s journey through some of the most active and noteworthy of these volcanic hotspots.
Known as the “Gateway to Hell” during the Middle Ages, Hekla is one of Iceland’s most famous and active volcanoes. It has had more than 20 major eruptions since the 9th century, with the most recent one occurring in 2000. This stratovolcano is continuously monitored as scientists believe another eruption could occur soon.
Hidden beneath the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, Katla is one of Iceland’s most powerful volcanoes. It has a long history of eruptions, with the latest significant one taking place in 1918. Though it’s overdue for an eruption based on historical patterns, predicting exactly when it will erupt is challenging.
This volcano gained worldwide attention when it erupted in 2010, causing massive disruption to air travel across Europe due to its ash cloud. Despite its relatively small size, Eyjafjallajökull’s eruptions can be quite impactful due to its glacial covering, which can cause explosive interactions between lava and ice.
Located under the Vatnajökull glacier, Grímsvötn is Iceland’s most frequently erupting volcano, with the most recent eruption in 2021. Its eruptions are typically short but can be quite explosive, due in part to the interaction of hot magma with the overlying glacier.
This massive subglacial stratovolcano, also located beneath the Vatnajökull glacier, was responsible for the most significant volcanic eruption in Iceland in the 21st century, which took place from August 2014 to February 2015. The eruption formed a new lava field, Holuhraun, which is now one of the largest in Iceland’s recent geological history.
Situated in the remote central highlands, Askja is a complex of nested calderas. The most notable eruption in recent history took place in 1875 and was so large that ashfall from the event was reported as far away as Sweden and Denmark.
Each of these active volcanoes in Iceland showcases unique volcanic behaviors and has a significant role in shaping the landscape and natural history of this geologically young and vibrant country.
6 Other Noteworthy Active Volcanoes
Beyond the most active, there are several other active volcanoes in Iceland that are worthy of note, each adding their unique chapter to the geological story of Iceland.
Laki (or Lakagígar)
The 1783-1784 Laki eruption was one of the most devastating in Iceland’s history, leading to mass death of livestock, widespread crop failure, and a severe famine that killed about a quarter of the country’s population.
The eruption also had profound climatic impacts, causing a drop in global temperatures. Laki isn’t a single volcanic edifice but a volcanic fissure situated between the Grímsvötn and Bárðarbunga volcanoes.
Situated in north Iceland, Krafla includes a caldera about 10 km in diameter with a 90 km long fissure zone. It was the site of two major volcanic episodes in recent history – the Mývatn Fires (1724-1729) and the Krafla Fires (1975-1984).
Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands)
This volcanic archipelago off Iceland’s south coast is home to several volcanoes, the most famous of which is Eldfell. It erupted unexpectedly in 1973, leading to the evacuation of the entire island’s population and the destruction of many homes.
This is the highest peak in Iceland and is located at the southern extremity of the vast Vatnajökull glacier. It features a large central caldera, which had significant eruptions in 1362 and 1727. In recent years, increased seismic activity and ground deformation have been closely monitored as signs of a potential future eruption.
This stratovolcano, located at the western tip of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, is known worldwide thanks to Jules Verne’s novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” where it’s depicted as the entry point for the protagonists’ subterranean adventure. Its last eruption is believed to have occurred around 200 AD.
This volcano in southwest Iceland hasn’t erupted for 4,000 years, but it’s noteworthy because of its unique feature: you can actually go inside its magma chamber. It’s the only place on Earth where the inside of a volcano can be explored in this way.
Whether they’re shaping history, reshaping landscapes, or adding to Iceland’s tourism appeal, these active volcanoes play a crucial role in Iceland’s charm, offering unique experiences for those brave enough to get up close to these volatile but fascinating geological wonders.
Volcano Monitoring in Iceland
Monitoring active volcanoes in Iceland is a complex and vital task that falls primarily under the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO). They use an array of scientific methods and tools to keep an eye on the volcanic systems, assessing any changes that might signify an impending eruption.
- Seismometers: These devices are essential for detecting earthquakes caused by magma movement beneath the surface. Sudden increases in seismic activity can be one of the first signs that a volcano is becoming restless.
- GPS Stations: GPS devices positioned around volcanoes can detect even slight movements of the Earth’s crust. When magma forces its way towards the surface, it can cause the ground to bulge, which is detectable by these GPS units.
- Gas Emissions Monitoring: Changes in the types and amounts of gases emitted by a volcano can provide crucial insights into what’s happening underground. For instance, an increase in sulfur dioxide might indicate that magma is nearing the surface.
- Satellite Imaging: Satellites can help monitor remote or hard-to-reach areas and provide an overview of changes in the land surface and gas emissions.
- Geological Surveys: On-site visits by volcanologists play a vital role in volcano monitoring, allowing for close-up observation and collection of rock, ash, and gas samples.
Through these methods, the IMO can provide timely warnings to the public and civil protection authorities, helping minimize the impact of volcanic eruptions. Despite this high-tech monitoring, predicting exactly when a volcano will erupt remains a significant challenge.
However, these systems give scientists the best possible chance of detecting the telltale signs of an eruption and issuing appropriate alerts.
Note that when traveling near active volcanoes in Iceland, it’s crucial to heed all warning signs, stay updated on the latest advisories from the IMO, and respect any closed areas. The beauty of these landscapes is captivating, but remember that these are active and dynamic environments. Safety should always be a top priority.
Tips For Visiting Active Volcanoes
The dynamic, volcanic landscapes of Iceland offer a unique opportunity for visitors to experience the raw power of nature up close. That said, visiting active volcanoes demands a certain level of preparation, caution, and respect for local regulations and guidance. Here’s what you need to know:
- Follow Official Guidelines: Always check the latest advisories from the Icelandic Meteorological Office before planning your trip to an active volcano. They provide crucial information about current volcanic activity and associated risks.
- Respect Closed Areas: Barriers and closure notices are there for your safety. Active volcanic sites can be unpredictable and may pose risks like toxic gas emissions, sudden eruptions, or unstable ground.
- Guided Tours: Considering the inherent risks associated with active volcanoes, it’s often best to opt for a guided tour. Professional guides are well-versed in safety procedures, understand the terrain, and can provide enriching insight into the geological phenomena you’re witnessing.
- Wear Appropriate Gear: The weather in Iceland can be unpredictable, so dress in layers. Wear sturdy hiking boots for uneven volcanic terrain, and don’t forget rain gear, as weather can change rapidly.
- Stay on Marked Trails: Staying on marked trails not only keeps you safe but also helps to protect the delicate volcanic ecosystems.
- Bring Essentials: Water, snacks, sunscreen, a hat, and a first-aid kit are must-haves for your volcano visit. It’s also advisable to carry a map and a compass or GPS, especially if you’re venturing into remote areas.
Remember, the goal is to experience the awe-inspiring beauty of these geological giants while ensuring your safety and preserving the integrity of these unique environments for future generations. A visit to one of Iceland’s active volcanoes is sure to be an unforgettable part of your Icelandic adventure.
Frequently Asked Questions
- How many active volcanoes are there in Iceland? There are around 30 active volcanic systems in Iceland, though not all have erupted recently. The term ‘active’ is generally applied to volcanoes that have erupted within the last 10,000 years.
- Which is the most active volcano in Iceland? Grímsvötn, located beneath the Vatnajökull glacier, is considered the most active volcano in Iceland, with over 60 eruptions in the last 800 years.
- Can I hike to an active volcano? Yes, you can hike to certain active volcanoes in Iceland, but it’s crucial to follow safety regulations and consider guided tours for the best and safest experience.
- Is it safe to visit active volcanoes in Iceland? Visiting active volcanoes can be safe as long as visitors adhere strictly to safety guidelines, stay informed about recent volcanic activity, and respect all closures and barriers.
- When was the last volcanic eruption in Iceland? The most recent eruption at the time of writing in 2024 occurred in 2021 in the Geldingadalir valleys near Fagradalsfjall mountain. But always check the latest reports, as this could change.
Our Final Thoughts on Volcanoes in Iceland
The active volcanoes in Iceland offer a powerful and captivating insight into the geothermal energy that shapes this unique island. From the most active to the less frequently erupting, these volatile formations enrich the country’s landscapes and contribute to an environment unlike any other on earth.
By understanding their behaviors, respecting safety guidelines, and staying aware of current volcanic activity, both locals and tourists can continue to appreciate these geological marvels safely. Whether you’re a geology enthusiast or an adventurous traveler, the active volcanoes in Iceland are a testament to the country’s nickname: the land of fire and ice.