The Complete Guide to Volcanoes in Iceland

09. Jul 2019 |20 min read

If there's one thing Iceland is not short of, then it’s volcanoes. The country is also known as the land of ice and fire thanks to its breathtaking glaciers and plentiful volcanic activity. Ever wondered why there are so many volcanoes in Iceland or how many are still active? You’ve come to the right place because we’re about to answer every question you may have had on this ultimate guide to volcanoes in Iceland.

What actually is a Volcano?

Let’s start with the basics, a volcano is an opening of the Earth's crust where molten rock, gases, and other types of debris can escape to the surface. Volcanoes are formed because of the movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates. They subsequently erupt if there is enough pressure building up underneath the crust. 

There are three classifications of volcanoes: extinct, dormant, active. Extinct, or dead volcano, means the volcano hasn’t erupted in the last 10,000 years and is not expected to erupt again in the future. Dormant means the volcano is ‘sleeping,’ and therefore it hasn’t erupted in around 10,000 years but it could awaken in the near future. Finally, an active volcano is one that has recently erupted or has done so in the last 10,000 years. Iceland has plenty of dormant, extinct, and active volcanoes! 

How Many Volcanoes does Iceland have?

There are around 32 active volcanic systems found under Iceland, and approximately 130 volcanic mountains. Volcanoes can be found all around Iceland, except for in the Westfjords - why? Because the Westfjords is actually the oldest part of Iceland and the area is not active anymore. It formed around 16 million years ago and is now far away enough from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that there is no volcanic activity here anymore. 

Why are there so many Volcanoes in Iceland?

Iceland is located directly on the Mid Atlantic Ridge, which separates the Eurasian tectonic plate and the Northern American plate. These two plates are divergent, which means that they are pulling away from each other. Therefore, technically speaking, Iceland is growing at a rate of around 2 centimeters every year. Because the two tectonic plates are pulling away from each other this creates many openings for magma from the Earth to rise up to form volcanic eruptions. 

Iceland is one of the few places where you can see the Mid Atlantic Ridge above sea level. Þingvellir National Park is perhaps the best place to experience the two plates. Not only can you stand between the Eurasian and North American plate, but you can also snorkel through it if you so wish.

How Often are there Volcanic Eruptions in Iceland?

Volcanic eruptions occur on a regular basis in Iceland and are often very unpredictable. There has been an eruption every decade since the late 18th Century. Of course, some volcanic eruptions have been more intense than others. The most recent known eruption in Iceland was in 2017 when a minor eruption took place in Katla volcano. However, it was not visible as it didn’t break through the glacier. Perhaps the most well known recent eruption was Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 when it caused havoc for several days to the aviation industry in Western Europe.

How Dangerous are Volcanic Eruptions in Iceland?

These days, volcanic eruptions are a relatively small risk to human life. Iceland has some of the world’s best seismic technology and stations around the country which can accurately predict if an eruption will occur. In the case of sudden seismic activity of a major volcano such as Katla or Askja, the areas around the volcanoes are restricted and closely monitored. The majority of active volcanoes in Iceland are far away from towns, due to settlers seeking areas that weren’t going to put their homes at risk. 

South Iceland, for example, has very few towns and villages mainly due to the fact that Katla and Eyjafjallajökull sit just north of the coast. An eruption of either volcano would not only produce a lot of lava and debris but because both are underneath glaciers, it would create a huge glacial flood and wipe out anything that stands in its way. This is why you can find barren black sand beaches in the south of Iceland because it’s often been the site of great volcanic induced floods.

Luckily, Iceland’s evacuation measures have only seldom been put into action in modern times. In 1973 the eruption of Heimaey on Westman Islands was one of those cases. At the time of the eruption, there were 5,200 living on Westman Island. However, in the early hours of the 22nd of January, a fissure opened in the ground and started tearing through the edge of town, splitting roads and buildings in half. 

Evacuation measures were extremely fast and the population was safely brought to the mainland. They then started pumping cold seawater onto the lava to cool it down and to minimize the damage. Although 400 homes and much of the town's infrastructure were destroyed, only one person lost their life on that day.  Today, Heimaey Island has been rebuilt and it’s become a booming town where many whales and puffin watching tours operate from. 

Despite the excellent prediction and evacuation response of Iceland, there are still certain dangers with eruptions that tourists traveling to Iceland should be aware of. An eruption can often emit large amounts of toxic gases. In the case of a volcanic eruption, remain indoors with the windows closed and check the local news and see what they suggest. An eruption in the Highlands can severely affect air quality in Reykjavik, depending on how the air is blowing. Warning about the air quality and eruptions can be found on the Icelandic weather website.

What Are Iceland’s Most Historic Volcanic Eruptions?

Although volcanoes in Iceland are a relatively low threat to human life in Iceland, they can and have had serious wider implications to the world. In the last 1000 years, volcanoes from Iceland have indirectly made a huge impact in shaping the modern world. From the French revolution to widespread drought in Egypt, take a look at some of Iceland’s most historic volcano eruptions below.

Bárðarbunga Eruption 2014 - 2015

Between August 2014 and February 2015 there were a series of eruptions in the Bárðarbunga volcanic system. Large volumes of sulphur dioxide were emitted, which impacted the air quality of Iceland. Although it was only toxic to humans if you were close to the eruption, it is thought that it caused the death of thousands of sheep around the country which severely impacted the livelihood of Icelandic farmers.

Eyjafjallajökull Eruption 2010

In April 2010 a relatively small eruption occurred at Eyjafjallajökull, which had huge implications to the European air space. The eruption created a large ash cloud to shoot 10 kilometers (33,000 feet) into the atmosphere. Winds picked up the cloud and spread it to Western Europe. Between the 14th and 20th, April 20 countries had to close their airspace to commercial jet traffic, affecting over 10 million passengers.

Vestmannaeyjar Eruption 1973 

In the early hours of the 23rd January, a 300-meter fissure opened up nearby to the town of Heimaey island. The fissure rapidly grew from 300 meters to 2 kilometers and crossed the island from one shore to the other. An evacuation procedure almost immediately occurred and the 5,300 people of the island were safely brought to the mainland within a matter of a few hours via boats. 

Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar.

Surtsey Eruption 1963

Surtsey is a volcanic island that didn’t exist prior to 1963. A series of eruptions that occurred 130 meters below sea level reached the surface within a few days. The island had an initial size of 2.7 km2 but due to sea erosion, it has been steadily declining in size and was measured to be 1.3 km2 in 2012. Only a select few scientists are allowed on the island as it’s being used as a study ground to see how an island becomes inhabited by plants and animals.

Laki Eruption 1784

Laki, found in south Iceland, erupted for eight months between June 1783 and February 1784. It’s been estimated that 42 billion tons of basalt lava were emitted, along with hydrofluoric acid and sulfur dioxide. In Iceland, these gases contaminated the soil and lead to the death of over 50% of the livestock and causing serious damage to the crops on Iceland. Approximately 25% of the country’s population died as a result of the famine that occurred. Lava flows from Laki also destroyed 20 villages.

But Laki’s impact also spread around the world, as it caused a dense fog across Europe. In the UK, an estimated 23,000 people lost their lives because of the toxic gases that were swept across the ocean. The fog also led to ports shutting down and crops failing, causing widespread famine. Historians consider Laki to be a driving catalyst for the French Revolution which occurred in 1789.

The consequences of the eruption even went as far as Egypt where the volcanic smog lowered temperatures, which reduced rainfall and dried up the Nile. A sixth of the country was killed as a result of the drought. In total, nearly six million people were killed as a result of the Laki eruption in 1784.

Öræfajökull Eruption 1362

Although historic documentation of an eruption that occurred over 650 years ago is limited, recent scientific findings have highlighted the extent of the 1362 eruption. An eruption in Öræfajökull volcano released large amounts of tephra which is rock fragments and other particles. The eruption destroyed the entire county of Litla-Hérað and most likely killed all the villagers who had settled there. Emitted ash traveled to Western Europe where it contaminated farmlands.

Volcanoes in Icelandic folklore: legends and stories 

The first settlers from Norway and abroad didn’t have the scientific knowledge of today. Therefore, it’s not surprising that folklore and legends were created in an attempt to try and explain their existence. Hekla volcano, for example, is nicknamed the gateway to hell. For centuries it was believed that one could find the doorway to the underworld and the entrances to Hell or Purgatory. Across Europe, bishops and members of the church claimed that Hekla was proof that Satan and hell were just beneath us. Hekla remained unclimbed until 1750, largely because people were scared as to what they would find atop the mountain. When Hekla occasionally erupted, the craters and clouds of ash were believed to be spirits of the underworld.

Another tale is all about the Katla volcano. Legend has it that an abbot at the ancient monastery of Þykkvabæjarklaustur had a housekeeper called Katla. The housekeeper was known to be temperamental and thought to be a witch. Katla had in her possession a pair of trousers that if worn one could run as fast as the wind without ever tiring out. The abbot also had a shepherd boy named Barði who was responsible for herding the monasteries sheep every evening so that Katla could milk them. 

One day Barði couldn’t find the sheep, and knowing that he would be in great trouble if the sheep went missing he stole Katla’s trousers. Katla discovered her trousers had been stolen by the shepherd boy and in rage murdered him and placed him in a large vat of whey. As the summer went on the whey was slowly used up and the villagers kept hearing her mutter “Soon Barði will appear.” When Katla couldn’t bear the suspense of the shepherd boy being found soon she put on her trousers and raced towards Mýrdal glacier and threw herself into the canyon, which is now called Katla's Canyon. 

Shortly after she disappeared Katla volcano erupted, melting part of the glacier and causing a great flood to wash over the entire south coast of Iceland. Ever since, when a volcanic flood occurred, it was believed it was the works of Katla the bewitched housekeeper.

How Does Iceland Take Advantage of its Many Volcanoes Today?

Although volcanoes have often caused widespread destruction in Iceland, they have also provided the country with a unique resource: geothermal energy. Today, over 30% of the country’s electricity is generated by geothermal power stations, the remaining 70% is produced by hydro-electric sources. As well as electricity, geothermal energy is used to heat water for homes. The benefit of geothermal energy is that it is cheap and perhaps the most environmentally friendly source of energy as it is generated directly from the earth.

Icelanders have also taken advantage of the source of natural heat by constructing greenhouses where they can grow vegetables, fruits and herbs all year-round. A brilliant example of this is Friðheimar farm, where they produce over a tonne of tomatoes every day for the Icelandic supermarkets. You can visit Friðheimar yourself and taste some of their delicious homemade tomato soup and learn more about geothermal energy. 

How to Best Experience Volcanoes in Iceland?

Over the last few years, there has been a boom in the number of tours available in Iceland to go and experience Volcanoes. Some people actually credit Eyjafjallajökull’s 2010 eruption for Iceland’s surge in tourism, as millions around the world, saw the magnificent landscapes in the news. How to best experience volcanoes in Iceland largely depends on what you are interested in. 

While there are no eruptions at the time of writing this guide, many tours will adapt their program depending on the volcanic activity. Keep an eye out for special helicopter tours when a volcano goes off if you’re interested to see the flowing lava up close.  

It’s important to note, however, that whatever tour you join in Iceland, you will see a volcano one way or another. As we mentioned earlier, there are 130 volcanoes in Iceland so it’s near impossible to not see one. Any trip to the Snæfellsnes peninsula, for example, you’ll be in the shadows of the huge Snæfellsjökull volcano. Drive along the famous ring road and you’ll be passing volcanoes in all shapes and sizes along the way.

Take a look at our list below to get some ideas on how to make your experience with Iceland’s volcanoes a once in a lifetime event.

Iceland volcano helicopter tour

Helicopter

If you’d like to see Iceland’s famous volcanoes such as Eyjafjallajökull and Hekla from above then take a look at this volcano and glacier helicopter tour. Other helicopter tours include this volcanic crater trip where you’ll fly along the coast and witness the tectonic plates at play from above. Although a helicopter is a unique way of experiencing Iceland’s volcanoes, there are of course plenty of other great and more affordable ways too. 

Hiking Tour

There are plenty of hiking tours where you can experience volcanoes up close and personal in Iceland. Take for example this 12 hour day trip where you explore the south coast of Iceland with a 4x4 car, including entering a natural ice cave near Katla volcano. Or how about hiking up Vatnajökull, where several volcanoes hide beneath the layers of ice, such as Grímsvötn and Bárðarbunga. After hiking up Vatnajökull, you’ll have a once in a lifetime opportunity to enter the blue ice cave. Chances are that if you join any hiking in Iceland, that you will see a Volcano in one form or another - take a look at all the tours here!  

Rent Your Own Car

If you’re up for the challenge then why not rent your own car and explore Iceland’s volcanoes and landscapes at your own pace? Having your own car gives you the freedom to spend as long as you wish at any of the countless sites. Before you rent a car, take a look at this guide on everything you need to know before renting a car in Iceland. Once you’re ready you can book your car hassle-free here.

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Inside the Volcano Tour

So you’ve seen a volcano from the outside, but have you ever experienced one from the inside? If not, then this is your chance for perhaps the most unique tours of all. The Inside the Volcano tour allows you to plunge into the inside the magma chamber of a dormant volcano by use of a lift. 

Top Ten Most Famous Volcanoes in Iceland

As we previously mentioned there are 130 known volcanoes to be found in Iceland. Whilst each one is beautiful in its own way, we have made a list of the top ten most notable volcanoes in Iceland that we recommend you check out. Take a look below!

Eyjafjallajokull: Iceland's Most Notorious Volcano

Last eruption: 2010

Eyjafjallajokull became internationally famous after its eruption in 2010 caused widespread disruption to the west European airspace. It was the largest eruption of Eyjafjallajökull to date. Between 1821 and 1823 the volcano witnessed a few small eruptions, similarly in 1612 and 920 AD, however, they were nothing like the one in 2010. Although it affected over 10 million passengers, it was still considered a minor event in comparison to some of the other Icelandic eruptions.

Eyjafjallajökull has a height of 1666m and is connected to the Katla volcanic system. Scientifically speaking this usually means that an eruption in Eyjafjallajökull will trigger one at Katla in the years following the event. So far this hasn’t been the case, however, Katla is well overdue and could erupt any day soon.

Thrihnukagigur: Iceland’s Only Volcano You Can Enter  

Last eruption: ±2000 BCE

Thrihnukagigur is a volcano near Reykjavík, Iceland, and as mentioned earlier, it’s the only volcano that you can enter. The volcano covers an area of approximately 3,270 square meters and it’s got a depth of 213 meters. Thrihnukagigur is a dormant volcano that hasn’t erupted in the last 4,000 years.

Although it was originally discovered by the cave explorer Árni B Stefánsson in 1974, it wasn’t opened to the public until 2012. Today you can descend into the depths of Thrihnukagigur with an open-air lift and experience the magma chamber from within. The lift is around 120 meters long and once you reach the bottom, the space is the same size as a football field. To put these sizes into perspective, one could easily fit the Statue of Liberty in New York inside the Thrihnukagigur volcano.

Apart from the experience of descending into a volcano, what makes this magma chamber beautiful to see are the amazing colors left behind from the elements that were brought up from inside the Earth. The walls have shades of yellow, green, red all from the iron, copper, and sulphur brought up from the earth’s mantle.

Grimsvotn: Iceland’s Most Active Volcano

Last eruption: 2011

Grimsvotn is found in the southeast of Iceland and stands at a proud 1,725 m (5,659 ft) tall. However, much of the volcano is beneath the Vatnajökull ice-cap. Grimsvotn is Iceland’s most active volcano and has the highest eruption frequency of all the volcanoes in Iceland. The infamous Laki eruption in 1784 is part of the Grimsvotn volcanic system. It was this eruption that caused widespread famine and deaths in Europe and is even said to have triggered the French Revolution (see above).

Because there is such a large ice cap above the volcano, every time it erupts it causes this ice to melt and results in huge floods to occur in southern Iceland. Grimsvotn last erupted in May 2011 causing a plume of ash to shoot out 12km high. The eruption caused the cancellation of over 900 flights in Iceland, Greenland, the UK, Norway, Ireland, and Germany. 

Hekla Volcano: Hells’ Entrance 

Last eruption: 2000

For many centuries, Hekla was known not only in Iceland but also across Europe as ‘The Gateway to Hell,’ largely thanks to its regular explosive eruptions. Hekla is one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes has produced over 10% of the tephra found in Iceland in the last thousand years. Hekla’s last eruption was in 2000, but the intensity of its eruptions have decreased over the last 500 years.

It reaches a height of 1,491 m (4,892 ft) and has become a popular place for hikers. If you’re interested in climbing Hekla then be sure to visit the Hekla center where you can learn all about this impressive volcano.

Katla: Eyjafjallajokull's Explosive Neighbour 

Last eruption: 1918

Katla is another one of Iceland’s largest volcanoes. It’s also another volcano that’s largely hidden beneath a glacier - until it erupts. As mentioned above, it is connected to Eyjafjallajökull and is often triggered when Eyjafjallajökull erupts, meaning Katla could erupt soon.

Snæfellsjökull: The Journey to the Center of the Earth

Last eruption: ±200 AD 

Snæfellsjökull is a 700,000-year-old glacier-capped stratovolcano that is well known for supposedly having an entrance to the center of the world in Jules Verne’s 1864 book “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” It has played an importable role in Icelandic and world culture, not only as it mentioned in Jules Verne’s book, however, it’s also featured in the 1960s Blind Birds trilogy by Czech SF writer Ludvík Souček as well as in the novel Under the Glacier (1968) by the famous Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness.

Today Snæfellsjökull is one of Iceland’s most popular volcanoes to visit, as it’s located in the beautiful Snæfellsjökull National Park, north of Reykjavik. In the summer months, one can hike easily up to the summit, there are several hiking tours that can take you as well. In 2012 the summit of the volcano was ice-free for the first time ever in recorded history, clear evidence of the impact of a warming climate in Iceland. 

Askja: Iceland's Geothermal Pool Volcano

Last eruption: 1961

Askja is known for its large geothermal pool that’s located in the caldera of the volcano. It was an unknown volcano, however, until it violently and quite suddenly erupted in 1875. The ash that was emitted was very toxic and destroyed much of the surrounding lands and many livestock were killed. The effects of the 1875 eruption were felt across Norway and Sweden as well.

Since then the volcano has remained dormant and as a result of the eruption, you can now find a small geothermal lake called Víti that’s warm enough to bathe in. It’s located in a very remote part of the central highlands in Iceland, and is only reachable with an SUV, as there are only F-roads to get there. It’s also only really accessible during the peak of the summer months in high summer months.

Krafla: The Geothermal Power Station Volcano

Last eruption: 1984

Krafla volcano is found in the north of Iceland in the Mývatn region. It reaches a height of over 818 meters and a depth of 2 km. There have been a total of 29 reported eruptions since the first settlers arrived in Iceland. Of these eruptions, nine occurred during 1975 and 1984. Thanks to the volcanic episode in the 70s and 80s, valuable geothermal vents formed. Since 1977, geothermal energy has been sourced from the Krafla area thanks to a 60MWe power station.  

Krafla and the surrounding area have become a popular tourist destination because of the proximity to the Námafjall geothermal area. Here you can find many smoking fumaroles and boiling mud pot. Especially noteworthy are the multicolored sulphur crystals that have formed here. Be aware, however, the egg smell here can be quite pungent!

Hverfjall or Hverfell: Easy Hike-Around Volcano

Last eruption: 500BC

The name Hverfjall and Hverfell are used interchangeably and are both accepted names. This popular volcano hasn’t erupted in over 4500 years, despite the active volcanic field surrounding it. Hverfjall has been well-visited thanks to its easy access from the Ring Road. There is a walking path all around the rim of the volcano, which takes about an hour to walk. The sight of the 1km diameter tephra cone resembles something you’d expect to see on a different planet.

Eldfell

Last eruption: 1973

Eldfell is the infamous volcano found on the Westman island near the town of Heimaey. In 1973 is destroyed over 400 homes and nearly extinguished the valuable fishing harbor on the island as well. Luckily, rescue efforts were quick to rescue the population and only one person lost their life. Despite its large scale destruction, the eruption in 1973 turned out to provide a valuable geothermal energy source. Since the 1970s the town generates its power supplies by draining seawater down into the hot parts of the volcano and collecting the resulting steam. 

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