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Your Guide to Iceland's Volcanoes

Current Volcanic Activity in Iceland – September 2022 update!

On August 3, 2022, a new eruption began in the Fagradalsfjall volcanic system in the Reykjanes peninsula and ended a few weeks later. The eruption was very visible in daylight and could be clearly seen on a live webcam stream from the area. It posed no threat to infrastructure or inhabitants as the lava flow was in a similar uninhabited area as the previous eruption in 2021.

Further volcanic activity is being closely monitored in the volcanic systems of Askja in the highlands of Iceland and Grímsvötn in Vatnajökull glacier, both areas under added surveillance and color-coded as “Yellow” by authorities. Further information about volcanic activity in Iceland can be found in the Catalogue of Icelandic VolcanoesLink opens in a new tab.

Iceland’s famous tagline is “The land of fire and ice”. You only have to look at the name or take a quick glance at Iceland on a map to understand the ice part but what about the fire? The fire is of course Iceland’s many and very active volcanoes, one of which erupted in 2021 and again in 2022 in a very peaceful and picturesque way right next to our international airport.

Fun fact: the name for volcano in Icelandic is “eldfjall” or fire mountain. Put that Longbottom Leaf in your pipe and smoke it.

But they’re not always peaceful and picturesque. The Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010 famously produced a huge ash cloud that devastated the farms in the area and disrupted international air travel for days. The name also proved to be quite the mouthful for newscasters trying to explain the situation. The recent eruption in Fagradalsfjall wasn’t much easier to pronounce and we’re sorry about that but keep in mind that one of the simpler-to-pronounce volcanoes is also one of the most dangerous ones. We are of course talking about Katla, now the star of a Netflix series of dark Nordic mystery. So how many volcanoes are there in Iceland, how active are they and what might happen if they erupt? Read on for an informative guide to our major volcanoes before checking out our cheap flights to IcelandLink opens in a new tab.

Volcanic activity in Iceland

Iceland is considered very geologically active which means that earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are frequent in these parts. Keep in mind that Iceland is the top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and thus technically one big divergent plate boundary. These two tectonic plates, the North American and Eurasian plates, are slowly drifting apart, by approx. 2 cm a year and this rift is visible in a number of places in Iceland, most famously at Þingvellir National Park. This tension of the plates causes a lot of seismic activity, particularly in the southwest of Iceland and the highlands.

How many volcanoes are there in Iceland?

That depends on what you mean. There are 32 volcanic systems in Iceland that include around 130 volcanoes. Some are dormant, others are classified as “active,” and a few erupt frequently enough to be closely monitored. Take Snæfellsjökull glacier for example. It is one of the most picturesque volcanoes in Iceland. Standing proud on the other side of Faxaflói bay, its quintessential volcano-shape with a glacial ice cap is clearly visible from Reykjavik. Snæfellsjökull glacier was made world famous in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and in Iceland, the glacier and its surroundings are often associated with magic and an otherworldly atmosphere. Snæfellsjökull is considered an active volcano, but it is last believed to have erupted in or around the year 200. It’s powers and magical presence is lost on noone and this old stratovolcano is today a very popular hike.

How many active volcanoes are there in Iceland?

There are about 30 active volcanoes in Iceland but keep in mind that “active” means that they’ve erupted recently. Also keep in mind that “recently” in geological terms means anytime in the past 10,000 years. That said, there are 6 very active volcanoes here, that have erupted regularly in recent memory and that’s not including the eruption in 2021/2022. Most of them have a history of small eruptions and minimal lava flow but others are more treacherous and some even quite notorious.

https://www.vedur.is/skjalftar-og-eldgos/eldgos/Link opens in a new tab

When did a volcano last erupt in Iceland?

Fagradalsfjall in the Reykjanes peninsula erupted in March 2021 after a series of earthquakes leading up to the eruption. The eruption was met with a little sigh of relief by inhabitants in nearby towns that were more than a little tired of the earthquakes and build up of tension. Despite its proximity to the town of Grindavík, the Blue Lagoon and Keflavik International Airport, a more picturesque and peaceful location is hard to come by.

Fagradalsfjall is a volcanic system that spans approximately 5 km and the eruption itself was in a valley just outside of Grindavík. The lava flowed slowly through the valley of Geldingadalir and despite concerns for roads and other infrastructure, the lava did minimum damage. It did however attract thousands of visitors that hiked up the eruption, day and night, to witness this natural force in action. This is still a very popular hike and the views over the smoking hot and brand-new lava are unparallel.

Is the volcano in Iceland still erupting?

The eruption in Fagradalsfjall ended on September 18, 2021. However, as this blog was being written in July and August 2022, a new series of earthquakes began in the same area, with seismic activity that indicated a new eruption might be underway. A new eruption began on August 3, 2022 in the Fagradalsfjall volcanic system in the Reykjanes peninsula and lasted for a few weeks. The area was closely monitored by authorities, caution was advised and eager observers were advised to keep a close eye on www.safetravel.isLink opens in a new tab for detailed information. The eruption was very visible in daylight and could be clearly seen on a live webcam stream from the area. The eruption posed no threat to infrastructure or inhabitants in the area as the lava flow came from a similar uninhabited area of the previous eruption in 2021.

Further volcanic activity is being closely monitored in the volcanic systems of Askja in the highlands of Iceland and Grímsvötn in Vatnajökull glacier, both areas under added surveillance and color-coded as “Yellow” by authorities. Further information about volcanic activity in Iceland can be found here:

https://icelandicvolcanoes.is/#Link opens in a new tab

Are the Icelandic volcanoes dangerous?

Most of them are not dangerous and Icelanders are quite laid back about their eruptions. Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are usually regarded as exciting and newsworthy but nothing to be seriously worried about. This means Sunday drives with the family and hiking to see an active eruption and lava flow if you’re lucky. Frequent earthquakes leading up to volcanic eruptions are of course uncomfortable but Icelandic building regulations are quite strict with regards to this seismic activity and buildings are generally considered very safe in Iceland. Volcanoes are however not rides at amusement parks and display terrifying natural forces at times and eruptions are of course dangerous to a certain extent and some of the bigger volcanoes do pose something of a threat. One more than others…

Most famous volcanoes in Iceland

Katla

Katla is considered one of Iceland’s most dangerous volcanoes. It is a very large and very active volcano underneath a glacial icecap in the southern part of Iceland. It has an eruption cycle of about 100 years, and it last erupted violently in 1918. There have likely been smaller eruptions that didn’t break through the thick icecap of the glacier that covers it but a proper eruption in Katla is lost on no one in these parts. The main concern is the area south of Katla, which is expected to be hit with massive floods in the next eruption when the lava explodes through the icecap and melting glacier water comes rushing through the plains below. For this reason, the inhabitants of the towns and farms in the area are well versed in evacuation schemes, Katla is heavily monitored, and a huge cell network will track down anyone in the area in case of an eruption.

Fun fact: Eldgjá, the world’s biggest volcanic eruption in the past 10,000 years, is part of the Katla volcanic system.

Hekla

Hekla is one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, erupting approx. once every decade in the latter part of the 20th century. Its eruptions are so frequent that in the Middle Ages, Hekla was nicknamed “the Gateway to Hell”. While Hekla’s eruptions can be big, she is mostly notorious for giving little to no warning before an eruption. The mountain is mostly aseismic and scientists estimate we’ll have approx. 30-60 minutes of evacuation time before the next eruption. Just to be clear, volcano warnings come in the form of earthquakes and tremors that form a pattern before an eruption. Oh, and hiking on Hekla is not recommended. For obvious reasons.

Heimaey

Just off the south coast of Iceland is a series of small islands called Vestmannaeyjar or the Westman Islands. The largest of these and the only inhabited one is called Heimaey or “Home Island”, and it is a sweet home to 4,500 people and about 8 million puffins. Heimaey is a breathtakingly beautiful island and its awesome landscapes are a sight to behold. But this place is best known for the 1973 eruption of its volcano Eldfell that took out half the town and significantly enlarged the island. In what can only be described as a miraculous moment in history, the entire island was immediately evacuated during the night. Today, visitors can walk around houses excavated from the ash in the Eldheimar volcano museum in Vestmannaeyjar and learn all about its geological superstar neighbor Surtsey.

Surtsey

You know how new land is born in the middle of the sea from an underwater eruption when nobody is watching? No? Well, that’s how Surtsey island was formed in a submarine volcanic eruption between 1963 and 1967 in what is the longest continuous eruption in Iceland’s history. Very few people have set foot on Surtsey since it is a highly protected nature reserve and both vegetation and wildlife settlements are monitored closely. News from Surtsey is always interesting and this odd place off the coast of Iceland continues to teach us new things about how birds, insects, plants and sadly, trash, travel.

Eyjafjallajökull

This is probably Iceland’s most notorious volcano because of the 2010 eruption that halted air travel in Europe for days. You may remember the commotion in European airports and the subsequent air travel reforms that were made for incidents like this. You may also remember newscasters all over the world trying their best to pronounce the name of this volcano but what you probably don’t know is that Icelanders were pretty mortified about the whole thing. The huge ash cloud produced by this eruption posed a threat to air traffic all over Europe and as days passed and news kept coming in from people stranded in airports all over the world, the soundbite kept coming back as “Iceland ruined everything”. Thankfully, the situation in Europe was resolved after 6 days, but locals were not as lucky. The focus soon shifted entirely to the farms in the vicinity of the volcano that were covered in ash and the following months were spent fighting ash fallout. If there’s one thing Icelanders can do well, it’s a unified front when it comes to natural forces. Volunteers from all over Iceland showed up to help clean livestock, fields and farmhouses but sadly, this situation eventually marked an end for some farmers who left their lands for good. If you’re driving the south coast of Iceland, take notice of these farms, their dramatic history and awesome perseverance.

Grímsvötn

Grímsvötn can be translated as “The Lakes of Grímur” and is probably one of the most mentioned place names in Icelandic news. The reason for that is that Grímsvötn is the most active volcano in Iceland. But it’s not your typical volcano, shaped like a cone with a nice spout of fire coming out of it. No, Grímsvötn is a subglacial caldera so in a way, nobody has ever actually seen it. It lies underneath one of the world’s largest glaciers, Vatnajökull and is Iceland’s most frequently erupting volcano. Eruptions in Grímsvötn aren’t your typical picturesque “tourist eruptions” as Icelanders call them, and you’ll probably never see lava flowing from Grímsvötn. However, it is hazardous due to its subglacial location. When it erupts, it melts the icecap surrounding it, filling its own caldera with glacial water until it all comes flooding down to the planes below. As a result, Grímsvötn is one of the most heavily monitored volcanoes in Iceland. Unlike some of its smaller volcanic siblings (we’re looking at you Hekla), Grímsvötn gives plenty of warning and when these glacial floods occur, that have been known to sweep away huge bridges and long stretches of roads with its awesome powers, road closures and evacuations are in place to keep everyone safe.

Askja

If anything can be said to be “in the middle of nowhere,” it’s probably Askja. This treacherous volcano lies to the north of Vatnajökull glacier in an area entirely inaccessible for most of the year, surrounded by the desert of the Icelandic highlands. Askja last erupted in 1961 but in 1875 an eruption in Askja devastated a large part of the Eastfjords of Iceland with extreme ashfall that killed livestock and ruined crops. Askja is currently stirring with evidence pointing to magma building up underneath the volcanic system. Askja is now under added surveillance and access to the area is restricted accordingly.

Thrihnukagígur (Þríhnúkagígur)

This impossible-to-pronounce place is a dormant volcano, just 20 minutes outside of Reykjavík city. It is getting an honorable mention as one of our more famous volcanoes because of its incredible history and unique attraction. It was only discovered in 1974 by cave explorers and after substantial construction in the area, this volcano was opened as a tourist attraction in 2012. It is aptly named “Inside the volcano” and offers visitors an incredible experience to descend into the volcano via an elevator and observe the enormous and lit-up magma chamber. If you think this is just another tourist trap attraction, think again. This is literally the only place in the world where this is possible, and we’ll go for all the puns here and state that a more groundbreaking experience is hard to come by.

Is there a volcano near Reykjavik?

Yes. Lots of them. The entire peninsula of Reykjanes is a volcanic system which extends far out to sea. This volcanic system is however mostly dormant. It was quite a surprise when Fagradalsfjall started erupting in 2021 but the location of the fissure is extremely fortunate and a better location for such a display of awesome natural forces is hard to come by. The 2022 eruption is in the same area and poses no threat to infrastructure or inhabitants.  

Final thoughts

While the Icelandic attitude towards these awesome natural forces is quite relaxed, we do respect the massive powers that lie beneath our land and treat them with caution. Don’t hike on a volcano, don’t walk on fresh lava, don’t jump into a geyser, trust the science, follow directions and you’ll be just fine.

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Aug 3, 2022