A Guide to Volcanoes in Iceland

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Geldingadalur Volcano erupting in 2021

Update:

On Wednesday, August 3rd, a new volcanic eruption began in the Reykjanes peninsula. First reports indicate that magma has broken through a 100 m crack down in Merardalir by Fagradalsfjall. At the moment, there's no indication that the eruption will cause any disruption to airline traffic or harm to the nearby inhabitants. We will continue to monitor the situation and bring you updates from the area.

Below, you can see a live webcam from the area.

Live webcam from active Geldingadalur Volcano

Iceland has earned a reputation for being a country of unmatched natural beauty. From the moment you land at the international airport in Keflavík, you’re struck by just how different the terrain is from anywhere else you’ve been, with its vast expanses of rocky plains that rise into grand mountains in the distance. The dark, sometimes black, volcanic rock creates a stunning canvas for the electric hues of moss to really pop.

The word has become overused in describing Iceland’s natural environment, but it really is “otherworldly.” And a driving force behind — or rather below — that stunning landscape is the magma that bursts, spouts and pours forth from the country’s many active volcanoes.

So let’s suit up and head out to explore everything that makes Iceland go boom.

Barði Theódórsson

What makes Iceland so explosive?

The million króna question — why is Iceland so explosive? — has a fairly straight-forward answer. Iceland is located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. So if you think back to grade school science class when you learned about all those land masses floating like plates on the surface of the Earth, constantly colliding with one another, Iceland straddles two of those plates.

More specifically, Iceland sits on both the North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate, with the meeting point of the two in Iceland being the Reykjanes Ridge in the south and the Kolbeinsey Ridge in the north.

That means there are a lot of points in Iceland’s four major volcanic zones where shifting plates can make way for the Earth to relieve a little pressure, let off some steam or spew some lava.

Iceland is home to 49 named volcanoes, but just 18 of those have erupted since the time of the settlement around the year 874. Those 18 have, to varying degrees, been fairly active, though, with an eruption occurring roughly every five years.

While an eruption in Iceland may only occur every five years, a more chronic symptom of living between tectonic plates is near constant earthquakes — just take a peek at the Icelandic Met Office's near real-time map of quakes for an idea of just how constant they are. That doesn't mean we're always feeling them, though.

Residents of the Reykjanes peninsula were in for a bumpy ride for much of 2021 as near constant earth and aftershocks preceded the magnificent eruption at Fagradalsfjall — even us city slickers in Reykjavík got to experience some rumbles and jolts. But most quakes are usually rocking and rolling in areas where people aren’t being disturbed.

The pros and cons of life on a volcanic island

Now we know just what is causing volcanoes to erupt and we’ve established that it’s actually a pretty common occurrence on this isolated little rock in the North Atlantic. But what is it actually like to live on “Volcano Island”™? Here are some of the pros and cons:

PRO: Geothermal Energy

Another feature of living on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the Earth’s magma is just that much closer to the surface that in other parts of the world, is naturally occurring hot groundwater. That geothermal — literally “Earth heat” — water has long been harnessed by Icelanders to heat our houses, generate clean electricity, and for relaxation. Soak your weary muscles in a natural hot pot or geothermal spring after a hike and you’ll really appreciate this upside of being on a volcanic island.

CON: Earthquakes

As we’ve already mentioned above, earthquakes are a fact of life in Iceland. But, we also mentioned, they’re not usually a nuisance. Sure, Reykjanes residents have had reason to pop sea-sickness pills to deal with all the shaking associated with the 2021 eruption there, but for the most part, feeling a brief quake provides a surprising jolt of excitement.

A stop sign on the main road in Iceland after an earthquake
A helicopter flying past the Geldingadalir volcano eruption

PRO: Excitement

Since there hasn't been fatality from an Icelandic volcano in hundreds of years, we’re going to put their entertainment value in the “pro” column. Just in the past dozen years, the 2010 eruption at Fimmvörðuháls, the 2014 eruption at Holuhraun and the 2021 eruption at Fagradalsfjall were incredible sights to see. Though Holuhraun was less accessible due to its location and the gases it produced, the lava shows put on by Fimmvörðuháls and Fagradalsfjall were incredible to behold — no wonder so many people travelled to Iceland in 2021 watch the lava flow. A quarter of the Icelandic population hiked to see the Fagradalsfjall in its first month alone!

CON: Flooding

One natural phenomena that goes hand-in-hand with Iceland’s geothermal and volcanic activity is flooding. A Jökulhlaup (literally “glacial run”) is when there is heating beneath a glacier — either from geothermal activity or a subglacial volcanic eruption — that causes subglacial ice to melt and water to accumulate in a basin beneath the glacier. The pressure builds until the accumulated water goes flooding out from beneath the ice, sometimes washing away anything and everything in its path, including, on occasion, Iceland’s well-travelled Ring Road.

PRO: Connection with Nature

When so many people in the world only experience major natural events through the international news or in movies, there is something very powerful about living in or visiting Iceland, where the Earth’s power is a constant in our daily lives — heck, we’re reminded of it every time we turn on the faucet! It’s an important aspect of Icelanders’ connection with their natural environment that they understand and resect its power and potential danger so intrinsically. And that’s an amazing thing.

How to experience Iceland's volcanoes

If you’re travelling to Iceland with volcanoes on the brain, you’re in luck. There are so many different ways to experience Iceland’s amazing volcanism and see first-hand its long-lasting impact on the environment. Here are our favourite ways to experience volcanoes in Iceland.

1. Check out a lava tunnel

You read that right. We’re suggesting you venture inside a lava tunnel. Of course, we’re referring to a lava tunnel or cave that is no longer occupied by searing hot magma. Thanks to Iceland’s volcanic history, the country is littered with dormant lava tunnels and caves to be explored with an experienced guide. Lest you think descending into a cave is going to be little more than a dark, dank experience, think again. The environments created by lava streams some 4,000 or 5,000 years ago are incredible, with stalactites and stalagmites, and textured lava rock walls in shades of black, red and green, depending on the chemical compositions of the eruptions that created them.

 

Recommended tour: The Lava Tunnel

2. Visit the Reykjanes Geopark

The Reykjanes Geopark is one of the most fascinating geological areas in Iceland, with the volcanic power of the Earth on display at all times. A large swath of the Reykjanes peninsula was designated a UNESCO Global Geopark in 2015, indicating it's a region of international geological significance. A trip to the Geopark lets visitors experience magnificent lava formations and massive craters, the boiling mud pits of Seltún and Gunnuhver, the continental rift and, of course, the youngest lava field in Iceland, at the site of the 2021 Fagradalsfjall eruption.

 

Recommended tours: Volcanic Wonders or Volcanic Wonders of Reykjanes Geopark

3. Take a hike

The nice thing about getting outdoors in Iceland is that the signs of the country’s volcanic power are quite literally all around you. This is never as true as when you’re hiking the country’s magnificent volcanic trails around the Vatnajökull National Park. Embarking on hikes in Iceland’s interior rewards with sweeping views of colourful rhyolite mountains created by eruptions thousands of years ago, as well as steaming earth signalling the geothermal activity happening just below the surface, and pitch black deserts and craggy lava formations. You really appreciate the power of the landscape and the explosive events that shaped it.

 

Recommended Tours: The Volcanic Trails or Laugavegur Trail Self Guided

 

4. Venture into an ice cave

We know what you’re thinking. Ice is just about the exact opposite of liquid hot magma. And you’re right. But, the shapes of Iceland’s glaciers and their icy caves are a fine example of the interplay between ice and the volcanic power underground. Visiting an ice cave brings you face to face with the remnants of past eruptions, represented as layers of volcanic ash between a glacier’s layers of ice. And the ice caves themselves are the result of the subglacial melt and runoff floods that we mentioned earlier on. It’s all volcanic, baby!

 

Recommended Tour: Skaftafell Ice Cave Tour & Glacier Walk or Ice Cave - Only the Brave

 

Why book a guided tour in Iceland?

We have used the word “power” a number of times throughout this post to describe Iceland’s volcanic and geothermal features, and for good reason. Iceland’s nature is powerful, and many of the country’s incredible volcanic sites and features can only be visited safely with an experienced guide.

While you can get a feel for Iceland’s volcanoes on a self-guided or DIY hike or trek, going with an experienced guide not only guarantees safety, it guarantees you’ll learn a thing or two in addition to taking some epic shots for the ‘Gram. Icelandic Mountain Guides’ guides are trained and knowledgeable experts on the areas they’re guiding in. You’re sure to pick up some fascinating trivia that you can work into the conversation at every dinner party you attend for the rest of your life. We’re sure your friends will love it.

Should you book in advance?

Yes! We highly recommend booking your volcano tours in Iceland in advance. The last thing you want it to get all the way to Iceland to find the tour of your dreams is fully booked — heck, we’d hate that for you!

If the hike or tour you're interested in is fully booked, be in touch and Icelandic Mountain Guides can suggest other options that will tick all your boxes.

Don’t want to miss out on the adventure of your dreams; secure your spot on the tour of your choice ahead of time on mountainguides.is.

A man inside an ice cave

Do you wish to see more?

Explore our great selection of day tours in Iceland

About the Author

Catharine Fulton

Catharine Fulton

Catharine is a professional writer and editor living in Reykjavík. She's a cautionary tale of the dangers of travelling to Iceland, having been seduced by the country's culture, nature and tall, bearded men (or man, singular) while trying her damndest to get home to Canada. That was more than a decade ago; she's done for.

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