VOLCANOES IN ICELAND

In recent days (March 2021), the news has been buzzing about volcanoes, earthquakes and a potential volcanic eruption in Iceland. The area in question this time is the Reykjanes Peninsula. There have been over 17,000 earthquakes shaking Reykjavik and the surrounding areas. Some earthquakes have even reached 5.6 on the Richter scale. So I thought this would be a good chance to discuss the most recent volcanic eruptions in Iceland and discuss the likelihood of another eruption…soon.

BREAKING NEWS: As of 4pm today (3rd of March 2021) a press conference was held to discuss the likelihood of an imminent eruption. It would seem that the chances of an eruption are now very real. The local residents in the area have been evacuated as a precaution. When and how the volcano will erupt is yet to be determined. The warning signs suggest that an eruption in the Reykjanes Peninsula near Keilir Mountain is the most likely scenario if an eruption were to occur. In the event of an eruption in this area, it seems that lava flow (effusive eruption), rather than an explosive eruption, is likely to take place. This is less likely to affect flights in and out of Iceland despite its close proximity to the airport. 

UPDATE (8th March 2021) : Despite all the excitement of the past week it would seem that things are less imminent than initially thought. However, there are still hundreds of earthquakes going off in the same area so who knows what’s going to happen in the coming days, weeks and months. 

Iceland, in recent years, is more known for its volcanic activity than its glaciers despite the name. Locals often quip that Eldland (meaning fire land in Icelandic) would be a more appropriate name. Considering there are around 130 volcanoes in Iceland I think this wouldn’t be a bad name indeed. Especially since Iceland’s new nickname is ‘The Land of Fire and Ice’. In fact, one of our biggest selling tours South Coast: Fire & Ice was inspired by Iceland’s volcanic past. During this trip we skirt around the famous Eyjafjallajökull and check out the Lava Centre Exhibition before hiking on a glacier that flows down from the ‘ready to erupt’ volcano, Katla.

DISCLAIMER: Do not take anything in this blog post as a useful predictor for the next volcanic eruption.

SPECIAL THANKS TO: Helen María Björnsdóttir of Local Guide of Vatnajökull who provided many of the pictures. 

VOLCANOES IN ICELAND

CONTENTS:

  1. Is a volcano about to erupt?
  2. How often do volcanoes erupt in Iceland?
  3. Eyjafjallajökull and other recent eruption
  4. Historic eruptions
  5. Eldfell volcano on the Westman Islands

1. Is a volcano about to erupt?

Let’s discuss the elephant in the room before we jump into Iceland’s volcanic past.

Is the recent flurry of earthquakes a precursor to a volcanic eruption? Well, in a word, yes. It certainly can be. Does that mean it will? Not necessarily. Personally, with all the ups and downs we’re feeling right now I wouldn’t be willing to predict one way or another.

Saying that, this level of seismic activity ‘can’ be one of the factors in determining if a volcano is going to erupt. However, on any given day in Iceland there are dozens of small earthquakes across the country. And over the past few years there have been similar earthquake swarms in other parts of the island which resulted in no eruption. The most recent, aside from the ongoing one right now, was in the exact opposite side of the country in the north east last year. The same thing occurred in the south east in 2017. These were all unconnected volcanic system.

Earthquakes in the Reykjanes 2021.

Many other factors are taken into account for the likelihood of a volcanic eruption. Earthquakes are of course a big one but change in land elevation, temperature change, increased gas release and melting ice if under a glacier are also contributing indicators.

At the moment, aside from taking down breakables and checking wall fixtures, things seem to be business as usual. Earthquakes are a normal part of life here in Iceland and the early warning systems that are currently in place are quite sophisticated indeed.

However, on the 1st of March 2021, Fréttablaðið, reported that magma was potentially on the move underground near an isolated area called Keilir. This is a key sign in potential eruptions. Again, it doesn’t guarantee an eruption though.

Thankfully, if this was to be the eruption site, there are no settlements here.

Effectively, an eruption could happen in this area in the future but bear in mind that the last time there was an eruption in this area was over 700 years ago. So it could be soon or not at all.

If you are interested in monitoring the situation more closely over the coming weeks then the Icelandic Meteorological Office updates a few times per day.

If you want to visit this geothermally active part of Iceland for yourself you can join our Reykjanes & Lava Tunnel tour. On this day trip, we venture into a real life lava tunnel from an eruption 5200 years ago and explore the acid rivers and erupting geysers of the region.

2. How often do volcanoes erupt in Iceland?

There are over 130 named volcanoes across Iceland. Some are active and others are not. These volcanoes are divided up into around 32 volcanic systems. Despite the large number of volcanoes across the country only a few dozen have erupted since Settlement in the year 874AD and even less in the past 120 years.

Some of the more active volcanoes in Iceland are noted below (this is not a full list):

  1. Grímsvötn in Vatnajökull National Park (south east Iceland) is the most active volcano in Iceland with an average eruption frequency of 1 in every 10 years throughout the last 1100 years.

  2. Bárðarbunga, also in the Vatnajökull National Park has recorded 26 volcanic eruptions in the last 1100 years giving it an average of 1 in every 50 years.

  3. Hekla in the south of Iceland is also one of the most active volcanoes in Iceland, recording 23 eruptions in the last 1000 years. Gaps between eruptions during this period range from 9 years to 121 years. The last eruption was in the year 2000.

  4. Eyjafjallajökull in the south of Iceland has erupted every 350-400 years in the last 1500 years with 4 eruptions being recorded since settlement.

  5.  Katla in the south of Iceland, close to Eyjafjallajökull is considered one of the biggest volcanoes but hasn’t erupted since 1918. On average this volcano has erupted every 50 years in the last 1100 years.

  6. Öræfajökull is also the largest mountain in Iceland standing at 2,110m in height. It has also recorded some of the largest eruptions with 10km3 of tephra being ejected in the 1362 eruption. The last eruption was in 1727.

  7. Askja in the north east of Iceland last erupted in 1961 and usually has 2-3 eruptions every 100 years.

For a more detailed look at Iceland’s active volcanoes you can check out the interactive map at Iceland Volcanos. The Catalogue is a collaboration of the Icelandic Meteorological Office (the state volcano observatory), the Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland , and the Civil Protection Department of the National Commissioner of the Iceland Police, with contributions from a large number of specialists in Iceland and elsewhere.

All in all, this averages out at one volcanic eruption every 4-6 years…and it’s been 6 years since the last eruption. Hmm, curious….Though in earnest, to say that there should be an eruption every 4-6 years is a little misleading. There may be lots of volcanic activity over a short period of time and then nothing for decades. It would seem volcanoes don’t care too much for averages.

On our 2 Day Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Ice Cave tour we pass by many volcanoes, witnessing cooled lava fields near the Laki volcano, sneaking behind the Seljalandsfoss waterfall beneath Eyjafjallajökull and even exploring an ice cave that is at the base of Iceland’s biggest volcano, Öræfajökull.

3. Eyjafjallajökull and other volcanic eruptions

Was the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption the most recent volcanic eruption in Iceland I hear you ask?

Nope! In fact, there have been 2 eruptions since then. Grímsvötn in 2011 and Bárðarbunga in 2014/15. Strange that you haven’t heard of them right?

I suspect the reason that these more recent eruptions aren’t so famous is because they didn’t stop over 100,000 planes from flying. Eyjafjallajökull was an explosive eruption (Volcanic Explosivity Index 3) which ejected fine grained ash 8km into the air. The ash plume was directly underneath the jet stream which helped the ash to travel south east and disrupt air travel across Europe.

If this ash got into the plane engines it could clog the engines and make them stall. In 1982 a British Airways flight flew through a cloud of volcanic ash which resulted in all 4 engines stalling. Thankfully, the pilot was able to glide the engine out of the cloud and restart the engines before disaster struck. I think you’ll agree that this is a good warning call to keep planes out of the sky while the volcano was erupting.

Eyjafjallajokull Eruption by Bjarki Sigursveinsson. Wikimedia Commons Image.

It was estimated that during that 6 week period, airlines lost over $1.7bn.

In contrast, the Grímsvötn eruption in 2011 only lasted a week with the ash travelling north where there is far less air traffic. Only a few hundred planes were landed during this time, despite it being a more powerful eruption (VEI 4).

The Bárðarbunga eruption in 2014/15 actually lasted much longer, around 6 months. However, it was an effusive eruptions meaning it was far less explosive (VEI 1) and produced far more lava. Lava is possibly the most picture worthy effect of an eruption but in this case it was far less disruptive outside of the immediate flow fields.

Thankfully, no one was killed during any of the most recent eruptions. In fact, the two most recent volcanic eruptions were in such remote parts of Iceland that it would be hard to get there even without lava and ash flying around everywhere. The closest you will get to either of these volcanoes is on our 2 Day Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon with Glacier Hike tour. Though admittedly we are still well over 50km away. However, in the summer you can get great views of the edge of the ice cap that stretches towards both volcanoes.

4. Historic Eruptions

There have been so many eruptions since settlement so I couldn’t possible discuss them all here. However, there are 2 notable ones I’d like to mention:

1. The Öræfajökull volcanic eruption in 1362

So the first of these eruptions in 1362 was considered one of the most devastating in terms of direct lost life. Although the exact death toll is not known, it is estimated that there were up to 400 people settled at the base of the volcano at the time. The eruption was highly explosive and produced 10km3 of silica tephra. For comparison, the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010 produced only 0.38km3 of tephra. In the aftermath, the area was covered in huge amounts of tephra and ash and the farmlands were destroyed by floods. The area would forever be referred to as Öræfi which roughly translates to wasteland in Iceland.

2. The Laki eruption in 1783

The second eruption I want to talk about is the 1783 Laki eruption. This was the second biggest eruption in Iceland’s history since settlement, with around15km3 of lava deposited. 9500 Icelanders and over 200,000 livestock lost their lives from the eruption and resulting famine that ensued.  As noted by Thordarson (1993), The release of sulphur gases during fountaining produced an acid haze (aerosol) which spread widely and had a considerable environmental, and possibly climatic, impact on the Northern Hemisphere.

The temperature was estimated to have dropped by 1.3c in the regions affected by the eruption. This in turn created an intense winter across Europe, resulting in floods and deep freezes. Many crops failed in Iceland and others were affected across Europe. It is estimated that 20% of the Icelandic population died from the resulting famine and disease after the eruption. It was described in the Iceland Chronicles as the “Haze Famine.” Some claim that the hardship caused by the eruption spurred on the eventual French Revolution in 1789 but these claims are anecdotal at best.

5. Eldfell volcano on the Westman Islands

This final eruption gets an entire section to itself because of its wonderful story. The story of the Eldfell eruption of 1973.

This eruption was on the main island of Heimaey within the Westman Islands. Sadly, this is one of the few times in recent years that someone died directly because of a volcanic eruption in Iceland. Thankfully, this isn’t a regular occurrence despite the number of eruptions in Iceland.

The island had over 4000 inhabitants back in the 70s. So when the volcano began to erupt only a few hundred metres from the town it was full on evacuation mode. Exceptionally, within 24 hours the entire population had been safely escorted off the island. It was the biggest evacuation in Iceland’s history.

However, after a short time on the mainland, the locals realised that the eruption, though deadly, had slow moving lava. That meant they could venture back onto the island safely. They realised that they could use giant hoses to draw water from the ocean and start to spray the lava day and night. This cooled the lava in one section and created a natural barrier which forced the remaining lava out to sea. In the end, only a few hundred houses were destroyed. Sadly, one local succumbed to gas exposure. But, considering the entire town could have been destroyed, this was a monumental triumph in Icelandic history. By the time the eruption stopped the island had gained over 20% extra land.

To see this historic sight you can join us on our Volcanic Westman Islands tour. On this tour we walk to the top of the Eldfell volcano in search of great views and hot pockets. The volcano is still active after all, though no lava on the surface anymore thankfully.

Get in touch!

If you are suitably inspired to come and see this wonder of nature then you can get in touch. I hope I made Iceland sound exciting rather than terrifying. You can also simply click on any of the links of the tours mentioned in the page. After all, it’s hard to find a tour that’s run in Iceland that doesn’t have something volcano related.

Ryan Connolly | Marketing Manager, Guide, Co - Owner | Hidden Iceland

Hi, I’m Ryan Connolly; Co-Founder and Marketing Manager of Hidden Iceland.

I’ve guided in multiple countries around the world and stepped foot on all 7 continents. My passion for the outdoors, science, nature, glaciers and volcanoes has led me to study and write about Iceland. I have been interviewed in ForbesConde Nast Traveller and Travel Pulse on various subjects.

Hidden Iceland Logo | Hidden Iceland

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.