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Everything You Need to Know About Volcanoes in Iceland

What are the most famous volcanoes in Iceland, and can they be visited on day tours? Why is Iceland so volcanically active? Is a volcano going to erupt in Iceland soon? Read on to find out all you need to know about volcanoes in Iceland; the land of ice and fire.

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Iceland is one of the most volcanic regions on Earth. Powerful eruptions created the country when molten lava spewed out of the ground over millions of years. To this very day, the land is active, and the island is still being created.

The volcanoes in Iceland are responsible for much of the country’s staggering scenery. They’ve not only shaped the island’s landscapes but its history and culture too.

Why is Iceland called the Land of Fire and Ice?

More than half of Iceland’s landmass is barren, and only a quarter of the fertile land is inhabited. The rest of it is made up of ice sheets and lava fields. 

About 11% of Iceland is covered by glaciers and the country has over 30 active volcanoes, many of which lie underneath the glaciers. This interaction of hot and cold has formed the landscape we see today, as well as lending Iceland the nickname The Land of Fire and Ice.

How was Iceland formed?

When people say Iceland is a hotspot for travellers, they’re not just talking about its lovely scenery, fun day-tours and unique local culture. 

They could very well be alluding to the literal hotspot that was responsible for the formation of the country around 60 million years ago. 

Iceland sits on the boundary of the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates, both of which are constantly moving apart. The country is one of the few places on Earth where this tectonic plate separation happens above sea level. 

The movement of the plates is partly responsible for Iceland’s volcanic activity. The other reason is an abnormally hot region fed by the Earth’s mantle. This area is known as a hotspot, and Iceland happens to sit on top of one.

This particular hotspot is known in science as the Iceland Plume, and it is believed to be the most significant cause of the high volcanic activity we see today in the country.

The Iceland plume produced hot lava which rose to the surface of the ocean some 60 million years ago. As it reached the water, it cooled and gradually accumulated into the island we now know as Iceland.

As such, Iceland is considered one of the youngest countries on Earth—geologically speaking‚ that is—with its landscapes still changing dramatically to this day.

What types of volcanoes are found in Iceland? 

Credit: Pickpik

Most people expect volcanoes to appear as they do in the storybooks; domineering and lonesome on the horizon, with a long sloping body and an open caldera that forever has a slight trickle of lava oozing from it. 

Here in Iceland, the geology has shaped up a little differently. Since the island is located just below the Arctic Circle, more snow accumulates at high altitude places over the year than melts during the summer.

Over the centuries, this snow becomes compressed and forms a glacier on top of Iceland’s tallest peaks, which include our volcanoes. This is one of the reasons Iceland is often nicknamed ‘the land of fire and ice’, but it also makes picking out volcanoes difficult for the casual observer. 

There are three major types of volcanoes: cinder cones, composite cones and shield cones. Iceland happens to be home to all three. 

Types of volcano.
Credit: Pixy.org

The most common are composite cone volcanoes, otherwise known as stratovolcanoes, which include the likes of Snæfellsjökull in West Iceland, and Eyjafjallajökull and Hekla, both in South Iceland. These steep-sided volcanoes are composed of layers of lava, ash and rock debris, and erupt in an explosive manner. 

Cinder cones are the smallest of volcanoes and include the Ljósufjöll volcanic system on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and Þríhnúkagígur volcano on the Reykjanes Peninsula. Most cinder cones have a bowl-shaped crater at the summit and won’t rise more than 366 metres (1,200 ft).

Notable shield volcanoes are Þyrill, located in Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord), and Surtsey island. These volcanoes are broad, dome-shaped, with smoothly sloped sides. From above, they look like a warrior shield, hence the name. 

How do volcanoes erupt? 

Credit: Wikimedia. Creative Commons. Boaworm

Our planet is made up of several layers. The top sheet, or crust, is the thinnest layer. Below the crust is the mantle where temperature can reach well above 1,000° Celsius (1832° Fahrenheit).

The lithosphere is the external shell of a planet. It is composed of the crust and the portion of the upper mantle and is subdivided into tectonic plates. The boundary lines between these plates often become the most volcanically active areas in the world. 

Iceland sits atop two tectonic plates, the Eurasian and North American, with the boundary line between known as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

People walking through Almannagja Canyon at Thingvellir National Park.
Photo: NordicSoul Iceland

(For those interested, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge can be seen exposed above ground at Þingvellir National Park, which is part of the Golden Circle sightseeing route.)

Deep in the Earth’s mantle, melted rock called magma routinely tries to rise to the top. The magma seeks out cracks and spaces to go into, forming magma chambers. 

A combination of extreme pressure, changing heat and tectonic movements causes magma to break through the surface, causing a volcanic eruption.

Credit: The Magma Facebook

All of the great mountains that dot our planet, be it Mt. Etna in Sicily, Yellowstone Caldera in the USA, or Krakatoa in Indonesia, are liable to erupt once more with the turning tide of the Earth’s mantle. 

How many active volcanoes are there in Iceland? 

Credit: Wikimedia. Creative Commons. Pinpin.

Iceland is divided over four volcanic areas; the Reykjanes Zone, the West, the North, and the East. Each is connected by the (MIB) Mid-Iceland Belt in the Central Highlands

In total, these areas comprise 30 different volcanic systems, each of which boasts a central volcano and swarms of tectonic fractions. This means there are approximately 30 active volcanoes in Iceland. 

The number of volcanoes in total in Iceland reaches over 130 when totalling up those that are dormant and extinct.

Are volcanic eruptions frequent in Iceland? 

A lava field in Iceland
Credit: Pickpik

On average, a major volcanic eruption occurs in Iceland every five years or so, which might sound dramatic, but is, in fact, part-and-parcel of life here on the island. 

Since the initial settlement period (when the country’s earliest arrival, Ingólfur Arnarson, sailed to our shores in 874 CE), around 18 volcanoes have erupted. In the last 50 years, there have been over 20 eruptions recorded. 

Over 30 volcanic systems have been active on the island during the Holocene Period (the time since the end of the last ice age – approximately the last 11,700 years). To put this in context, over a third of the world’s lava has come directly from eruptions in Iceland.

Will a volcanic eruption happen in Iceland soon? 

A lava flow
Credit: pickpik

By now, we have clarified that volcanic eruptions are not a matter of if in Iceland, but when. All too aware of this fact, Icelanders forever keep one eye on the landscape around them. 

Thankfully, the vast majority of the country does not live directly in the fallout zone of any active volcanoes, the exceptions being some towns along the South Coast.

Be that as it may, the Earth’s mantle continues to shift and pressurise, oblivious to the affairs of surface residents. 

Scientists watch all volcanoes in Iceland but they are keeping a close eye on five; the two most feared — Katla and Bárðabunga — and three which have shown some signs of unrest recently.

This year alone (2020) has seen a sizable increase in seismic activity around three volcanoes; Hekla on the South Coast, Mt. Þorbjörn on the Reykjanes Peninsula, and Grímsvötn volcanic system in the Highlands. 

Fortunately, these earthquakes did not cause any injury or severe damage. However, some observers did note landslides and rockfalls in isolated areas. The earthquakes do not mean that an eruption will happen; it merely means that scientists are now monitoring these volcanoes even more.

Of the three volcanoes likely to erupt, Grímsvötn is the most active one, and, fortunately, too far away from human habitation to cause major concerns. 

However, for Grímsvötn, scientists are not speculating whether the volcano will erupt but when. Seeing we are dealing with Mother Nature, an eruption can happen in the next few weeks or months.

Is it safe to travel to Iceland? 

Eldhraun lava field.
Credit: Needpix

The simple answer to this question is: YES

Professional agencies are monitoring Iceland’s volcanic activity around the clock. Given the advancement in technology, scientists are now able to measure and reliably predict when an eruption is evident.

Bear in mind, however, that Iceland is a vast and largely undeveloped landscape, presenting other dangers than mere volcanic eruptions. 

Guests should always have personal safety at the forefront of their mind and are recommended to routinely check the websites Safe Travel Iceland, as well as Vedur.is, the national weather forecast.

What are Iceland’s most famous volcanoes? 

Many people remember the 2010 eruption of the famous Eyjafjallajökull which halted all European air traffic for a few days. 

Those who’ve visited Iceland and taken a tour of the South Coast or the Snæfellsnes Peninsula might also recognise the volcano Katla and Snæfellsjökull. 

But with around 30 active volcanic systems in Iceland, there are many more interesting volcanoes to discover in this land of fire and ice. 

Below are some of the most famous volcanoes, those who have erupted recently and those who have caused the biggest eruptions.

How are volcanic eruptions measured?

A volcanologist on site.
Credit: Flickr. United Nations.

Before we get on with the list of most interesting volcanoes in Iceland, we should take a look at how volcanic eruptions are measured. 

There are a few ways to measure a volcanic eruption. The most commonly used scale to determine the magnitude of an eruption is the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI). It is a measure of the explosiveness of eruptions and uses things like the volume of products, and eruption cloud height to place the explosion on a scale of 0-8. 

The scale is logarithmic, so every point on the scale relates to an eruption broadly ten times bigger than the one below. Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption was a VEI-4, and an example of a VEI-6 eruption would be Krakatoa’s 1883 eruption. Only about 40 eruptions of VEI-8 magnitude have been identified within the last 132 million years.

There are two types of eruptions; explosive and effusive. The VEI scale is a great way to measure explosive eruptions. However, on it, effusive eruptions —  where there is a massive amount of lava flow — would score a 0 or 1, even though it can impact the topography of the surrounding landscape significantly.

Hekla volcano

Hekla Volcano Iceland

One of the most active volcanoes in Iceland is Hekla. This mighty stratovolcano, with a height of 1,491 m (4,892 ft), is located on Iceland’s south coast and can be clearly seen from the towns of Hella and Hvolsvöllur.

Hekla’s explosive eruptions have been known throughout Europe for almost a millennium. Its first recorded eruption, in the year 1104 CE, was noted in an Anglo-Norman poem by the monk Benedite who described it as the prison for Judas. 

Credit: 1810, by MACKENZIE, George Steuart – Sir, Bart

The volcano continued to erupt periodically throughout the following centuries, with some episodes lasting up to six years. 

These incidents were clearly terrifying to Medieval Europeans as they referred to Hekla as The Gateway to Hell, a clear record that the volcano was feared even in countries far away from Iceland.

Hekla has erupted 18 times in recorded history; five of those times happened in the last 73 years. That is why Hekla holds the most fearsome reputation among this island’s residents and is often referred to as the Queen of Iceland’s Volcanoes.

Hekla is now considered by scientists to be overdue for an eruption.

Eyjafjallajökull volcano

Credit: Eyjafjallajökull Facebook

The mighty Eyjafjallajökull volcano and glacier can be seen when travelling on the Ring Road in South Iceland. 

At only 1,651 metres (5,417 ft) in height, Eyjafjallajökull is one of the country’s smaller ice caps. Its diminutive size has stopped the volcano beneath from erupting several times throughout history; namely in the years 920, 1612 and 1821. 

In more recent times, the volcano famously erupted in 2010, much to the ire of tongue-tied news anchors worldwide. 

During the secondary stages of Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption, the volcano ejected an enormous cloud of ash that reached several kilometres into the air, thus dominating the otherwise clear spring skies. 

Eyjafjallajokull erupts!
Credit: Bjarki Sigursveinsson. Flickr

Around 800 residents were evacuated from their homes during this period, not because of lava or ash, but the jökulhlaups (glacier meltwater floods) that swiftly overflowed the rivers.

Circumstances were not much better farther afield. Both governmental agencies and commercial airlines across the continent feared the ash would damage airline engines, thus decided to ground their fleets in line with the closure of European air space. 

The justification behind this decision lay with Eyjafjallajökull’s unique geology. Since the eruption occurred under glacial ice, the lava cooled exceptionally quickly, soon breaking down into very fine particles of glass and ash. 

Credit: Wikimedia. Creative Commons. NASA

These particles eventually became part of the eruption plume, the position of which was subject to high-altitude winds which often blew directly into some of the planet’s busiest airspace. 

The closures marked the single largest shut down of air traffic since the Second World War. Millions of passengers were stranded as a consequence, many of whom were trying to get home after Easter vacation. 

Though Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption was considered fairly small as far as Icelandic volcanoes go, it did have another dramatic consequence. 

Due to the tumultuous events unfurling in Iceland, the eyes of the world media turned their attention to Iceland, showcasing the island to a plethora of prospective travellers who had never considered visiting before. 

As such, many commentators have since claimed that Iceland’s tourism boom over the last decade is somewhat attributable to Eyjafjallajökull’s explosive nature. For that, the mountain has our thanks. 

How to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull

The pronunciation of this famous Iceland volcano has stumped many non-Icelandic speakers since its eruption in 2010.

The volcano has earned the nickname E-15, referring to Eyjafjallajökull’s initial and the 15 letters which follow. 

However, if you wish to impress your friends, you can follow these few steps, and you’ll be able to pronounce the name of this volcano like a local.

  1. The emphasis is on the first ‘Ey’, and it is pronounced AY, like in ‘day’.
  2. Quickly follow your AY with a short ‘ah’ sound. The whole thing should rhyme with the Outkast song ‘Hey Ya!’. And there you have the first part; Eyja
  3. Next up is -fjalla. The J’s in Icelandic are always soft and pronounced more like a Y. The -fj- here is pronounced like the fj- in ‘fjord’. Follow the -fj- with an ‘ah’ sound. Should rhyme with “shall”. And remember that here is your second emphasis.
  4. There are two double l’s in Eyjafjallajökull. Those are pronounced like the -tl- in ‘bottle’ or ‘Atlas’. Follow the first double l sound with a ‘lah’, like do re me fa so LA…And then you have the second part; -fjalla.
  5. Ö might look strange, but it is pronounced like the -i- in ‘sir’. Add a soft j in front of it and emphasize the ö.
  6. -ku- is next, the k-sound is like a regular k but the -u- sounds something like -oo- in a Southern American accent or a -u- in a French accent. 
  7. Finally, there is another double l-sound, and it is just before; the -tle in bottle. -jökull.

The name of the glacier means “Island Mountain Glacier”. Eyja meaning island, fjalla means mountain, and jökull is glacier. The emphasis in Icelandic is always on the first syllable in each word, so EYjaFJAllaJÖkull.

And there you have it. Eyjafjallajökull. 

Snæfellsjökull volcano 

Credit: Wikimedia. Creative Commons. Axel Kristinsson

Held in high regard by new-age thinkers as one of the planet’s mythical energy centres, Snæfellsjökull volcano towers over the Snæfellsnes peninsula at 1446 metres (4744 ft). 

Thanks to its height, the stratovolcano can be seen from Reykjavík, on clear days, across the glittering waters of Faxaflói Bay. Snæfellsjökull can be found approximately 120 kilometres (75 mi) from the Icelandic capital. 

Avid readers might know Snæfellsjökull from Jules Verne’s classic science fiction novel, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, as the titular entryway for the character’s subterranean adventure. 

A stil from Journey to the Centre of the Earth
Credit: Wikimedia. Creative Commons. JTTCOTE.

Weirdly enough, this was not the only time that Snæfellsjökull has been of interest to sci-fi fanatics. 

In 1993, a surprisingly large group of international UFO enthusiasts believed that an alien visit was imminent at the mountain. A conference of up to 500 people was held in Reykjavík before a dedicated group eventually set-about climbing Snæfellsjökull themselves. 

Though little green men failed to show up on the day, the event did attract considerable media coverage, including a CNN camera crew. A year on from the event, the popular series, the X-Files, first aired on Icelandic television… a coincidence? We think not. 

Snæfellsjökull is not considered among Iceland’s most active volcanoes, having last erupted in 200 AD ± 150—around 1750 years ago.

During the summer, hiking tours have become increasingly popular at Snæfellsjökull volcano thanks in part to its extraordinary beauty, as well as its easy accessibility from Reykjavík.  

The mountain saddle—a term used to describe the lowest point on a ridge—can be reached relatively easily under the leadership of a professional guide, with some stretches undertaken in 4×4 vehicles such as Snow Cats.

It should be noted, however, that making it to Snæfellsjökull’s true summit requires high proficiency in ice climbing, thus should only be attempted by seasoned professionals in the sport. 

Bárðarbunga volcano

The mighty Bárðarbunga (Bárður’s bump) stratovolcano sits beneath the jagged and icy peaks of Vatnajökull National Park’s glacial namesake. 

At 2009 metres (6591 ft), it is the country’s second-highest mountain after Hvannadalshnúkur. It boasts an enormous caldera that covers 80 square kilometres (29344.7 ft), and is considered the second-biggest volcanic system in Iceland at 200 kilometres (124 mi). 

Due to its isolated location and infrequent eruptions, Bárðarbunga is often thought comparatively little of and was only formally discovered after a small volcanic episode in 1910.

It should, however, not be underestimated. Due to its size, location under a glacier, and power, Bárðabunga is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in Iceland, having been responsible for some of the country’s most massive eruptions. 

8,500 years ago, it created the largest lava flow known to have been produced in a single eruption in the last 1100 years.

In 1447, Bárðabunga erupted in an eruption considered to be a VEI-6, the highest number any volcano in Iceland had reached on the VEI-scale, save Katla, which also reached this metric. The eruption created a series of lakes known as Veiðivötn, many of these lakes are actually former explosion craters.  

Over the last seven years, seismic activity has increased in the Bárðarbunga area, leading many to consider it now one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes. 

The volcano last erupted between August 2014 and February 2015, causing widespread air pollution across Europe. However, it created a new lava field, Holuhraun, which has now become a popular stop on tours on guided super jeep tours.

Katla volcano

Credit: Katla Geopark Facebook

Katla (Kettle) in South Iceland is one of the country’s most active volcanoes, having erupted twenty times between the years 930 CE and 1918 CE. 

Throughout history, Katla has erupted every twenty to fifty years. Having last erupted in 1918, there has been no period of inactivity longer than now, implying an eruption is imminent in the coming years. 

As one of Iceland’s largest volcanoes, Katla reaches a height of 1512 metres (4961 ft) and is partially shielded by Mýrdalsjökull glacier. Its caldera is 10 kilometres in diameter and is filled with up to 800 metres of ice. 

The town of Vik in South Iceland
Credit: Wikimedia. Creative Commons. Nihcolas Babaian

The town of Vík í Mýrdal sits in the shadow of the Katla; thus, residents are always prepared to follow emergency protocols laid out by the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management.

Katla is responsible for one of the largest lava eruptions in the past 10,000 years and the biggest eruption in Iceland’s recorded history. 

Around 50 years after the Viking arrived, in 934 CE, Hekla and the nearby Eldgjá canyon erupted, creating over 20 km² (21527.82ft²) of lava. Researchers believe the eruption lasted four years and was measured at a VEI-6.

Due to Katla’s size, proximity to settlement, and frequent eruptions in the past, it is Iceland’s most feared volcano. However, it also makes it one of the most closely observed, meaning it is entirely safe to travel near it. You can even visit an authentic ice cave in the glacier which covers the volcano.

Craters of Laki

Credit: Pickpik

Otherwise known as Lakagígar, this volcanic fissure can be found near the tiny village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur in South Iceland. The mountain Laki sits along this fissure, so the names are often used interchangeably when referring to the area. 

Beginning in June 1783, Lakagígar erupted for eight intensive months, and the immediate consequences were dire in Iceland. Aside from the morbid fact that 20 villages were obliterated, over half of the island’s livestock was killed and almost all crops were destroyed. 

Credit: Pickpik

Given that local agriculture had taken such an unbelievable hit, a terrible famine ensued that led to the death of 25% of Iceland’s population.

Lakagígar’s eruption had an even greater impact abroad, with 120-million tons of sulfur dioxide pouring out across the Northern Hemisphere. This caused both a drastic drop in global temperatures and a thick poisonous smog that covered much of Europe. 

Such horrific circumstances complicated life for Europeans, leading to widespread misery and revolt. Many believe that the French Revolution, for instance, was a direct result of the mass-starvation that came after Laki’s eruption.

Credit: Pixabay

England’s first ecologist, Gilbert White, wrote of this time from his home in Hampshire. Below is an extract from his personal journal;

‘The sun, at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon, and shed a rust-coloured ferruginous light on the ground, and floors of rooms; but was particularly lurid and blood-coloured at rising […] All the time the heat was so intense that butchers’ meat could hardly be eaten on the day after it was killed; and the flies swarmed so in the lanes and hedges. […] The country people began to look, with a superstitious awe, at the red, louring aspect of the sun.’

This change in the climate also affected the monsoon seasons on other continents, causing severe droughts that reached as far as India and North Africa. The United States also had one of the coldest winters on record, and ice floes were even recorded in the Gulf of Mexico.

Eldfell Volcano 

At 01:55 AM on the 23rd of January 1973, a volcano in Westman Islands, an archipelago just off Iceland’s South Coast, burst into life after being dormant for around 5,000 years.

Fiery fissures began to form across Heimaey island, some extending to 1,600 metres (5,200 ft) in length.

Great, blazing fountains of lava lit up the night’s sky, alerting the town’s residents who began immediately to make their way to the harbour for evacuation to the mainland.

The encroaching lava threatened to engulf not only the town’s homes but also the harbour; an event would have had devastating effects on the people’s livelihood.

As luck would have it, the night before had been stormy, meaning that most of the island’s fishing boats were docked and could aid in the evacuation. 

The first boat left the harbour at 2:30, just over half an hour after the eruption began. In the morning, all 5,300 residents had made it to the mainland.

Only a handful of brave volunteers remained on the island. Their goal was now to save the harbour by cooling the lava and diverting its flow.

Thankfully, their valiant efforts were not in vain. With a little help from the US Army, the lava flow was diverted, and the harbour (and Heimaey’s livelihood) was saved.

Even so, half of the town was beyond saving, leaving around 400 homes permanently destroyed.

No wonder then that the island picked up the nickname ‘The Pompeii of the North’.

The eruption lasted over five months, and in the years that followed, Heimaey would go through a substantive reconstruction effort. Today, the island is home to 4,500 people—not mentioning eight million puffins every summer.

Praise to be Odin!

Surtsey 

Surtsey is a fellow member of the Westman Islands named after the Norse fire giant, Surtr. Surtsey was formed in an eruption which began on 14th of November 1963—a little under ten years before Eldfell violently erupted nearby.

Somewhat unexpectedly, this newly-forming landmass was first noticed by a cook onboard a trawler. Hardly believing his eyes, attention was first drawn to the phenomenon when he spotted an ominous dark smoke column rising on the horizon. 

After alerting his fellow crew members, a decision was made to investigate further, as many feared a shipping accident may have occurred.

What they discovered instead was a powerful underwater eruption which we now know began 130 metres (430 feet) below sea level.

The thick cloud of black ash was an indication that the eruption would soon begin to penetrate the ocean’s surface, which it did the next day.

During Surtsey’s 4-year eruption, it gradually grew, reaching its peak size at 2.5 km2, and 174 metres (571 feet) above sea level.

In the decades since the eruption, scientists have recorded the island diminishing in size. They estimate that it will be below the ocean surface once more in little over a century. 

Today, no one but an exclusive group of specialised biologists, botanists and volcanologists are allowed to set foot on the island. However, Surtsey island can sometimes be seen as an attraction on boat trips departing from Heimaey.

Grímsvötn Volcanic System

Grímsvötn is the most active volcanic system in Iceland. It is estimated it has erupted over 100 times since this country’s settlement (874-930 CE).

Its location under Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier, means that a massive amount of meltwater forms every time it erupts. These meltwater floods, known as jökulhlaup, can have devastating effects on the surrounding topography, washing away anything in its path.

Thankfully, Grímsvötn is located far away from human habitation, and—as with all Icelandic volcanoes—is very well monitored to prevent damage from both the eruption and the following jökulhlaup. 

Grímsvötn erupted last in 2011, and scientists believe it will erupt again in the next few weeks or months. 

Mt. Thorbjorn

The Reykjanes Peninsula
Credit: Flickr. martin_vmorris

The landscapes of the Reykjanes Peninsula are dominated by volcanism. Here, you’ll find the Reykjanes volcanic system, a vast area of lava fields, hot springs and mud pools, dotted between volcanoes.

One of those volcanoes is Mt. Þorbjörn, an often overlooked attraction located just outside of the town of Grindavík. A popular hiking trail leads to the mountain and can even be seen from the famous Blue Lagoon.

At the beginning of 2020, people started paying close attention to Þorbjörn when a series of small earthquakes were recorded near the volcano. 

Inflation of the earth was also recorded, just west of the volcano, which scientists believe could be caused by an accumulation of magma. This, however, does not necessarily mean Þorbjörn is about to erupt. 

Magma can accumulate without ever breaking through the surface, but scientists are keeping a close eye on both Þorbjörg as well as other volcanoes on the Reykjanes volcanic system.

What volcanoes can you visit in Iceland? 

An eruption in Iceland
Wikimedia. Creative Common. Boaworm

There are a significant number of volcanoes in Iceland that can be visited by travellers, though many do require taking part in a guided tour. Volcanoes such as Snæfellsjökull and Eldfell can easily be seen on your travels as well as the ice caps which cover Eyjafjallajökull and Katla.

Guided volcano tours come highly recommended. Not only will your professional guide be on-hand to provide information and answer questions, but they’ll be able to take you to hard-to-reach volcanoes safely.

Volcano and glacier tours will usually begin with participants boarding a 4×4 vehicle capable of traversing steep terrain. After all, the vast majority of volcanoes in Iceland are tucked away in hard-to-reach areas. 

Regardless of the volcano you’re visiting; you have the choice as to whether you’ll merely sightsee or take part in a more significant experience. These can include snowmobiling, glacier hiking or ice caving.

Some volcanoes, such as Eldfell (Fire Hill) on Heimaey island, can be seen without booking a tour (—though travel to the Westman Islands is necessary). At only 200 metres (660 feet), Eldfell can be climbed right up to its caldera, providing views over the surrounding island and coastlines. 

Many volcanic craters can be visited without a guide. These include Kerið near the Golden Circle, Grábrók and Saxhóll on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and Víti crater in the Central Highlands (although a 4×4 vehicle is necessary for the last one).

Can you go inside a volcano in Iceland? 

Going into the volcano
Credit: Flickr. Baron Reznik

Though at first, it might sound crazy, it is possible to go inside a volcanic caldera in Iceland. 

Thankfully, the volcano in question, Þríhnúkagígur (Three Peaks Crater), has long been dormant, making it a safe and unforgettable experience that you’ll surely find nowhere else.

For anyone a little concerned, rest easy knowing there hasn’t been an eruption here in over 4,000 years and there are no indications of Þríhnúkagígur erupting again any time soon. 

Þríhnúkagígur was only discovered in 1974, making it a relatively new addition to the Icelandic volcano family. 

Its enormous magma chamber reaches a depth of 120 meters (700 ft), making it so large that Reykjavík’s most famous landmark, Hallgrímskirkja Church, could fit comfortably inside. 

To get to the bottom, guests will board a cage elevator that will provide them with a steady, six-minute descent, surrounded the whole way down by vibrant red, yellow, and purple walls.

What are the best magma craters to visit in Iceland? 

Alexander Grebenkov. Wikimedia. Creative Commons

A fortunate consequence of Iceland’s past eruptions is the scenic magma craters they’ve left behind. Craters, crater lakes and calderas can be found throughout the country, and make for a brilliant quick stop while on your travels. 

The most famous crater, without doubt, is Kerið in West Iceland. A visit to this site is sometimes included as an extra activity on Golden Circle sightseeing tours. Do note, however, that a small entrance fee of 400 ISK is required for parking—something of an anomaly when it comes to Icelandic attractions. 

Two other widely photographed sites are the Víti explosion craters. One of which is located along the Krafla fissure in North Iceland, the other being in the Askja volcanic area in the Highlands. Because both crater lakes share a name (meaning hell) and, frankly, look somewhat similar, it is easy to become confused when discussing one in particular. 

Wikimedia. Creative Commons. Boawormjpg

At 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) wide and 90 kilometres long (56 mi), Krafla fissure area can be found just east of Akureyri on the map. This Víti was formed during a 1724 eruption known as the Mývatn Fires; an event so explosive that its flames could be seen from the South Coast. 

The other Víti is found in Askja, famed for Iceland’s second deepest lake, Öskjuvatn, which was formed in an 1875 eruption and now covers twelve square kilometres. The blue geothermal waters of Víti sit just nearby, a delightful oasis in the otherwise barren and dry terrain of Askja. 

Both Öskjuvatn and Víti can be reached following a 2.5-kilometre (1.6 mi) hike from the car park. Note that the Icelandic Highlands are only accessible during the summer months and with a 4×4 vehicle. 

Hverfjall crater in Iceland
Flickr. MindsEye_PJ

Hverfjall volcano crater is a scenic tephra cone located east of Lake Mývatn in North Iceland. 1 km in diameter(0.6 mi) and 140 metres (459 ft) deep, Hverfjall boasts a brilliant amphitheatre aesthetic with its black sloping walls and near-perfect symmetrical shape. 

Hiking is incredibly popular at Hverfjall. It will take guests approximately an hour to walk around the caldera lip, during which time they can enjoy beautiful views over the surrounding lake and mountains. 

Finally, the slopes of Eldborg crater (Fortress of Fire) rise 60 metres (197 ft) above a vast lava field on the borderline between the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and the Mýrar region, giving it that perfect volcano shape. 

Having last erupted around 5,000 – 6,000 years ago, the crater has a diameter of 200 metres (656 ft) and a total depth of 50 metres (164 ft). 

If you’d like to visit Eldborg, it is best to take a hiking path from Snorrastaðir farmstead; a journey of around 3 kilometres (1.8 mi), meaning it will take you about three hours to hike there and back. 

Where can you learn more about volcanoes in Iceland?

Seeing this is the Land of Fire and Ice, there are, of course, several fantastic museums and expeditions dotted around the country dedicated to providing information related purely to Icelandic volcanoes.

One of the most popular of these is the Lava Centre in Hvolsvöllur. This permanent exhibition utilises a high-tech multimedia approach to sharing Iceland’s captivating geological history. 

Detailed information boards, moody red lighting and abstract dioramas all culminate in creating an exhibition space quite unlike anything else in the country. 

There is also a built-in cinema that showcases dramatic educational videos, many of which include footage that most people have never seen. 

If you’re looking to learn more about eruptions in the Westman Islands particularly, make sure to pay a visit to http://eldheimar.is/en/Eldheimar Museum on Heimaey. 

Built around old homes once overwhelmed by the lava flow, you’ll learn about the cataclysmic eruption event that rocked this small island in 1973, lending the island its nickname ‘Pompeii of the North.’

The museum is both open during the summer and winter. Guests are provided with audio-guides to help immerse themselves in the subject, available in several languages including English, German, French, Icelandic, and Norwegian.

Another great institution where you can learn more about Iceland’s volcanoes can be found in the capital. Perlan Museum is instantly recognisable on the Reykjavík skyline due to the heavy water tanks and distinctive dome that peeks above the pine trees of Öskjuhlíð Hill. 

Perlan’s major exhibition, Wonders of Iceland, delves in Icelandic nature in a fun and high-tech way. It utilises reconstructions and multimedia displays boards to teach more about the country’s volcanoes, glaciers, Northern Lights, ice caves and bird cliffs. 

Another exhibition nearby is The Volcano House, located a short walk from the whale watching boats and fishing vessels of Reykjavík’s picturesque Old Harbour. 

First opened in 2011, this beloved geology exhibition showcases a magnificent mineral collection, as well as two informative documentaries that run late into the night, making it the perfect stop to finish your day.  

Central to the town as it is, there are plenty of delicious restaurants and bars to visit after your time at the Volcano House is done.

Summary 

As we’ve seen, Iceland is a country that lives up to its nickname, the land of ice and fire, boasting beautiful glaciers beneath which hide some of the most destructive elemental forces on Earth. 

Iceland is home to all three types of major volcano, of which thirty remain still active. The most active of all is Hekla volcano in South Iceland, which many believe is likely to erupt again shortly. 

Guests looking to learn more about the country’s volcanoes can do so in many ways. 

Some volcanoes like Eldfell can be climbed right to the lip, while others like Þríhnúkagígur provide an opportunity to witness the inside of a dormant magma chamber. 

For those a little too nervous for such an up-close look, there are several museums and exhibitions across the country dedicated to volcanoes, the most renowned being The Lava Centre in Hvolsvöllur, and both Perlan Museum and the Volcano House in Reykjavik. 

Aside from the volcanoes themselves, guests can appreciate their spectacular results in the form of gnarled lava fields, open magma craters and steamy geothermal valleys. Luckily, such natural attractions are hard to miss when driving around and can be found in every region of the country. 

Experiencing Iceland’s volcanoes will not only broaden your knowledge base, but also provide you with lasting memories of a country like nowhere else. 

The only question that remains is this; when will you be paying Iceland’s volcanoes a visit yourself? Make sure to check out our wide selection of volcano and glacier tours to find the best excursions for your trip.

Did you enjoy our article about volcanoes in Iceland? Are there any questions that you feel we didn’t answer? Please feel free to leave your comments, queries and memories in the Facebook comments’ box below. 

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