Everything You Need to Know About Earthquakes in Iceland

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Svanhildur Sif Halldórsdóttir

Svanhildur Sif Halldórsdóttir

Does Iceland have earthquakes? If so, how common are earthquakes in Iceland? Is it likely you will feel an earthquake when visiting? Is Iceland safe? Read on to learn more about earthquakes in Iceland.

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Off the beaten path
Photo: NordicSoul Iceland

Iceland is still being moulded by Mother Nature’s forces, which means that sometimes the ground trembles a little bit. Though it may sound strange to some, or even scary, earthquakes are an inevitability of life in Iceland. 

But that shouldn’t deter you from visiting. Iceland has been battling the forces of nature for over a thousand years, which means that we are well prepared for whatever nature throws at us. 

What is an Earthquake?

A map showing the Earth's tectonic plates
Photo: Fathimahazara via Wikimedia C.C.

The Earth is made up of about twenty tectonic plates that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. 

These plates continuously shift, grind, and bump against one another. When the friction becomes too much, it is released in seismic shockwaves, which ripple through the ground. 

This process is constant, and around half-million earthquakes rock the Earth each day. However, most are so small, too deep in the sea or too far below the surface to be felt. Occasionally, the shocks are so big, people can feel them many miles away.

Earthquakes are detected by seismometers that measure the ground’s motion. The most common way of talking about an earthquake’s size is with the Richter scale, which has a range of 0 to 10 (though seismological authorities now use other scales for more accurate results). 

Are there Earthquakes in Iceland?

Yes, Iceland does have earthquakes. Most earthquakes happen on the border where tectonic plates meet, and Iceland just happens to sit right on top of one of these boundaries called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

A map showing the how the Mid-Atlantic Rift crosses Iceland.
Photo: USGS via Wikimedia

This ridge spans the Atlantic Ocean, separating the North American from the Eurasian tectonic plates in the North Atlantic. It wraps around the planet in a long seam that is over 65,000 km (40389 mi) long. 

In fact, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is part of the longest mountain ranges on Earth. However, over 90% of it is underwater and thus hidden from view. There are only a few places on this planet where the ridge surfaces out of the ocean, and Iceland is one of these locations.

Golden Circle & Snorkeling
Snorkelling between two continents is possible in Iceland. Photo: Small Group Golden Circle Tour with Snorkelling in Silfra Fissure

The best location to see the tectonic plates is at Þingvellir National Park, one of the three attractions that make up the popular Golden Circle sightseeing route. You can both walk between them at Almannagjá Gorge or, if you are feeling adventurous, snorkel between the continents at Silfra Fissure.

Iceland’s position on top of the ridge means that the country is no stranger to tectonic activity such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and Þingvellir is a prime example of it. Dotted around the area are lava fields and countless cracks and fissures created by these underground tremors. 

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

How often does Iceland have earthquakes

Earthquakes in Iceland are pretty common like they are in the rest of the world. On average, there are around 500 earthquakes in Iceland each week. Most of these quakes are small and pass without anybody noticing. 

Bigger earthquakes are much rarer. The largest earthquakes ever recorded in Iceland occurred in 1784 and was believed to be a 7.1, though detailed measurements were not available. Scientists believe that a large quake of this magnitude will hit Iceland every 100-150 years. 

Can you feel earthquakes in Iceland

Yes, sometimes you can feel an earthquake in Iceland. Although most of the earthquakes here are too small to feel — measuring under 3.0 — there comes a bigger quake on occasion. 

Iceland’s Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, in a middle of an interview when an earthquake hit.

There are two main types of earthquakes in Iceland, those caused by tension released in the tectonic plates and those caused by the movement of magma. 

The latter type, movement of magma, is an indication that a volcanic eruption is imminent. So whenever the ground rumbles in Iceland, scientists look closely at whatever volcano is nearby to see if there are any other signs of an eruption. 

These earthquakes are usually smaller and can usually only be felt if you are relatively close to the volcano. If that happens, you don’t need to panic just yet; the magma can move without actually breaking through the ground in a volcanic eruption.

A volcanic eruption in Iceland.
The 2014 eruption in Bárðabunga Volcano. Photo: jmarti20 from Pixabay

An interplate earthquake happens when the tectonic plates move. This type of tremor is responsible for 90% of the Earth’s total seismic activity. These earthquakes tend to be bigger than the magma-related ones and can usually be felt miles away from where they originated. 

Though large, these types of earthquakes in Iceland are generally not as big as the ones you see near other fault lines (the boundary between continents). That is because here, the tectonic plates are moving away from each other, and not pressing up against each other. 

When was the last earthquake in iceland

As stated, earthquakes are happening all the time in Iceland. So chances are the last earthquake in Iceland just happened while you read this line. Below is a list of recent earthquakes from the Lava Centre in Iceland.

In 2020, there was a series of earthquakes, known as an ‘earthquake swarm’, in both North Iceland and on the Reykjanes Peninsula. Most of these earthquakes were felt in the surrounding area, such as Akureyri and Húsavík in the North, and the capital city of Reykjavík in the South.

The largest earthquake of these swarms was a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that originated in the ocean between the northern town of Siglufjörður and Grímsey Island. On the Reykjanes Peninsula, the largest earthquake was a magnitude of 5.6, and it originated near Kleifarvatn Lake.

In late February of 2021, another earthquake swarm occurred on the Reykjanes Peninsula. The largest quake was a 5.7, and it rocked the nearby Reykjavík city. At the time of writing, the swarm is still happening, and incidentally, one took place while I was writing this paragraph.  

Me writing this article when an earthquake hit

Is it safe to visit Iceland?

It is understandable if you are a bit rattled after reading this article. But I can assure you that it is still perfectly safe to visit Iceland. 

Earthquakes have always been a part of everyday life here in Iceland. Us Icelanders know that fighting natural forces rarely works, so instead, we’ve adjusted our ways to fit Mother Nature’s fickle temper. 

3-Day Small-Group Tour from Reykjavík | Golden Circle, South Coast, Glacier Hike, & Ice Caves
Photo: Small-Group Tour from Reykjavík | Golden Circle, South Coast, Glacier Hike, & Ice Caves

According to building regulations, Icelandic buildings must be able to withstand an earthquake with a minimum magnitude of 7.0. Scientists believe that because the tectonic plates in Iceland are moving away from each other, the chances of a much larger than a 7.0 earthquake are minimal. 

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be wary of an earthquake. The most common type of earthquake injury in Iceland nowadays is from things falling from shelves or loose ceiling tiles. People also have gotten hurt when trying to hurry out of the house. So, the main thing is to keep calm.

A supermarket after a 5.6 earthquake in October 2020

Most quakes are over in just a few seconds but if a longer one happens, make sure you kneel, cover your head, and hold onto something. You can kneel under a sturdy table or in the corner of a load-bearing wall. Stay away from windows as the glass can break. Also, remember, the emergency phone number in Iceland is 112 in case of injuries.

Summary

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall on Iceland's South Coast
Photo: FShoq!

Iceland is a mysterious island where sometimes the earth trembles under your feet. Its position on top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge means that earthquakes are frequent here. Thankfully, most of them are too small to feel. 

Bigger earthquakes are rare, but they do happen from time to time. When they do, it is important to stay calm and watch out for things falling off shelves.

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