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Iceland Tectonic Plates: Where Europe Touches North America

The Iceland tectonic plates muster up forces of nature that are hard to comprehend if not seen in person. These massive plates have been at work for millions of years to create this beautiful land, and they are still working! In Iceland, you can have the unique experience of seeing, touching, and even swimming in the divide between two, huge tectonic plates.

Iceland is known as the “Land of Fire and Ice” due to the mix of huge ice masses and volcanic activity. But why does such a cold place have so many eruptions? The answer lies in the Iceland tectonic plates, and in this article, we go through everything you need to know to get a firm grasp of the Land of Fire and Ice.

Iceland tectonic plates

What are Tectonic Plates and What do They do?

The easiest way to answer this question is by a simple analogy. You can consider the tectonic plates as rafts that float on top of the earth’s magma. On top of these rafts, we find the different continents drifting along on an endless bumper car journey around the globe.

Along the boundaries of these “rafts” is where we find the different types of interaction they have. Some are drifting away from each other, others are colliding, and the rest are kind of rubbing against each other.

Regardless of how they interact, these tectonic plates are on average 125 kilometres thick, which might give you an idea of the magnitude of the events that occur when they “interact” with each other.

What Kind of Plate Boundary Runs Across Iceland?

Iceland is shaped by three tectonic plates: the North American, Eurasian, and the smaller Hreppafleki. Its unique geography stems from a mantle plume generating double the volcanic material than the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, crucial to Iceland's formation.

So, if anyone asks the question “what two plates are meeting in Iceland?” you can answer them “None. They are moving away from each other!”. In the same way, for anyone asking “what plate is Iceland on?” the answer will be “Both of them!”.

If we are going to get a little more scientific in this explanation, the proper term for the Iceland plate boundary type is a divergent boundary. This basically means that the Iceland tectonic plates are diverging from each other and creating a rift that allows magma to come through, which creates the ridge.

Iceland tectonic plate boundaries

How are Iceland’s Volcanoes Related to Plate Tectonics?

We already know three things at this point: Iceland is on two tectonic plates, the Iceland tectonic plates are moving apart, and when tectonic plates are moving apart, magma comes out of the core and creates a ridge. You might already be guessing where this is going, but we are going to go back in history about 60 million years before we get to the point.

This is when Iceland started to form, as the future Iceland tectonic plates drifted apart enough to create a ridge that managed to reach above water. This ridge then acted as a channel for other magma to continue to emerge on this particular spot, creating volcanos and slowly adding landmass for millions of years until Iceland as we know it was formed.

This process hasn’t stopped, and since the Iceland continental plates continue to drift apart, the magma continues to find its way to the land surface of Iceland. When magma comes to the surface, it’s called lava, and that is how the Icelandic volcanoes are created and are kept active.

If you want to see what a volcano looks like in real life, you don’t have to go far from the capital city. You can catch roughly 30 active volcanoes in the southern part of Iceland. Some of these volcanoes near Reykjavík have trails you can even hike up!

Iceland Midatlantic ridge

How are People in Iceland Effected by Tectonic Plates?

The activity regarding the Iceland tectonic plates is mostly related to earthquakes and volcano eruptions. From time to time it also affects the waters in and around Iceland, but since the North Atlantic is pretty wild on a normal day, it isn’t always noticed. What can happen, though, is that Iceland tectonic plates activities can change water flows on the island, subjecting the locals to making adjustments to their lives.

More often than not, it doesn’t affect them terribly much. The Icelanders don’t normally live in the geologically active areas, but from time to time, the continental rift Iceland is on causes some major disturbance. Explosive volcanic eruptions and major earthquakes are the culprits in these scenarios.

Tourism and Tectonic Plate Activity

All of this makes Iceland a hot spot for geological activity, and therefore also tourism. Iceland is in a unique position where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge can be seen on land, in Þingvellir National Park.

Where the Þingvellir tectonic plates move apart is where the rift valley Iceland is located. This location, known as Silfra, is the best place in Iceland where you can see tectonic plates meet (even if we know they are slowly moving apart) and the only spot where you can touch both tectonic plates in Iceland.

Silfra is a crevasse with an extremely clear and ice-cold body of water in Þingvellir, where you can swim between the two tectonic plates. Qualified divers from all over the world come diving in Iceland only to visit these crystal-clear waters, but you don’t need to be a professional to go snorkelling in Silfra. This is one of the most fascinating adventures you can experience in Iceland, so we definitely recommend it.

Tectonic Plates at Silfra

Let the Adventure Begin

Iceland is a worldly unique place to experience these things, so why wait? Grab your rental car and start moving around the country to see everything from small warm baths to massive continental rifts.

If you want to follow the rift between the Iceland tectonic plates, you can go north from Reykjavik into Þingvellir via the Golden Circle. Then, continue north on Ring Road 1 to check out the many lava fields, ongoing volcanic eruptions, and (of course) the beautiful Icelandic nature!



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