Iceland sits in the middle of two tectonic plates: the Eurasian and North American. It was formed by magma rising from the earth’s mantle through the gap between the plates over millions of years. In geological terms, the island is fairly young, which is why most of its landscape is still bare lava rock.
Additionally, the process by which Iceland was formed continues; the plates are still moving apart, and lava fills the gap. The country, therefore, is susceptible to volcanic eruptions on a regular basis. We are fortunate enough to be living in a time when there is such an eruption. If looking at a volcano close-up is on your bucket list, come to Iceland and head to Fagradalsfjall.
Volcanic Eruptions in Iceland
There are around 130 volcanoes in Iceland, 30 of which are active. These are spread throughout the island and occur in every region, except in the Westfjords. This is because the Westfjords—the northwest—is the oldest part of the country and so is mostly geothermally inactive. There have been some major eruptions since Iceland was settled in the ninth century, some causing more chaos than others. Before we get to the current eruption—which you’ve probably heard about—let’s review the most famous volcanoes in Iceland.
This is Iceland’s deadliest volcano eruption to date. In June 1783, Laki volcano began an eruption that lasted for eight months, until February 1784. The haze spread throughout Europe and even to the Middle East and North Africa. In Iceland, most of the livestock died and there was large-scale crop failure due to the resulting acid rain. These events led to the death of about 20% of the country’s population. Much of the rest of Europe also suffered under a heavy, dry fog that lasted for several weeks. It’s possible that this fog, which was sulfur dioxide, led to the death of plant life and unusual weather patterns. Today, it is possible to visit the site where the volcano carved a rift in the land. This area is known as Lakagígar or the Laki craters.
Among Iceland’s volcanoes, Katla generally erupts the most frequently, with about two massive eruptions per century. However, it has been over a hundred years since Katla’s last big outburst, which leaves speculation that one is due. This volcano’s last major eruption occurred in 1918 and lasted for 24 days. Since Katla lies under a glacier, Mýrdalsjökull, the 1918 eruption also caused a massive flood to the area. This flooding also led to a 5km extension of the south coast, due to the spread of sand deposits. Several reports of mild seismic activity have been recorded at Katla in the last decade, so Icelanders are preparing.
Heimaey is the main island of the archipelago, Vestmannaeyjar, or the Westman Islands. These lie 13km (8 miles) off the south coast of Iceland and have a population of just over 4,000. In 1973, a volcano known as Eldfell erupted on Heimaey, showering most of the island with volcanic ash. All of the residents of Heimaey were evacuated within one day to the mainland as 400 homes were destroyed.
The lava flow threatened the destruction of the harbor, so officials raced to protect it. Its dismantling would have been disastrous for a community whose main income was fishing. Fortunately, Icelandic ingenuity saved the harbor; seawater was pumped onto the lava flow to cool it down quicker. Afterward, locals used the heat from the eruption to provide heat and electricity, and even built on the new lava. The eruption lasted for over five months.
Many of you will probably remember this Iceland volcano event; it caused worldwide headlines for a short period. In April 2010, the erupting volcano under an ice cap reached an explosive phase, creating a giant ash cloud. The cloud rose over 8km (5 miles) into the sky and spread to most of northern Europe. This resulted in many countries closing their airspace for six days. Hundreds of flights were canceled and approximately 10 million travelers were affected. The eruption continued throughout the summer but the level of ash production did not reach such disruptive levels again. Volcanic activity on Eyjafjallajökull was declared officially over in October 2010.
Interestingly, the eruption led to a spike in tourism to Iceland as foreigners came to view the volcano. Local tourist companies capitalized on this, offering guided day tours to see the lava flow. The best part about this eruption is watching news anchors around the world trying their best to pronounce ‘Eyjafjallajökull’.
What Type of Volcano is Found in Iceland?
The most common type of volcano in Iceland is the stratovolcano. This is the typical cone-shaped volcano that erupts explosively and leaves behind a crater at the top. There are also some shield volcanoes here, which are more spread out over the ground, and are currently dormant. As has been the case with the most recent eruption, earthquakes will precede and happen during volcanic activity. Prior to an eruption, tremors occur in the area for days or weeks in advance, indicating that something is coming.
This, of course, can be to our benefit; it serves as a warning sign to be prepared. At the end of February this year, thousands of earthquakes began to rock the Reykjanes peninsula, which is below Reykjavík. Several of the earthquakes measured above a 5 magnitude and suggested a pressure build-up. As it turned out, these earthquakes did signal that an eruption was soon to come. On March 19th, Fagradalsfjall began spewing lava; this was the first eruption in the area for about 800 years. The flow continues to spread, creating a brand-new lava field around the cone, and new fissures continue to open.
On April 5th, a fissure possibly several hundred meters long opened about a kilometer from the original site. On April 6th, another fissure opened up about 400 meters from the first fissure. These recent developments have temporarily suspended what became an extremely popular site to visit for the last two weeks. Let’s look at visiting the site.
Fagradalsfjall (translation: ‘beautiful valley mountain’) lies in the area known as Geldingadalur, about 58km (36 miles) from Reykjavík. Fortunately, the volcano currently poses no risk to the locals, as it’s in a sheltered, uninhabited valley. It can be accessed via Route 41 heading west, turning left onto Route 43, and left again onto Route 427. When you pass through Grindavík, you’re almost there.
When I approached the site, I found myself at the back of a long queue of cars. Police were stationed at the entrance to the access road, limiting the number of cars allowed past. Once you make it through the police blockade, it’s another ten minutes or so to drive to the car park. A large space has been dedicated to parking on both sides of the road; on the left is the hike’s beginning.
A path has been marked to help navigate to the volcano, and Icelandic Search and Rescue (ICE-SAR) maintains a presence. You will no doubt be one among hundreds who are making your way to the volcano, so follow the crowd. If there are routes that are not safe to take, ICE-SAR will be there to steer you in another direction. The hike consists of mostly flat terrain, to begin with, then a steep hill, then flat terrain again. It will probably take you around an hour and a half each way, depending on where you parked. When I drove past Grindavík, police were making some people park a long distance away from where the hike begins. This earlier car park adds at least another hour to the walking journey each way. Ensure you are well prepared with plenty of water, food, and proper clothing; there are no supplies at the volcano.
The Volcano Up Close
Because of the two recently new fissures, you’ll probably take a different path to the volcano than I took. You’ll also probably have to view it from a different place. I was as close to the volcano as it was possible to get—somewhere around 150 meters away. ICE-SAR will be there to make sure no one strays onto the lava field, which is incredibly hot. The sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide that are being released from the volcano are also very dangerous. If the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, or gas levels are high, Fagradalsfjall will be closed to visitors. A heads up! Before leaving always check on message boards and news sites whether the volcano will be accessible that day.
Seeing the lava erupt non-stop from Fagradalsfjall was one of the most incredible things I have ever seen. It was hard to believe that was I was seeing was real. I stayed at the site for two hours, watching the volcano as the sun sets. The darkness made the lava even more spectacular, but if you plan to stay until dark, bring a headlight. The return hike is near-impossible to complete at night, even with starlight to guide you.
Samuel Hogarth, Cars Iceland.