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Katla Volcano - Iceland

The stunning geopark close to Katla and Myrdalsjokull glacier

As you probably know by now, Iceland is known as the Land of Fire and Ice. The fire in this moniker comes from the explosive volcanoes scattered around our small Nordic island. One of our most famous and most powerful ones is Katla, located in South Iceland’s volcanic hot zone.

This territory is located along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which makes it a hotspot for volcanic activity. Many of Iceland's volcanic eruptions and active volcanoes are found here.

Let's look at some Katla volcano facts, talk about its volatile history, and even discover the stunning and otherworldly Katla ice cave.

Katla Volcano Facts and History

Katla is a large volcano in southern Iceland. The Katla volcanic system is covered by the Mýrdalsjökull glacier. This is actually quite common among volcanoes in Iceland as is being part of a fissure system. It’s gigantic, and if you rent a car in Iceland

to make your way around the Ring Road, you absolutely can’t miss it. 

Just to give you an idea of scale, the glacier under which Katla volcano rests is around 600 km2 (232 square miles). The subglacial volcano itself is 1,512 meters tall and has a caldera beneath that measures 10 km (4,961 feet tall and 6 miles) across. Consider the sheer size of the fiery mountain and its protective glacier. Now you can begin to understand just how dangerous and destructive mixing these two elements can be.

Katla volcano and Myrdalsjokull glacier

Katla volcano 1918 eruption

Perhaps one of the worst Katla eruptions in history was the one that occurred in 1918. Because Katla is a subglacial volcano, when it erupts, the heat from the explosion and lava flow quickly melts the ice cap above. This causes metric tons of compacted ice to melt very quickly and the results are devastating glacier floods rushing toward the area below. 

These glacial floods are known as jökullhlaups, which roughly translates to “glacier outburst flood” or “glacier run”. They decimate anything within their path. The similar Grímsvötn eruption under Vatnajökull glacier in 1996 caused floods 600 meters wide and 4 meters tall. This is around 1,956 feet across and 20 feet high. 

The sleeping giants Katla volcano awoke on October 12th, 1918 and continued erupting for 24 whole days. It was extremely powerful and it poured tons of volcanic lava, ash and other debris into the surrounding area. It actually extended the southern coastline of Iceland by around 5 kilometers (3 miles). The positive side is that this helped create the beautiful black sand beaches area is now known for. But back then during historic times the local residents surely must have been terrified.

And of course, you know about the massive glacial floods that follow this type of eruption. Luckily there were no casualties from Katla volcano Iceland this time. Local farmers in the area were able to round up their sheep and evacuate along with the other residents.

When will Katla erupt?

This is a tricky question to answer as the Iceland volcano Katla has been long overdue to erupt for some time. Let me explain. 

Katla is one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes. Since we began recording these types of natural events, Mount Katla has had around 20 major eruptions between 930 AD and 1918 AD. They’ve come at intervals of between 20 and 90 years, which means the last big eruption should have happened around 2008. 

It's been over a hundred years since it last erupted violently, which means scientists monitoring the situation are in effect waiting for the big one. There have been some small eruptions and earthquakes in 1955, 1999, and most recently in July 2011. But none of these broke through the ice cap of Mýrdalsjökull glacier or caused any significant damage. The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 caused a lot more problems and grabbed many more headlines.

While we can never predict these things with certainty, history tells us that a volcanic event is likely to happen sooner rather than later. But luckily if something happens, we won't be caught unaware like during the Katla volcano 1918 eruption. Seismologists and volcanologists in Iceland have set up a system to monitor and record seismic activity of Iceland's 30 active volcano systems.

The Katla Ice Cave

So now that we now that a Katla volcano earthquake or eruption is unlikely for now, let’s talk about the Katla ice cave. Many travelers who come to Iceland want to do some sort of volcano tour. And because you’ll find the volcano located just off the Ring Road, it’s easy to do a Katla ice cave tour from Reykjavik. If you’re looking at Katla tours, this is the best option because the volcano itself is covered by the glacier. It’s not like a regular mountain, volcano, or caldera where you can hike to the top. 

The Katla ice cave

Instead, you’ll have to do the Katla ice cave tour under the volcano, but the Katla ice cave is 100% worth it. It is absolutely spectacular and probably one of the most beautiful things you will ever see in your whole life. Just Googling pictures of it will take your breath away. Can you imagine seeing it up close in person with your own two eyes?

The natural ice cave in Myrdalsjokull glacier by Katla volcano is actually a gorgeous icefall in Kötlujökull glacier. This smaller glacier is part of the larger one, which is the fourth largest in Iceland.  

The inside of the cave can best be described as having the appearance of turquoise, black, and white wavy textured glass. It is formed by melting glacier water carving openings or pockets in the ice. 

Ice Cave Tours at Katla Volcano

You can visit the Iceland volcano Katla and its mesmerizing ice cave as a Reykjavik day trip. It's also quite close to the town of Vik with its famous black sand beaches and sea stacks at Reynisfjara.

Another great benefit is that you can do a Katla ice cave tour at any time of year. unlike some ice caves and Ice caverns, like Skaftafell, Katla tours are available all year round.

The rugged landscapes and charred lava fields surrounding you as you approach your destination will remind you of the Mount Katla activity that took place here in the past. Your guide will provide you with study crampons for the glacier and headlight helmets to see everything clearly.

Some people have inquired about doing a Katla ice cave self-tour, and I will give you a very simple answer. Don't try it under any circumstances. While there are no ice cave police checking IDs at the door so to speak, people have died attempting these things on their own. And we want you to return home alive with lots of memories of your beautiful trip to Iceland. 

In short, it's dangerous and you don't know what you're doing. There are spots to avoid and hazards that you're unaware of, so it's best to just leave it to the professionals and let them be in charge of your safety. After all, they're from here, so they know the land, the glaciers, and the environment. So, there you have my public safety announcement about attempting a Katla ice cave self-tour. 

The fearsome Iceland volcano Katla

This fiery mountain beneath a glacier can be a really cool experience on your Iceland vacation as long as it doesn't erupt. Its ice cave is like nothing you've ever seen and it's also a little fun playing with the danger of never knowing when the sleeping giant will once again wake up.

You can also experience the thrill of seeing active volcanoes from Reykjavík. Explore the otherworldly landscape of lava fields and witness the powerful natural forces at work.

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