How many volcanoes exist in Iceland? Are they likely to go off at any moment, or are they mostly dormant? You might be wondering if safety is a concern during your Iceland trip. Or it could be that you just find these fiery giants completely fascinating; maybe you're thinking about doing a volcano hike in Iceland. With the destructive Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010 and Hekla’s recent rumblings, it’s understandable why volcanoes in Iceland are a hot topic with travelers. Let’s get into how many active volcanoes there are in Iceland and how frequently they erupt.
After all, you want to know if Iceland is a safe place for your holidays or if an eruption is imminent.
How many volcanoes does Iceland have?
Iceland has about 130 different volcanoes scattered around the entire island. That’s pretty impressive for a country the size of New York state or half the size of Britain. While most of Iceland’s volcanoes are extinct or dormant, we still have 30 active volcanic systems, which is not a small number. This means that there’s plenty of geothermal activity brewing in magma chambers just beneath the surface of the earth’s crust. Sometimes those pools of heated, molten rock spill out in the form of a devastating volcanic explosion.
Iceland and volcanoes: A long and violent history
As everyone knows, Iceland is a land shaped by fire and ice. Our blazing volcanoes are the reason for unique natural wonders like Svartifoss waterfall or the hexagonal black basalt columns at Reynisfjara beach close to Vík.
Volcanoes have been erupting in Iceland for tens of thousands of years. In fact, many experts believe that Iceland was formed by volcanoes. And if the island was created due to volcanic activity, then of course it will last to this day. Volcanoes are constantly shaping our geography. With islands like Surtsey in the Westman islands formed as recently as 1963, our landscape continues to evolve.
We are lucky that we get to enjoy the colorful landscapes, unusual rock formations, charred lava fields, and bubbling Iceland hot springs produced by all of this geological activity. Others, however, were not so lucky.
The Laki Eruptions: Iceland's worst volcanic eruption
Of the most devastating volcanic eruptions we’ve experienced, the 1783-1784 volcanic event at Laki mountain was the most cataclysmic. The fallout from the biggest Iceland volcano catastrophe ever recorded was severe. The Laki eruptions and their aftermath wiped out nearly 25% of the country’s population, decimated crops, and killed off much of the country’s livestock. The smoke and ash expelled from the explosion choked animal and plant life, which led to disease and famine. It took a very long time to recover from the disastrous effects.
So are we in danger of something similar happening again any time soon? How active are volcanoes in Iceland? Will a similar eruption occur during your trip?
Active volcanoes in Iceland
If you take a look at an Iceland volcano map you’ll see that many of our 30 active volcanoes are concentrated in South Iceland. This part of Iceland and the Highlands straddle the meeting point of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. You can see this phenomenon at the Silfra Fissure in Thingvellir National Park along the Golden Circle route. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge cuts straight through the island, creating its own Ring of Fire in the North Atlantic. The Kolbeinsey Ridge in the North is also a hotbed of activity.
Is there a chance of Iceland volcanoes erupting during my trip?
How often do volcanic eruptions occur in Iceland? And are there any erupting volcanoes in Iceland right now? The answer is no. These sleeping giants erupt at intervals and can lay dormant for 50, 100, or even thousands of years. Additionally, we have a volcano alert system to warn us ahead of time about impending danger and any possibility of a major Iceland eruption. Scientists, geophysicists, and seismologists use monitoring devices to track potential volcanic activity around the island.
While the odds of an Icelandic eruption wrecking your Iceland vacation are slim, the chance of an eruption does exist. Consider yourself warned if there is an untimely geological event. Thankfully there are mechanisms in place to observe and report seismic activity, predict bad things that might happen, and alert us in the case of danger. You’re much more likely to be inconvenienced rather than be in harm’s way.
Now you can breathe easy and dispel any horrible images of you screaming while you run to escape the encroaching river of lava during your hike near Katla. Feel free to stop worrying that your Iceland vacation will turn into the next Pompeii.
When was the last volcanic eruption in Iceland?
The eruption of the Bárðarbunga volcanic system in 2014-2015 in the Holuhraun lava field had a significant impact. Due to the large amount of sulphur dioxide emitted, air quality on the island suffered. Luckily there wasn’t a ton of volcanic ash sent into the air from the explosion, so damage was minimized. There had been increasing seismic movements in the area in the years leading up to the eruption. This fissure eruption is typical of many of the volcano systems here.
2011 saw Grímsvötn, one of Iceland’s deadliest volcanoes, blow its top. Explosions like this are particularly dangerous because like many Iceland volcanoes, this one sits under an ice cap. Destruction from the melting waters of a glacier flood from Vatnajökull is a very real risk. The magma chamber is covered by a caldera and when the volcano explodes, it blows the glacier roof right off.
Of the active volcanoes in Iceland, another recent one was Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. That famous volcano in South Iceland with the unpronounceable name disrupted air travelers and shut down European airspace for a week. Flights were delayed or canceled, people were stranded, and chaos ensued. Does this ring a bell or does it sound vaguely familiar? Everything came to a standstill as we waited for the explosion and subsequent ash cloud to subside.
Even though this is one of the most active volcanoes in Iceland, we’ve been lucky. It has been relatively quiet and shown no activity in the decade since its explosion.
Hekla is one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes and has erupted every 10-20 years since 1970. Its most recent was in the year 2000. And another one of the famous active volcanoes, Katla, last unleashed its fire and fury in 1918.
Taking volcano hike in Iceland and other activities
Ok, enough of the scary stuff. Now we know you probably won’t be staring down a churning pool of lava like Tom Hanks in Joe Versus The Volcano. Let's plan some outdoor activities. There are lots of volcano-related adventures awaiting you on our fair shores.
In addition to wondering how many volcanoes there are in Iceland, many people are also curious if there is one near the capital. While there is no Reykjavik volcano, that doesn’t mean you can't plan an excursion as one of your day trips. If you’re staying in Reykjavik, several Iceland volcanoes are within a reasonable driving distance.
The closest volcano to Reykjavik is Sveifluháls in the Reykjanes Peninsula. If you’re looking to do an Iceland volcano hike, I suggest going further afield than the closest Reykjavik volcano.
A trip to an Iceland volcano, volcanic crater, or lava field will leave you in awe of the destructive power of these mighty landmasses. Places like Askja caldera or Hverfjall mountain in the east will no doubt be highlights of your trip. The scorched, blackened earth and turquoise lakes provide a stark contrast to the snowy winter landscapes and rolling green hills of summer.
The South Coast has several volcanoes you can see on a self-drive tour. And Eldhraun lava field is another place in South Iceland to see the after effects of an eruption. You can do a volcano hike in Iceland to somewhere like Eldborg crater on Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Walk right up to the edge and peer over into the abyss of what was once an explosive, fiery mountain.
Taking a day trip from Reykjavik to Snaefellnes is a great way to explore our country’s volcanoes. Not only will you find Snaefellsjökull glacier and volcano here, there’s also the Vatnshellir lava tube.
Volcanoes in Iceland: Are they safe or scary?
To be honest, they are a little bit of both. On one hand, it’s not very likely that a volcano will erupt during your Iceland vacation. You’ll probably have a wonderful time exploring frozen glaciers, visiting stunning waterfalls, and yes, hiking around volcanoes and their calderas and craters. But in the last 20 years we have had some major blowouts, so you never know. In all likelihood, your experience with our volcanoes will be marveling at the views and maybe even taking a dip in a geothermally-heated volcanic lake.