Iceland, the land of fire and ice, is home to some of the most spectacular and active volcanoes in the world. The island nation, located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where two tectonic plates are pulling apart, has witnessed several volcanic eruptions in recent years, creating awe-inspiring sights and challenges for its inhabitants and visitors. In this article, we explore the history, types, benefits, and risks of Iceland’s volcanoes, as well as the latest news on the ongoing eruptions in the Reykjanes Peninsula.
Iceland owes its existence to volcanic activity, as it was formed by repeated eruptions over millions of years. The island has about 130 volcanoes, of which 30 are active, meaning they have erupted in the past 10,000 years. Some of the most famous volcanoes in Iceland include Hekla, Katla, Eyjafjallajökull, and Grímsvötn.
Iceland’s volcanoes have shaped the country’s landscape, culture, and history. They have created vast lava fields, black sand beaches, geysers, hot springs, and glaciers. They have also influenced the Icelandic sagas, folklore, and art, as well as the national identity and resilience of the Icelandic people.
However, Iceland’s volcanoes have also posed threats and challenges, such as destroying settlements, crops, and infrastructure, emitting harmful gases and ash, and disrupting air travel. Some of the most devastating eruptions in Iceland’s history include the Laki eruption of 1783, which killed about a quarter of the population and caused a famine, and the Eyjafjallajökull eruption of 2010, which grounded millions of flights across Europe.
The Types of Volcanoes in Iceland
There are four main types of volcanoes in Iceland: shield volcanoes, stratovolcanoes, caldera volcanoes, and subglacial volcanoes. Each type has different characteristics, shapes, and eruption styles.
- Shield volcanoes are formed by the accumulation of basaltic lava flows, creating gentle slopes and broad bases. They are usually less explosive than other types of volcanoes, but can produce large volumes of lava. An example of a shield volcano in Iceland is Eldfell, which erupted in 1973 on the island of Heimaey, creating a cone-shaped structure.
- Stratovolcanoes, also known as composite volcanoes, are built by alternating layers of lava and pyroclastic materials, such as ash, pumice, and rock fragments. They have steep sides and conical shapes, and can produce explosive eruptions that eject ash and gas into the atmosphere. Hekla, one of the most active and notorious volcanoes in Iceland, is a stratovolcano that has erupted about 20 times since the settlement of Iceland.
- Caldera volcanoes are formed when a volcanic eruption empties the magma chamber beneath a volcano, causing the summit to collapse and create a large depression. These volcanoes can produce massive eruptions that affect the climate and the environment. Askja, located in the remote interior of Iceland, is a caldera volcano that has a vast bowl-shaped depression, formed during a catastrophic eruption in 1875.
- Subglacial volcanoes are volcanoes that erupt under ice, such as glaciers or ice caps. These volcanoes can cause floods, known as jökulhlaups, when the melted ice bursts out of the glacier. They can also create ash clouds that can interfere with aviation, as happened in 2010 when the subglacial volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted under the ice cap of the same name.
The Benefits and Risks of Volcanic Activity in Iceland
Volcanic activity in Iceland has both positive and negative impacts on the country and its people. On the one hand, volcanoes provide benefits such as geothermal energy, tourism, and scientific research. On the other hand, volcanoes pose risks such as lava flows, ash clouds, gas emissions, and earthquakes.
- Geothermal energy is one of the main advantages of volcanic activity in Iceland, as it provides a sustainable and renewable source of power and heating for homes and businesses. About 25% of Iceland’s electricity and 90% of its heating come from geothermal sources, such as hot springs, geysers, and boreholes. Geothermal energy also supports industries such as greenhouses, fish farming, and spas.
- Tourism is another benefit of volcanic activity in Iceland, as it attracts visitors from around the world who want to see the natural wonders and phenomena created by volcanoes. Some of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland are related to volcanoes, such as the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa located near a power plant, the Golden Circle, a route that includes the geysers of Geysir and Strokkur, and the Thingvellir National Park, where the continental rift is visible.
- Scientific research is also a benefit of volcanic activity in Iceland, as it offers opportunities to study the processes and effects of volcanism, as well as the origins and evolution of the Earth. Iceland is a natural laboratory for volcanology, geology, geophysics, and geochemistry, as well as for other disciplines such as biology, ecology, and climatology. Many scientists and researchers come to Iceland to conduct experiments, observations, and measurements on volcanoes and their impacts.
- Lava flows are one of the main hazards of volcanic activity in Iceland, as they can destroy buildings, roads, bridges, and other infrastructure, as well as harm wildlife and vegetation. Lava flows can also alter the landscape and the coastline, creating new landforms or islands. For example, the eruption of Surtsey in 1963 created a new island off the south coast of Iceland, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a natural reserve.
- Ash clouds are another hazard of volcanic activity in Iceland, as they can affect the air quality, the visibility, and the health of people and animals. Ash clouds can also disrupt the aviation industry, as they can damage the engines and the instruments of aircraft, posing a risk to flight safety. The most notorious example of this was the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, which caused the largest air traffic shutdown in Europe since World War II, affecting millions of passengers and costing billions of dollars.
- Gas emissions are another hazard of volcanic activity in Iceland, as they can release harmful substances such as sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and fluorine into the atmosphere. These gases can cause acid rain, global warming, and health problems, such as respiratory diseases, eye irritation, and skin burns. The most devastating example of this was the eruption of Laki in 1783, which emitted a large amount of sulfur dioxide that caused a famine, a plague, and a cooling of the climate in Europe and beyond.
- Earthquakes are another hazard of volcanic activity in Iceland, as they can cause damage to buildings, infrastructure, and people. Earthquakes are often a sign of magma movement and pressure build-up under the surface, which can lead to volcanic eruptions. Iceland experiences thousands of earthquakes every year, most of them small and harmless, but some of them large and destructive. The most recent example of this was the series of earthquakes that preceded the eruptions in the Reykjanes Peninsula in 2021, 2022, and 2023.