The volcanoes in Iceland are responsible for much of the country’s staggering scenery. They’ve not only shaped the island’s landscapes but its history and culture too. Volcanoes are a part of Iceland, just as much as our glaciers, hot springs, and waterfalls.
The country is one of the most volcanic regions on Earth. Powerful eruptions created the land when molten lava spewed out of the ground over millions of years. To this very day, the land is active, and the island is still being created.
- Cover photo: Arnar Tómasson
Why are There So Many Volcanic Eruptions in Iceland?
Iceland has so many volcanic eruptions because of the country’s unique position; on the boundary of two tectonic plates and over a geological hotspot.
Tectonic plates are pieces of land that cover the Earth’s outer shell and fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. They are constantly in motion, moving toward each other, sideways, or away from each other. As a result of this movement, geological activity like volcanic eruptions, geothermal energy and earthquakes are frequent in areas on the plate boundaries.
Iceland sits atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that connects the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. When the plates move apart, a space opens up for melted rock in the Earth’s mantle (or magma) to rise to the surface, resulting in an eruption.
Furthermore, Iceland sits on top of a geological hotspot or a mantle plume. This plume is a column of superheated magma that rises from great depths within the mantle. It is so hot that it causes melting and thinning of the Earth’s rocky crust, leading to volcanic eruptions.
How Many Active Volcanoes are There in Iceland?
Iceland has over 30 different volcanic systems, each boasting a central volcano and swarms of tectonic fractions. This means there are approximately 30 active volcanoes in Iceland. The number of volcanoes in total in Iceland reaches over 130 when counting those that are dormant and extinct.
What Types of Volcanoes are Found in Iceland?
There are three major types of volcanoes: cinder cones, composite cones, and shield cones. Iceland happens to be home to all three.
The most common are composite cone volcanoes or stratovolcanoes, such as Snæfellsjökull, Eyjafjallajökull and Hekla. These steep-sided volcanoes are composed of layers of lava, ash and rock debris and erupt in an explosive manner.
Cinder cones are the smallest of volcanoes and include the Ljósufjöll volcanic system and Þríhnúkagígur volcano. Most cinder cones have a bowl-shaped crater at the summit and won’t rise more than 366 metres (1,200 ft).
Notable shield volcanoes are Mt. Skjaldbreiður and Surtsey Island. These volcanoes are broad, dome-shaped, and with smoothly sloped sides. From above, they look like warrior shields, hence the name.
Iceland also has fissure vents, flat, linear fractures in the earth through which lava emerges, like in the latest eruption near Fagradalsfjall. During a fissure eruption, the lava poured out can sometimes form a shield volcano or a series of cinder cones.
Are Volcanic Eruptions Frequent in Iceland?
On average, a major volcanic eruption occurs in Iceland every five years or so. That might sound dramatic, but it is, in fact, part of life in Iceland. In the last 50 years, there have been over 20 recorded volcanic eruptions in Iceland.
Scientists believe that since the settlement age, 1,100 years ago, around 18 volcanoes have erupted in over 200 eruptions. And that Icelandic volcanoes produced a third of the world’s lava in the last 500 years.
Is There A Volcano Erupting Right Now?
Currently, no volcano is erupting in Iceland. The most recent eruption of Fagradalsfjall Volcano on the Reykjanes Peninsula ended in August 2022, but you can visit the eruption site to see the fresh new lava.
Is It Safe to Travel to Iceland?
YES! It is safe to visit Iceland.
Professional agencies are monitoring Iceland’s volcanic activity around the clock. Given technological advancement, scientists can now measure and reliably predict when an eruption is imminent.
However, remember that Iceland is a vast and largely undeveloped landscape, presenting other dangers than mere volcanic eruptions. So whether you are visiting a live volcano or any other place, make sure personal safety is at the forefront of your mind. You can do this by routinely checking Safe Travel Iceland, The National Weather Forecast websites, and follow the advice of your travel agent.
Iceland’s 11 Most Famous Volcanoes
The 2010 eruption of the famous Eyjafjallajökull — which halted all European air traffic for a few days — brought the world’s attention to Iceland. Likewise, the eruptions near Fagradalsfjall Volcano on the Reykjanes Peninsula have attracted thousands of visitors to this country.
But with around 30 active volcanic systems in Iceland, there are many more interesting volcanoes to discover in this land of fire and ice. Though there are many options, we’ve managed to list the 11 most famous volcanoes in Iceland:
The most recent addition to famous Icelandic volcanoes is Fagradalsfjall on the Reykjanes Peninsula. In March of 2021, a fissure eruption by Fagradalsfjall on the Reykjanes Peninsula began after weeks of seismic activity in the area. Fortunately for locals, fissure eruptions usually don’t produce destructive explosions but slow lava flows, making this one relatively safe for visits. The eruption took a little break from September 2021 to August 2022, when it started again for 18 days.
One of the most active volcanoes in Iceland is Hekla, also known by locals as ‘The Queen of Iceland’s Volcanoes’. You can find this mighty stratovolcano on Iceland’s south coast, not far from the towns of Hella and Hvolsvöllur.
When travelling on the Ring Road in South Iceland, you can see the mighty Eyjafjallajökull glacier, which covers a volcano of the same name. The volcano famously erupted in 2010, halting all air traffic in Europe for a few days.
Held in high regard by new-age thinkers as one of the planet’s mythical energy centres, the Snæfellsjökull volcano towers over the Snæfellsnes peninsula at 1446 metres (4744 ft). In fact, thanks to its height, the stratovolcano can be seen from Reykjavík, on clear days, across the glittering waters of Faxaflói Bay.
Bárðarbunga stratovolcano sits underneath Vatnajökull Glacier in the Icelandic Highlands. It is both Iceland’s second-tallest mountain and the country’s second-largest volcanic system.
Though Bárðabunga is capable of colossal eruption, Icelanders have not seen anything like that since the late Middle Ages. The volcano last erupted between August 2014 and February 2015, creating a new lava field, Holuhraun, which has now become a popular stop on guided super jeep tours.
Katla sits under Mýrdalsjökull Glacier in South Iceland and is one of the country’s most active volcanoes. Throughout history, Katla has erupted every twenty to fifty years. Having last erupted in 1918, there has been no period of inactivity longer than now, implying an eruption is imminent in the coming years.
Don’t worry; Katla — like all Icelandic volcanoes — is highly monitored, making activities like glacier hiking, ice caving and snowmobiling on Mýrdalsjökull possible.
You can find this volcanic fissure near the tiny village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur in South Iceland. Lakagígar is responsible for one of the most devastating eruptions in Iceland. In 1783, it erupted for eight intensive months, obliterating 20 villages and killing half of the country’s livestock and almost all of its crops.
Vestmannaeyjabær is a fishing town on one of the Westman Islands, an archipelago just South of mainland Iceland. On the 23rd of January 1973, the island’s volcano, Eldfell, burst into life after being dormant for around 5,000 years with an explosive eruption.
After evacuating all residents, the rescue crew began to save the harbour — the town’s livelihood — by blasting the lava with water. Their efforts worked and the harbour still stands! Today, the island is home to 4,500 people—not to mention eight million puffins every summer.
Surtsey is a fellow member of the Westman Islands named after the Norse fire giant, Surtr. It was formed in an in a volcanic event underwater which began on 14th of November 1963.
Þríhnúkagígur is a dormant volcano in the Bláfjöll Mountain Range near Reykjavík. It last erupted over 4,000 years ago and shows no signs of erupting again in the future. What makes Þríhnúkagígur so unique is that it is a volcano you can enter. Accompanied by a guide, visitors first hike across a lava field, then they descend to the bottom of the massive crater via an open cable lift.
Askja is an active volcano in the remote Highlands North of Vatnajökull Glacier. The name ‘Askja’ also refers to a series of calderas in the region, including Öskjuvatn Lake and Víti Crater. The landscape surrounding Askja is barren and alien-like, making it the perfect place for NASA to send astronauts to train for the Apollo mission. Askja last erupted in 1961, but scientists keep a close eye on it, saying it might go off again very soon.
What Volcanoes Can You Visit in Iceland?
There are a significant number of volcanoes in Iceland that travellers can visit, but many do require taking part in a guided tour.
You can see a few volcanoes from a distance as you travel, for example Snæfellsjökull in West Iceland and Eyjafjallajökull and the ice cap that covers Katla in South Iceland. Visiting all of these up close requires the help of a trained guide.
A few volcanoes, craters, and lava fields you can visit without a guide include:
- Eldfell Volcano
- Eldhraun Lava Field
- Kerið Crater
- Grábrók Crater
- Saxhóll Crater
- Krafla Caldera
- Berserkjahraun Lava Field
- Geirlandshraun Lava Field
- Víti Crater (only in the summer and with a 4×4 vehicle)
- Fagradalsfjall Volcano*
*You can visit Fagradalsfjall Volcano without a guide, but we highly recommend taking part in a guided tour. The volcano is new and ever-changing, and so is the route to it. Already a few people have gotten lost, leading to the Icelandic Search and Rescue Team being deployed.
Where Can I Learn More About Volcanoes in Iceland?
Seeing this is the Land of Fire and Ice, there are several fantastic museums and expeditions dotted around the country dedicated to providing information related purely to Icelandic volcanoes.
One of the most popular of these is the Lava Centre in Hvolsvöllur. This permanent exhibition utilises a high-tech multimedia approach to sharing Iceland’s captivating geological history.
If you want to learn more about eruptions in the Westman Islands, make sure to pay a visit to the Eldheimar Museum on Heimaey Island. It is dedicated to that fateful night of 1973 when the town woke up to an erupting volcano.
Another great institution where you can learn more about Iceland’s volcanoes can be found in the Perlan Museum. Its major exhibition, Wonders of Iceland, delves into Icelandic nature in a fun and high-tech way. It utilises reconstructions and multimedia display boards to teach more about the country’s amazing features, for example volcanoes, glaciers, Northern Lights, ice caves and bird cliffs.
The Icelandic Lava Show in Vík is an excellent alternative for those who wish to see flowing lava safely. First, you learn about nearby volcanoes, then afterwards the guide pours molten lava into the showroom and over ice. Then, you can see it flow, hear it sizzle and feel the heat of the red-hot lava yourself.
Iceland is one of the most volcanically active countries in the world, both because of its unique position on the boundary of two tectonic plates and because it sits over a hot spot.
The country is home to all three types of major volcanoes, of which thirty remain still active. The most active of all is the Hekla volcano in South Iceland, which many believe is likely to erupt again shortly. However, the last volcanic eruption in Iceland took place near Fagradalsfjall Volcano on the Reykjanes Peninsula.
Visiting some volcanoes requires a guided tour, but there are a few you can safely see on your own, such as Eldfell Volcano. However, you should always pay attention to the Safe Travel website, listen to your travel advisor and check the weather forecast before embarking on such a journey.
For those a little too nervous for such an up-close look, there are several museums and exhibitions across the country dedicated to volcanoes, for example The Lava Centre, Eldheimar Museum, Perlan Museum, and The Lava Show.
Which Icelandic volcano would you most like to visit and why?