As you may have read, Iceland is known as the land of Fire and Ice. And no, this isn’t just some clever marketing ploy that sprang from the popularity of Game of Thrones, we swear. While many people think of the small Nordic Island as a frozen tundra (it has the word ice in its name after all), our tiny nation near the Arctic Circle is also a hotbed of volcanic activity and has been for centuries. Iceland was put on the map back in 2010 when the powerful Eyjafjallajökull volcano burst in a blaze of fury, smoldering lava, and hot ash. And with sleeping giant Katla volcano overdue to erupt, many think Iceland’s next volcanic event is not so much a question of if but rather when.
Volcanic Activity in Iceland
Volcanic eruptions are nothing new here. Icelanders have been dealing with the threat of being devoured by an ash cloud ever since the island was settled in 874 AD. It’s just something that comes with the territory. Our location on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge makes us a hotspot for volcanic activity. The geological history of Iceland is intertwined with its identity. After all, volcanic activity formed the island. And the country’s stunning black sand beaches also get their dark, midnight hue from cooled, broken up particles of lava that now sit on its shores. Iceland has around 132 volcanic mountains and 30 active volcano systems. Thirteen eruptions have been recorded since the island was settled in the late 9th century.
The deadliest eruption in Iceland’s history was the Skaftáreldar (fires of Skaftá) in 1783-1784. Approximately a quarter of Iceland’s population died due to the eruption and the after effects. Iceland’s most active volcano system is Grímsvötn.
The 2010 Eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull
Eyjafjallajökull is an ice cap in the southwest of Iceland. It rests atop a volcano and its name means “island mountain glacier”. Scientist tracking seismic activity in the area noticed some unusual movements toward the end of 2009. The vibrations slowly began building in intensity and came to a head in March of 2010 with the first explosion. While the outburst was relatively small, Eyjafjallajökull had much more in store. By April it had entered its second phase and was really ready to wreak havoc. The smoldering ash cloud it emitted during this time was so massive that it covered all of Northern Europe and stretched from Greenland to Russia and parts of Mongolia.
Twenty countries closed their airspace to commercial air traffic for five days. Canceled flights and airport delays had ten million travelers scrambling to find accommodation. They also needed to search out alternatives to arrive at their final destination.
To add insult to injury, newscasters cursed this volcano as the name is nearly impossible for outsiders to pronounce. If you’d like to try your luck, here’s an Icelander giving everyone a lesson how to pronounce the tongue-twister that is Eyjafjallajökull.
The Imminent Eruption of Katla Volcano?
With the memory of Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption still fresh in people’s minds (especially those displaced travelers from 2010) many eyes have begun to turn towards Katla volcano. This fiery mountain beneath Mýrdalsjökull glacier in South Iceland last erupted in 1918. Over the last thousand years, this volcano has consistently erupted every 40 to 80 years. It seems like we’re long overdue for a powerful burst of magma from beneath the earth’s surface.
And while we can only speculate on when this volcano will erupt, it’s purely that: speculation. In the last few days, the findings of a recent scientific study about CO2 caused quite a stir.. Several news outlets misquoted the author of the study as saying that “magma is building up”, that Katla is “about to erupt”, and that it would “dwarf” the 2010 ash cloud. This is quite a cause for concern, as you can imagine. While panicky headlines pushing this scary narrative will certainly sell newspapers and get clicks online, everything that has been said is in fact misleading. The scientist interviewed about the study expressed her dismay at the journalist twisting and misconstruing her words. According to a post on her Facebook page, volcanologist and lead study author Evgenia Ilyinskaya says she actually told the reporter the opposite during their 20-minute conversation.
Eyjafjallajökull, Katla, and Iceland’s Volcanic Eruptions
The power of Iceland’s volcanoes is definitely something to behold. Volcano excursions popped up quickly after the 2010 eruptions. These catered to the many tourists who wanted to get close to the action. While you don’t have to climb onto an active volcano, there are other tours and excursions to extinct volcanoes and calderas filled with beautiful turquoise water. And while we hope that there will be no eruptions during your trip, unfortunately we can’t promise anything. This is especially true with the specter of Katla looming in the background.