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Holuhraun volcanic eruption in 2014

Volcanoes - a fact of life in Iceland

Volcanic activity is a fact of life in Iceland. People have learned to live with both its drawbacks and considerable advantages, such as geothermal energy and a dramatic natural environment - and even entertainment.

krafla volcano in North Iceland

Krafla volcano in North Iceland, one of 32 active volcanic systems in Iceland

Mid Ocean Ridge and a Hot Spot

Iceland sits on top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a 40.000 km long crack in the ocean floor caused by the separation of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Even today, the country is growing by about 2 cm per year, as it splits wider at the points where the two tectonic plates meet, and new magma fills up the gaps. Accordingly, the western part of Iceland belongs to the North American plate and the eastern region to the Eurasian plate, which means Iceland is split between two continents.

Another key player in Iceland volcanism is a powerful magma plume that creates an upwelling of heat and magma in the mantle under the island and lifts Iceland's crust above sea level.

Volcanic eruption every four years

As a result of being in a unique setting where a continental rift and a magma plume join forces, Iceland is one of Earth's most volcanically active areas. On average, Iceland experiences a volcanic event every four years. Since the end of the last ice age, about 10.000 years ago, a third of all lava that volcanos have produced on the Earth's surface has erupted in Iceland. The most significant lava flow in a single eruption on the planet during the Holocene is The great Þjórsá lava that erupted around 8.600 years ago and is estimated to be 26 km3.

This same geological activity is also responsible for some of the most dramatic features of Icelandic nature. The mountainous landscapes, black lava fields, black sand beaches, geothermal pools and geysers, and even glaciers result from a continuous interplay between volcanic activity and the natural elements.

Volcanos produce glaciers, jokulhlaups, and sandur plains

It may sound like a contradiction, but it is a fact that volcanos produce glaciers. This is because volcanism builds mountains that reach up to colder levels in the atmosphere that absorb moisture from the air, feeding the glaciers on top.

Heat radiating from the interiors of volcanos melts the ice from below, and when enough water has collected in depressions under the ice to lift the ice cap on top, it bursts out from under the glacier front and creates a flood or "jökulhlaup" on the outwash plain or "sandur" plain" in front. This process is so unique for Iceland that the Icelandic words for the phenomena are recognized as international terms.

Helicopter flying over Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland

Fagradalsfjall volcanic eruption in Iceland, 2021

Benefits of volcanos

Icelanders have also reaped the benefits of vast geothermal energy resources - one of the cheapest and cleanest forms of energy in existence. Over 85% of housing in Iceland is heated by natural geothermal heat from hot springs common in most parts of Iceland. In addition, meltwater from glaciers provides the country with a potential source of hydroelectric power. All this clean energy has made Iceland one of the least polluted countries in the world.

The interplay between volcanos and glaciers results in enormous productivity of volcanic ash, which fertilizes the soil and creates beautiful black sand beaches.

Not to mention the entertaining value of "tourist eruptions" - and perhaps, Iceland-volcano-related Hollywood movie songs.

Public safety top concern

Safety is a top concern in Iceland with all this power residing just beneath the Earth's surface. Seismic activity and crustal movements are closely monitored for any signs of unrest in Icelands 32 active volcanic systems. Infrastructure is also designed to deal with natural catastrophes. As a result, serious consequences are extremely rare.