Volcanoes and Glaciers in Iceland

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Iceland’s most recent eruption of its volcano Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 brought to the world’s attention this volatile and complex region. Despite its name, Iceland is a country of varied geography, topography, and landscape. Most of its population lives near the coastline which offers a more moderate climate compared to the volcanic and rugged interior. The interior of Iceland is peppered with geographical features such as waterfalls, deep valleys and canyons, and volcano-inspired features like sulpher beds, geysers, natural hot springs, and lava fields.

Volcanic Activity in Iceland

Located along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that bisects the Earth’s crust, Iceland is home to over 200 active volcanoes in 30 active volcanic ranges whose eruptions have been recorded going back centuries. The North American and Eurasian tectonic plates push together deep inside the earth pushing the sea floor and landmasses upwards, creating the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that runs along the sea floor. The movement of the North American and Eurasian plates away from each other (diverging) helped created the geologic ‘hot spot’ that created the island of Iceland in the first place. This place is called the Iceland Plume; magma deep below the tectonic plates was released as the plates collided and then moved away from each other. The magma built up on itself over many years and eventually created what we now know as Iceland.

Hawaii is one such similar hot spot, created by the same geological forces as Iceland. Chile is also in a geologic zone that contains two abutting tectonic plates; one is pushing the other up which has created the Andes mountain range along part of the volcanic Pacific Ring of Fire. In Iceland the plates are moving apart, and the molten lava that erupts from the crust or a volcano changes the landscape of Iceland constantly.

Map of Iceland showing major towns, rivers, lakes and glaciers.  Source: Max Naylor.
Map of Iceland showing major towns, rivers, lakes and glaciers. Source: Max Naylor.

Eyjafjallajökull is covered by an ice cap that flows into surrounding glaciers near the volcano. It is a stratovolcano, meaning it has been created by the layering of volcanic ash, lava, and other rock materials that layer and build the volcano up. Unlike other types of volcanoes (such as shield volcanoes) stratovolcanoes or composite volcanoes usually have steep sides and thick lava that flows from the eruptions. This lava serves to further build the volcano up rather than flow and spread quickly down the sides of the volcano.

The second eruption seen from Fljótshlíð. The highest lava cascades seen in the picture are roughly 500 m high. Photo: David Karnå.
The second eruption seen from Fljótshlíð. The highest lava cascades seen in the picture are roughly 500 m high. Photo: David Karnå.

Magma from a chamber located under the volcano stemming from the derivation of the Northern American and Eurasian tectonic plates causes pressure to build inside the volcano; this causes small to large earthquakes detectable around the country and sometimes an eventual eruption. While Eyjafjallajökull has typically erupted from its top, fissure vents have also been seen on the sides of the volcano and serve as another pressure and lava release.

Iceland’s northern parts are more geologically stable and are comprised mostly of grasslands that farmers use to graze their livestock. Most of the agriculture is done in the temperate coast while the interior is more rugged and forested.

The volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted most recently in 2010 and caused delays in air travel and weather pattern changes that were felt in many areas around the world. Before this eruption it was active between December 1821 and January 1823 along with another larger volcano nearby, called Katla. Eyjafjallajökull has erupted three times in recorded history and Katla has followed suit every time, except for the eruption in 2010. Earthquakes routinely shake the areas around the volcanoes, often as a signal of an imminent eruption.


Glaciers in Iceland

Eleven percent of Iceland is made of glaciers. As the global world grows warmer the glaciers are shrinking, weighing less and less upon the surface of the island and allowing the magma from inside the active volcanoes to break through the surface easier than ever before. Scientists predict that the climate will change because of volcanic eruptions like the ones in Iceland and that the volcanoes will erupt more frequently because of climate change, creating a cycle that will alter the weather and landscape of Iceland as well as potentially change other parts of the world.

Iceland Golden Glacier
Iceland Golden Glacier

Iceland is a unique place- a volcanic island still able to sustain human life, beautiful and diverse in its terrain and landscape. Time will only tell how Iceland’s volcanoes and the tectonic forces below them will continue to shape and change the way the country as well as the world.

Satellite image of Iceland.  Source: NASA, 2004.
Satellite image of Iceland. Source: NASA, 2004.


Geography of Iceland. December 29, 2010. http://geography.about.com/od/icelandmaps/a/icelandgeography.htm

Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano is nothing to ‘Angry Sister’ Katla. April 18, 2010. http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2010/0418/Iceland-s-Eyjafjallajoekull-volcano-is-nothing-to-Angry-Sister-Katla

Volcanology of Iceland. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volcanology_of_Iceland


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