Active Volcanoes in Iceland 2023
Iceland is home to several active volcanoes. However, the term "active" when referring to volcanoes often leads to some confusion. It is vital to clarify that an active volcano doesn't necessarily mean a volcano that's currently erupting. Rather, a volcano is classified as active if it can erupt, even if it's not presently spewing ash, rocks, gases, or magma.
For this discussion, we'll adopt a broad understanding of what constitutes an "active" volcano. We're not just considering volcanoes that are in the midst of an eruption but also those with the future potential to erupt. So, with this expanded definition in mind, which volcanoes in Iceland are recognized as active in the year 2023?
Iceland's rich volcanic activity often gains global attention, especially when an eruption is about to occur or is already in progress. Though there have been many significant eruptions in recent decades, the one that truly made the world sit up and pay attention was the Eyjafjallajökull eruption of 2010. For an eruption to make such a worldwide impact, it typically has to exhibit some unusual characteristics.
Eyjafjallajökull, if you recall, puffed out enough ash to make a giant cloud blown westwards, disrupting flights from the USA to Europe. Halting air traffic, it turns out, is an effective way to get the world's attention.
After this disruptive event, Eyjafjallajökull has since been relatively quiet, allowing life in its vicinity in Iceland to return to its usual rhythm. Yet, this volcano has left a lasting impression, partly due to its challenging name for non-Icelandic speakers and mainly because of the memorable event it caused.
Despite its recent quiescence, Eyjafjallajökull is not to be underestimated. While it has been relatively inactive and is currently classified as dormant, the larger volcanic system to which Eyjafjallajökull belongs is very active. Thus, while Eyjafjallajökull itself may be silent for now, the system it's part of retains the potential to stir up geologic drama in the future.
While Eyjafjallajökull may be more recognized globally due to its disruptive 2010 eruption, it's not the most active volcano in Iceland. That title goes to Bárðarbunga, a stratovolcano with a unique history.
Bárðarbunga's last eruption occurred in 2014, characterized by a collapse of the crater. Even though it hasn't erupted since then, it's part of a broader active volcanic system, demonstrating that its quiet phase doesn't imply a lack of potential for future activity.
Indeed, Bárðarbunga continually reminds us of its presence in a different way: through regular seismic activity. Earthquakes and seismic swarms are common in its vicinity, serving as a reminder that this volcano, though currently silent in terms of eruptions, is far from inactive.
Bárðarbunga also holds a record in Iceland's volcanic history. It was responsible for the most explosive eruption ever recorded in the country, though it didn't occur recently. This enormous eruption happened in 1477, demonstrating the substantial destructive power this volcano could unleash.
This subglacial volcano, nestled under the Vatnajökull glacier, has the potential for significant eruptions. It may currently be out of sight, lurking beneath the ice. Still, it's history and ongoing seismic activity suggest we should never underestimate its ability to reshape Iceland's landscape should it awaken once more.
Katla is one of Iceland's most active volcanoes and its deadliest. Since the country was settled, it has erupted frequently and often violently. Between 930 and 1918, this powerful force of nature erupted twenty times, each contributing to its reputation as an unpredictable and dangerous volcano.
Interestingly, Katla is not just any ordinary volcano. It falls into the subglacial volcanoes category, meaning it's beneath a thick layer of ice. In Katla's case, it's cloaked under the massive ice cap known as Mýrdalsjökull. This unique condition sometimes allows eruptions to go unnoticed, as the ice cap muffles the seismic activities and contains the eruptive material.
However, as we advance in technological capabilities, we gradually lift the veil on these concealed volcanic activities. For example, since 1918, Katla has had at least three eruptions that didn't breach the ice cap. The most recent of these silent outbursts occurred in 2011, a testament to Katla's ongoing dynamism.
Since 1918, for instance, there have been at least three periods of activity that didn't break through the ice, most recently in 2011. Nevertheless, this current period of dormancy is the longest observed since records began, leading to constant speculation that the next "big one" is imminent.
Hekla, a prominent feature in Iceland's volcanic landscape, is also the central volcano in a system sharing its name. With a history marked by frequent activity, Hekla last erupted in 2000 and has become known for its distinct style of eruptions.
Typically, Hekla's eruptions have begun with what's called a Plinian eruption. This type of eruption is characterized by a powerful explosion that sends a column of ash and rock fragments, known as tephra, high into the sky. However, these dramatic displays are typically short-lived, often lasting only a few hours.
Following these initial explosive events, Hekla has commonly transitioned into a phase of lava flows. While less visually dramatic, these lava flows can persist for several weeks, reshaping the surrounding landscape. During its most recent eruption in 2000, most of the volcanic activity was concentrated in the first hour, and it occurred with very little warning.
However, it's essential to remember that predicting volcanic activity is an uncertain science. Even though Hekla has displayed a certain pattern of activity in the past, it doesn't guarantee that future eruptions will follow the same script. Volcanologists can make educated guesses based on previous patterns and ongoing monitoring. Still, each eruption brings with it a degree of unpredictability. This underscores the unpredictable nature of these powerful phenomena.
Hidden beneath the ice cap of Vatnajökull, one of Iceland's most extensive glaciers, is Grímsvötn, another intriguing subglacial volcano. While it may be concealed from sight, its volcanic activities have made its presence felt time and time again.
One of the most recent and memorable eruptions of Grímsvötn occurred in 2011. This powerful event began just an hour after the initial seismic rumblings were detected. The eruption expelled a considerable quantity of basaltic tephra, which are essentially fragments of rock and volcanic material. The force of the explosion propelled these fragments high into the sky, scattering them across a broad radius. Some of the debris even landed tens of kilometres away from the volcano's epicentre.
Since then, there have been several instances of jökulhlaups, which are glacial floods caused by volcanic activity beneath the glacier. However, such floods aren't usually followed by an eruption. Right now, the ground shows signs of deformation, often indicating a build-up of material or pressure beneath the surface.
However, the potential cause for concern has been slightly alleviated. The volcano's alert level was recently downgraded as the landscape changes have persisted for several months without leading to an eruption. While Grímsvötn's activity continues to be closely monitored, the current lull provides a moment of respite in the otherwise volatile saga of this subglacial volcano.
As of this writing, Fagradalsfjall has been the stage for the most recent eruption in Icelandic history. Yet, given Iceland's geological liveliness, this status may have changed by the time you read this.
What's fascinating about Fagradalsfjall is that it slept silently for around 800 years before its dramatic awakening. This event serves as a reminder of the latent power beneath even the seemingly quiet volcanoes of Iceland, urging us to broaden our focus beyond the infamous Hekla and Katla.
The stirring of Fagradalsfjall started in early 2021 with a series of earthquakes hinting at potential volcanic activity beneath the surface. Before long, scientists were able to confirm that magma was beginning to fill the volcano's underground chamber. By March, Fagradalsfjall was ready to put on a spectacular display of nature's power.
The eruption drew attention from around the globe, transforming Fagradalsfjall into a hotspot for tourists and significantly boosting local tourism in the Reykjanes Peninsula. The volcano spewed molten lava for six months, creating a mesmerizing spectacle. However, the phenomenon didn't threaten the local residents of nearby Grindavik, thanks to the safe distance between the town and the eruption site.
Following an interlude in the volcanic activity, Fagradalsfjall briefly returned to an active state with another round of eruptions. But, the lava flows have ceased for the moment, restoring a sense of tranquillity to this once fiery landscape. Nonetheless, the story of Fagradalsfjall serves as a reminder of the dynamic and unpredictable nature of Iceland's geology. Who knows when or where the next spectacular display of volcanic power will occur?
Active Eruptions in Iceland
Currently Iceland has one active eruption around Litli Hrútur. It's dynamic geology continuously shapes the country's landscape. The island is situated in one of the planet's most tectonically active zones, evidenced by numerous areas where gases and steam spontaneously escape from the ground, signifying the raw, primordial energy beneath.
Iceland's captivating geological features draw many visitors eager to delve into the world of volcanoes and understand their potential power. If you share this curiosity, you should explore Perlan's Forces of Nature exhibition. This exhibit offers fascinating insights into the tumultuous processes that shape our planet, making it a must-see for any volcano enthusiast.
Iceland's sophisticated monitoring system provides comfort amidst this bubbling geothermal activity. The country has proven effective at predicting volcanic dangers, with a history of issuing timely warnings. While there have been instances where eruptions have occurred with little more than an hour's notice, there have also been examples like the eruption of Fagradalsfjall, which was notably different.
During the eruption of Fagradalsfjall, the lava flowed relatively slowly, giving authorities sufficient time to implement safety measures. This helped ensure that people were kept safe from the obvious threat of lava flows and fewer dangers, such as toxic gases released during the eruption.
While visiting an active volcano can never be considered entirely risk-free, many tourists find the prospect enticing, drawn by the rare opportunity to witness nature's raw power up close. However, Iceland's vigilant monitoring and quick response to volcanic activity ensure this thrilling experience is as safe as possible.
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