Earthquakes in Iceland
If you’re wondering where on the planet could you experience an earthquake, Iceland is a pretty safe guess. Here, earthquakes are a fact of life. Each year, thousands of tremors shake the country, a reminder of its position on a tectonic plate boundary. Larger earthquakes are, fortunately, much less common. So how prepared do you need to be if you’re planning to visit Iceland. Here’s everything you need to known about earthquakes in Iceland.
Why are there earthquakes in Iceland?
Are there earthquakes in Iceland is a question many potential visitors ask. The answer is yes, and the reason is pretty simple. Earthquakes most often happen on tectonic plate boundaries. The earth’s crust isn’t formed of a single solid piece. Instead, it’s made of sections. Imagine what it would look like if you crack a boiled egg with a spoon and the shell breaks – now scale that up to planet-size. These fragments of crust are called plates. They float on the viscous layer of molten rock or magma underneath which we call the mantle. It has the consistency of thick treacle.
Convection currents mean the magma is constantly shifting, carrying those plates with it. Some of these plates move together; if so, we refer to the place where they meet as a destructive plate boundary. The collisions that occur can cause enormous earthquakes with devastating consequences. You might experience such quakes around the Pacific Rim, in countries such as Japan, Chile or the west coast of the USA.
In contrast, other plate boundaries move apart, and where they do so, we call this a constructive boundary. Sometimes this motion can be jerky, which is why you might also feel earthquakes even though the plates don’t crash into each other. Iceland, located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, is an example of a constructive plate boundary. Earthquakes that occur on or close to constructive plate boundaries on average tend to be less powerful.
How often does Iceland have earthquakes?
You might be wondering how many earthquakes does Iceland have a year. On average, Iceland experiences around 500 earthquakes a week, or about 26000 every year. But if you fear your holiday could be ruined by constant shaking, be reassured. Many of those are small tremors which won’t have you running in fear. In fact, as you walk along the street, you probably won’t even realise one’s just happened and at night you’ll most likely sleep right through them. That’s good news. Though earthquakes are common in Iceland, they shouldn’t really trouble you that much. If you do feel the ground shake, it will probably be a fleeting moment that will merely be a conversation starter over dinner or a talking point when you get back home.
Occasionally Iceland’s earthquakes make the headlines. Sometimes it’s because many tremors affect a place in a short space of time, such as beneath one of Iceland’s volcanoes. Though there’s not a perfect correlation, the presence of an earthquake swarm can be troubling as it can be a precursor to a volcanic eruption. In simple terms, movement of magma within the volcano’s chamber can make the earth move. That’s one of the ways scientists knew that something was amiss prior to the eruption of Fagradalsfjall in 2021. It’s not necessarily the case that a volcano will burst into life just because there have been earthquakes, however.
So how should you prepare?
At the Southern Information Centre in Hveragerði, a simulator allows you to experience what a 6.5 quake feels like. Meanwhile displays show what happened to people and places during the 2008 event of that magnitude, the largest quake to strike Iceland in recent years. However, to learn more about the processes that cause quakes, Perlan’s Forces of Nature exhibit in Reykjavik is a good place to start.
If you find yourself in Iceland when another event of this magnitude takes place, the general advice is to drop to the floor, cover your head and try to hold on to something that’s not likely to collapse. If you can, get outside into the open; if not, stand in a doorway or take shelter under something solid, like a wooden table. If you’re driving, stop the car. You might not have much time to do anything at all: some quakes only last seconds rather than minutes so by the time you react it’s already over.
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