7 Historic Volcanic Eruptions in Iceland

Iceland’s volcanoes are both a blessing and a curse. For millions of years, each volcanic eruption Iceland has seen has shaped the island’s breathtaking beauty—but they have also brought devastation. This makes it essential to understand their history and respect their power. By doing so, we can appreciate the island country’s unique character and ensure its people’s safety. Keep reading as we share famous volcanic eruptions in Iceland, including their background and their consequences! 

Iceland’s Volcanoes: The Basics 

In Iceland, as well as many other places on Earth, volcanoes are the most prolific and, ironically, destructive architects. Roughly defined as an opening or a vent through which magma escapes, volcanoes have created more than 80% of our planet’s surface, including the magnificent land of fire and ice. 

Volcanic eruptions in Iceland hold a special place in both the geological landscape and the cultural identity of the nation. With around 130 volcanoes, 32 of which are currently active, Iceland is a hot spot for volcanic activity, mainly due to its location on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. A volcano erupts in Iceland, on average, every five years. However, there has been a huge increase in volcanic activity in recent years, with eruptions occurring as frequently as once a year.

Eruptions in Iceland can happen in several ways, from explosive outbursts that produce towering ash plumes to effusive eruptions where lava flows slowly and quietly from discrete fissures and craters. The frequency and scale of eruptions can also vary greatly, from small, localized events to major cataclysms that capture global attention and, unfortunately, bring about extraordinary destruction.

With so many active and dormant volcanoes, it’s no wonder nature enthusiasts and thrill seekers flock to Iceland to witness its mesmerizing volcanic activity. In the past few decades, guided tours, hikes to volcanic craters, and even helicopter flights to watch active volcanoes from above have become increasingly popular for visitors to experience these geological wonders firsthand. 

Iceland Volcanic Eruption and Tourism: Is It Safe?

Volcanic tourism is safe, but as a visitor, it’s important to always be aware of potential risks and take necessary precautions when visiting sites known for volcanic eruptions in Iceland. 

As a volcanic country, local authorities are dedicated to researching and monitoring volcanic activity throughout the island. With dozens of seismic stations across the territory, volcanic eruptions in Iceland are highly monitored. That said, as with everything in nature, the unpredictability of volcanoes means that conditions can change rapidly. 

Here are some safety tips for safe and responsible volcanic tourism in Iceland:

Stay Informed: Before embarking on any volcanic tours or excursions or exploring in your campervan rental, stay updated on current volcanic and seismic activity. Monitor official sources such as the Icelandic Meteorological Office for alerts and advisories.

Choose Reputable Tour Operators: Select tour companies with experienced guides who prioritize safety and always stick to strict protocols. Do your research, read reviews, and ask for recommendations to make sure you’re booking with a reputable operator.

Follow Guide Instructions: During the tour, pay attention to the instructions provided by your guide and follow their safety precautions at all times. They are knowledgeable about the local terrain and can advise you on the safest routes and actions to take in case of emergencies. Never compromise your safety for a photo or to explore off-limit areas. 

Respect Safety Barriers: Keep an eye out for any safety barriers or signs indicating restricted areas near volcanic sites or marking a recent volcano eruption. Iceland has hundreds of these barriers in place for your protection and to prevent accidents. Just because the volcano seems inactive or dormant doesn’t mean it’s safe to ignore these barriers. Sudden eruptions, toxic volcanic gases, and unstable terrains can pose significant risks even in seemingly calm conditions. 

Be Prepared for Emergencies: Familiarize yourself with emergency procedures and know how to respond in case of an unexpected event, such as a volcanic eruption, earthquake, or adverse weather conditions.

Stay Together: If traveling in a group, stay together and communicate with your travel buddies. Avoid wandering off alone, especially in remote or unfamiliar areas.

7 Famous Volcanic Eruptions in Iceland

  1. Eldgjá (934-940 AD) 

South Iceland’s Eldgja is the largest volcanic canyon in the world. The 934 eruption originated from the Laki fissure system, and is the largest lava flow recorded in history! Its 19.7 cubic kilometers of lava covered a quarter of the island—forever altering its landscape. Simultaneously, the ash cloud resulting from the eruption disrupted plant growth and contributed to hardships for the Icelanders.

  1. Katla (934 AD) 

A subglacial volcano under Mýrdalsjökull glacier, Katla has a powerful history of eruptions. In fact, it is known to be one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, with over 28 eruptions recorded in history. Katla is often known to trigger massive floods, known as ’jökulhlaups’. The 934 eruption produced one of the largest jökulhlaups ever recorded—-and inundated vast areas of southern Iceland. Jökulhlaups from Katla have often claimed lives and damaged vegetation. 

Volcanic Eruptions in Iceland
  1. Laki (1783-1784) 

This eruption is easily one of the most disastrous in human history and is the largest volcanic eruption in Iceland’s history! It wasn’t a single mountain belching lava. In fact, a 220-kilometer fissure system spewed toxic gases—and ash—for eight months, causing famine and deaths across Iceland. The sulfur dioxide cloud formed a ’Laki haze’ and affected the global climate by lowering temperatures. However, the weathered lava also created fertile land in Iceland. And the volcanic heat generated by the eruption is harnessed today as geothermal energy.

  1. Eldfell (1973)

In January 1973, a previously unknown fissure opened up beneath the small Icelandic island of Heimaey, less than a mile from the town of Vestmannaeyjar. The newly-formed volcano was named Eldfell, or “Hill of Fire,” and erupted for six consecutive months, burying most of the town in ash and destroying hundreds of homes. The eruption was so severe that the entire population of around 5,000 had to be evacuated. An enormous effort was made to slow down and control the lava flow by continuously spraying seawater on it. Despite the destruction, no one was killed, thanks to the heroic efforts of the residents and the Icelandic coast guard. 

  1. Eyjafjallajökull (2010) 

Eyjafjallajökull is a stratovolcano found under the eponymous ice cap in southern Iceland. Though smaller than others, this Iceland volcano eruption became famous because of its ash plume—which disrupted air travel across Europe for weeks! Over 100,000 flights were affected (and even more passengers were stranded). The event told the world about the impacts that even minor Iceland volcanic eruptions can have on places beyond the island. 

  1. Fagradalsfjall (March 2021)

In 2021, the Fagradalsfjall eruption made headlines when it became the first significant volcanic activity in the Reykjanes region in over 800 years. The eruption resulted in towering lava flows emerging from Geldingadalur valley, which captured the attention of people worldwide and led to thousands of visitors flocking to the area to witness the spectacle firsthand. In August 2022, the Fagradalsfjall volcano erupted again, this time in Meradalir valley, continuing the volcanic activity that began the previous year.

  1. Sundhnjúkagígar (2023-2024)

In December 2023, following weeks of earthquakes, another eruption occurred in the Reykjanes Peninsula, this time originating from a volcano named Sundhnjúkagígar. In January 2024, a new fissure opened up in the same area, leading to another eruption, followed by third and fourth eruptions from fissures measuring more than three kilometers in length. This prompted the temporary closure of the famous Blue Lagoon hot springs as a precautionary measure. The latest eruption, which occurred in March 2024, is considered the most powerful eruption to have happened in the region since the renewed volcanic activity began in 2021.

Check Availability

"(Required)" indicates required fields

MM slash DD slash YYYY
MM slash DD slash YYYY
<div style="display: none;">

Check Availability

MM slash DD slash YYYY
MM slash DD slash YYYY