Iceland was formed roughly 20-25 million years ago by volcanic eruptions. It is a volcanic island with many spectacular geological features. Iceland has about 30 active volcanic systems, and more than 100 inactive ones. Volcanoes might stand out the most, but on a much smaller scale, Iceland is home to many interesting and beautiful stones, rocks, minerals, and crystals. In this article, we will tell you more about Iceland’s rocks and minerals.
Since Iceland consists for 90% of basalt, let’s talk about this rock type first. Basalt is a dark grey or black rock, sometimes having a columnar structure, formed by solidification of magma. It can be dense or fine-grained and usually consists of plagioclase, augite and magnetite. Basalt is not unique to Iceland. It makes up most of the world’s oceanic crust, and it’s found in big quantities in Greenland and Scotland, and many more places.
In Iceland, basalt columns are a popular tourist attraction. Reynisfjara beach on the south coast is one of the locations people flock to for taking pictures of the impressive basalt columns, and Svartifoss, a waterfall dropping down black basalt columns, is another one. Be sure to check these sites out when you’re in Iceland.
One Icelandic mineral contributed to science in several ways. We are talking about Iceland spar, a pure calcite crystal. Even though Iceland spar can be found in other places than Iceland, it got its name because it was first brought to Europe from Helgustaðir in East Iceland in the 17th century. The supply in Helgustaðir was mined extensively up into the 20th century.
The crystals from Iceland were used in optical instruments like petrological microscopes. The double-refraction property of calcite played an important role in studies of light as a wave. Iceland spar was studied by Christiaan Huygens, Isaac Newton, George Stokes, and William Nicol, among others. These days, synthetic materials have taken over and demand for calcite has ceased. The mine at Helgustaðir was placed under official protection in 1975, prohibiting calcite being removed from the area.
In the age of settlement, Iceland spar was possibly used for navigational purposes. Vikings might have used an object called a sólarsteinn (sunstone) to locate the direction of the sun in cloudy skies and twilight conditions. By looking through Iceland spar with the naked eye, the direction of the sun can be identified within a few degrees. It’s likely that Iceland spar is the same as sólarsteinn.
Iceland spar has also been found inside an Elizabethan ship that sank in 1592, pointing towards the fact that the crystal was used to help with navigation long after the widespread use of the magnetic compass.
Is there life on Mars? Well, we don’t know yet. But we do know a lot about Mars’ surface, partly because of a rock that is commonly found in Iceland: palagonite. Palagonite is formed in subglacial and subaquatic eruptions. When water turns into steam on contact with hot lava, small fragments of lava react with this steam to form light-coloured palagonite tuff cones. Even though palagonite is found in other places around the world, it is nowhere as common and easy to study as in Iceland.
Palagonite has sparked interest around the world because similar rocks appear to exist on Mars. Properties of Martian dust match best with a sort of palagonite. Since water is involved in the process of forming palagonite, it has been used as evidence for the existence of water on Mars.
Petra’s Stone Collection
If you want to see Icelandic rocks and minerals, head to Petra’s Stone Collection in Stöðvarfjörður, East Iceland. This stone museum is founded by Ljósbjörg Petra María (1922-2012), known as Petra, who started collecting stones and rocks in the area and displaying these in her yard. Over the years, her collection kept growing and growing, and visitors in the area showed a lot of interest.
After a while, her house was turned into a museum showcasing the best specimens. There you can probably find some of the many rocks and minerals not mentioned in this article, like Icelandite, zeolite, rhyolite, obsidian, tholeiite, olivine tholeiite, gabbro, plagioclase, augite, olivine, magnetite, and apatite. There is a coffeehouse at the museum, called Café Sunnó, which is open during summertime and has coffee, sandwiches, and soup on offer.
Are you allowed to take stones back home as a souvenir?
You are not allowed to take rocks or minerals from national parks and protected areas. Removal of Iceland spar, and stalactites and stalagmites is strictly forbidden. You are also not allowed to take rocks and minerals from someone’s land. Most of the land in Iceland is privately owned, so this means you are not allowed to take rocks and minerals from Iceland back home. If you are looking for a nice souvenir, head to one of the many souvenir shops selling products made with lava rocks.
Unique Rock Formations in Iceland
When you drive through Iceland, you will quickly notice how many weird-shaped rocks there are. You also see outlines of faces everywhere in hills and mountains. Do you know how these rocks got their peculiar shapes? Rumour has it that all of these rocks were once trolls. As folklore goes, trolls are immediately petrified when they are touched by rays of sunlight. So, a lot of uniquely-shaped rocks you see in Icelandic landscapes were once trolls who were just too late with finding a spot to hide from the sun.
Hvítserkur is a rock of 15m tall in the shape of a dinosaur, dragon, or, as some people say, a giant cow. Folklore goes that Hvítserkur once used to be a troll with the same name living in Strandir in the Westfjords. One night, Hvítserkur wanted to destroy the church bells of Þingeyraklaustur monastery on Vatnsnes peninsula, annoyed by their sounds. Too taken up by its task, the troll was caught by sunlight and petrified instantly. Read a longer version of Hvítserkur’s story here.
Where to find it: Hvítserkur is located on the eastern shore of Vatnses peninsula in the northwestern region. It is a 3-hour drive from Reykjavík. It’s located to the east of road no. 711. Walking down to the beach, you might see seals and fulmars, but watch out for aggressive arctic terns in summertime.
Árnesstapar are three rock pillars in sea, close to Árnes in the Westfjords. Folklore says that the pillars once were two trolls and their dog, who were surprised by the sun on their way back from a gathering at Drangajökull glacier and turned to stone in a flash.
Where to find it: Árnesstapar are located in the bay Trékyllisvík, about 300km from Reykjavík. The area in which it is located, is called Strandir.
Reynisdrangar are three large rock pillars standing in the ocean in between the village Vík and Reynisfjara beach on the south coast. Of course, these rocks used to be trolls as well. The story goes that these trolls were just pulling a ship onto shore when the sun came out. They hadn’t noticed the sunrise and were turned into stone on the spot.
Where to find it: They are located just in front of Mt. Reynisfjall, a mountain of 5km long, 800m wide and 340m tall. You can see the rocks from both Reynisfjara beach and Vík’s black beach, as well as from the top of Mt. Reynisfjall. From Reykjavík, it takes about 2.5 hours to drive to Vík.
Dyrhólaey is not a petrified troll but still worth a visit. It is a small promontory on the south coast, and actually the southernmost point of Iceland’s mainland. What makes this rock especially noteworthy, is that it’s a giant arch. The arch is high enough for boats to sail through it. You might have seen this arch before in Game of Thrones season 7, episode 6 when it’s the location of Eastwatch-by-the-sea. In the summertime, this is a good location to see puffins.
Where to find it: Dyrholaey is located next to Reynisfjara beach on the south coast of Iceland. It’s difficult to miss when you are in the area. The hike up to the lighthouse is recommended and will offer you a wonderful view over the black beach and surrounding landscape with Mýrdalsjökull glacier in the background.
Elephant Rock is a big rock with an uncanny resemblance to an elephant with its trunk half under water. What makes the rock so lifelike is its texture, the basalt of the rock looks just like wrinkled elephant skin. The rock does not only resemble an elephant, as many people see no one less than Cthulhu in the rock.
Where to find it: Elephant Rock is located on the island Heimaey in the Westman Islands, just off the south coast. The cheapest way to get to the Westman Islands is by ferry. You can also fly to Heimaey from Reykjavík Airport in about 25 minutes. On the island, it’s an easy walk to the Elephant Rock, located west of the golf course. You can also book a boat tour to see it from the water – this will give you the best view.
Lóndrangar are two big basalt pillars resembling towers or a castle on top of a cliff. A lot of people also see a Viking ship about to set sail in it. The area used to be an old fishing centre and remains of camps can still be found there. Folklore says elves live there and to not disturb them, farmers never use the fields near Lóndrangar. In summertime, you will be able to spot lots of seabirds in the area, and in the ocean, you might see a whale or two swimming by.
Where to find it: Lóndrangar is located on the south side of the tip of Snæfellsnes peninsula, not far from Arnarstapi. You have to drive for about 2.5 hours to get there by car from Reykjavík.
Gatklettur (Arch Rock) is a cliff on Snæfellsnes peninsula with a circular arch in it, caused by water erosion. It’s located at the seafront and is very picturesque. And with a bit of imagination, it looks just like two trolls kissing… what do you think?
Where to find it: Just like Lóndranger, Gatklettur is located close to Arnarstapi, on the southern tip of Snæfellsnes peninsula.
Have fun looking for these unique rock formations in Iceland. Just remember one thing while traveling around the country, not all trolls are turned into stone yet…