Reykjanes Eruption 2.0: Will there be a new volcano soon?
The 2023 Reykjanes Eruption “Litli-Hrútur”
Iceland’s most recently active volcano, Fagradalsfjall on the Reykjanes peninsula, resumed its activity on July 10, when a fissure opened up on the hillside known as Litli-Hrútur. The fissure quickly grew to more than a kilometre in length and began building itself up into what most people recognize as a volcanic crater. It was possible to visit this eruption from a safe distance with the right preparation.
The crater stopped its activity on August 5, 2023 and the eruption is no longer active.
Volcanoes in Iceland, the Land of Ice and Fire
If all the Earth’s history was compressed into one year, with the earth appearing on January 1st, Iceland wouldn’t show up until the afternoon of December 30, and as the recent volcanic activity on the Reykanes peninsula demonstrates, it’s still showing up.
Of all of Iceland’s spectacular features; the glaciers, waterfalls, fjords, and beaches perhaps the most dramatic of all is the active volcano and if you’re lucky enough to catch an eruption, it’s not something you’ll forget. But it’s not just the eruptions that have the power to awe. Iceland’s volcanic landscape is like a time machine where you can visit Lava fields, (some still cooling), geothermal landscapes of belching fumaroles and geysers, lava tunnels beneath rivers of frozen lava, travel down a volcano chimney into a vast magma chamber, swim in geothermal waters in an ancient crater and visit a village that was half swallowed by an eruption just fifty years ago. For a primer on all things volcanic and ideas for cool places to visit, read on.
Location, location, location
Located on on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland sits astride the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates and is one of few places where you can see an active spreading ridge on dry land. The vast continental plates are moving apart at a speed of about 2 cm per year (about half the speed your fingernails are growing), It’s this widening gap that’s largely responsible for the eruptions every three or four years. Though the plate’s movement doesn’t seem like a lot, enormous pressures build up over time. On the Reykanes Peninsula, for example, the pressure’s been building for almost 800 years, and is responsible for the recent earthquakes eruptions.
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity... Volcanicity?
A mixed blessing
There are currently over 200 volcanoes in the active zone and at least 30 of these have erupted since the country was settled over a thousand years ago. The big three, Katla, Hekla and Grímsvötn are all overdue an eruption and sit beneath glaciers. Katla sits beneath the vast Mýrdalsjökull glacier and old testament scale floods threaten if there’s a major eruption, so, eh, yeah… that’s a thing.
On the other hand ...
Iceland’s volcanic activity is a huge draw for tourism and enables geothermal energy, both factors that contribute greatly to the economy and quality of life in Iceland. Since 2014 geothermal energy has accounted for 66% of Iceland’s primary energy use, with 90% of households heated by geothermal energy. As well as scalding tourists (watch that hot tap/ facet folks), geothermal energy heats swimming pools, greenhouses, fish farms, it even powers snow melting systems for sidewalks, playgrounds and parking space
Vestmannaeyjar's rude awakening
In the small hours of January 23rd 1973, residents of the sleepy island village Heimaey woke to the roaring sound of a fissuring tearing through the centre of their village. Within a day Vestmannaeyjar’s ( the Westman Islands) population of 5000 was safely evacuated and scientists and geologists arrived to monitor the birth of the Eldfell volcano. The eruption continued for six months, covering much of the island in ash, destroying several hundred homes, and briefly turning the harbour into a boiling cauldron. A successful effort to slow and divert the flow by spraying seawater at the leading edges of the flows. Within a year of the eruption most of the island’s residents returned, and the population had largely recovered. A museum on the Island documents the events and is well with a visit. The Vestmannaeyjar are about a three-hour journey from Reykjavík, with ferries departing from Landeyjahöfn, and Þorlákshöfn.
From soft and mossy to downright spooky-looking knee grazers to barren gravel deserts of fumaroles and steamy vents, Lava fields come in many shapes, sizes and colours and make up some of Iceland’s most haunting and distinct landscapes.
Eldhraun - field of dreams
Farther to the north, near the towns of Akureyri and Husavík, the Krafla lava fields are a bird of a different feather altogether with bubbling muddy ponds and smoking fumaroles, the ashen lava fields of Krafla demonstrate the wide diversity you’ll find around the island.
Thirty minutes outside Reykjavík, Þríhnjúkagígur is an extremely accessible as extreme experiences go. Don’t wear your newest sneakers, and a warm coat is advised, but aside from this you’re good to go. Access to the cave is via a small window cleaning elevator that lowers you 120m to a football-field-sized cave. Þríhnjúkagígur is thought to be one of its kind. The cave through which you descend is actually the volcano’s chimney. This vertical cave and magma chamber would normally either be filled with very hard rock or have collapsed in on itself. For some reason at Þríhnjúkagígur, the magma was sucked back out, leaving behind a vast gallery of abstract forms and intense colours drawn from the rock by the intense heat and pressure of the magma.
A word on craters
An effusive, shield or fissure-type volcanic eruption occurs when molten magma and gases rise up from an underground magma chamber, travel through a conduit and escape to the surface by forcing a fissure to open up. As the lava erupts, the edges cool and walls build up around it. When the eruption stops, the depression left inside these walls is a crater. Sometimes if the magma chamber beneath is empty, the volcano collapses to expose the magma chamber. This kind of crater, known as a caldera, can be vast and is usually filled with water.
Other craters can be created in a heartbeat by explosive eruptions. Sometimes called Plinian eruptions (after Pliny the younger who witnessed Vesuvius bury Pompeii in CE.79 from across the bay), these occur when pressures from superheated steam and volcanic gasses cause the volcano to pop its top, sending ash and gasses into the atmosphere. These eruptions will often leave dramatic craters behind and cover the terrain with pebble-sized debris.
There are many craters around the Island, below is list of some of the most spectacular and accessible here. For more check out our blog posts.
Nearby is Öskjuvatn lake, the second deepest in Iceland at 220m. Without a geothermal source, this lake is very cold and not for swimming unless you like it very cold.
Stóra - víti
Skútustaðagígar pseudo craters
Just over an hour’s drive east of Akureyri, among the geological treasures around Mývatn lake are the Skútustaðagígar pseudo craters (did you say pseudo craters?) Indeed, these crater-like formations are not and never were directly connected to a magma system. The phoney craters came about caused when thick waves of lava travelled over wet earth. The water beneath expanded like a giant steam engine boiler and demanded more space causing explosions and settling into what we see now. The Skútustaðagígar pseudo craters were formed during the eruption of Lúdentaborgir and Þrengslaborgir around 2,300 years ago.