Exploring Iceland's Volcanoes: Fire and Ice Adventure

Exploring Iceland's Volcanoes: Fire and Ice Adventure

Imagine standing on the edge of a roaring volcano, feeling the Earth tremble beneath your feet as you gaze out over landscapes shaped by the primal forces of nature. Welcome to Iceland - a world of fire and ice, where glaciers and volcanoes coexist, painting a scenery so surreal, it feels like stepping into another world. In this land of dramatic contrasts, the fury of molten magma meets the chilling stillness of glacial ice. From the infamous Eyjafjallajökull to the historic Hekla, the hidden power of Katla to the icy firehouse of Grímsvötn, each volcano tells a unique tale of nature's unparalleled might and mystery. We will also uncover the extensive eruption history of Bárðarbunga and delve into the literary magic of Snæfellsjökull.

This journey isn't just about exploring Iceland's volcanic landscapes; it's about experiencing the raw beauty of our planet, understanding the strength of natural forces, and appreciating the delicate balance that exists between destruction and creation. So tighten your hiking boots, ready your adventurous spirit, and let's embark on a thrilling odyssey through Iceland's majestic volcanoes, a spectacle where fire dances with ice in a symphony that has been playing since the dawn of time.

1. Eyjafjallajökull: The Ice-Capped Inferno

First on our exploration list is Eyjafjallajökull. This southern Icelandic volcano leaped into international headlines in 2010 when it erupted, causing an ash cloud that severely disrupted European air travel. Eyjafjallajökull's eruption wasn't just an earth-shaking event, it was a wake-up call to the world, demonstrating the raw power of nature that lies beneath Iceland's frosty surface.

The Frozen Fury: Eyjafjallajökull's Distinctive Environment

Situated within Iceland's vast array of geological wonders, Eyjafjallajökull carves out a distinct identity. The volcano's defining characteristic is the glacier that it's sheathed in, creating a unique geological phenomenon that mirrors the broader elemental clash present throughout Iceland - that of fire and ice.

The unique positioning of a fiery volcano beneath a cool, serene glacier cultivates a starkly contrasting spectacle during eruptions. The phenomenon occurs as molten lava from the volcanic eruptions comes into direct contact with the glacial ice, leading to steam-induced explosions. These phreatomagmatic explosions have the capacity to launch volcanic ash high into the atmosphere. This phenomenon was observed in all its awe-inspiring might during Eyjafjallajökull's 2010 eruption.

Experiencing Eyjafjallajökull: A Tourist’s Perspective

A trip to the vicinity of Eyjafjallajökull is a visual and experiential feast. The landscape around the volcano, with its ice-capped peaks and lava-touched terrain, offers a fascinating glimpse into the powerful geological forces at work.

Tourists have the opportunity to embark on guided hikes around Eyjafjallajökull, each offering a unique perspective on this mighty volcano. The ascent reveals panoramic views of Iceland's diverse landscape, from sprawling black sand beaches to undulating mountains and the far-reaching Atlantic Ocean. It's an encounter with nature's immense power and beauty that is sure to leave an indelible imprint on every visitor.

2. Hekla: Gateway to Hell

Stepping further into Iceland's volcanic canvas, we encounter Hekla, a volcano with a history as fiery as its eruptions. Since its first recorded eruption in the 9th century, Hekla has become one of Iceland's most frequently erupting volcanoes, earning the moniker 'The Gateway to Hell' in medieval European literature. Its relatively regular volcanic activity, coupled with the intense heat and molten lava that it spews out, underscore its fearsome reputation.

Image Credit: Peter Coughlan

Landscapes of Lava and Life: Hekla's Unique Terrain

The area surrounding Hekla is a testament to the volcano's formidable activity. Here, solidified lava fields stretch across the land, sculpted into unique formations by the volcano's frequent eruptions. These hardened lava fields, coupled with volcanic ash, have created a unique and somewhat otherworldly terrain.

However, Hekla's vicinity is not merely an illustration of volcanic power. Amidst the volcanic deposits, resilient plant life has taken root, adding dashes of green to the black and gray palette. It's a vivid example of life's tenacity, even in the face of such hostile conditions.

Immersive Experiences in Hekla’s Shadow

Visiting Hekla offers a chance to explore the rich tapestry of Iceland's volcanic history and appreciate the relentless power of Mother Nature. Guided tours provide visitors with the opportunity to traverse the lava fields, learn about Hekla’s volatile history, and view the rugged landscape that has been molded by centuries of eruptions.

Image Credit: Hugi Ólafsson

For the intrepid, a hike to Hekla's summit offers unparalleled views of the surrounding landscapes. The ascent is a journey through geological time, with different layers of lava and ash-bearing silent testimony to Hekla's numerous past eruptions. From the summit, the vista unfolds to reveal a blend of barren lava fields, patches of hardy vegetation, and the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance.

3. Katla: The Hidden Power

As our exploration deepens, we encounter Katla, one of Iceland's most powerful and secretive volcanoes. Located beneath the expansive Mýrdalsjökull glacier in the southern part of the country, Katla is a mighty sub-glacial volcano, its true magnitude concealed beneath thick layers of ice. Named after a notoriously fiery witch of Icelandic folklore, Katla has lived up to its namesake with frequent, powerful eruptions throughout history. On average, Katla erupted once every 50-60 years, with its last major eruption recorded in 1918.

Image Credit: GRID-Arendal

The Spectacle of Katla's Sub-Glacial Eruptions

The eruptions of Katla are unique phenomena of extreme contrasts. When Katla's fiery belly roars, the intense heat of the erupting magma rapidly melts the ice of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier. This meeting of opposites creates an event known as a jökulhlaup or a glacial outburst flood.

Jökulhlaups are a dramatic spectacle of nature's power, characterized by a sudden release of a massive volume of water and ice from beneath the glacier. These floods can be incredibly destructive, carrying away everything in their path, including large chunks of rock. Evidence of these past events is etched into the landscape around Katla, with vast boulders scattered across the plains, a silent testament to the power of the rushing waters.

Exploring the Scenic Surrounds Safely

While Katla itself lies hidden under the glacier, its surroundings offer a plethora of exploration opportunities for visitors. Trained guides can lead you on tours around Katla's glacier, where you can marvel at the massive ice cap and its rugged beauty. Moreover, the area around Katla is rich in scenic beauty. It's home to stunning landscapes that include vast black sand plains, a result of the volcanic ash deposited by past eruptions, and the ethereal Solheimajokull glacier tongue.

Image Credit: Gary J. Wood

For those seeking a bird's eye view of this geological marvel, helicopter tours provide an unmatched perspective. They offer an unparalleled opportunity to witness the interplay between the fiery volcano and its icy cover, with the majestic Mýrdalsjökull glacier sprawling out beneath you.

4. Grímsvötn: Europe's Icy Firehouse

As we continue our fiery journey through Iceland's remarkable landscape, we arrive at Grímsvötn, a volcano whose activity outstrips all others on the island. This prolific volcano is located beneath the imposing Vatnajökull glacier, the largest ice cap in Europe, making it an interesting study of contrasts and extremes.

Grímsvötn holds a formidable record, erupting approximately once every decade, making it the most active volcano in Iceland. Its eruptions are influenced by the constant geothermal heat from its magma chamber, which melts the overlying glacier, forming a sub-glacial lake. This accumulation of water often intensifies the impact of Grímsvötn’s eruptions, leading to a dramatic display of nature's power.

Grímsvötn's Unique Eruption Mechanism

When it comes to a display of nature's contrasts, Grímsvötn is a remarkable exhibit. The volcano's location under Vatnajökull presents a unique interplay between the icy glacier and the simmering geothermal activity.

Image Credit: Wikimedia

The heat from the volcano results in the formation of a sub-glacial lake, held in check by the glacier above. However, when Grímsvötn erupts, this icy lid is violently shattered, resulting in spectacularly explosive eruptions that propel steam, ash, and lava high into the atmosphere. These are some of Iceland's most powerful and visually stunning eruptions, a vivid testament to the extreme forces at work beneath the glacier's icy surface.

Journey into the Jaws of Fire and Ice: Exploring Grímsvötn

Despite the volcano's fiery disposition, the area surrounding Grímsvötn offers a wealth of opportunities for exploration and discovery. Expert-led tours are available, allowing visitors to safely delve into this fascinating landscape where fire perpetually battles ice. These tours can include traversing the magnificent Vatnajökull glacier, providing a chance to understand the immense scale of both the ice cap and the forces at work beneath it. Adventurous visitors can even explore the stunning blue ice caves that form within the glacier, their existence another testament to the intense geothermal heat below.

Image Credit: Wikimedia

The aftermath of Grímsvötn’s eruptions is clearly visible in the blackened ice and layers of volcanic ash dispersed across the glacier. These stark reminders of the volcano's power offer an intriguing insight into the processes that shape and continually reshape this extraordinary landscape.

5. Bárðarbunga: The Extensive Eruption

In the heart of Iceland's remote highlands lies Bárðarbunga, a colossal volcanic system hidden beneath the Vatnajökull glacier. With its caldera reaching depths of about 700 meters and a diameter of around 10 kilometers, Bárðarbunga stands as one of the largest volcanic structures in Iceland, forming a crucial part of the country's most extensive volcanic system.

The 2014 Bárðarbunga Outburst and Birth of Holuhraun

Bárðarbunga stirred from its slumber in August 2014, beginning a momentous eruption that would last for six long months. Rather than erupting directly from its caldera, Bárðarbunga vented its fiery fury into the Holuhraun lava field north of the main glacier. This eruption marked the largest outburst of volcanic activity in Iceland since the Laki eruption in the 18th century.

The eruption spewed forth a volume of basaltic lava estimated at 1.6 cubic kilometers, resulting in a newly formed landscape covering approximately 85 square kilometers. Today, the Holuhraun lava field remains a testament to the event, a lunar-like expanse of blackened basalt dotted with steam vents and rugged, hardened lava formations.

Venturing into Bárðarbunga: Guidance for Intrepid Explorers

For adventurers longing to witness the raw power of nature, Bárðarbunga offers a truly captivating experience. Given its remote location and the harshness of the terrain, explorations of Bárðarbunga require careful planning and should ideally be undertaken with the guidance of experienced tour operators. The summer months are the most accessible time to visit when the harsh Icelandic winter releases its icy grip on the Highland roads. Guided treks or super jeep tours are popular and practical means of exploring Bárðarbunga's vast landscapes, with guides offering expert insight into the volcano's complex geology.

For those seeking a bird's eye view of this immense landscape, helicopter tours provide an awe-inspiring perspective. These aerial journeys reveal the true scale of the Bárðarbunga volcanic system and the expanse of the Holuhraun lava field, underlining the sheer power of the 2014 eruption.

6. Snæfellsjökull: The Literary Landmark

Beyond its geological splendor, Snæfellsjökull holds a unique place in the annals of literature. This mesmerizing stratovolcano was immortalized by French author Jules Verne in his classic science fiction novel, "A Journey to the Centre of the Earth". Snæfellsjökull's icy summit was depicted as the entry point to a fantastical subterranean adventure, etching the volcano into the global cultural consciousness.

Snæfellsjökull is not just a volcano; it is a stratovolcano characterized by its large, cone-like form and layers of hardened lava, volcanic ash, and pumice. Nestled within the Snæfellsjökull National Park on the western tip of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, it majestically crowns the landscape, its glacier-capped peak often shrouded in mist, adding to the aura of mystique that surrounds it.

The Great Outdoors: Embracing Adventure at Snæfellsjökull

Beyond the bounds of literature, Snæfellsjökull offers an abundance of natural beauty and recreational pursuits that delight adventure seekers and nature lovers alike. The area is a treasure trove of outdoor activities, promising an array of exhilarating experiences set against a backdrop of geological wonder.

Image Credit: Greg Kruk

Hiking enthusiasts will find a multitude of trails meandering through a landscape adorned with dramatic cliffs, ancient lava fields, and the glimmering North Atlantic Ocean. Adventurous souls may choose to venture upon the glacier itself through guided tours, where they can stand on the icy crown of this famous stratovolcano. As winter descends, Snæfellsjökull transforms into a snowy playground, inviting thrill-seekers to partake in snowmobiling and skiing on the pristine snow-covered slopes.


Iceland, with its dramatic landscapes where fire and ice coexist, is home to some of the world's most awe-inspiring and active volcanoes. From the legendary Eyjafjallajökull to the literary icon of Snæfellsjökull, each volcano narrates its own saga of geological might and cultural significance. These volcanic marvels are not just landforms; they are storytellers, narrating an enduring epic of cataclysms and regenerations, ancient sagas and scientific curiosities.

To explore Iceland's volcanoes is to undertake a grand adventure, a journey that transcends the ordinary to touch the very pulse of our dynamic planet. It's an opportunity to marvel at the forces that shape our world and the resilience of life that flourishes amidst such potent landscapes. As you traverse this rugged terrain, you're not merely witnessing nature's power but also partaking in a legacy of human curiosity and exploration.

Frequently asked questions

Q: Where are 80% of the world's volcanoes located?

Ans: Approximately 80% of the world's volcanoes are located beneath the oceans, on the seafloor. These underwater volcanoes, known as submarine volcanoes, form along tectonic boundaries, specifically at mid-ocean ridges where tectonic plates are moving apart.

Q: Can I see lava in Iceland?

Ans: Yes, during an eruption it is possible to see lava in Iceland. Volcanic eruptions and the associated lava flows can be an awe-inspiring sight. However, it is critical to prioritize safety during such events. Authorities and guided tours ensure visitors can witness these phenomena from a safe distance. It's also important to note that volcanic activity is unpredictable, and the opportunity to see lava depends on the timing of your visit and the current volcanic activity. Always refer to the latest updates from official Icelandic sources.

Q: Is Katla the biggest volcano in Iceland?

Ans: While Katla is one of Iceland's most powerful volcanoes and has one of the largest volcanic calderas, it's not the biggest in terms of overall size. That title goes to Bárðarbunga, which is part of the Vatnajökull Volcano system. Bárðarbunga's caldera alone spans approximately 70 square kilometers, and the whole system is considerably larger. However, when assessing the volcanic size, various factors can be considered, including the volume, height, and caldera diameter, each of which might yield a different 'biggest' volcano.

Q: What would happen if the Katla volcano erupted?

Ans: If Katla, one of Iceland's largest and most active volcanoes, erupted, it could have substantial local and global impacts. Locally, an eruption could cause massive flooding due to the rapid melting of the overlying Mýrdalsjökull glacier, a phenomenon known as a jökulhlaup. Lava flows, and ash fall could also endanger nearby communities. Globally, the eruption could impact air travel, similar to the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010, which disrupted air travel across Europe for several days due to the ash cloud. It's worth noting that the specific effects of an eruption would depend on many variables, including the magnitude of the eruption, the prevailing wind conditions, and the measures taken to prepare and respond.

Subscribe Now and Stay Updated

We will keep you posted about new offers

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.