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Why Iceland's Volcanoes are Considered Dangerous

By Edited Apr 17, 2016 1 2
Bárðarbunga Volcano, September 4 2014
Credit: Peter Hartree/ Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic w/Attribution and Share Alike

Bárðarbunga Volcano, September 4 2014

Members of the scientific community across the globe have carefully monitored Iceland's volcanoes, especially in recent years. Since the March and April 2010 eruptions from Eyjafjallajokull, activity watch became even more intensified as there is real concern other nearby volcanoes, such as Katla and Hekla, may begin to arouse from slumber.  

The country has approximately 35 active volcanoes on or around Iceland, which is only about 100 miles long and 60 miles wide. It is a region known to be heavy in volcanic activity (eruptions average every 5-10 years), and if the volcanic action intensifies, this not only can interrupt economies as the ash cloud spewed by Eyjafjallajokull did, but also impact global temperatures. In addition, there are the dangerous gasses to consider. The problems that are a result of ash dispensing are significant, especially if the situation were to be prolonged. For locals, the results of major explosions can be disastrous. Contingency planning is a must in this region.


In 2010 Eyjafjallajokull was front and center in the news for a long time due to its massive eruption that year. The volcano, located in the southeastern region of Iceland, had been quietly sleeping for almost 200 years. On March 20 the large volcano began to emerge from its peaceful sleep and begin to make some noise. The last awakening had been in 1821; its activity continued for more than a year.

In the days that followed this awakening after nearly two centuries Eyjafjallajokull began to spew fiery lava fountains that the Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland indicated rose as high as 100 meters. This continued for a brief time and then the volcano decided to return to sleep.

That slumber did not last long. On April 14  the volcano awakened with a fury. With this eruption the explosions emerging from Eyjafjallajokull sent "clouds of ash soaring as high as 11,000 meters." (NY Times). This tremendous eruption caused much chaos and flights in the United Kingdom and throughout northern Europe experienced massive disruption and flights were forced to be cancelled. The eruption caused havoc, especially in Iceland, but the effects stretched far beyond, having tremendous rippling effects from an economic standpoint. The situation in Iceland became much more dire. This eruption had forced many Icelanders to evacuate and move to emergency shelters. According to the New York Times, about several hundred people had registered at an emergency shelter and hundreds more stayed with family and friends. Even much livestock had to be kept inside or evacuated.

Those in the area are seeing darkness during the day due to the thickness of the cloud, having to wear protective masks and have fear of the other harmful effects from the toxic elements that are contained in the volcanic ash.  

According to experts, this most recent eruption of Eyjafjallajokull is the fourth in 1,100 years.

Video taken just prior to the massive eruption. The videographer noted the in the video you can hear the "rumbling gas explosions coming from the ground, like a beating song." Credit: Björgvin S. Stefánsson

Laki Volcano

In 1783 the Laki volcano released tremendous levels of lava, ash and poisonous gasses into the air for eight months. The Laki eruption was much larger than the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull awakening, and the extent of activity in the 1783 blast resulted in fluorine poisoning that killed one-quarter of Iceland's population, caused severe climate conditions and led to a rise in respiratory diseases.

The concern is if volcanic activity continues for an extended period of time, the glacier that caps Katla could recede enough to set conditions for the volcano to blow and release significant amounts of gasses and ash like Laki did.

Katla Volcano

Katla is located approximately 15 miles (25 km) away from Eyjafjallajökull. After the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, there was much speculation and anxiety Katla volcano would also erupt since the volcano was a bit overdue for its traditional cyclic eruptions. The two volcanoes share not only a close proximity, but a history of close eruptions. There were three times Eyjafjallajökull erupted, and Katla soon followed. These volcanic explosions are recorded as occurring in 920 AD, 1612 and between 1821 and 1823. There were no indicators that Katla would erupt again after Eyjafjallajökull, however, in 2010, big fear was sparked.

The unpredictability and uncertainty of what would happen next posed for global concern. If Katla were to awaken from slumber and assert its presence, this volcano is said to be far more powerful than its neighbor and the results could be disastrous. When Katla erupted in the 1700s, this even impacted U.S. weather causing extreme cold. Locally, flooding is also likely.

Fortunately, Katla has not erupted, but if history is any indicator, it is overdue to have an eruption. The volcano typically becomes active every 80 years and the last eruption was in 1918. Once its activity starts, eruptions can be ongoing, sometimes up to a year, and this can have serious repercussions on issues such as the environment, health, and economy.  

Eldgja volcano

Katla in 2013
Credit: Borvan53/ Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported w/Attribution and Share Alike

Eldgja is a volcanic canyon in Iceland. It is a part of the same volcanic system as Katla. Eldja is said to be the the largest volcanic canyon in the world. A natural bridge connecting the ends once existed, but collapsed  in 1993.


Hekla Volcano

One of the most famous of Iceland's volcanoes, Hekla is categorized as a stratovolcano and is located in the southern section of Iceland. The rocky area of the volcano is about three miles long and stands an estimated 5,000 feet high. Geologists estimate Hekla to be around six to seven thousand years old and considers it to be a young volcano with a life expectancy of about 100,000 years.

In 2010, rumors also had surfaced Hekla volcano was awakened by Eyjafjallajokull. This had created all sorts of fear and chaos, but fortunately, it turned out to be a false event and Iceland was not subjected to Hekla's fury as it was still coping with Eyjafjallajokull. This volcano, however, has had a series of frequent eruptions.

According to legend, the volcano was named Hekla because it was thought it was "one of the two known legends of Hell" and humans wouldn't go near it. Earlier this year Hekla was reported to have gotten a little restless, but no major eruptions have occurred.

Detail from map of Iceland 1585 including Hekla Volcano

Detail from map of Iceland 1585 including Hekla Volcano  Abraham Ortelius created in 1585 (Public Domain). Note the description of Hekla.

Carefully Monitored

While many of the volcanic eruptions are mild, every so often extremely large eruptions that cover Europe with ash, like the 2010 explosion of Eyjafjallajokulll did, historically ongoing activity can happen. The materials spewed forth can be dangerous and the unpredictable nature of the volcanic activity in Iceland adds to concern. Fortunately, that did not occur, but the fear and risk is always there.

With all the range of potential dangerous effects from volcanic materials it is no wonder everyone was so concerned about additional eruptions. Volcanoes in Iceland are pretty volatile, they can slow down and go back to sleep, or continue to awaken with a fury. It is not uncommon for one volcano to nudge another neighbor and cause it to awaken. This is one of the primary reasons why many residents who live in the volcanic region keep prepared and have evacuation plans in place.

Iceland is a volcanic hotspot and what happens next is anyone's guess. It has certainly had its share of eruptions. Most recently, another volcano named Bardarbunga began to make some noise in August. Over 200 earthquakes have occurred to date with this latest activity and this volcano is still making noise as of mid-November 2014.

Hopefully, with the technology and scientific tools available, experts can determine a better idea of when and how eruptions happen in order to make more accurate forecasts and provide better warning. However, essentially, what it seems to come down to is the fact volcanic action is not only difficult to predict, it is impossible to stop. Mother Nature in the end is still able to exert her strength and prove no matter how far technology and knowledge has progressed, she still a pretty powerful entity.



Feb 28, 2015 1:19pm
This is seriously awesome. So much like the volcano articles that I like to write. I love it.
Mar 1, 2015 5:38am
Thanks so much. Your comment means a lot, your articles on this topic are terrific and I really enjoy reading them.
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