Land of Fire & Ice

There are few places in the world more interesting than Iceland. Iceland, is one of the most volcanically active places on the planet because it straddles a divergent boundary between two tectonic plates that is called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are being pulled apart. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge actually runs from the Arctic Ocean to the South Pole dividing the North American and European continental tectonic plates and cuts right across Iceland  from the southwest to the northeast. I believe that some day, as a result Iceland will be split apart. This ridge is marked by a belt of volcanic craters, hot springs, steam springs, solfatars (areas of high temperature activity) and earthquakes.  Frankly, in this region, it always felt as if a volcano or some immense power from deep in the earth would erupt at any moment or an earthquake would make its presence felt. This belt is about 40 km (25 miles) wide in the north and up to 60 km. (40 miles) across the south. About 25% of Iceland is covered by this belt. It is everywhere.

Evidence of subterranean unrest has been felt in many places, but in particular Mount Krafla near Lake Mývatn where we drove through on our exploration of Northern Iceland.  This area was free from volcanic activity for more than 200 yeas until 1724 when it experienced a massive eruption that lasted for about 5 years. That lava flow did not stop until it got to near to  Reykjavik right where a church congregation had gathered to pray for deliverance and got it. A miracle? Divine intervention?

Much of the island conceals seething mass of volcanic and geothermal activity.  When you think about it, that is a little scary. There are more than 100 volcanoes in Iceland. 35 of them have been active in the past 10,000 years, which of course in geological times is the blink of an eye. In the past century Iceland has experienced an eruption every 5 years.  Many of them are called “tourist eruptions” because they last for a short time and excite the tourists, like the eruption of Mount Hekklain 1991.

Others cause more trouble, like the eruption in 2010 of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull that erupted under a glacier.  The ash cloud that was produced reached a height of 10km. (6mi.) and brought airplanes to a halt across Europe for 6 days. That episode cost an estimated €4 billion. About 20 countries closed their airspace to commercial jet traffic and it affected approximately 10 million travellers. It was the largest disruption of air travel since the Second World War.

At the time Chris and I were on a trip to China and feared our travel plans might be disrupted but we were far enough away to miss most of the excitement, except that in Chongqing where we waited about 10 hours in the airport while all planes were delayed or cancelled. I wonder if the two incidents were related. At the time we were never told anything other than that the delay was weather related. From April 14-20, ash from the volcano covered large areas of northern Europe.

This is just one way that this tiny little island of Iceland ,with less people on it than in Winnipeg, has punched above its weight in terms of effect on the planet. As my Guidebook says, “It has been estimated that one-third of all lava that has erupted on earth in recorded history has come from Iceland.[1]

One of the world’s most catastrophic eruptions occurred in the south of Iceland when Lakagígar exploded in 1783. According to my Guidebook, “it poured out the largest lava flow ever produced by a single volcano in recorded history, with a volume of about 12 cubic km (3 cubic miles).  But that was not all of it. After that it also poured out noxious gases that poisoned crops, livestock and blocked out the sun to such an extent a disastrous famine followed. At least 20% (10,000) of the people in Iceland died, and many more around the world.  Much of the loss of life was caused by the subsequent “Haze famine.” Actually it led to famines around the world for years, and helped to cause the French revolution and other uprisings around the world.

The big problem with volcanoes on Iceland is the fact that so much of Iceland is covered with ice (about 11%).  When fire meets ice all hell breaks lose!  According to my Guidebook, “Eruptions from subglacial volcanoes often cause more damage than those from open-air volcanoes. Hot lava melts the ice triggering sudden floods—jökulhlaups—with unpredictable results. Mount Katla, the volcano lying dormant under the glacier Mýrdalsjökull, is Iceland’s largest caldera, at 80 sq. km. (30 sq. mi.) When Katla erupts the scientists have calculated that the jökulhlaups can be 200,000 cubic metres (7 million cubic ft.).

When a volcano in the Bárδarbunga-Grísvötn fissure erupted  in 1996 beneath Vatnajökull the largest glacier in Europe it pushed such massive amounts of ice and over a 100 sq. km. (60 sq. mi.) area. When the ice started to melt because of the power of the volcano the melt-water flowed into a caldera beneath the glacier. When that caldera filled up the water spilled over the brim creating massive flooding across the sand plain south of the glacier (where we later travelled) washing away any roads and bridges in it path. It dropped icebergs as big as apartment blocks that turned the sand into quick sand when they melted. Life is never simple when fire and ice mix.

In 2015, the Bárδarbunga-Grísvötn volcano became active again throwing 12 million tons of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere and creating a lava field as big as Manhattan.

Volcanic eruptions occur about every 5 years in Iceland. There were more than 20 in the 20thcentury. Most of them go unseen beneath Vatnajökull the largest ice cap in Europe. 2 famous ones did not go unnoticed. The first was in 1963 and occurred off the south coast. When it erupted it created an entirely new island called Surtsey and we could see it faintly on our trip in the south part of Iceland. The second, a decade later, surprised everyone because it blew up in a volcano that was believed to be extinct. It was located on an island called Heimacy but the people were lucky because the fishing fleet was moored in the harbour that night and everyone of the 5,200 inhabitants was successfully evacuated. It extended the coast by about 5 km. The effects of fire and ice are profound.





[1]Insight Guides:Iceland(2017) p. 21

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