Icelandic volcanism

BGS international work

Iceland is a unique volcanic island. It lies on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the great chain of underwater volcanoes that runs through the North Atlantic Ocean, along which the Eurasian and North American plates are moving apart at about 2.5 cm per year — or roughly the rate your fingernails grow. But Iceland also sits atop a mantle plume, where hot magma upwells from deep in the Earth's mantle. The interaction of these two types of volcanism, over the last 15 million years or more, has created the island of Iceland.

'BGS has worked in collaboration with the Iceland Met Office to install new seismic stations in the vicinity Eyjafjallajökull and Katla. These stations are providing real-time data to enable detailed monitoring of any future eruptions.'

The majority of volcanism in Iceland occurs along volcanic rift zones that cut through the centre of the island. The single North Volcanic Zone, running broadly southwards from the north coast, gives way to two north-east–south-west rift zones (the East and West Volcanic Zones) in southern Iceland. Within these volcanic rift zones are numerous individual volcanoes, which tend to have the classic volcano profile of a broad cone with a summit crater or craters. In Iceland, though, many of these volcanoes are capped by glaciers.

Modern techniques for dating rocks tell us that the oldest lavas on Iceland are some 15 million years old, and that volcanic eruptions in Iceland have been going on ever since. However, by far the best record of Iceland's volcanic past comes from the last 1100 years, since the first settlers arrived in Iceland from Europe. Written records have been studied in conjunction with careful fieldwork that has identified the products of individual eruptions, preserved in Iceland and further afield. Over this time period, more than 200 volcanic events have been identified, some of them lasting for months or even years (Thordarson and Larsen, 20071). Thus, on average, there is roughly one volcanic eruption in Iceland every five years.

Discover more about Icelandic volcanoes

fire fountainBárðarbunga

The Bárðarbunga volcanic system, in central-eastern Iceland, comprises a central volcano rising to 2009 m a.s.l. and a fissure system. It is in the Eastern Volcanic Zone and is partly covered by the Vatnajökull ice cap. The most recent volcanic unrest in Iceland was here in 2014-15. Find out more about the eruption and the resulting new lava field at Holuhraun.

fire fountainEyjafjallajökull

A volcano on the Eastern Volcanic Zone in southern Iceland, Eyjafjallajökull (Aya-feeyalla-yurkul), last began to erupt on 14 April 2010. Find out why volcanic ash in the atmosphere caused UK airspace to be closed from 15–20 April. Learn how you helped further science by taking part in our first (but not last!) Citizen Science ash collection drive!

Grimsvotn May 2011 NASAGrímsvötn-Laki

The Grímsvötn volcanic system consists of two central volcanoes (Grímsvötn and Thordarhyrna), as well as a fissure swarm where the Laki eruption of 1783-84 took place. Find out about the last eruption of Grímsvötn in 2011 and discover possible eruption scenarios for the future.


Katla is one of Iceland's more active volcanoes with about 20 eruptions in the last 1100 years. Since June 2011, Katla has been showing signs of unrest, with many hundreds of small earthquakes. A short-lived subglacial flood occurred in July 2011, and a particularly intense swarm of earthquakes was recorded on 5 October 2011.

Research Projects


European volcanological supersite in Iceland: a monitoring system and network for the future


Volcanic and Atmosphere Near- to far-field Analysis of plumes Helping Interpretation and Modelling


Contact Dr Sue Loughlin for further information