A brief guide to Iceland’s volcanoes

In case you haven’t noticed, Iceland has a lot of volcanoes. Most of us will remember the travel disruption caused by Eyjafjallajökull’s ash cloud in 2010, but it’s not the largest, or most active, volcano in the country. To find out more about these tectonic marvels, read on.

Are there many volcanoes in Iceland?

As you might expect from a country that straddles two tectonic plates, Iceland has more than your average complement of volcanoes, around 130 in all. Of those, something like thirty are active, but of course even active volcanoes don’t blow their top all the time. The largest is Katla, whose eruptions have historically been preceded by those of Eyjafjallajökull. Fortunately she didn’t kick off in 2010.

Will I see an eruption if I come to Iceland?

Iceland’s volcanoes don’t erupt constantly, so you might need to be realistic with your expectations. At the time of writing, Bárðarbunga boasts the most recent eruption, spewing lava and noxious gases for a few months in 2014. But four of Iceland’s most prolific contenders have shown signs of life recently, and the world’s volcanologists are watching closely to see if they’ll spring into life. For the record, the names to listen out for are Hekla, Katla, Bárðarbunga and Grímsvötn.

Aerial view of 2014 Bardarbunga volcano eruption in Iceland, Hawaii

Can I make a visit to Iceland’s volcanoes part of a road trip?

Even if you limit yourself to a drive along the southern stretch of the ring road, you’re going to encounter volcanic scenery. The road cuts through some of the country’s most dramatic landscapes, where you’ll see vast lava fields that have barely been weathered over the intervening years. Many of Iceland’s spectacular black sand beaches owe their distinctive colour to the volcanic rock which supplied them. To get a bird’s eye view of the incredible scenery a helicopter flight will prove to be a memorable experience.

Helicopter with turists flying over the lavafalls at Fimvorduhals. The initial March 21 2010 eruption created a 2,000-foot-long (500-meter-long) fissure in Fimmvorduhals Pass, to the west of the volcano’s summit.

How close can I get to the volcanoes themselves?

It’s actually possible to park up and descend into a volcano. Iceland is home to the only volcano in the world where you can be lowered into a magma chamber. Fortunately, Þríhnúkagígur volcano has been dormant for around 4000 years, so there’s little likelihood of an unplanned ejection as you travel to a depth of 120 metres. An open elevator similar to those used by window cleaners working on skyscrapers takes six minutes to cover the distance. Tours begin again in May 2017 but book well in advance as this proved to be a popular excursion last summer.

But what about Eyjafjallajökull?

To get a close up look at what’s probably Iceland’s most famous – and certainly infamous – volcano, you could do worse than book a tour that combines a volcano trip with an ice glacier hike. At Gígjökull, one of the volcano’s outlet glaciers, you’ll be able to see the impact of the 2010 eruption for yourself. Tours continue onto Sólheimajökull glacier where ice walks are the perfect way to experience a range of ice formations and the pure blue ice that characterises glaciers. Back on the ring road, there’s a museum which tells the story of “Eyjafjallajökull Erupts”. For a small entrance fee, you can learn about the volcano and its effects, good and bad.