On the Geology of Iceland

The characters in Jules Verne’s A Journey To The Center Of The Earth begin their perilous voyage in Iceland, where they descend into Snæfellsjökull, a 700,000 year old extinct stratovolcano.

It’s no doubt an incredible piece of fiction, complete with great dinosaur battles and ancient giants with little basis in reality. But one aspect of the novel rings particularly true:

Iceland could not have been a more compelling destination for a novel about Earth’s interior.

That’s because Iceland is far more than meets the eye: It’s part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a crust-making machine that not only moves continents, but provides a glimpse into the processes occurring deep beneath Earth’s surface.

Earth In Motion

Mist pours over a rock formation in Iceland
Image: Flickr/Helga Birna Jónasdóttir via CC by 2.0

Here’s the thing about the Mid-Atlantic Ridge: It’s like a gigantic conveyer belt.

It stretches from the North Atlantic and through the South Atlantic Oceans, roughly 10,000 miles long, and is a seismically active region which goes through constant accretion. Earth juts up from the mantle and pushes outward on either side of the ridge, a slow but constant force that causes a little thing known as continental drift.

The oceanic crust moves along this so-called conveyer belt at a rate of about 2.5 cm a year, or about as fast as your fingernails grow.

Now, keeping all of that in mind, remember: Iceland is a part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The part where it peaks above the ocean, and right at the boundary of the North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate.

It’s also located above a number of “hot spots.” It’s theorized that there exists a mantle plume of molten rock beneath Iceland that measures nearly 100 miles wide and a staggering 400 miles deep.

The island, as small as it may be, contains one third of Earth’s lava, and is one of the most active geological regions on the planet, with more then 100 active volcanos.

Hold On To Something

Eyjafjallajokull Ash Plume
Image: Flickr/NASA via CC by 2.0

This extraordinary geology is the source of numerous eruptions and earthquakes, which plague Iceland on a fairly consistent basis.

In April 2010, Eyjafjallajökull erupted, creating an ash cloud that led to the closure of much of Europe’s airspace for nearly an entire week. It wasn’t declared officially over until October 2010.

Here’s a video taken by the Icelandic coast guard of the volcano erupting in March 2010:

Also check out these cool pictures taken of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption.

In May 2011, the eruption of Grímsvötn also disrupted air travel, and was Iceland’s largest eruption in 50 years:

And now there are rumblings of a looming volcanic eruption in Iceland that may be more powerful than any they’ve experienced in 100 years. So, you know, get ready for that.


Rob Schwarz

Writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. Editor-in-chief of Stranger Dimensions.