Remember Eyjafjallajökull? You still might not be able to pronounce it, but we bet you won’t have forgotten this once-obscure, now extremely famous volcano. When it erupted back in 2010, it sent a plume of ash into the sky which disrupted transatlantic flights and dominated the headlines for weeks.
If you’re planning a visit to Eyjafjallajökull, our handy guide is just what you need! Don’t leave Iceland without setting foot near this iconic site.
A little background on the Eyjafjallajökull volcano
Most of Iceland’s volcanoes sit on or near a plate boundary that runs diagonally across the country. This is where the North American and Eurasian plates are pulling apart, which means the magma is able to rise up into the gap.
Eyjafjallajökull is one of them, measuring a whopping 1,651 meters (5417ft) high. It is classed as a stratovolcano, or a cone-shaped hill with a crater that’s over 3 km wide.
Like some of Iceland’s other active volcanoes, Eyjafjallajökull is hidden from sight under a glacier. It's covered by an ice cap covering an area of 100 square kilometers (40 square miles). Surprisingly enough, this ice cap is actually on the smaller side, as others in the country are massive in comparison. However, Eyjafjallajökull is arguably the most famous of them all thanks to its most recent eruption.
Believe it or not, 2010’s eruption wasn’t the first for Eyjafjallajökull. Since Iceland was first settled more than1200 years ago, three eruptions have occurred, each of them spaced a few hundred years apart. The previous one occurred between 1821 and 1823.
What happened during the 2010 eruption?
In the months leading up to March 2010, seismic activity was recorded in the area around Eyjafjallajökull. This is normal for volcanic eruptions in Iceland, and they can even be predicted to a certain extent because of the earthquake swarms that precede them. Therefore, when the volcano did begin erupting at the end of March, scientists already had some warning signs.
For the first few weeks, the 2010 eruption seemed fairly innocuous, with a fissure spewing lava at a manageable rate. But things took a sharp turn when the eruption entered its second phase and became explosive on 14th April, quickly creating a mound of problems. At this time, parts of the glacier began to melt as a result of heat generated by the eruption and 800 people were evacuated.
Eyjafjallajökull’s meltwater caused widespread flooding, known locally as a jökulhlaup. However, that wasn’t the only consequence. The cold water chilled the lava rapidly which caused it to break up into tiny glass particles, flowing up towards the air and mixing with ash that had been ejected. The cloud increasingly grew, reaching up to 9 km (5.6 miles) in the sky.
The ash cloud spread across Iceland and was then blown east across the Atlantic, covering Northern Europe and creating a considerable risk to air traffic in the process. As a result, a large majority of European airspace was closed for five days, from 15th to 20th April. Additionally, almost 100,000 flights were canceled, affecting around 10 million passengers.
Fortunately, due to Iceland’s speedy response, no human lives were lost in the 2010 eruption, though some people had short-term respiratory problems. The locals were just as concerned about the impact of the floodwater, but luckily most of it flowed into rivers rather than through the area’s farms.
Within a month, Eyjafjallajökull volcano’s activity had subsided. Small eruptions continued into June, but activity lessened through summer. By October, the eruption was declared to be over and, miraculously, there were still no deaths recorded. The area, however, is still seismically active, which means that Eyjafjallajökull erupting again in the future is not unrealistic.
What is there to see today?
In 2008-9, Icelandic tourism took a hit after the financial crisis. A year later, Eyjafjallajökull wasn’t the bad news people feared it could be. In fact, it turned out to be a pivotal moment. Iceland’s extraordinary natural beauty captured people’s imaginations and turned out to be just as much of a headline-grabber as the volcano itself had been. The news launched the volcano to fame, and since then, it ranks among the top positions of the best things to do in Iceland. Once the Eyjafjallajökull eruption was over, they flocked to Iceland in their droves and visitor numbers skyrocketed.
Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption even altered the landscape, forming two new volcanic craters in the highlands called ‘Magni’ and ‘Móði’. Named after the sons of Thor in Norse mythology, the craters have such names because they’re found above Thórsmörk, whose name translates to ‘Thor’s Valley’.
When in Eyjafjallajökull, be sure to follow the Fimmvörðuháls hiking trail. This path takes you between two glaciers, Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull, and up into the highlands. The trail is 22 km (ca.14 miles) long and starts at Skógafoss waterfall, with an elevation gain of about 1000 meters. The entire trek feels otherworldly, lighting every sense on fire with wonder.
As you climb to Thórsmörk, you’ll also pass the lava field created by Eyjafjallajökull, called Goðahraun, meaning ‘Lava of the Gods’. Although this hike can be completed in a day, many choose to spread it over two days. For an unforgettable journey, rent a car in Reykjavik, drive to the volcano area and explore the surrounding countryside.
Alternatively, you can join a guided Eyjafjallajökull tour with experienced and trained guides that will lead you to all the hot spots. If that’s your choice, you can book a stay at Baldvinsskáli, the hut located between the glaciers. In 2008-9, Icelandic tourism took a hit after the financial crisis. A year later, Eyjafjallajökull wasn’t the bad news people feared it could be. In fact, it turned out to be a pivotal moment.
How do you pronounce Eyjafjallajökull?
Eyjafjallajökull’s tricky pronunciation is one of the reasons it sticks in the mind. To pronounce it correctly, try saying ey-ya-fyat-la-jur-kutl. The tongue-twister of a name translates to “island mountain glacier”. You’ll find it on the south coast of Iceland, a couple of hours east on Iceland's Ring Road from Reykjavík. It’s one of approximately 130 volcanoes in Iceland, where 30 of them are active.
4 additional Icelandic volcanoes to visit
1. In the past, an eruption of Katla has typically followed activity on Eyjafjallajökull. This much larger volcano lies underneath the neighboring Mýrdalsjökull glacier, and the two are thought to be linked.
Scientists speculated that an eruption of Katla was imminent following the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, but the years have passed relatively quietly. However, there was a small eruption in 2011 with tremors recorded in 2016 and 2017. Nowadays, Katla is being closely monitored, as are all dormant volcanoes in Iceland.
2. Fagradalsfjall was another dormant beauty until very recently. There’d been no volcanic eruption in this part of Iceland for 800 years, but an earthquake swarm was a clear warning sign that something was amiss. In the three weeks leading up to 19th March 2021, over 40,000 tremors shook the area. A fissure opened up, commencing an eruption of steadily flowing lava which would last until September and attract tens of thousands of sightseers.
3. Snæfellsjökull is another glacier-topped volcano, located at the tip of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. On a clear day, you can see it from Reykjavík which is over 100 km away, or drive around the glacier to get a peek of it up close. The national park that surrounds it is well worth exploring, too. The volcano below the glacier hasn’t erupted for nearly two thousand years but is still classed as dormant.
4. Eldfell is a volcanic cone that’s an easy road trip from the capital, found on the island of Heimaey, in the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago. In 1973, a fissure split the island and covered most of it, including the town, with lava. Every resident of Heimaey was required to evacuate for several months until it was safe to return.
Today, you can hike up Eldfell’s cone which stands only 200 meters (ca. 656 ftft) tall. The rock is red, which is appropriate as Eldfell means ‘Hill of fire’ in Icelandic. It’s also possible to take a boat trip that circumnavigates Surtsey, Heimaey’s tiny island neighbor which was created by a volcanic eruption that lasted from 1963 to 1967.
You’ll have to see Iceland's volcanoes to believe!
The 2010 Eyjafjallajökull ash cloud – just like Fagradalsfjall’s captivating lava displays in 2021 – remind us that nature is firmly in charge. In the Land of Fire and Ice, volcanoes are a part of daily life as well as popular tourist destinations in their own right.
To see them, you’ll find it most convenient to have your own wheels, so why not rent a car in Iceland and add a volcano to your next Icelandic itinerary?