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Earthquakes in Iceland

Iceland is a geologically fascinating country. We have both glaciers and volcanoes, the features which gave the island the name ‘the land of fire and ice’. There is always captivating geological activity taking place in Iceland, the most utilized of which is the geothermally heated water found under the surface. This warms most of Iceland’s homes, powers most of its buildings and gives locals and visitors alike plenty of thermal pools to relax in. Another intriguing feature of Iceland is where it sits on the earth’s tectonic plates.


Does Iceland Have Earthquakes?


Iceland rests directly on top of the mid-Atlantic Ridge. Half of the country is sat on the Eurasian tectonic plate and half on the North American tectonic plate. Iceland was formed from the two plates moving apart; lava flowed out from the mantle, through the gap in the earth’s crust, and formed volcanoes in the ocean. Eventually, these volcanoes grew large enough that they broke the ocean’s surface, and Iceland appeared. This is believed to have happened around 18 million years ago, and Iceland has continued to grow ever since. Some of Iceland’s volcanoes are still active today, and so new land is constantly being formed. And the two tectonic plates are still moving apart, at a rate of about 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) per year. This movement causes seismic activity, and so, yes, Iceland does experience fairly regular earthquakes. Hundreds every week, in fact. But the vast majority are so small that they are barely felt. Some earthquakes are caused by the plate movement, and others are caused by volcanic eruptions.


Most of our earthquakes occur in the South Iceland Seismic Zone (SISZ) which runs along the southwest of the island and into the Reykjanes peninsula. This is the area below and to the left of Reykjavík.


When Was the Last Big Earthquake in Iceland?


Iceland’s strongest earthquake since it was settled is believed to be in 1784. It took place in the South Iceland Seismic Zone and is thought to have been a magnitude of 7.1 on the Richter scale. The second largest earthquake was detected in 1912, which measured 7.0.


Today, the Icelandic Meteorological Office constantly monitors seismic activity around the country in order that we be prepared to act if necessary. These regular tremors are fascinating to study and teach us a lot about the earth’s tectonic activity. The more data the IMO has, the better it can predict earthquakes in the future.

In living memory, two fairly large earthquake waves have been recorded in Iceland. On June 17th and June 21st 2000, two earthquakes of a 6.5 magnitude struck the south of Iceland, damaging several buildings. On May 29th2008, a double earthquake struck on one day. The two earthquakes were recorded at 5.9 and 5.8. Most recently, in December 2019, a wave of small earthquakes hit the Reykjanes peninsula, as a result of tectonic activity. The strongest recorded was 3.7, and no damage was caused. There were also a series of earthquakes recorded in November 2019 at Askja volcano, in the center of Iceland. The largest recording was 3.4 and the wave was likely caused by volcanic activity deep underground.


So, the vast majority of earthquakes in Iceland’s history have been nothing to worry about, with only a small tremor felt to mark it in people’s memories. Most go unnoticed, known only to the scientists who study Iceland’s geological activity.


Geology of Iceland: Places to See


Þingvellir National Park is a significant site for Icelanders. Not only is it where Iceland’s parliament was established over a thousand years ago (making it the world’s oldest parliament), it’s also where you can cross from the Eurasian plate to the North American plate. That’s right, Þingvellir sits along the fault line. When the plates separate, they leave ravines which fill with water from melting glaciers. The most famous of these ravine lakes is Silfra. Said to have some of the clearest water in the world, the visibility in Silfra is over 100 meters underwater. It’s a very popular diving and snorkeling site, visited by enthusiasts from all over the world. The temperature of the water sits at around 2°C all year round and so it can only be entered wearing a dry suit. And because of the continuous plate movement, Silfra is constantly expanding, little by little. See, earthquakes have a silver lining!


Iceland’s geological/geothermal activity gives us many other great things to see. There are many volcanoes which can be visited, including Hekla, otherwise known as ‘The Queen of Iceland’. Additionally, in the past, it has been referred to as the gateway to Hell. You can hike all the way to the summit of Hekla, but it is not easy and requires proper equipment and sufficient experience.


Earthquakes in Iceland


As I mentioned, the geological feature that has been most useful to Iceland’s inhabitants is the constant flow of hot water below the surface. As well as powering Iceland’s geothermal plants, it has also given us the country’s natural hot springs. Many can be accessed for free, out in nature. It is important to note that because these hot springs are unregulated, they may not be safe to use at all times. Geothermal spas such as the Blue Lagoon control the temperature of the water so that it remains consistent, while still providing all the benefits of a hot spring. During your time in Iceland, make sure you experience all the geological wonders it has to offer. It is one of the most volcanically active places in the world and the hot springs won’t stop flowing anytime soon.


Samuel Hogarth, Reykjavik Cars.

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