6 experiments to unlock the mysteries of Iceland’s volcanoes

Vue aérienne sur une coulée de lave du volcan Fagradalsfjall en Islande

Fascinated by the mysteries of Iceland’s volcanoes? Everything you need to know to understand the island’s geothermal activity.

Iceland is a country that owes its uniqueness to the natural elements that have shaped its landscapes over the centuries and millennia. Between ice and water, geysers, waterfalls, glaciers and fjords, this island in the north of the Atlantic Ocean is an object of fascination for those who venture there.

Located on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, in a land dominated by very low temperatures, Iceland is home to a staggering number of volcanoes. This is due to its geographical location on a hot spot between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. As a result, Iceland records more than twenty volcanic eruptions per century, equivalent to around four or five a year.

Visiting Iceland means coming across icebergs, lava fields and moss. Or bathing in a hot spring when the outside temperature is negative… But a visit to Iceland is also an opportunity to learn more about the island’s geology and geothermal energy.

Visit Iceland’s best geothermal center

The Lava Center
Le Lava Center est un musée interactif consacré à l'histoire volcanique de l'Islande

Shutterstock – trabantos

The Lava Center is the ideal place to discover Icelandic geology in detail. It is located in Hvolsvollur, not far from the capital Reykjavik. The Lava Center houses a wide range of experiments to help you better understand the structure of Iceland and the volcanic eruptions it frequently undergoes.

During your visit, you’ll find a wealth ofhigh-tech interactive equipment. In fact, it’s one of the most awarded exhibitions of its kind in the whole country! To top it all off, you have access to a replica of the hot spot under Iceland, an earthquake simulator and a large observation deck.

Last but not least, the Lava Center has produced a film showing images of recent eruptions. The latest being the Fagradalsfjall volcano in March 2021 (still active at the time of writing). By the end of the exhibition, you’ll know everything there is to know about Iceland’s volcanic processes!

Expedition into the bowels of the earth

Thrihnukagigur volcano
Photo de l'intérieur du volcan Thrihnukagigur à Reykjavik, en Islande

Shutterstock – Yu Han Huang

If you want to learn more about Iceland’s geology, the best option is to take a closer look deep inside the island. Discovering volcanic activity at the very heart of a dormant volcano seems to be the solution of choice. To do so, nothing could be simpler: numerous excursions are organized every day to allow you to descend into the heart of Thrihnukagigur, in the safest possible way.

The experience begins long before you reach the crater, as you traverse the desolate, lunar-like volcanic landscape around the volcano. On arrival, a gondola takes you down into the bowels of the earth in small groups. Afterwards, a hike of a few hundred meters brings you even closer to the heart of the volcano. It’s not particularly difficult, but the uneven surface means you’ll have to be on your toes.

At every stage of your visit, guides are on hand to tell you what to do to ensure your safety. They’re also on hand to give you more information about Icelandic geology and its particularities.

Discovering volcanic catacombs

Víðgelmir lava cave
Tube de lave du volcan Víðgelmir en Islande

Shutterstock – JoaLacerda

As well as being one of Iceland’s main tourist attractions, the Víðgelmir cave offers a fascinating insight into the processes involved in creating lava tubes. Located in the heart of Hallmundarhraun National Park, the cave is 1.6 km long and covers 150,000 m². It is currently the largest cave in Iceland and the widest in the world.

It appeared over a thousand years ago, following a volcanic eruption at Langjökull. Today, an immense lava field remains around it, which you can of course cross. Inside, you’ll find gigantic lava tubes in multiple colors ranging from purple to orange. What’s more, the cave’s lighting has been designed to reveal its rock formations without damaging them.

All year round, guides welcome you to this divine place, a fantastic witness to the power of nature and the elements on the ice island. If you’re interested in Icelandic geology, this 1.5-hour visit is a must.

Watching lava with specialists

Volcano tours and hikes
Voir la lave fumante au volcan Fagradalsfjall en Islande

Shutterstock – Thorir Ingvarsson

Iceland is the European country with the highest number of active volcanoes. Of the more than 200 volcanoes on the island, 32 are still capable of eruption. This is the case of Fagradalsfjall, which has been spewing thick lava flows since March 2019. This fluid basalt flow is recorded at over 1,200 degrees: the hottest lava the Earth can produce. It stretches for up to two kilometers, overflowing the valley floor and extending southwards.

To witness this exceptional natural phenomenon, you need to go to one of the many viewpoints on the surrounding hills. And to help you understand the phenomenon, a number of guides offer their services. They’ll teach you about the island’s history, how it was formed, its climate, its rock structure…

Other experienced specialists can also guide you through Iceland’s many volcanoes and lava fields. Iceland is a playground for volcanologists and geologists, who will be delighted to explain how these natural phenomena work. As luck would have it, you’ll be right on the spot to observe them live!

Excursion in a lunar environment

Leirhnjúkur lava field
Champ de lave de Leirhnjúkur

Shutterstock – marcobrivio.photography

Leirhnjúkur is one of those places where nature stuns you and thrills you with its boundless power. Here, in the middle of a desert landscape, you’d think you were on another planet. Mars, the Moon? We hesitate. Whatever the case, you’re no longer on the surface of the Earth. In truth, this geothermal zone in northern Iceland is just part of a lava field that is still smoking, 40 years after the last eruption.

Today, there are several signposted hiking trails criss-crossing this hostile but fascinating land. Tours last between one and two hours and are accessible to all. In fact, there’s little difference in altitude here, and the terrain is relatively flat: you’ll have no trouble slaloming between the steaming expanses of lava (known as solfatares).

Hiking in the Leirhnjúkur field allows you to observe, first-hand, the geothermal forces at work. What’s more, the site lies at the heart of the Krafla caldera, 10 kilometers long and 2 kilometers deep, home to a volcano of the same name. The volcano dominates the surrounding area, adding a supernatural dimension to an already fantastical setting.

Discover the life of Iceland’s inhabitants

The Eldheimar Museum in Vestmannaeyjar
Musée Eldheimar, Islande

Shutterstock – trabantos

To round off this guide to what you can do to discover Iceland’s volcanic activity, we suggest a visit to the Eldheimar Museum. It’s located on the island of Heimaey, just a few kilometers off Iceland’s southern coast.

The island has long been inhabited, but in 1973, the lives of the islanders were threatened by theeruption of the Eldfell volcano. On January 23, over 5,000 people were forced to flee their homes to escape the natural disaster. Many of them never recovered their possessions, and many others never returned to the island.

The museum’s exhibition recounts the story of that fateful night, and features a number of miraculously preserved artifacts. It’s an opportunity to discover in a more intimate way this tragic and singular episode, witnessing the power of nature over human lives. In addition, the site regularly hosts concerts by Icelandic artists and other cultural events that punctuate the visits and add an authentic dimension.

Our guide to the best things to do to learn more about Iceland’s volcanic activity is now complete. Whether you’re visiting museums, exploring lava fields and caves or hiking in a volcano crater, you’re spoilt for choice! What’s your favorite activity? Tell us all about it in the comments!