Volcanism in Iceland in historical time: Volcano types, eruption styles and eruptive history

T. Thordarson*, G. Larsen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

387 Citations (Scopus)


The large-scale volcanic lineaments in Iceland are an axial zone, which is delineated by the Reykjanes, West and North Volcanic Zones (RVZ, WVZ, NVZ) and the East Volcanic Zone (EVZ), which is growing in length by propagation to the southwest through pre-existing crust. These zones are connected across central Iceland by the Mid-Iceland Belt (MIB). Other volcanically active areas are the two intraplate belts of Öræfajökull (ÖVB) and Snæfellsnes (SVB). The principal structure of the volcanic zones are the 30 volcanic systems, where 12 are comprised of a fissure swarm and a central volcano, 7 of a central volcano, 9 of a fissure swarm and a central domain, and 2 are typified by a central domain alone. Volcanism in Iceland is unusually diverse for an oceanic island because of special geological and climatological circumstances. It features nearly all volcano types and eruption styles known on Earth. The first order grouping of volcanoes is in accordance with recurrence of eruptions on the same vent system and is divided into central volcanoes (polygenetic) and basalt volcanoes (monogenetic). The basalt volcanoes are categorized further in accordance with vent geometry (circular or linear), type of vent accumulation, characteristic style of eruption and volcanic environment (i.e. subaerial, subglacial, submarine). Eruptions are broadly grouped into effusive eruptions where >95% of the erupted magma is lava, explosive eruptions if >95% of the erupted magma is tephra (volume calculated as dense rock equivalent, DRE), and mixed eruptions if the ratio of lava to tephra occupy the range in between these two end-members. Although basaltic volcanism dominates, the activity in historical time (i.e. last 11 centuries) features expulsion of basalt, andesite, dacite and rhyolite magmas that have produced effusive eruptions of Hawaiian and flood lava magnitudes, mixed eruptions featuring phases of Strombolian to Plinian intensities, and explosive phreatomagmatic and magmatic eruptions spanning almost the entire intensity scale; from Surtseyan to Phreatoplinian in case of "wet" eruptions and Strombolian to Plinian in terms of "dry" eruptions. In historical time the magma volume extruded by individual eruptions ranges from ∼1 m3 to ∼20 km3 DRE, reflecting variable magma compositions, effusion rates and eruption durations. All together 205 eruptive events have been identified in historical time by detailed mapping and dating of events along with extensive research on documentation of eruptions in historical chronicles. Of these 205 events, 192 represent individual eruptions and 13 are classified as "Fires", which include two or more eruptions defining an episode of volcanic activity that lasts for months to years. Of the 159 eruptions verified by identification of their products 124 are explosive, effusive eruptions are 14 and mixed eruptions are 21. Eruptions listed as reported-only are 33. Eight of the Fires are predominantly effusive and the remaining five include explosive activity that produced extensive tephra layers. The record indicates an average of 20-25 eruptions per century in Iceland, but eruption frequency has varied on time scale of decades. An apparent stepwise increase in eruption frequency is observed over the last 1100 years that reflects improved documentation of eruptive events with time. About 80% of the verified eruptions took place on the EVZ where the four most active volcanic systems (Grímsvötn, Bárdarbunga-Veidivötn, Hekla and Katla) are located and 9%, 5%, 1% and 0.5% on the RVZ-WVZ, NVZ, ÖVB, and SVB, respectively. Source volcano for ∼4.5% of the eruptions is not known. Magma productivity over 1100 years equals about 87 km3 DRE with basaltic magma accounting for about 79% and intermediate and acid magma accounting for 16% and 5%, respectively. Productivity is by far highest on the EVZ where 71 km3 (∼82%) were erupted, with three flood lava eruptions accounting for more than one half of that volume. RVZ-WVZ accounts for 13% of the magma and the NWZ and the intraplate belts for 2.5% each. Collectively the axial zone (RVZ, WVZ, NVZ) has only erupted 15-16% of total magma volume in the last 1130 years.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)118-152
Number of pages35
JournalJournal of Geodynamics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2007

Other keywords

  • Effusive volcanism
  • Eruption frequency
  • Explosive volcanism
  • Magma production rates
  • Volcanic systems


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