Natural Hazards in Iceland → How to stay safe

Blessed by spectacular landscapes and geological formations, Iceland is a serious must see on any travellers bucket list. But it is those sights which remind you that the country is very much "alive".

Iceland is full of natural beauty, but it is also full of natural hazards, which are perhaps its No. 1 draw card. Some of the worst dangers pertain to geysers, which erupt and burn travellers each year. Other travellers have accidently become injured stepping into a hot spring or boiling mud pool. Few of these areas have warning signs or protective barriers against falling or getting injured, which is why some people get too close.

However Iceland has one of the world's best monitoring systems for its natural hazards and their emergency rescue services are of a very high standard due to skill and experience in dealing with the variety of hazards which pose a risk to human and animal life.

Here's some information and important tips on how to enjoy the incredible geological features that Iceland is so famous for.

Volcanoes in Iceland

Iceland is one of the world's youngest countries geologically and is continually geothermally active. It has 30 active volcanic systems comprised of approximately 130 volcanoes within 4 volcanic zones. Often when one volcano has erupted, the eruption of a connecting volcano will usually follow.

But volcanoes are one of the reasons tourists travel there each year. However with volcanoes comes danger and potential disruption to your trip.
Iceland has some of the best volcano experts in the world and many of the country's major volcanoes are monitored for signs of unrest.

In spring 2010, Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted, lasting for a period of six months. By eruption standards, this was quite small but big enough to cause significant delays with over 100,000 flights in Europe to be canceled due to the large plumes of volcanic ash continually ejected into the atmosphere.

May 2011 saw the Grimsvotn volcano erupt, ejecting a large amount of gases and ash into the air, and causing further chaos in the European air space.
Grimsvotn is considered to be Iceland's most active volcano and lies underneath Iceland's largest glacier, Vatnajokull.

Bardabunga erupted in 2014 after consistent earthquake activity. It also caused a significant lava flow and continued for six months.

Many of Iceland's volcanoes lay under glaciers. A volcanic eruption causes the glacier to melt often resulting in large volumes of melt water rushing towards roads, homes and out to the ocean. But it can also result in another associated hazard..

Volcanic mud and Jokulhlaups

Volcanic eruptions can also mean additional hazards such as volcanic mud flows (lahar) and jokulhlaups (Icelandic term for glacial outburst floods).

Volcanic mud flows can be a slurry of hot or cold volcanic materials, gases and water. Generally they will flow downslope of a volcano and make their way into a nearby river. 
A lahar can also occur without a volcanic eruption due to warm weather melting snow and glaciers or increased rainfall eroding the volcano's slopes. They can also be triggered by earthquakes, something which Iceland gets plenty of, given the country straddles two tectonic plates.

All this caused a massive glacial flood in Iceland in 2010

Jokulhlaups are another associated risk with volcano eruptions. In 2010 when Eyjafjallajokull erupted, it caused the Gigjokull glacier to melt creating a jokulhlaup flowing at 2000-3000m per second at its peak (pretty fast!). The eruption forced an incredible amount of water through a crack, flowing out across nearby plains to the ocean. To control the flow, authorities had to blow up a nearby road which cut through the plains area to assist with water flow.

It's important that if you are stuck in an eruption and at risk of a lahar or jokulhlaup, not to stand in low lying areas or in valleys. Seek shelter on higher ground. Or if possible evacuate the area. 

Icelandic geysers

All "geysers" or hot springs in the world come from the Icelandic word "geysir". Geysers are everywhere in Iceland and while they are spectacular to watch especially Strokkur, located in the Golden Circle area, it is very important to stay safe around them. Annually, tourists are scalded and burnt by geysers whether inadvertently stepping into a hot spring in an active area or ignoring cordoned off areas and standing too close to the action. 

Strokkur - one of Iceland's most beautiful and active geysers, erupting every 7-10 minutes.

Tourists are strongly advised to stick to signed and marked paths and take caution if visiting geysers on windy days as the hot steam and water can be blown around, resulting in a nasty burn.

Weather in Iceland

Weather can be problematic for outdoor adventurers in Iceland, as conditions can change rapidly. High winds can whip up seemingly out of nowhere, and precipitation and cold can quickly create icy conditions. Glaciers, waterfalls, ice caves and glacial rivers may also make outdoor trekking dangerous, as can rough terrain.

Anyone planning to hike or backpack should practice the standard safety protocols before embarking: tell someone where you're going; pack proper equipment and safety gear, including items to alert someone you are in danger or stranded; check the weather report; and stay on designated trails. While Iceland's hospitals are considered good quality, they are spread out over the country, meaning injured and sick patients may need to travel far to get medical attention.

Weather is listed as a top concern by recent tourists to Iceland. Even the brightest of days can quickly turn brrr-level cold.

The temperatures aren't too extreme for many, dropping only a few degrees below freezing at their chilliest, but those from warmer or more temperate climates will need to brace themselves.

The greater danger is that precipitation and wind can come unexpectedly, which poses problems for people doing outdoor activities or driving in remote areas without supplies. Water can be as unpredictable as the weather. Dyrholaey Beach near Vik often has huge rough waves that come out of nowhere. People have died here and elsewhere along the powerful coastal waters. Vik often is in danger of flash flooding as well.

While it's not a danger per se, Iceland's extreme periods of darkness and light can disrupt travelers' bio rhythms and make for an unpleasant trip where you're up all night thanks to persistent sunshine. Those prone to seasonal affective disorder may struggle with the 20 hours of darkness that descend upon this northern country in December.
But the upside of the long periods of daily sunshine, is that you are treated to some of the most spectacular sunsets around midnight.

No Comments

  • heaven said

    this is so dangerous i feel so heart broken about this iceland omg can i help?is there anything i can do ?

  • Sky2 said

    You can tell people abou risks so they are aware what is in Iceland. It is a beautiful country. Nothing to be afraid of. You can die there or you can be hit by a car. If you die you die. Of course this doesn't mean that you shouldn't be careful!

Add a Comment

Browse by country

Country list

Sign up for the latest news, deals & opportunities.