A Walk along Iceland’s Volcanic Rift

by Richard F. Fleck


Iceland is literally tearing apart at a rate of one inch per year separating the North American tectonic plate from the European plate and creating unparalleled landscapes. Far below pure white Langjokull Glacier, that hugs the tops of dark mountains, lies the great rift of Iceland in Pingvellir Valley north of Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavik.

What caused this one mile-wide rift zone? Immanuel Velakovsky offers a highly controversial speculation in his book Worlds in Collision (1950) that an asteroid smashed into our planet to create the North Atlantic Rift along with a highly volcanic island at its head. Other more acceptable theories suggest that Iceland, like Yellowstone, is a “hot spot” caused by a huge inner planetary bubble of red hot magma. At any rate, no wonder Iceland has ten percent of the world’s volcanoes (like Eyafjallajokull) within a land mass roughly the size of the state of Iowa. A great place to see this rift with twisted bands of hardened black lava is Almannagja some forty miles north of Reykjavik with lava cliffs a hundred feet high on both sides and a gushing waterfall tumbling from the western side. Maura and I were spellbound with our hour’s walk between lava cliffs rising skyward far above us and to emerge from this narrow valley to view distant snowy-white Langjokull Glacier.

Since northern Iceland touches the Arctic Circle, it not only has volcanoes caused by the rift, it has 20 to 25 percent of its land mass covered with glaciers, including Europe’s largest glacier Vatnajokull. In fact one extinct volcanic cone called Snaefells (the setting for the opening of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), rises straight up through Snaefellsjokull Glacier along the northeast coast. So, all that ice furnishes the rift with melting water that seeps down to the magma layer to generate (like Yellowstone) erupting geysers including Strokkur and Litli as well as boiling mudpots, steaming pools and puffing cauldrons. As my wife Maura and I walked through the thermal zones of Strokkur, we had to shake our heads a few times to realize that we were not back at the Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

If readers have any geologic interests, I suggest that they should make a trip to fascinating Iceland. If they go off season they might also be treated to nighttime wonders of the Aurora Borealis!

This article may also be viewed as a PDF document with an additional photo by the author: A Walk Along Iceland’s Volcanic Rift