Iceland Erupts … Again
Published in the EarthSphere Blog. Cover Image: Landscape Bleeding Lava (© Archean Enterprises, LLC; ArcheanArt)
Years ago, I had the unique experience of standing with my right foot in Europe and my left foot in North America. Technically I was straddling the tectonic join between the Eurasian Plate and the North American Plate. I stood facing roughly northward in one of the few places on Earth where such a feat is possible, Iceland. This island nation sits atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and for the second time in as many years, lava is oozing from the ground on the Reykjanes Peninsula, slightly southwest of the nation’s capital and largest city, Reykjavik.
Prior to the 2021 eruption near Mount Keilir, the last significant volcanic activity on the Reykjanes Peninsula was about 800 years ago. Some speculated this eruption was a one-off or a fluke. But on August 3rd, 2022, lava started bleeding from the base of a small mountain in the Meradalir Valley. Some geologists suspect these eruptions herald the beginning of decades of similar eruptions as a quiescent volcanic terrane becomes active again.
Iceland is also known as the ‘Land of Fire and Ice.’ The country is no stranger to active volcanos. In 1963 one of the world’s youngest islands (Surtsey) popped up off the coast of Iceland in a series of volcanic eruptions. The country is one of the most volcanically active regions on Earth, with over 200 volcanos.
From a geological perspective, Iceland is the surface expression of a mantle plume that extends hundreds of kilometers through Earth’s crust and into the planet’s mantle. The plume probably started about 60 million years ago when the Eurasian and North American plates parted ways, forming the North Atlantic Ocean. But the active island building phase occurred over the past 16 to 20 million years, and Iceland continues to grow to this day. Iceland’s east and west sides are moving apart at a rate of about 2.5 centimeters, or one inch, per year.
Temperatures in the Icelandic plume reach 1,600 degrees Celsius, creating a column of molten rock that rises from Earth’s bowels and spills out onto its surface. With hot rock so close to Earth’s surface, Iceland receives about 27% of its electricity from geothermal power generation, and geothermal energy heats 85% of all the country’s homes.