Hekla and Katla: Rearranging Iceland over the Centuries


Hekla Photo by Michael Ridpath Author of the Magnus Iceland Mysteries
There have been about thirty volcanoes active in Iceland since the Norse settlers arrived. 

The island was created only twenty million years ago. It stands on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a chain of mostly underwater mountains created by volcanic activity as the European and North American continental plates rip apart from each other. In Iceland, the volcanoes reach the surface, where they simmer, bubble and occasionally explode.

Let me introduce you to some of them.

We have already met Snaefellsjökull, the prettiest of them all with its almost perfect cone and its topping of ice, that hovers above Snaefellsnes. It is taking a nap at the moment - the last time it erupted was about AD 200.

Hekla: Iceland's busiest volcano

We have also met the most active, Hekla. This is sited just to the north of Eyjafjallajökull, and can be clearly seen from sixty miles away. It is nearly classically volcano-shaped - a cone with hunched shoulders - but the summit is actually a line of craters covered in snow and ice. The mountain looms over the surrounding landscape, and the closer you get to it, the more evidence you see of its past temper tantrums: devastated valleys and ramparts of frozen lava. It has erupted many times recently, in 1947, 1970, 1980, 1981, 1991 and 2000. Most adult inhabitants of Reykjavík will have driven out to watch it at some time. Nothing since 2000. Hmm.

There were some truly massive eruptions in the early Middle Ages, all the more noticeable because Hekla is close to some of the most fertile land in Iceland. We saw how Stöng was smothered in 1104 in a surprise eruption that was talked about throughout Europe; Cistercian monks claimed that Hekla was the gateway to hell. 

In the eruption of 1341, flocks of birds were seen flying into the volcano, which onlookers assumed to be men’s souls. With good reason, Icelanders were scared of it. No one dared climb it, until two brave students reached the summit in 1750. It is possible to climb it today - about three and a half hours from the car park - but it involves walking on snow past sulphurous craters.


Not far from Hekla, and very close to Eyjafjallajökull, is Katla. This volcano slumbers unseen beneath the beautiful Mýrdal glacier. 

Since the settlement of Iceland, it has been one of the most active volcanoes in Iceland, but we haven’t heard a peep from it since 1918. It’s bigger than Eyjafjallajökull and more destructive. This is because of the jökulhlaups associated with it, flash floods that periodically trash the land to its south. 

The police station I visited had numerous evacuation plans for when or if Katla erupts: it often erupts soon after Eyjafjallajökull. I visited a farmer near Hella who was worried about an eruption and had made plans. There is a reason why all the farms in that part of Iceland are situated on small hillocks.

But you only really understand the devastation caused by Katla when you drive east along the coast, past the village of Vík. Just out of town the landscape becomes what can only be described as desert. Mile upon mile of sand, empty of all habitation, just the modern Ring Road, which will probably be washed away in the next eruption. 

There is a fascinating fishing museum in Vík and a monument to the fishermen of Hull. The debris from Katla stretches out to sea and makes the waters treacherous for ships. Over the centuries there have been hundreds of wrecks, many of fishing vessels from Hull. Tragically, many shipwreck survivors died when they walked along the uninhabited shoreline searching for a village when they should have headed inland towards the hills.

In 2021 Netflix made an eerie series called Katla about an eruption of the volcano that lasted two years and messed not only with the landscape but also with the locals.  It was filmed in Vík. 

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