by Jonathan Duffy, Arctic Meta
Earthquakes are a fascinating natural phenomenon. They have been the ominous villain in movies and news stories for years, the accompanying rumble for any prophecy of the apocalypse and a literal symbol in songs and poetry for ‘shaking things up.’ What some may not know is that earthquakes are a normal part of the ecosystem of our planet.
The Earth is made up of lots of pieces of land that fit together a bit like a patchwork quilt. These pieces of land are called ‘Tectonic Plates.’ Underneath these plates is molten rock from the Earth’s core. You may not have known when you were a child that the game you played where ‘the floor is lava’ was actually much closer to reality than you realised.
Photo: Daroca90 via Wikimedia C.C.
Lava is continually pushing and pulling these tectonic plates apart, and this release of energy causes friction, which causes the ground to shake and rumble. This shaking and rumbling is what we call an earthquake.
To put it a bit more simply, imagine the land we’re standing on is a piece of wood. It’s not completely rigid, it can bend and move a little bit until eventually it snaps in two. The pressure applied to this wood is much like the pressure the lava that flows beneath the earth puts on tectonic plates. Eventually there’s too much elastic energy and it is released with a ‘snap’ or earthquake.
So are there earthquakes in Iceland? Are they common? What should you do if you experience one when travelling here? All of this and more is answered below.
Are There Earthquakes in Iceland?
The short answer is ‘Yes’.
There are actually quite a number of countries in Europe that experience earthquakes but most of them tend to be situated a bit further south, like Greece and Romania.
Iceland happens to be one of the most northern places in the world that regularly experiences earthquakes.
Iceland is incredibly volcanically active, which means that the island nation’s landmass is always changing, although probably too slow for you to actually notice (it grows at a rate of around 5cm per year).
Along with all this volcanic activity comes earthquakes. Volcanoes and earthquakes are a bit like Forrest Gump and Jenny; they’re like ‘peas and carrots’ cause they always go together.
How Often Does Iceland Have Earthquakes?
Iceland experiences earthquakes on a very regular basis. There can sometimes be hundreds or even thousands of tremors in a month; however, most earthquakes recorded typically aren’t big enough to be noticed by people, or they occur far away from populated areas.
Earthquakes are measured in the Local Magnitude Scale which is a revised version of the Richter Scale, a unit of measurement for earthquakes developed by Charles Richter in 1935.
The scale uses the numbers 1 to 9 to help classify the severity of an earthquake. Earthquakes of a magnitude 1 to 3 are considered in the ‘micro’ category; 6 – 6.9 is strong and so on as indicated below.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
In most cases, very few people tend to report feeling an earthquake that has a magnitude lower than 3 and the majority of tremors that occur every day on the planet are very small.
In fact there have been several earthquakes in the world since you started reading this blog post and some of them may have even happened right under your feet.
Why Does Iceland Get So Many Earthquakes?
Earthquakes can happen anywhere globally, but they tend to be more common in places where tectonic plates meet. Iceland sits right on top of the point where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet (you can easily see this for yourself on a classic Golden Circle tour).
This ridge cuts through Þingvellir National Park on Iceland’s Golden Circle Tourist Route. You can actually snorkel between continents here in the Silfra Fissure.
As magma from the Earth’s core is pushed up between tectonic plates, the pressure forces them apart, creating earthquakes. This kind of activity also caused Iceland to rise out of the sea millions of years ago.
Iceland is quite a young landmass when you compare it to other places in the world like Africa or Australia.
Because of its volcanic nature, the island is still changing and growing. You could say Iceland is a bit like a teenager, growing, moody and prone to tantrums.
Earthquakes are one side effect of the natural processes happening beneath Iceland, but another, less disruptive side effect is the access to cleaner energy thanks to geothermal heat.
How Big Can Earthquakes Get In Iceland?
In ancient history, the Viking settlers of Iceland did note the land’s sometimes turbulent nature. Unfortunately, we don’t know what magnitude those quakes reached, just that they were reported as large and caused destruction.
A large earthquake in 1912 is believed to have been at a magnitude somewhere between 7.0 and 7.5. In recent years there have been very few earthquakes that have measured higher than 6.1 in magnitude.
In the year 2000 and then again in 2008, large quakes were experienced that caused moderate damage. The 2008 earthquake occurred in the south of Iceland with epicentres in Hverargerði and Selfoss and reached 6.1.
There were only 30 injuries reported and not a single casualty. If you were to compare the amount of damage caused by this magnitude of quake in Iceland with another country in the world, you would most likely find that there is a significantly lower rate of damage here.
This is because Icelandic homes are built for earthquakes. They are robust structures with supporting foundations that can withstand the forces that regularly happen.
Earthquakes also tend to ramp up in frequency and magnitude leading up to volcanic eruptions. Seismic activity had increased in the months leading up to the Eyafjallajökull eruption in 2010.
This volcano stopped air travel and struck fear in the hearts of any newsreader brave enough to attempt to pronounce its name.
What are the Different Types of Earthquakes You Can Get in Iceland?
There are two main types of earthquakes in Iceland. Some earthquakes are caused by volcanic activity, like the movement of magma under the Earth’s crust. The other kind of earthquakes in Iceland are the ones that are caused by the releasing of tension caused by the natural movements of tectonic plates.
Photo: Mid Atlantic Ridge from Katlageopark
They may have different causes, but if they’re big enough to notice, you could say that they all feel the same.
How Many Earthquakes Does Iceland Get Each Year?
On average, the network that monitors seismic events in Iceland can detect up to 26,000 earthquakes a year.
In a regular week, the land of fire and ice experiences between 70 to 100 earthquakes per day. That number can be even more if there’s an increase in geothermal activity.
In March of 2021, over 18,000 quakes were reported in just a manner of days, leading experts to believe volcanic activity might increase soon.
These numbers might sound like a lot but remember, most of the earthquakes aren’t big enough for us to feel them. Iceland could experience almost 100 earthquakes every single day, and it’s possible you wouldn’t feel any of them.
In fact, many people who live in Iceland only feel an earthquake once a year. That may seem like a lot, but on such a volcanic hot spot, the ground rumbling is a part of life.
In 2020 a magnitude 5.6 earthquake rocked Iceland’s capital city Reykjavík. Immediately afterwards, social media became flooded with commentary on how it felt and what people were doing during the quake.
Video footage soon appeared of Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, who was on a conference call about leadership during the Coronavirus at the time.
You can see that she was a little shocked by the earthquake in the video but not really that fussed by it. She basically went straight back into her conversation immediately after.
To those who don’t live in countries with frequent seismic activity, this behaviour might seem strange, but in Iceland, usually, the first thing you do after a quake hits is open Facebook and ask your friends in the group chat if they felt it!
This is probably because, on a subconscious level, people in Iceland know that it’s very unlikely someone was hurt during the quake, so a conversation about where you were when it happened and how it compares to the last one is commonplace.
What is an Earthquake Swarm?
An earthquake swarm is when several quakes happen in the same place over a relatively short time.
Usually, when an earthquake hits, it is very common for the main earthquake to be followed by some aftershocks. These usually smaller tremors disappear over time, a bit like thunder getting softer as a storm gets further away.
In an earthquake swarm, there isn’t one particular main shock; instead, it is a series of quakes that can all be of the same magnitude.
Photo: Map of Earthquake Swarm in Iceland from Severe-Weather.eu
Swarms don’t usually last long, but they can occur for days, weeks and sometimes even months. The reason geologists are so interested in them is that they normally indicate heightened geothermal activity.
What Should I Do if I Feel an Earthquake?
If you are in Iceland and do happen to experience an earthquake, it’s important to remember to stay calm.
It’s been a long time since significant damage has occurred in Iceland due to an earthquake; this is mainly because of how Icelandic buildings are constructed.
Earthquakes do occur with little to no warning, and although Icelandic houses are sturdy, it is still essential to take some precautions.
The Icelandic Search and Rescue Association has a comprehensive list of guidelines, but there are some basic principles to follow.
If you are indoors, avoid areas where you may be injured by falling objects like the kitchen or near shelves. Also, stay aware of radiators that may fall, as well as broken glass.
It is a good habit to memorise the phrase ‘DUCK, COVER, HOLD.’
DUCK in a doorway, COVER the head with one hand and HOLD onto the door frame with the other.
Photo: Diagram of Duck Cover Hold procedure from almannavarnir.is
If you happen to be outdoors when an earthquake hits, you should find an open space. Be sure to avoid areas with power lines or where objects might fall from buildings. Once you are safe, cover your head with your hands and wait for the quake to be over.
If you happen to be driving, you should carefully stop your vehicle in a safe space.
If you are around Icelanders, they will most likely take care of you while also reassuring you that they have definitely experienced a bigger quake in their lifetime.
Earthquakes are a normal and necessary part of life in this big blue marble we call home. They may be associated with chaos and destruction, but the reality is that they are so much more complex than that.
If there was ever a place that’s considered one of the safest in the world to experience an earthquake, it would probably be Iceland.
Almost every facet of daily life on this volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean has been formulated with the ever-changing nature around us in mind, which helps make even any Iceland day tour that extra bit more exciting than most other places you’ll find in the world.
Icelanders are not easily spooked by natural events like earthquakes because they have lived in harmony with them for over 1000 years. In ancient times, earthquakes may have symbolised the anger of the gods or omens of things to come, but in modern-day Iceland, earthquakes are just this beautiful country reminding us how alive it is.