How The Eldgjá Volcano Eruption Shaped The History of Iceland


blog authorBy Johanna Sigurðardóttir shield verificationVerified Expert

    Eldgjá's eruption from 939 to 942 AD was monumental, not just in scale but in its ripple effects across Iceland and beyond. Covering 780 square kilometers (about 300 square miles) with 18.6 cubic kilometers (around 4.5 cubic miles) of lava, it marked the largest flood basalt eruption known in history.

    Eldgjá's Historical Context and Impact

    This event did more than alter landscapes; it catalyzed the Christianisation of Iceland, viewed as a divine sign against old pagan ways.

    The ash and sulfur dioxide emitted during the eruption caused severe climate anomalies across Europe, leading to the coldest summer in 1,500 years and subsequent crop failures, exacerbating the hardships during the time. 

    These profound environmental impacts are believed to have influenced broader societal shifts towards Christianity throughout the continent.

    Scientific and Geological Insights of Eldgjá

    Eldgjá, or 'Fire Canyon,' embodies a significant chapter in Iceland's story, demonstrating nature's power to shape human destiny. The eruption was characterized by a series of basaltic lava flows, indicative of a rifting event within the Atlantic mid-ocean ridge system. 

    The chemistry of the erupted materials, rich in iron and magnesium, highlights the mantle's role in shaping Iceland's volcanic activity. Eldgjá forms a crucial part of the Eastern Volcanic Zone, linked to the formidable Vatnajökull ice cap and the active Katla volcano.

    eldgja canyon

    Eldgjá: The Largest Volcanic Canyon in the World

    Eldgjá Canyon, a jewel in the crown of Iceland's volcanic wonders, boasts staggering stats and facts that underline its global significance:

    • Part of Vatnajokull National Park: Since 2011, the northern part of Eldgjá and the breathtaking adjacent waterfall have been included in Vatnajokull National Park, turning it into a sought-after destination for thousands every year.
    • Extensive Volcanic Fissure: A sprawling fissure, Eldgjá stretches 75 km (47 mi), linking the mighty Vatnajökull glacier to the fearsome Katla volcano.
    • World's Largest Volcanic Canyon: This title-holder measures 270m (886 ft) in depth and expands up to 600m (1969 ft) in width over a 40 km (25 mi) stretch.
    • Geographic Stretch: From the hot springs of Landmannalaugar to the historically significant village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, its range is as impressive as its size.
    • Creation of Lava Fields: Its eruption gave birth to three primary lava fields, drastically shaping the coastal plains.
    • Varied Geological Features: Eldgjá's rich volcanic landscape includes ground fractures, normal faults, hornitos, and spatter ramparts.

    Conservation Efforts of Eldgjá

    Eldgjá and its surrounding landscapes are under strict protection as part of Vatnajökull National Park, emphasizing Iceland's commitment to preserving its natural heritage. 

    Conservation efforts focus on maintaining the area's natural state, monitoring volcanic activity, and ensuring that tourism has a minimal environmental impact. These initiatives are pivotal in Iceland's broader environmental policy, showcasing the country's approach to balancing human activity with the preservation of its unique volcanic landscapes.

    volcanic canyon

    The Crater, Waterfall, and Glacier of Eldgjá

    Discovering Eldgjá isn't just about the canyon itself; it's a gateway to exploring breathtaking waterfalls, craters, and glaciers around South Iceland. For nature lovers and adventurers alike, this area is a treasure trove of natural wonders, each with its own story. Here's why:

    • Öfærufoss Waterfall: Nestled within the Eldgjá fissure, this stunning 40 m (131 ft) waterfall cascades in two tiers through a lush, moss-clad canyon. It's a sight so serene that it feels like stepping into a painting.
    • Vatnajökull Glacier: As Europe's largest glacier, it's a monumental ice cap that encapsulates the essence of Iceland's icy allure. Near Eldgjá, it provides a stunning contrast to the fiery volcanic landscape. Vatnajökull is also one of the best glaciers in Iceland for glacier hiking and ice caving, offering adventurous ways to explore its icy expanse.
    • Lakagígar Craters: The Lakagígar craters, also known as Laki, are a row of 130 giant craters that stretch 25–27 kilometers (16-18 mi). The craters are located southwest of Vatnajökull National Park and are part of Skaftafell National Park, illustrating the extensive volcanic activity that characterizes this region.

    Hiking Trails Around Eldgjá Volcano

    From the car park, a world of adventure awaits, with trails that cater to every level of enthusiasm and stamina. Here's what you're in for:

    • Descend into Eldgjá Canyon: Feel the magnitude of Eldgjá up close. Wander through craters and gorges, where each step tells a story of the earth's fiery power.
    • Panoramic Views: Make your way to the top for a view that'll have you reaching for your camera. The vastness of the landscape stretches before you, a patchwork of nature's artistry.
    • To Ófærufoss and Beyond: Fancy a short hike? The 2 km (about 1.2 miles) trail to Ófærufoss waterfall is a walk in the park, offering stunning sights without much sweat.
    • Challenge Accepted: For the trail warriors, the 7 km (roughly 4.3 miles) trek to the summit of Gjátindur will test your mettle. At an altitude of 943 m (around 3094 feet), the reward is a breathtaking vista of Eldgjá Canyon, especially when the weather gods smile upon you.

    How to get to eldja canyon

    How To Get There Eldgjá in Iceland

    Getting to the awe-inspiring Eldgjá Canyon is an adventure in itself, accessible only with an off-road 4x4 during the summer months (June to September). Here's how you can approach this natural wonder:

    • North via F232-233 alongside Myrdalsjökull glacier: This route is the roughest and least traveled but offers unparalleled wild landscapes.
    • North from Vík via F208: A challenging yet popular choice, F208 from the north is preferred for its relatively smoother trail. It requires crossing numerous fords from Landmannalaugar, a roughly 35 km (about 22 mi) drive that takes around an hour.
    • South from Landmannalaugar via F208: This path also demands fording through numerous streams and takes about the same time for a similar distance.
    • Preferred Route: Most visitors opt for the northward F208, coming from Kirkjubæjarklaustur or Vík. It takes under an hour to cover about 50 km (31 mi), with only one significant ford to cross near the site.
    • Road Conditions: The initial 16 km (10 mi) off Road number 1 towards F208 are in excellent condition; however, the next 24 km (15 mi) become progressively more rugged, leading to a small 5 km (3 mi) track to Eldgjá Canyon car park.

    The Legacy of Eldgjá

    The legacy of Eldgjá is a testament to how natural wonders carve out a country's identity and history. This colossal volcanic canyon, with its dramatic landscapes and tales of ancient eruptions, is a vibrant thread woven into the fabric of Iceland's culture, environment, and tourism industry. 

    It stands as a symbol of nature's power and beauty, drawing adventurers and scholars alike eager to witness and study its majesty. For those looking to immerse themselves in Iceland's raw and captivating allure, renting a campervan in Iceland presents an unparalleled way to explore Eldgjá and beyond, offering the freedom to discover at one's own pace.

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