Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

the valleys numerous lakes are found at the backs of the old moraines.

Volcanoes.—Iceland is one of the most volcanic regions of the earth; volcanic activity has gone on continuously from the formation of the island in the Tertiary period down to the present time. So far as is known, there have in historic times been eruptions from twenty-five volcanic vents. Altogether 107 volcanoes are known to exist in Iceland, with thousands of craters, great and small. The lava-streams which have flowed from them since the Glacial epoch now cover an area of 4650 sq. m. They are grouped in dense masses round the volcanoes from which they have flowed, the bulk of the lava dating from outbreaks which occurred in prehistoric times. The largest volume of lava which has issued at one outflow within historic times is the stream which came from the craters of Laki at Skaptá. This belongs to the year 1783, and covers an area of 218 sq. m., and amounts to a volume represented by a cube each of whose sides measures 7½ m. The largest unbroken lava-field in Iceland is Odaðahraun (Lava of Evil Deeds), upon the tableland north from Vatnajökull (2000 to 4000 ft. above sea-level). It is the accretion of countless eruptions from over twenty volcanoes, and covers an area of 1300 sq.m. (or, including all its ramifications and minor detached streams, 1700 sq. m.), and its volume would fill a cube measuring 13.4 m. in every direction. As regards their superficies, the lava-streams differ greatly. Sometimes they are very uneven and jagged (apalhraun), consisting of blocks of lava loosely flung together in the utmost confusion. The great lava-fields, however, are composed of vast sheets of lava, ruptured and riven in divers ways (helluhraun). The smooth surface of the viscous billowy lava is further diversified by long twisted “ropes,” curving backwards and forwards up and down the undulations. Moreover, there are gigantic fissures, running for several miles, caused by subsidences of the underlying sections. The best-known fissure of this character is Almannagjá at Thingvellir. On the occasion of outbreaks the fine ashes are scattered over a large portion of the island, and sometimes carried far across the Atlantic. After the eruption of Katla in 1625 the ashes were blown as far as Bergen in Norway, and when Askja was in eruption in 1875 a rain of ashes fell on the west coast of Norway 11 hours 40 minutes, and at Stockholm 15 hours, afterwards. The volcanic ash frequently proves extremely harmful, destroying the pastures so that the sheep and cattle die of hunger and disease. The outbreak of Laki in 1783 occasioned the loss of 11,500 cattle, 28,000 horses and 190,500 sheep—that is to say, 53% of the cattle in the island, 77% of the horses and 82% of the sheep. After that the island was visited by a famine, which destroyed 9500 people, or one-fifth of the total population.

The Icelandic volcanoes may be divided into three classes: (1) cone-shaped, like Vesuvius, built up of alternate layers of ashes, scoriae and lava; (2) cupola-shaped, with an easy slope and a vast crater opening at the top—these shield-shaped cupolas are composed entirely of layers of lava, and their inclination is seldom steeper than 7°-8°; (3) chains of craters running close alongside a fissure in the ground. For the most part the individual craters are low, generally not exceeding 300 to 500 ft. These crater chains are both very common and often very long. The chain of Laki, which was formed in 1783, extends 20 m., and embraces about one hundred separate craters. Sometimes, however, the lava-streams are vomited straight out of gigantic fissures in the earth without any crater being formed. Many of the Icelandic volcanoes during their periods of quiescence are covered with snow and ice. Then when an outbreak occurs the snow and ice melt, and in that way they sometimes give rise to serious catastrophes (jökulhlaup), through large areas being suddenly inundated by great floods of water, which bear masses of ice floating on their surface. Katla caused very serious destruction in this way by converting several cultivated districts into barren wastes. In the same way in the year 1362 Oeræfajökull, the loftiest mountain in Iceland (6424 ft.), swept forty farms, together with their inhabitants and live stock, bodily into the ocean. The best-known volcano is Hekla (5108 ft.), which was in eruption eighteen times within the historic period down to 1845. Katla during the same period was active thirteen times down to 1860. The largest volcano is Askja, situated in the middle of the lava-field of Odaðahraun. Its crater measures 34 sq. m. in area. At Mývatn there are several volcanoes, which were particularly active in the years 1724-1730. On several occasions there have been volcanic outbreaks under the sea outside the peninsula of Reykjanes, islands appearing and afterwards disappearing again. The crater chain of Laki has only been in eruption once in historic times, namely, the violent and disastrous outbreak of 1783. Iceland, however, possesses no constantly active volcano. There are often long intervals between the successive outbreaks, and many of the volcanoes (and this is especially true of the chains of craters) have only vented themselves in a solitary outburst.

Earthquakes are frequent, especially in the districts which are peculiarly volcanic. Historical evidence goes to show that they are closely associated with three naturally defined regions: (1) the region between Skjálfandi and Axarfjörðr in the north, where violent earth tremblings are extremely common; (2) at Faxaflói, where minor vibrations are frequent; (3) the southern lowlands, between Reykjanes and Mýrdalsjökull, have frequently been devastated by violent earthquake shocks, with great loss of property and life, e.g. on the 14th-16th of August 1784, when 92 farmsteads were totally destroyed, and 372 farmsteads and 11 churches were seriously damaged; and again in August and September 1896, when another terrible earthquake destroyed 161 farmsteads and damaged 155 others. Hot springs are found in every part of Iceland, both singly and in groups; they are particularly numerous in the western portion of the southern lowlands, where amongst others is the famous Geyser (q.v.). Sulphur springs and boiling mud lakes are also general in the volcanic districts; and in places there are carbonic acid springs, these more especially on the peninsula of Snæfellsnes, north of Faxaflói.

Geology.—Iceland is built up almost entirely of volcanic rocks, none of them older, however, than the middle of the Tertiary period. The earlier flows were probably contemporaneous with those of Greenland, the Færoes, the western islands of Scotland and the north-east of Ireland. The principal varieties are basalt and palagonitic breccias, the former covering two-thirds of the entire area, the latter the remaining one-third. Compared with these two systems, all other formations have an insignificant development. The palagonitic breccias, which stretch in an irregular belt across the island, are younger than the basalt. In the north-west, north and east the coasts are formed of basalt, and rise in steep, gloomy walls of rock to altitudes of 3000 ft. and more above sea-level. Deposits of clay, with remains of plants of the Tertiary period, lignite and tree-trunks pressed flat, which the Icelanders call surtarbrandur, occur in places in the heart of the basalt formation. These fossiliferous strata are developed in greatest thickness in the north-west peninsula. Indeed, in some few places well-marked impressions of leaves and fruit have been discovered, proving that in Tertiary times Iceland possessed extensive forests, and its annual mean temperature must have been at least 48° Fahr., whereas the present mean is 35.6°. The palagonitic breccias, which attain their greatest development in the south of the island and on the tableland, consist of reddish, brown or yellowish rocks, tuffs and breccias, belonging to several different groups or divisions, the youngest of which seems to be of a date subsequent to the Glacial epoch. All over Iceland, in both the basalt and breccia formations, there occur small intrusive beds and dikes of liparite, and as this rock is of a lighter colour than the basalt, it is visible from a distance. In the south-east of the island, in the parish of Lón, there exist a few mountains of gabbro, a rock which does not occur in any other part of Iceland. Near Húsavik in the north there have been found marine deposits containing a number of marine shells; they belong to the Red Crag division of the Pliocene. In the middle of Iceland, where the geological foundation is tuff and breccias, large areas are buried under ancient outflows of lava, which bear evidences of glacial scratching. These lava streams, which are of a doleritic character, flowed before the Glacial age, or during its continuance, out of lava cones with gigantic crater openings, such as may be seen at the present day. During the Glacial epoch the whole of Iceland was covered by a vast sheet of inland ice, except for a few small isolated peaks rising along its outer margins. This ice-cap had on the tableland a thickness of 2300 to 2600 ft. Rocks scored by glacial ice and showing plain indications of striation, together with thousands of erratic blocks, are found scattered all over Iceland. Signs of elevation subsequent to the Glacial epoch are common all round the island, especially on the north-west peninsula. There are

found strikingly developed marine terraces of gravel, shore lines and