To answer your question straight away: No, Iceland is not a continent. But we can see why you would think that when you look at a map. You might also ask yourself what continent Iceland is on. That requires a more complicated answer.

Iceland is not on one continent but two!

If we dust off our geology, you might remember that the world sits on tectonic plates. Most countries are just on one plate, but the thing is, Iceland is on two. The North American plate and the Eurasian plate. That means Iceland is technically in two continents. The fact that Iceland stands on plate boundaries also explains why there is so much volcanic activity.

Is Iceland in North America or Europe?

Although theoretically, we could split the country to be legally in both North America and Europe, Iceland is considered to be in Europe. Iceland is part of the EEA (European Economic Area), and since most of the island is on the Eurasian plate, it makes sense not to divide the nation to be in two continents legally.  No Icelander argues for it, and we all consider ourselves to be European. This is mostly because in the olden days almost all of our foreign contact was to European countries.

You can see where the plates split

You can dive between continent in Iceland
You can even dive between continents in Iceland!

There is a visible crack that runs through the whole island. And you can see it for yourself. The most popular place to see the split is definitely Þingvellir national park. If you take the Golden circle route, you are certainly going to view it. In Almannagjá in Þingvellir you are actually walking down the split and are between continents. Another, not as famous, place to see the crack is at the Bridge between continents at Sandvík. There you can walk over a bridge and be between two tectonic plates. It’ a popular photo spot. You can also go down to the crack and walk along with it.

Read more about tectonic plates on Wikipedia! 

When you drive the ring road in Iceland there are few places as out-of-worldly as this one. Eldhraun Lava Field in the South Coast is a vast field of harsh black lava. With the passing of time the lava has slowly been covered with bright green moss, smoothing out every edge, giving the area a feeling of softness.

 

Eldhraun in Skaftárhreppur

Even if moss is a common plant in Icelandic nature, there are a few spots that are worth paying special attention too. Eldhraun in Skaftárhreppur is one of them. This black lava field stretches over around 565 km2. The moss is very delicate and it is not allowed to walk in the area. The best way to enjoy the sight is to stop at one of the nearby parking spaces near the main road. This area is a popular sight with both locals and visitors.

Lakagígar Eruption

Eldhraun Lava Field was formed in a violent eruption that took place between 1783 – 1784. The eruption is called Lakagígar and is one of the largest eruptions on Earth after the Ice Age ended. This catastrophic eruption resulted in around 10.000 deaths in Iceland (around 20% of the population at the time). The fumes also reached Europe, resulting in widespread famine. Ash rained down in the UK that summer and some evidences suggest that this eruption and the famine that followed ultimately fueled the French Revolution in 1789.

 

Moss in Iceland

As a young volcanic island in the middle of the North Atlantic, Iceland does not have a lot of vegetation. There is a surprising amount of flora in Iceland, or around 5.500 types of wild plants. This is still a much lower number than in other countries as our harsh climate does not allow much varietyMoss, or Mosi in Icelandic, grows all over our precious island. There are around 600 different types of this adorable but resilient plant. Moss has the ability to grow in difficult environments and can tolerate up to -30°Celsius. Moss can be categorized between green algae and vascular plants.

How not to treat our precious moss

The Eldhraun Lava Field can be seen in this Justin Bieber video filmed in Iceland. In min 2:24 he is shown rolling in the moss. A perfect example of what not to do in Eldhraun.

 

How to get there

Eldhraun is located West of the town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. This is around 3 hours drive  along the South Coast from Reykjavík City. The highway actually runs straight through the lava field so you can’t miss it!

 

Sounds like a stupid question right? Well it is actually a pretty common one! In short the answer is this:

Iceland sits on two continents. Geographically it is situated both in Europe and North America.

 

Iceland belongs to Europe

Let’s dive in. Yes, Iceland is a part of Europe. It belongs to Scandinavia along with Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. Before gaining independence in 1918 Iceland belonged to the kingdom of Denmark. Cultural similarities between the two countries (and the rest of the Nordic countries) are still strong to this day.

 

The rift between the two tectonic plates

A big part of what makes Iceland so unique is that is sits on top of two tectonic plates. The Eurasian plate and the North American plate meet in the Mid Atlantic Ridge. The two continents move away from each other by 2 cm every year and this movement fuels the highly volcanic activity of Iceland. In fact, there are a number of small earthquakes taking place every single day in Iceland. These earthquakes can be caused by both the tectonic plates movements and volcanic activity. If you are curious about this daily activity the Icelandic Met Office keeps a (almost) real-time map of every earthquake each day. 

 

Picture from the Icelandic Met Office, 29.10.2018.

As you can see on the picture above the activity follows the lines of the  where the two tectonic plates meet. This is no cause for alarm mind you. The earthquakes mostly happen in uninhabited places so it is unlikely you will even notice them.

 

Volcanic activity in Iceland

Since Iceland is so uniquely situated in the Mid Atlandic Ridge it has unusually high volcanic activity. There is a hot spot below the country fueling the numerous eruption. This consequently makes Iceland one of the youngest countries on the planet. There is constantly new land being formed. Iceland is similar to Hawaii in this perspective. Both are small islands far away from mainland and both are sitting on hot spots. In Iceland, eruptions happen every 5 years.

Picture from Lava Center.

Lava Centre in Hvolsvöllur has a fantastic interactive exhibition on Iceland! In the the picture above you can see the hot spot below Iceland and in the exhibition you can walk around it to really feel the scope of it.

 

Cultural belonging

Some might say Iceland belonged to the two continents both geographically and culturally. Iceland’s locations actually made the country quite valuable during WWI as a naval base for both British and American soldiers. Up to that point Icelanders had been a rather isolated and poor nation so the “occupation” was welcomed by most. The american soldiers brought some brand new and exciting things to Iceland. TV’s, new music, pantyhose’s, chewing gum and sodas to name a few. More importantly they build roads,  airports and bigger harbors and thus accelerated Iceland’s arrival into the 20th Century.

 

Yes, they do, and 44 years ago it destroyed 1/3 of the town. Luckily the people were evacuated.

The Eldfell eruption in 1973

Vestmannaeyjar eruption 1973
Photo: The Atlantic

Early one January morning in 1973, the people of Vestmannaeyjar islands, more specifically in the town on Heimaey Island, woke up to a scary sight. A vast crevice had ripped open in the earth and lava was gushing out. It was just 1 kilometer away from town. Thankfully, the ash was blowing out to sea instead of raining down on the town. People managed to escape down to the harbor. By sheer luck, the entire island’s population managed to get to the mainland of Iceland, because there had been a storm and all the fishing boats were docked at the harbor. The evacuation was very successful, and Icelanders opened their homes to the survivors. A few hundred people stayed behind on the island to help.

Battling the lava flow

The eruption lasted for six months. The island’s primary industry is fishing, and the island has a natural harbor. During the eruption, the lava was approaching the harbor fast and was going to seal it off, stripping the people of their livelihoods. Someone got the crazy idea to spray the lava with sea water to make it harder and pile up instead of flowing freely into the harbor. All available pumps and hoses were brought in, and in the end, the plan worked. The harbor was saved from filling up with lava, and the inhabitants still make a living out of fishing, mostly. Many people did not return to the islands after the eruption since a lot of houses burned down or were buried in ash, and obviously, people were frightened. Waking up with an erupting volcano in their backyard wasn’t something they expected to ever live through.

Vestmannaeyjar islands
Photo: Iceland Monitor

Is it safe to visit Vestmannaeyjar?

Yes, it’s entirely safe, and people still live there in a thriving community. Geology and volcanology have come a long way since 1973, and all earthquake and tremor activity is monitored. In fact, we recommend you visit the island because it has a fantastic birdlife, fun tours and activities!