20 World Records in Icelandic Nature

|July 1, 2020
Sigurður is a literary critic. He has worked as a university lecturer in literature, the artistic director of two professional theatres, director of the Icelandic Saga Centre, a TV host and a journalist. For the last three years, Sigurður has been working as a Driver Guide for Arctic Adventures. He is a bookworm who loves travel and travelers.

Icelandic nature is even more unique than you might think. This isn’t only from the eye or through your camera lens, but also according to science! Iceland’s geography, geology, and biology is among the most unique in the world. In fact, it’s so unusual that it has broken several world records. Read on to find out which world records in Iceland the mysterious wilderness has broken.


Here is a list of 20 of its true „World Records“:

1. The biggest polythermal glacier

Vatnajökull Glacier in southeast Iceland is the largest and most voluminous temperate or polythermal glacier in the world. Its surface is over 8.000 sq.km and its volume is around 3.000 cubic km. From east to west it measures about 160 km (100 miles) long. The thickest part is almost one kilometer thick. You can find thicker glaciers in other countries such as Greenland, the Arctic, and Antarctica. However, these other glaciers are polar glaciers, a different type of ice cap.

Aerial view of Vatnajokull Glacier

Vatnajökull glacier, like all other glaciers on Earth, is receding. That means it’s growing smaller and smaller every year. It is possible that one day, in centuries to come, it will disappear, if not sooner. So let's enjoy it while it lasts! Stop by this giant glacier when you’re driving along the southeastern part of Iceland’s Ring Road.

2. The most powerful geothermal area

Grímsvötn in Vatnajökull Glacier is the most powerful geothermal area in the entire world. Grímsvötn is an active volcano hidden under the thick ice sheet of Vatnajökull. It is actually Iceland´s most active volcano — it probably erupted over one hundred times in Iceland’s recorded history (the last 1150 years). The last eruption was in 2011. When it erupts the lava melts an enormous amount of ice from the glacier and generates huge floods. Grímsvötn is difficult to visit, but you can admire it from afar when visiting Vatnajökull Glacier. 

3. The most active continental drift

Thingvellir National Park in Iceland

Iceland has the most active continental drift/tectonic movement of any place on Earth above sea level and on dry land. These tectonic plates move in opposite directions east and west across Iceland at an average of 2 centimeters a year.

The entire globe is divided into tectonic plates that all constantly and slowly drift. Two of the biggest, the North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate, meet in Iceland. Their junction cuts through Iceland diagonally from southwest to northeast. It is a divergent junction, which means the two plates are separating, moving in opposite directions and creating a fissure between them.

Thingvellir National Park, less than an hour’s drive from Reykjavík, is the best place on Earth to witness such fissures with your own eyes.

4. The largest variety of different types of volcanoes

Iceland has around 220 volcanoes including almost every type of volcano known on Earth. Some of the types cannot be found outside Iceland, meaning Iceland has a larger variety of different volcanoes than any other country.  Over 30 of Iceland’s volcanic systems are active.

The volcanoes are found all around Iceland. Some of the most famous and active, such as Hekla, Eyjafjallajökull and Katla, are located near the Ring Goad within a few hours drive from Reykjavík. Eyjafjallajökull became world famous when it erupted with a huge ash fall in the spring of 2010, disrupting aviation traffic across the globe. Hekla was believed by Icelanders for centuries to be the gateway to Hell. Each of these unique volcanoes is waiting to welcome you to the Land of Fire and Ice.

5. The biggest production of volcanic material

Around 33% of all magma that erupts to the Earth's surface (on dry land) erupts in Iceland. No other country comes even close to Iceland in production of volcanic material.

Volcano Eruption

Volcanic landscapes are easy to spot in Iceland — they’re everywhere. Even when you drive from Keflavík international airport to Reykjavík (45 min. drive) you’ll be surrounded by lava fields all around. Lava in Iceland is both of the pahoehoe type and a´a type. You’ll also find volcanic ash, tephra, pyroclasts, pumice and volcanic deserts. 

6. The largest mass of lava in the last 10,000 years

The Þjórsárhraun lava field in southern Iceland is the largest and most voluminous mass of lava that has erupted to the globe's surface since the beginning of the Holocene period on Earth, or eleven thousand years ago. This eruption happened 8,600 years ago.

Due to its old age the lava cannot be seen as a whole, but you can catch bits and pieces here and there. It is around 130 kilometers long and 15 – 20 meters thick in most places

7. The largest mass of lava in historic times

Lava Field in Iceland

The Eldgjárhraun lava field in southeast Iceland is the largest and most voluminous mass of lava that has erupted to the Earth’s surface during recorded history. This happened in 1783 – 1784 CE. 

This particular eruption also caused a dreadful human tragedy. Its massive smoke generated a thick toxic mist, or smog, that lay over the entire island for months, spoiling harvest, killing animals and eventually causing a famine that claimed over 10,000 lives in Iceland. It also caused devastating effects abroad in many countries around the globe.

While driving the Ring Road between the towns of Vík and Kirkjubæjarklaustur in the southeast, you will pass through this lava field. Now it is overgrown with ever-green moss and looks quite harmless and even beautiful.

8. The largest cluster of pseudo-craters

Pseudocrater in Myvatn Lake in Iceland

The Landbrotshólar pseudo-craters in southeast Iceland number around twenty thousand in total. This makes it the largest cluster of pseudo-carters anywhere in the world. Pseudo-craters are also called rootless cones and have been spotted on planet Mars.

Pseudo-craters are rare anywhere on Earth outside Iceland. The phenomenon is formed when hot thin-flowing molten lava flows over wetlands. The hot lava boils the water underneath and the steam pressure causes explosions, creating clusters of pseudo-craters.

You can find an example of pseudo-craters just outside Reykjavík in a place called Rauðhólar. Landbrotshólar is located right next to the town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur in southeast Iceland and is easy to spot and reach from the Ring Road.

9. The biggest shield volcano

Snow covered Hafrafell mountain

The Trölladyngja volcano up in the hinterlands of Iceland is the biggest shield volcano on the earth´s dry surface that was formed in one single eruption. Around 10 kilometers in diameter. Its crater on top is almost 100 meters deep. Its total production of lava is around 15 cubic kilometers. In 2014 there was an eruption in its neighborhood. The Holuhraun eruption, with massive outpour of lava.

Hard to get there. It is located in the vast wilderness north of the Vatnajökull glacier. The mountain-track to this area (and certainly not all the way to the volcano) is only passable in mid or late summer. And only on good 4x4 vehicle. No gain without pain, but not really worth the effort. Skip this one. Unless you love desolation and solitude.

10. The biggest table volcano

The Eiríksjökull volcano in western Iceland is the biggest table volcano on earth. It is 1675 meters high and has a glacier on top. Table volcanoes are created by eruption under a huge sheet of thick ice during Ice Age.

 Eiríksjökull you will find up on the highlands just by the huge glacier Langjökull. In western Iceland up from the Borgarfjörður district. Hiking on Eiríksjökull is possible but very tough and takes a whole day. Not recommended for inexperienced. A difficult mountain road leads to there, only passable in summer.

11. The youngest volcano

Eldfell volcano in the Vestmannaeyjar islands is the youngest volcano around the globe. Created in the Heimaey eruption of 1973. It is just over 200 meters high.

Volcano Eldfell in Iceland

The Vestmannaeyjar islands (Westman Islands) ara a cluster of rocky volcanic islands just off the south coast of central south Iceland. On the biggest island, Heimaey (13.4 sq.km) is a thriving fishing town of almost 4500 people. They have really had their share of volcanic drama there. On the outskirts of town is a volcano, Helgafell, that has been dormant for around 4000 years. But one night in January 1973 an eruption started just by its side and lasted for full 9 months. Creating the new volcano Eldfell. The town was heavily damaged by massive ash fall and partly destroyed by lava flows. All the inhabitants were immediately evacuated to the mainland, only to return after 9 months.

A decade earlier an eruption started from the bottom of the sea by Vestmannaeyjar. It lasted for 3.5 yerars, the lava reaching to the surface and creating a whole new island, Surtsey. Heimaey island is a wonderland to visit. You can get there by plane or a ferry. The ferryride only takes half an hour from the mainland down south in Landeyjahöfn dock.

12. The biggest lava stalactite

A lava stalactite in the lava tube Gullborgarhellir in western Iceland is 124 cm long. This makes it Earth´s longest lava stalactite yet discovered. Lava stalactite is an icicle-shaped or straw-shaped lava formation hanging from the ceiling of a lava tube or lava cave. It’s formed from dripping molten lava.

Stalactites and stalagmites in lava caves are very fragile and need protection from human vandalism. Therefore the Gullborgarhellir lava cave is closed and cannot be accessed unless you are accompanied by a local guide. It is in western Iceland close to the road to Snæfellsnes peninsula.

13. The deepest crater-cave

Top view of Thrihnukagigur Volcano

The Þríhnúkagígur crater close to Reykjavík is the deepest crater-cave in the world. Its bottom is 120 meters below the surface. From there crater channels reach further down to around 200 meters. To visit Þríhnúkagígur, go to insidethevolcano.com. The tour duration is 5-6 hours and the walking distance 3 km (2 miles). While you need to pay to enter, the great adventure in store makes it worth it. 

14. The biggest hot spring

The Deildartunguhver hot spring in western Iceland is the source of more hot water than any other natural hot spring on our planet. Around 180 liters of boiling hot water (100 degrees celcius, 212 degrees fahrenheit) swell up there every single second.

Deildartunguhver Hot Spring in Iceland

We have two words for hot springs in Icelandic. Laug is a hot spring with warm water and hver is a hot spring with boiling water or boiling mud. You can find a myriad of both types in Iceland. A laug is often a natural bathing place, but hver can’t be entered for obvious reasons.

The third type is goshver, a geyser. This type is rare. The most notorious one in Iceland is in a place called Geysir (which gave birth to the international word geyser – an eruptive/spouting hot spring). Geysir is located less than two hours drive from Reykjavík and is a popular tourist destination.

Deildartunguhver hot spring is in the Borgarfjörður district in western Iceland, 1.5 hours drive from Reykjavík.

15. Most condensed population of harlequin ducks

On the river Laxá by lake Mývatn in northern Iceland is the most condensed population of harlequin ducks anywhere on Earth.

The harlequin duck is a beautiful decorative small duck that takes its name from Harlequin, a colourfully dressed character in Commedia dell´arte theatre. In North America also known as these ducks are known as “lords and ladies.” Other names include painted duck, totem pole duck, rock duck, glacier duck, mountain duck, white-eyed diver, squeaker and blue streak.

Iceland is home to many different types of birds. There are more in summertime than in winter since many are migratory birds that escape to warmer regions in colder seasons. The coastal cliffs around Iceland are exceptionally rich in birds all year around.

The Lake Mývatn region up in North Iceland is world famous for its rich birdlife.

16. The largest razorbill population

In Látrabjarg promontory in the Western fjords of Iceland is the largest razorbill population on Earth. The cliffs are home to millions of birds. They host up to 40% of the world population of razorbills.

The razorbill or lesser auk is a colonial seabird of the auks family. It is the closest living relative of the extinct great auk. Razorbills are primarily black with a white underside. Just as the harlequin duck, it is monogamous, choosing one partner for life. This morality is unknown even among many human Icelanders! 

You can reach the Látrabjarg promontory by car. This long and tough drive takes you to the westernmost point of Europe.

17. The largest puffin population

Iceland has more puffins in summer than any other country in the world. Over half of the world’s population of Atlantic puffins breed in Iceland, somewhere between 3 and 4 million pairs each year. The total population of puffins in Iceland is estimated to be between 8 and 10 million birds.

Icelandic puffins

Puffins can only be seen on land in the breeding season, from late April to early August. The rest of the year they spend out at sea. They are poor flyers but great swimmers and divers.

Puffins are pelagic seabirds that feed primarily by diving in the water. They breed in large colonies on coastal cliffs or offshore islands, nesting in crevices among rocks or in burrows in the soil. Two species, the tufted puffin and horned puffin, are found in the North Pacific Ocean, while the Atlantic puffin is found in the North Atlantic Ocean only.

Puffins, with their brightly coloured beaks during breeding season, are truly beautiful animals and fun to watch. They can be found in many places in cliffs and islets by the seaside around Iceland. They also love tourists. 

18. The largest population of pink-footed geese

In the Þjórsárver region up in the highlands of Iceland is the largest population of pink-footed geese on Earth. One third of the global population of pink-footed geese has a breeding site there.

The pink-footed goose or simply “pinkfoot” is a migratory bird that breeds in Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard. It winters in Ireland, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark. It has a short bill, bright pink in the middle with a black base and tip, and pink feet. The body is grey-brown. The tail is grey with a broad white tip.

The Þjórsárver region is a green and fertile area up on the highlands between the Hofsjökull glacier and Sprengisandur desert. The mountain road Sprengisandsleið takes you there, but only in summer with a well-equipped 4x4 vehicle.

19. The biggest variety of arctic char

Man holding Arctic Char Fish

In Þingvallavatn lake in southern Iceland live four sub-species of arctic char. You can’t find so many different species of fish living together in any other lake on Earth. Arctic char is closely related to both salmon and lake trout. They are delicious food and fun to catch.

20. The oldest animal

No animal known through history has reached as old an age as a certain specimen of the ocean quahog clam, called Hafrún – commonly nicknamed Ming. Born in 1499, Ming died in 2006 at 507 years old. It was dredged off the northern coast of Iceland in 2006 and its age was calculated by counting the annual growth lines in the shell.

Hafrún certainly is the oldest individual (non-colonial) animal ever discovered whose age could be precisely determined. The clam was initially named Ming by Sunday Times journalists, in reference to the Ming dynasty, during which it was born. Its icelandic name, Hafrún, is a well-known woman´s name and means “the mystery of the ocean.” The actual gender of the clam, though, is unknown, since its reproductive state was recorded as spent.

The research on its age was carried out by a team of distinguished scientists from a well known British University. In the process, the clam died. Later it was confirmed with different scientific methods by other esteemed researchers that the clam was 507 years old when it was caught. A renowned marine biologist later commented that he considers this second assessment accurate to within 1 – 2 years.  Still more proof came with carbon-14 dating.

So, when Leonardo da Vinci started painting Mona Lisa, the ocean clam Hafrún was already celebrating her fourth birthday.

Safe country

Despite all of this epic nature, Iceland is one of the safest countries on earth. No one has lost his or her life in Iceland because of volcanic activity for over two centuries. Same with earthquakes – they are frequent in Iceland but never devastating.

Seal

And no dangerous wild animals, no big carnivores or predators. You’ll find neither a mosquito to taste your blood nor a snake to bite your heel. No cockroaches and no venomous insects. Even the notorious Homo Sapiens is relatively harmless in Iceland. And maybe that is our most important „world record“: A homicide rate of less than one per year for the last several decades.

Nature is harsh in Iceland but natural disasters are history. So are the Vikings. 

Those are 20 true World Records in Icelandic Nature. We also have plenty more to boast! But in order to believe it, you have to see it with your own eyes. Arctic Adventures provides that experience.

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