Covered in a unique array of assorted landscapes, Iceland is most recognized for its active volcanoes, glaciers, and geysers. Geological formations in Iceland are often described as alien like, or other worldly. Iceland’s rolling hills, jagged mountains, lava flows, and geothermal hot springs provide a landscape unlike any other. Another, less known geological phenomenon is occurring in Iceland; the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are splitting apart, creating a massive fissure. In other words, Iceland is splitting apart.
The cracks in Iceland’s landscape are visible in Thingvellir National Park near the capital, Reykjavik, where ridges of jagged lava rock jut up from the ground and create an alien-like landscape. They are a popular destination for curious tourists, but even more so for geologists and others involved in the scientific community. Many of the Earth’s fault lines and volcanic or oceanic trenches are off the coast of landmasses. The fissure in Iceland presents an interesting peek into plate tectonics and seismic activity.
The Earth is composed of several layers: the outer crust, the solid upper mantle, the viscous lower mantle, the liquid outer core and the solid inner core. The crust and upper mantle form the large slabs of rocks referred to as tectonic plates. The plates are separate structures that float and, on occasion, bump together or drift apart. The movement of the plates, or plate tectonics, is believed to be responsible for seismic and volcanic events.
Plates crashing together can cause mountains to form, as the power of the plates force rocks and material upwards. Smaller occurrences of plates pushing against or sliding over another cause earthquakes. Volcanoes are formed along the boundaries of the tectonic plates, where frequent crashing and seismic activity forces magma up and outward during an eruption. This kind of phenomenon is also seen in the so called Ring of Fire-a series of almost entirely connected oceanic trenches and plate conversions. A large percentage of the planet’s earthquakes and volcanic eruptions come from this region because of plate tectonics.
The small, Nordic island country sits on top of the meeting place of the Eurasian and North American plates called the Mid Atlantic Ridge, making home to many geological formations in Iceland. Along this ridge lies many of Iceland’s volcanoes, including its three largest, Katla, Hekla, and Grimsvotn. The movement of the plates cause the seismic activities like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions characteristic of Iceland.
While the plates are indeed separating, scientists advise that Iceland will not be reduced to two separate islands. Iceland is a ‘hotspot’, where hot magma is pumped upward from the Earth’s interior. Iceland was formed in this manner over thousands of years, the magma and other materials solidifying and creating a landmass. Much of the cracks are currently filled with water, a popular place for divers, but scientists predict that Iceland will grow larger as the plates continue to move and magma fills the cracks. As the plates split apart, the magma and rocks forming between the two are considered to be a new, unique Icelandic tectonic plate.
As the tectonic plates continue to separate, the shifting of rocks and other materials will further shape and change Iceland’s landscape, widening the country by nearly two centimeters per year. The glimpse into Earth’s seismic activity provided by these fissures and cracks give scientists a unique opportunity to study the formation of the continents and movement of tectonic plates.