Kistufell – The comatose volcano

Photograph by Lumaka. Believe it or not, this might be the only photograph showing Kistufell on Internet. The small table top like volcano is Kistufell, at least if the photographer is correct.

Photograph by Lumaka. Believe it or not, this might be the only photograph showing Kistufell on Internet. The small table top like volcano is Kistufell, at least if the photographer is correct.

Iceland has many active volcanoes; at least 27 of them are counted as active central volcanoes. There is probably more than twice that number that are capable of having an eruption at some time or another. This leads us often on marry chases as one or another of them suffers from a magmatic intrusion into their systems.

What we generally forget are two things. The first is that we generally tend to overstate the risk of a volcano erupting in Iceland. Since the last turn of the century about 75 percent of all eruptions occurred in two volcanoes, Grimsvötn and Hekla. Grimsvötn stood for a staggering 50 percent of all eruptions during this time. If we go back a millennium they will have done 50 percent of all eruptions with Grimsvötn responsible for roughly 40 percent of all eruptions. If we put in Askja, Bardarbunga and Katla into the equation we have about 90 percent of all eruptions during the last 1 000 years coming out of five of the 27 active central volcanoes.

The other thing is that most volcanoes on Iceland have numerous magmatic intrusions before erupting. Some volcanoes seemingly can take 100s of intrusions before they erupt. So what is actually an eruption? It is a magmatic intrusion or intrusions that are large enough to break the surface. Even during an eruption the bulk of the magmatic intrusion will stay below the surface.

And then we have those volcanoes that on occasion suffer from a minor magmatic intrusion that causes a bit of a fuss. For us it is a small point of interest, but rarely do we think it will erupt.

Kistufell is one of those volcanoes that have occasional magmatic indigestion. In reality it is a heavily comatose patient suffering from indigestion. It shows on the monitors, but it does not go any further. In the case of Kistufell it does have an odd twist that I will come back to.

There is geological evidence of Kistufell having had at least 3 eruptions. Two during glaciation (there was probably more) and one at the extreme end of glaciation. The glacial eruptions helped to form the volcano of Kistufell into a classic table top mountain. But at the end of the glacial it suffered its last eruption, this time around the ice was not thick enough to contain the eruption well enough and the thuja shape was partially destroyed.

After that it went dormant, it did not even erupt during the large basalt conflagration after the glaciation. Instead it just slowly slid into coma. And that is a mystery on its own. It shouldn’t have done that for two reasons. The first is that it is sharing the same majestic fissure swarm as the mighty central volcano of Bárdarbunga, a fissure swarm that have produced Iceland’s largest shield volcano, the Odhadhahraun lava field, and the epic Thjorsahraun flood basalt, and numerous large flood basalt eruptions over at Veidivötn and Vatnaöldur.

The second reason is that it is placed slap bang right on top of the center of the Icelandic Hotspot. Those two things taken together really should have made little Kistufell into something much more noteworthy.

I think that if it had not been on top of the Hotspot it would have gone from comatose into dead a long time ago. As it is now the volcano is not a big enough weakness to actually erupt, but it has through numerous magmatic intrusions kept its magmatic system. But, it is a failing central volcano. The patient might be burping in its coma, but as time goes by the organs will fail one after another until death occurs. The latest activity will probably not change more then 10 000 years of coma. One should also remember that this volcano did not even flinch as the before mentioned very large eruptions took place around it.

For those interested in Kistufell I recommend this paper:


71 thoughts on “Kistufell – The comatose volcano

  1. Regarding the image. There is the possibility that the person grabbing snow is on Kistufell and that the small volcano is Höttur. If so, no picture of Kistufell exists on the internet.
    If you google you will though find two other Kistufell, one is a part of Esjan mountain in Reykjavik, the other is a spine extrusion out in Snefellsness peninsula.

  2. Carl, first comment, in Iceland there are many mountains with same name. There are at least 7 mountains named Kistufell, and many of them are nearer populated areas than our “Kistufell” near Bardarbunga. Also our Kistufell is located at one of the most remote regions of Iceland. I would love to drive there but its one of the worst tracks, with basically a swamp to drive into, before reaching Kistufell. And as Kistufell is a rather small trivial mountain, no one takes a pic of it and posts it on the internet with that name.

    Just 7km away is Trolladyngja. The largest shield volcano in Iceland you spoke of. And that makes Kistufell looks like a baby. Kistufell is tiny. Trolladyngja is massive.
    And Bardarbunga is truly huge, but that dome-shaped ice filled caldera is 15-20km southwest.

    Anyways if you drive there, you can marvel at Bardarbunga massive size but also on the massive size of Trolladyngja. No one will pay attention to Kistufell, as there are thousands hills just like that!

    Now I come to the main comment I wanted to make. Kistufell is not by any means a central volcano! It happens that magma is always trying to travel either northeast or southwest of Bardarbunga, because it always has done so, along the rift and fissure region.

    When it reaches rock, makes earthquakes. This happens to be beneath Kistufell but just around that region, if you draw a 20km radius, you will find evidence of many very large (MASSIVE) lava eruptions. Kistufell is just a table hill caused by 1, 2 or 3 of them. But eruptions can (and will be) very large eventually.

    However, there are often even larger when they happen towards the southwest of Bardabunga, near Hamarinn and around the Veidivotn region.

    Clearly BENEATH Bardarbunga is the source of magma, that runs across the entire rift, SW and NE direction, and erupts anywhere it wants. Where it hits rock, it causes earthquakes, where it has no solid rock, no significant earthquakes. Simply as that. We just do not see the path of magma because at great depth, the rock is fluid, so we can never see magma coming from the deep and travel southwest or northeast. We just see the intrusions into the bedrock, along the rift. Currently, most of them occur where solid rock is: at 1) Kistufell, 2) Bardarbunga itself, 3) Hamarinn, and very rarely, 4) Veidivotn region (which is further away and probably much hotter near the surface).

    • Second attempt at answering the same thing… that I actually answered allready in Part 1 and the Prequel of the Laki series.
      Let us start with how the magma forms along the fissure swarms of Iceland. It is created at the bottom of the fissure swarm. I will get back to this ad nauseam in part 5 of the laki series.
      The magma produced in a fissure swarm forms a baseline magma with variations depending on where it is produced. All of the central volcanoes form slightly different magmas at the bottom, and it furthermore changes due to processes within the magmatic system of the central volcano.
      A central volcano forms as a fissure eruption narrows down into a single erupting vent. If that one erupts for long enough a proto-magmatic system forms, and if further intrusions and eruptions occur a fully fledged magmatic system forms. It is that magmatic system that is the central volcano, not the mountain on top of it. In reallity this is a permanent weakness on the fissure swarm that more readily forms its own magma, but at the same time it is sealed off from the fissure swarm.
      In no known sample from any icelandic volcano, or icelandic fissure eruption has the magma from a different central volcano been detected. That goes for both the Grimsvötn, Bárdarbunga and all other swarms.
      What you must forget is the notion that the magma travels from a central volcano lateraly. There is no sample pointing to it ever happening. Instead all samples point to magma going fairly straight up from the point of origin down at the mantle boundary to the surface.
      For instance, all 10 of the Laki fissures produced subtly different lavas, in some cases even detectably different from one cone to another within the same fissure.
      And the Kistufell tephras are different from the Bárdarbunga tephras, so they are not the same.

      So yes, we know that magma do not travell northwest, or southeast, because then it would be the same lava all the way.

      • Great reply.

        Seems my memory from your first attempt was deleted in my brain. Guess that the trivial idea of a central volcano and magma travelling laterally was still in my mind. I must erase this notion.

        Magma travels always upwards, I repeat the mantra now so I dont forget it!
        Actually it makes more sense. That means magma hits bedrock at one point and we could actually draw a map of Iceland of where that boundary lies, how deeply.

        The question is why we don’t see earthquakes occuring at a daily, weekly, monthly basis more evenly spread?

        Why we always see quakes under Godabunga and Katla, but not for example between Torfajokull and Myrdalsjokull. And why we don’t see those quakes for instance SW of Eyjafjallajokull. And why we don’t see those quakes north of Askja? Quakes seem to occur always at the same spots. For example: off coast of Reykjanes, in center of Krisuvik volcanic swarm, a little SW of Hengill, around Myrdalsjokull, west side of Torfajokull… why always at these spots but not in nearby regions?

        Even more: why we dont see those quakes outside of the rift zone? Well, actually we see them, but just located in a few spots, and they tend to be the same ones.

        • Those tend to be along the permanent weaknesses that the central volcanoes form, they are more active since those spots are weaker.

          For the rest, I will get back to it as the Laki series unfold 🙂
          I just want to keep a couple of things secret a little while longer, sorry for the bad showmanship here 😉

          • I have never been to Laki. It is a shame I have never been there while already 3 years in Iceland! I must go there this summer. Roads are still close there.

            • Do you remember how deep are the rivers to ford to both Laki and Veidivotn? I was thiking driving there this summer (with a 4wd of course). Most Icelanders I have asked they haven’t been there…

            • We had no problem going over in the terrain trucks to Laki, I would say about two feet of water to ford. But to Veidivötn there are bridged roads leading to at least the two easternmost fissures, I think even further in. But, when saying Veidivötn it is not really like Laki, there are more then ten fissure lines.

  3. The best part…

    High He isotopic ratios (15·3–16·8 R/Ra) combined with low 207Pb/204Pb (15·42–15·43) suggest that the mantle source of the magma is different from that of North Atlantic mid-ocean ridge basalt. Negative Pb anomalies, and positive Nb and Ta anomalies indicate that the source includes a recycled, subducted oceanic crustal or mantle component.

    From Carl’s paper link.

    Coupled with the oddly thick crust of the area (for a volcanic island)… it supports the pancake idea of an area that has one segment of crust laying on top of another segment of crust.

    • Yes, but where does it come from (originate), from Greenlands continental mass,
      or is this old part of Scotland?

    • What was even more interesting was that the forming mantle plume is originating from below the slab graveyard at 670 km. The big thing to note, the FORMATIVE mantle plume.
      Note that the anomalies they are talking about is not the slab sitting directly under Iceland.

      @Islander: So, the slabs could come from anywhere. And the slab directly under Iceland, my guess would be that it is a part that sunk as The Baltic shield ripped apart from northern canada.

      • Ah, no problem. I then know I sit somewhere mid between Nunavik and Helsingfors, if that forms a line 😉 Should be plenty of oil to find off Seyðisfjörður.

        • ROFL!
          Iceland slowly going oilnuts 🙂
          I wish you guys really find it, and lots of it. You are worth it.

    • That subduction slab is probably going to pretty hard to nail down (in origin).

      Just lightly poking around, it seems that there were about three areas of subduction going on in the area over the millions of years from Iapetus Ocean closing up, then Orogenic phases pushing up several mountain ranges, then the rifting and splitting into a new Atlantic Ocean. You’re looking at about 600 million years of stuff bumping around in the area.

      • Yepp, and then we have the 670 km slab morgue down there, and those could have been from any part of the world. There is just no way of calculating from where those came from.

        What really got my goat spanking around is the referense that the mantleplume is in a formative process. The logic in the paper is flawless. So, what on earth happened to the Alpha Ridge plume? The one previously believed to be the one under Iceland… Could a hotspot loose its plume? Was there a plume to beginn with? Could a plume wander of from the hotspot? Is it an entirely different hotspot? If so, where on earth did the Alpha Ridge Hotspot and plume hark off to?
        One thing is sure, Iceland will get more eruptive as the plume continues to blossom upwards.

        I am most discombobulated (one of the English englishes most useful words, it is like befuddled, but on steroids)

        • Ah, but there is a stronger more versatile word… but we can’t really use it and expect to be taken for more than riff raff.

          What could make a hot-spot loose it’s plume? I would hazard that a floater could have drifted over top of it. Sort of like a closing the damper on a fireplace. The smoke (heat) then wafts out into the living room/den and everybody scrambles to get a window open to let it out and get some air. Then someone that is a bit brighter than every one else douses the fire and checks the vent.

          • So you’re suggesting a chunk of subducting plate might have drifted over the plume and temporarily disrupted the plume’s flow?

        • Ah Carl, you have come up with my favourite word, discombobulated! Disconcert or confuse, just like may things do to me on here.
          My other favourite word is transmogrify. Nothing to do with changeable cats. (moggies)

  4. Another comment to reinforce what happens in Iceland: this weekend when I hiked Skjalbreidur I clearly realized the misleading picture of naming central volcanoes. This is what I saw: a lot of several fissure swarms/ridges parellel to each other, with marks of eruptions everywhere, ponctuated along that rift. This is north of Hengill, I can count at least 4 or 5 such fissural regions, with perfect alignment of many old eruptions. One such fissure is just a few kms from the next parallel one.

    Does the concept of central volcano makes much sense? Dont think so. Magma seems to erupt anywhere it wants. The problem is that we cannot see the entire pathway of magma from the hotspot into all these volcanoes across Iceland, so we do not know what really happens.

    • Other than that I always love to read your posts on Icelandic volcanism! 🙂 Don’t get me wrong despite my criticism 😉

    • Yes, the central volcano makes a lot of sense if you just see them as a part of the every day business of the fissure swarm. Just go back and reread the prequel and the first part of Laki series and it should get clearer.

  5. Thanks for the article Carl – very interesting to learn about the smaller fry in the area. That landscape is awesome in its barrenness. I feel a bit sorry for little Kistufell but maybe places like that will surprise us, As Irpsit says, magma erupts where it wants and if the system is active below, then from little acorns oak trees grow. Perhaps Kistufell might be a future Bardarbunga! And what I am trying to say is I think you are right, Carl. It is always worth watching the smaller and more mysterious Icelandic volcanoes as well as the biggies.

    • Sadly I think that poor little Kistufell is slowly dying, what we are seeing are the last twitches of a volcanic system closing down. But, there are more out there. And some that are most likely forming as we speak 🙂

    • No doubt about that islander. I always know that one day (perhaps most of them not in our lifetimes) but there will be large rift lava eruptions in a few places in Iceland, that have not erupted for quite a few centuries.

      These include, that region near Kistufell (which has the mark of very large lava eruptions in the past), also around north of Hengill. And also around Krisuvik area. I expect eruptions at these spots some time within the next centuries.

    • maybe ice is melting, agree with yourself.

      Looks like something was picked up in the area. Thank again for posting Carl, have to say that this blog and all the posters, help me allot and I am picking a little bit up now.

      • What is picked up right now is the second large Crete earthquake.
        I am actually having a problem with saying that this is a main thrust afterchock thing. It looks fairly a lot as a quake swarm instead. Obviously a tectonic one, but still more of a swarm since it started before the first large one, and then have just roled on… with a second large quake now.

    • One time in an absolutely clear sky day, I was just 2km from Myrdalsjokull edge and I could swear there was this permanent sort of steam coming out from that spot in Myrdalsjokull exactly where the swarm was located. I dont expect of course to see steam coming out at Myrdalsjokull, but also to point out that the main river draining the glacier was also smelling of sulphur when I saw that event. That same day, steam coming out of the main vent at Eyjafjallajokull was also identical, but that was of course expected. As the ground is still hot there. I know glaciers can play visual tricks, fogs, clouds, drifting snow… there is no way of confirming or denying this steam-thing unless someone goes there in person to that exact spot, on the west edge of Myrdalsjokull glacier.

      • To be honest… If there would be one spot in Iceland actually mysteriously steaming I would pick that spot. And I would not either be surprised if it smelt sulphury. But, as you say, it could have been a fog band and the sulphur smell could have been something wafting from Eyja.
        But, it is a very interesting spot.

        • No the smell was from one of the rivers draining Myrdalsjokull, the river is called Fremri-Emstruá. I was crossing that river and the steam thing I saw it a little bit later as I walked towards Thorsmork and I looked east towards Myrdalsjokull. You can’t absolutely smell anything from Eyjafjallajokull, not even if you are in the glacier itself (unless you walk right to one of its vents).

          Besides that, the river that drains Solheimarjokull (just beneath Godabunga) always always smells of sulphur, but trong geothermal activity is well known to exist beneath that glaciated spot, just a little bit south of Godabunga. Supposedly the Vedde ash comes from an eruption around that spot, from what I read.

          And of course, anytime there is a jokullhlaup the flooding rivers will smell the same too. But that is temporary usually.

          • Interesting.
            As I have said before, if I could get my hands on some Vedde ash I would be a happy camper. If it is actually coming from Godabunga it would be awesome to test it.

            • Tephrabase has their references listed for each data set. If needed, you could easily track down the researcher that had done the analysis .

            • I think the Vedde ash is only present at very rare spots in Iceland (or not at all) in spots that were not under a glacier at that time (almost none of the current coastal locations of Iceland). But the ash is widespread across Scandinavia and also present in Scotland and Denmark.

              My region soil profiles do not see any Vedde ash. The soil profile ends at around 6000-8000 BC, where soil and ash layers turn into clay (from glacial times) and bedrock half a meter below it.

            • Hogstorpsmossen, Ostergotland, Sweden

              Vedde Tephra
              Site: Hogstorpsmossen
              Depth: 7.17 – 7.18 metres
              Profile: Profile 1
              Profile depth: 7.20 metres
              Profile type: Russian peat corer

              Bjorck, J. and Wastegard, S. (1999) Vegetational changes and tephrochronology in eastern middle Sweden during the last glacial-interglacial transition. Journal of Quaternary Science 14, 399-410..

            • Vedde is allegedly from Katla. It does show up as quite silicic. All the Grimsvotn stuff I have found show a silica poor tephra. Of the ones I’ve plotted, most of them indicate Basaltic.

  6. Interesting post, Carl. Has any one looked at P & S wave velocity anomalies for the Kistufell area to see what is underneath?

    • Not in any paper I have seen. But I think they are working on something after the swarm that happpened recently.

    • I bet that the rift is by now closed down and all activity is concentrated to the new cone. All fresh images I have seen seems to be cone oriented showing the strombolian activity. I bet we are seeing a shield volcano being born next to the old one.

  7. Hi, this site may be useful to some. I’ve only skim read it but seems to provide a high level overview with links to more detailed analysis.

    Kistufell is a 4755ft table mountain lying immediately north of Vatnajokull consisting mainly of moderate NMORBs; K. Breddam (J.Pet. 43, 345-373, 2002) finds olivines as magnesian as Fo 89.7 and claims an origin in depleted mantle. As may be seen in the chapter on ORB studies, NMORBs are high degree melts and accordingly low in LILE elements, and there is no need to postulate mantle variations to explain their origin.

  8. Tolbachik is really having a fit tonight. The fountains are several hundred meters high to be visible like that from this angle.

    Image and video hosting by TinyPic


    • It has now been continous for hours without changing. This is not ordinary strombolian explosions. Before when it had those some images have been dark, this are as bright every one of them. So, fire fountains, big ones.

    • And it just doubled in length, guess the mountain just tore open under the stress.
      Notice that it is getting brighter as morning comes, so the fire is actualle less visible then in the previous image.

      Image and video hosting by TinyPic

  9. And thus perhaps the pre-motions to the future pre-runup to what might become something… Do not feed the media hype to much on this please.

    Monday 17.06.2013 10:51:40 64.282 -17.665 5.9 km 0.4 99.0 23.3 km SW of Grímsfjall
    Monday 17.06.2013 09:32:05 64.309 -17.782 0.1 km 1.4 99.0 19.8 km S of Hamarinn
    Monday 17.06.2013 05:36:44 64.320 -17.721 0.1 km 2.1 99.0 19.1 km SSE of Hamarinn
    Monday 17.06.2013 04:36:58 64.219 -18.121 0.1 km 1.7 99.0 17.5 km NNE of Laki

    No way to be quiet about it now. Some people have probably noticed that we have not talked so much about the anomalies as we normaly would have done. The reason is that we where waiting for it to be to apparant. Ie, I was waiting for the quakes to start showing up. No need to feed the Daily Fail unduly.

    Remember, it is at least months, but more likely years or even decades untill it happens, or things just quiet down and nothing happens.

    • I should though point out the these earthquakes are shallow, they are therefore not magmatic in any way. They are most likely caused by isostatic rebound that affects the acumulated straind in the area just below the icelayer of the Glacier. I would have been worried if they had popped up down at 18 to 30 km depth.

      • Does any one know how high the vent is? the hill is 3085 meters if the active vent is half way up the hill a good estimate in it was tossing a spray about 500 meters high in the air

        • But isn’t 3085 m the height above sea level? In which case it is on a plain which is lord knows how many m above sea level, so it won’t be 3085 m that you can see in the pics as the height of the volcano. You need to know the height above sea level of the plain from which it rises, and subtract that to get the ‘true’ height of the volcano. Then you’ll have to scale down your estimates for the height of the fountains. Not so impressive then – still impressive, but not 500 m impressive.

          • measuring the images i have the max plume was about 2 cm above the ridgeline
            the top of the hill from the same point as the eruption base that can be seen is 3cm
            i assumed the eruption point to be about 1500 meters below the peak
            lots of room for error i know but i think in the ball park

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