Jan Mayen: volcano in the freezer


Norway is a country best known for its history, oil, mountains, and an egalitarian attitude to life. Volcanoes are somewhat lacking in this list. But Norway does indeed have one active volcano, given to it by the League of Nations. It is located on the arctic island of Jan Mayen, which became a Norwegian possession, although it is a bit closer to Iceland than to Norway. It is possibly the least studied piece of real estate in Europe.

The island

Jan Mayen is 54 km long and has an area of 380 square km. The climate is cold maritime, and the weather is mostly fog, wind and drizzle. The island consists of two parts. The larger northern part is dominated by the volcano called Beerenberg, 25 km wide and over 2200 meters tall. Beerenberg may be the tallest mountain in the world with a Dutch name! Towards the southwest is a narrow peninsula, 6 km wide and 600 meter high, connected to the northern part by a 2km wide, low isthmus. The inhabited (if not fully habitable) part of the island is the peninsula. The main town is called, somewhat optimistically, Olonkin City, with a population of 15 men and 3 women. People are allowed to live on the island for a maximum of one year.

Jan Mayen may already have been known to the Vikings. Even so, its official discovery was only in 1614. One of the co-discovers was captain Jan May; the island was later named after him. Whaling depleted the natural resources quicker than you can say ‘economic benefit’. The region became economically nonviable within decades and the island was left largely alone until around 1880. There is little flora (Spitsbergen, although much further north, and Greenland are gardens of Eden in comparison), and all terrestrial animals (musk ox, and a dark variety of polar fox) were driven to extinction by Norwegian trappers. Polar bears used to be present but are now only rarely able to reach the island due to the retreating sea ice. The island was declared a nature reserve in 2010, with severe restrictions on (sparse) tourist visits. It is not obvious why it was made a nature reserve – perhaps there are plans to re-establish an eco-system? The reserve protects the volcano, but volcanoes tend not to protect their own environment particularly well!

The volcano

Click for full resolution. Norsk Polarinsitutt, 1996. For an interactive map see http://topojanmayen.npolar.no/

Click for full resolution. Norsk Polarinsitutt, 1996. For an interactive map see http://topojanmayen.npolar.no/


Whilst all of Jan Mayen has a volcanic origin, the main volcano is the beautiful Beerenberg. It is the northernmost active volcano in the world (discounting any beneath sea level) and the 5th highest volcano in Europe. Beerenberg is covered in impressive glaciers, which until recently reached the sea. They are now retreating and only one calving glacier, Weyprecht, remains. The central crater is 1 km wide, is covered in snow, and is the source of the Weyprecht glacier which flows through a breach in the crater wall.

Beerenberg volcano is in fact fairly active. There were eruptions in 1732, 1818, and possibly 1851, and in the 20th century in September 1970 and January 1985. (Wikipedia and other sites mention an eruption in 1973 but this appears to be incorrect.) Ancient eruptions are recorded in the Greenland ice. Earthquakes occur occasionally, including a magnitude 4.8 earlier this year. Fumarole activity in the crater is common, but the central crater is probably blocked by a cold plug, and all recorded eruptions have been from rifts in the flanks. The mountain is very poorly studied and visits are rare. It is very hard to reach, with the glacier being almost too crevased to be climbable, and the mountain is often invisible due to the perpetual cloud. Some Martian volcanoes may be better known than Beerenberg!

Before the 1970 eruption, the mountain was in fact not considered an active volcano, despite the old reports of eruptions. The 1970 eruption was not noticed even by the people living 30km away but was only discovered days later, from a plane when the eruption column breached the cloud level. The eruption was preceded by earthquakes. It occurred from a 6km long fissure along the eastern side of Beerenberg. The fissure trended northeast, from 600m height at one end to near sea level at the other. There were four main vents along the fissure. It lasted four months, and erupted about 0.5 km3 of lava. On reaching the sea, the flows temporarily added 4 km2 to the island. The lava heated the sea along the island from the usual near-freezing to nearly 30C.

The 1985 eruption occured at the northern tip of the island and was brief, lasting just 40 hours. The older eruptions in 1732 and 1818 occurred at the southern side of Beerenberg. The southern ridge has not erupted for the past 10,000 yr. A 1973 study found indications for three small magma chambers, beneath the south, central, and north parts of the island, consistent with the places of the youngest-looking lava flows and cinder cones.

utbruddThe 1970 eruption (T. Siggerud)

Jan Mayen’s lavas are basaltic. The north and south are somewhat different: the north has Mg-rich basalts, whilst the south has more evolved basalt such as trachyte, and ryolite. There is a 200-m thick plinian deposit in the south, evidence of past caldera formation. The southern part of the island looks like a late stage of an older volcano. One model sees Jan Mayen Island as migrating volcanism from south to north. At first the volcanism is characterized by mantle derived magma, namely ankaramites. Prolonged activity eventually leads to caldera formation. Post caldera activity is characterized by evolved basalts and trackites. The south has gone through this evolution but the north is still at an early stage.


(1. Extracted from Google maps. 2. Lars Tveito, 2013: Geological Development of the Jan Mayen Micro Continent and its Continental Margins. Click for a larger map)

Jan Mayen is one of the few places where the mid-ocean spreading ridge breaches the surface. Jan Mayen is located near the termination of the Mohns mid-ocean ridge, where it reaches a transform fault called the Jan Mayen Fault Zone. Places where the mid-ocean ridges reach the surface are commonly associated with transform faults.

Jan Mayen Island is the tip of an ice berg. Under water, there is a much larger elevated area, distinct from the spreading ridge. The area extends 300 kilometers towards the south; Jan Mayen island is located near its northern end. To the south it eventually becomes obliterated by the more recent Iceland shelf. This elevated area is called the Jan Mayen microcontinent, Jan Mayen Ridge or Jan Mayen shelf – pick your choice.


The region was at one time located at the heart of the supercontinent Pangea, which formed 300 million years ago. Africa and America started to separate about 175 million years ago, but in the north the crust stretched by some 60 kilometers and subsided, but did not yet break. The subsidence formed a shallow sea, source of the later oil and gas deposits. A brief phase of volcanic activity finally heralded the separation of Greenland and Europe, around 50-55 million years ago, completing the demise of Pangea. There was an extensive but short-lived flood basalt event on Greenland around this time. After the separation, Jan Mayen found itself part of Greenland. The original break-up in this region is often attributed to the Iceland plume popping up underneath an already weakened crust.

The spreading centre at the time was the Aegir Ridge. Aegir spreading slowed down dramatically around 43 million years ago, when a new rift inside Greenland/Jan Mayen developed. The Jan Mayen microcontinent, partly covered by the earlier flood basalts, finally broke off 25 million years ago. Unlike the break-up of Pangea, this break happened without major volcanism: the mantle below the area had grown too cool. The Aegir spreading ridge went extinct, and the currently active (non-volcanic) Kolbeinsey Ridge formed. The microcontinent had jumped plate.

The Jan Mayen shelf rose above water between 30 and 20 million years ago but has been submerged since and is currently 500-1000 meter below sea level. Oil and gas reservoirs are considered likely, due to the close geological relation to the Norwegian continental shelf with its (now heavily depleted) oil deposits. But no exploratory drilling has yet taken place.

The case of the missing hotspot


From Storey et al. 2003, Geology, Volume 32 page 173. ‘EG’ stands for East Greenland. The composition of the Jan Mayen lavas (shown as yellow) are intermediate between Iceland (pink) and Greenland (blue/green) lavas.

Lava fields formed on East Greenland episodically over the next 40 million years, until about 13 million years ago. This was long after the plume had moved away (to Iceland, to be precise): the later volcanism had a different origin. The isotopic compositions of these lavas shows a mix of Icelandic magma and melted ancient crust. The Icelandic magma could date from the Pangea break-up, stored and solidified in the lower crust. The East Greenland lavas come from a later partial melt of this lower crust. The melt could have been caused by new heat from below, or a decrease in pressure from above. The decrease in pressure is considered more likely: it can be caused by erosion, crustal extension, or by the transform fault.

Jan Mayen Island is only 700,000 years old, and is purely volcanic. In the pressure-decrease model, Jan Mayen Island is a consequence of the transform fault; the fact that it is sitting on top of the microcontinent of the same name is accidental but it helped in reaching the surface.

The purported Jan Mayen hotspot remains missing-in-action. Most likely it never existed, but instead it is an imprint of activity of the Iceland hotspot a long time ago. But this is a volcano which guards its secrets well. It may still surprise us.


Further reading



90 thoughts on “Jan Mayen: volcano in the freezer

  1. Many Thanks to Albert for this fine post. I have been tied up over the last two days dealing with a site move for a client.

    The only thing I can really add to this is that Jan Mayen is actually the tiny tip of the Jan Mayen micro-continent. It is possible that shards of old crust may be the source for some of the odd magma’s that Hekla is known to produce.

    • Thanks Bill! Who took the rain and clouds away?? The wind is there though.

  2. Apologies for the outage, I think this was server side and outwith our control.

    • I’d say so Albert! They’d look at it like a challenge for some land, and sea, scaping

      • They would see this as an opportunity. The Gulf is crying out for a dam from Florida via Cuba to the Yucatan.

        • That would put England in a freezer. The straits that would be blocked are the main path of the Gulf Stream. Iceland would have to change it’s name to IceCube.

    • The biggest problem is that the Mississippi river is leveed all the way to the Gulf. The opportunity for meanders redistributing the sediment is very rare. In fact, it is quite likely that the Mississippi would have shifted to an older channel, different that it currently takes past New Orleans had it not been for the levee system. (Atchafalaya River)

      c.2500 BC: Bayou Teche became the main course of the Mississippi.
      c.800 BC: The Mississippi diverted further east.
      c.200 AD: Bayou Lafourche became the main course of the Mississippi.
      c.1000 AD: The Mississippi’s present course took over.
      1833 to Nov 1873: The Great Raft (a huge logjam in the Atchafalaya River) was cleared. The Atchafalaya started to capture the Mississippi and to become its new main lower course.
      1963: The Old River Control Structure was completed, controlling how much Mississippi water entered the Atchafalaya.

      The Corps completed construction on the Old River Control Structure in 1964 to prevent the main channel flow of the Mississippi River from altering its current course to the Gulf of Mexico through the natural geologic process of avulsion.[3][8] Historically, this natural process has occurred about every 1,000 years, and is overdue. Some researchers believe the likelihood of this event increases each year, despite artificial control efforts.

      And one thing New Orleans doesn’t want, is to have the Mississippi abandon it like it did in Vickburg Mississippi. Vicksburg was salvaged a bit by the Corps of Engineers moving the Yazoo River in 1903 down through the old channel past the town, keeping access to the river.

      And specifically about Bayou Lafourche; formerly a Mississippi River outlet, but was dammed at Donaldsonville in 1905. The dam cut off nourishment and replenishment of a huge wetland area of central Louisiana. It changed the formerly flowing bayou into a stagnant ditch.

    • Redirecting Silt: To maintain navigability, the Corps regularly dredges the river, but Robert Twilley, professor of oceanography and coastal science at Louisiana State University, claims the Corps “wastes millions of cubic feet per year of sediment that’s tossed into the ocean. Instead we should transport those dredged materials by pipeline, and spew silt from the river over the coastal floodplain to nourish the landscape.” Since 1990, the Corps has initiated dozens of such projects, although their scope and impact remain small when compared with the natural processes of the river. Kerry St. Pé, director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, advocates 36-in. pipelines to carry 70 million cubic yards of dredged silt annually from the Mississippi west to vanishing wetlands.

      Debunking the Myths of Hurricane Katrina: Special Report

      The only thing I can really add to that article, is that the US Army Corps of Engineer had recently been involved in litigation with the contractor that had worked on the levee. The Corps had been sued due to cost over-runs incurred by the contractor since the geological analysis that the Corps had provided did not show the ground to be as unstable as the contractor had discovered. This led to a problem in keeping the concrete panels aligned as the ground kept shifting, and necessitated rework to get them in compliance with the Corps specifications. The Corps of Engineers judge ruled against the contractor. (like that’s a surprise)

      To err is human, to really screw things up, you need a Government.

  3. It’s nice to see a post about the only volcano active Norway have now :-). However, there are reports that says that Norway have had several other volcanoes (that are dead or not active today) some billion years ago aswell.

    One of them are in the ‘Vøring’ zone as you can see here:

    You can read more about it here in this PDF file (on page 2) under where it says ‘The world’s third largest supervolcano’: http://www.ngu.no/FileArchive/122/Infoark_anualreport_screen.pdf

    It’s categorized as a massive supervolcano (3rd biggest super volcano in the world). The crater there are massive. It’s 40×50 km wide.

    Now i’m not sure if there are enough info about that super volcano in Norway that it can be used to make an article about that one aswell?

    • 55 million years ago was around the time Europe and Greenland broke apart. That was along the Aegir ridge, not far from this volcano. So my guess would be that the two are related, and that this volcano is part of the activity at this time. The Aegir ridge was the spreading centre for a while, but went extinct later.

  4. Any moderator here that can check my earlier post that haven’t gone through moderation yet?

    It says this: Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    27/08/2015 at 15:09

    Edit: Must have something to do with the security problems the server host had. Be that as it may, now it’s approved / H

  5. Apparently, Erika is the “Bill the Cat” of tropical storms. Despite everything bad happening that could happen… it’s still alive… Sort of.

    • And they are well spaced out as well. It looks like the pattern we saw in the buildup and during the eruption when several as I recall were able to predict when the next quake would be.

    • I’ll just repeat what I replied elsewhere 🙂

      Apart from the three very deep ones at Dreki (Askja), 18 km, plus a few deep ones widely separated in time and space around Bardarbunga, it’s all tectonic in all probability. Resettling/cooling still goes on at Bardarbunga and will do so for a long time yet.

  6. BUAHAHAH!!!

    Weather twit on TV states “these islands have been having drought conditions so the rain will be quite welcome”

    Not at 4″ per hour you idiot. That rate can easily flood the most innocuous looking stream. It’s also typical of tropical storms making landfall. (even more so when they hit a mountain range)

    This is over at the island of Dominica from this “beneficial rain” storm he is talking about. I’m not sure what we are looking at, but it might be a drainage sluice that can’t handle the water load.


    • Note: My laughter is directed at the idiocy of the reporter. Dominica and the other victims deserve our prayers and best wishes.

      This used to be a road. Now it’s a river. (Turn your volume down. Lots of screaming and yelling)


      • Might be stream with a source in hills / mountains. The walls you can see might be part if flood defence for high water from heavy rain. Seen something similar for Spring / Summer water run off from melting snow or very heavy rainfall in the Alps.

        • I can see that for the first video, but I’m pretty sure the second one was a road.

          • I have driven Florida and coastal areas of SE US numerous times. Even during non hurricane times the rains can be ferocious. I have driven in rains where visibility is about one car length in front. I can not imagine what it is like during hurricane! And I prefer not to experience the same. lol

            Yep GL, extreme rain rates are often more damaging than a useful blessing.

          • I have found myself outside during some of those downpours with a shovel to make sure that the drain gap in the monkey grass around the driveway is not clogged up with leaves so that it drains away from the house. Typically, the wife thinks I’m nuts when doing that. The “one car length” rains are what really takes it out of you mentally when you are driving. Even though you have backed down on speed, you could still hit a pocket of water that lofts a tire and puts you into an unstable driving condition. When you feel a tire start to lift off, it scares the hell out of you.

            My other reason for being outside during landfall is to keep an eye out for fast spin up tornadoes. Seeing it coming is what saved our arse in a super-cell storm in Mississippi. I had time to run and kill the main electrical breakers for the house before ordering my mom and wife into a sheltered position. What went through my head was the horrifying possibility that the house still had tube and post wiring. It didn’t, since my dad had rewired it years before my grandparents passed away. The roof on the front half of the house came off and landed just the other side of my truck. The only damage that it sustained was where a 2×4 had hit the passenger side window and scored the glass. I attribute the odd pressure differentials for it not breaking the window. In the aftermath, I learned to hate FEMA. We ate quite well via a loc
            al fish house that supplied free catfish dinners until FEMA showed up, then it was baloney and dry bread. As for the debris, well, give a redneck a few hours with a chain-saw and the roads were back open. I saw that “redneck with a chainsaw” effect again when Hurricane Ivan nailed Pensacola.

            As for the wife, well, she is not too fond of storms of any kind. I’ve ridden Hurricanes out on Land, and been chased halfway across the Atlantic by them, (it doubled back on us as we were making a transit) and ridden them out at sea (Ewa in 1982 south of Hawaii), so they don’t really scare me that much, through I do respect the power and stand in awe at the magnificence of them. It also has instilled in me a deep desire to study of whatever storm is out and about. Mainly because I don’t want to get caught unprepared. As a rule, I keep 15 gallons of potable water available at all times, and if there is a threatening storm, a sack of potatoes. I can live off a sack of potatoes for quite a while. (Did that after Ivan for almost 4 weeks.) At 146 feet above sea level, I’m not worried about storm surge, but winds and fast spin-up tornadoes do worry me.

          • You’re right; I was referring to the first video.

            In the second, depending on how well it was constructed, the road may have survived; the cars would not fare too well. Debris carried down by the flood would do damage downstream. Hope the buildings are solid.

  7. Is that tremor I see at God or weather? Also looks like a stronger than (recent) normal quake nearby, seen best currently at SLY … but perhaps too early to judge.

    • Most likely (hydrothermal) tremor. It’s been going on like that at Godabunga for ages ever since the magmatic intrusion that formed the cryptodome a couple of decades(?) ago. The problem with Iceland is that because of the geological setting, there always so much going on beneath the surface; tectonic spreading, hydrothermal activity, magma movement, that it is difficult to tell what is really significant (very rare) and what is “run-of-the-mill” (almost everything). 🙂

      • Indeed! It must make IMOs work frustrating at times, when a curve ball is thrown and the culprit decides to suddenly buck the trend and do something unexpected … Or nothing 😉 But I guess that’s also what makes it so exciting … and demanding for risk management and the local authorities. Thanks!

  8. Well, the official statement on Erika is that it broke up and turned back into a tropical wave. It has a chance to reform north of cuba, but the probability is placed at less than 40%. The water there is hot enough, but an old front is still in the area and can interfere with that process. Right now the guidance models point in my general direction, but its not really committed to any specific action.

  9. Goodday y’all,

    Looks like we have some decent activity on and around Vatnajökull.
    Any idea’s?

    • Apart from the three very deep ones at Dreki (Askja), 18 km, plus a few deep ones widely separated in time and space around Bardarbunga, it’s all tectonic in all probability. Resettling/cooling still goes on at Bardarbunga and will do so for a long time yet.

  10. Are the Icelandic tectonic plates spreading faster with the current eq activity?

    Is it just me or is Cotapaxi still on the increase in terms of activity?

  11. OT, {my favorite side activity}

    Trophy acquisition has been with us at least as long as the Windmill Hill Culture. Evidently, the “Open Plan” style of housing has been around much longer…


    Ref Open Plan via Frank Lloyd Wright: “Wright’s designs were based on a centralized kitchen which opened to other public spaces of the home where the housewife would be “more hostess ‘officio’, operating in gracious relation to her home, instead of being a kitchen mechanic behind closed doors.”

    And, a bit of pulmonary edema 3500 years ago.

    (found via Explorator)

  12. Is there a big increase in activity at Cotapaxi or is it just a change of wind direction making it look more?

    • I’ve been watching Cotopaxi on the webcams (occasionally) for nearly two weeks. The weekend before last and for a few days after, the volcano was chugging away quite frequently (like every minute) with ash going up a few thousand feet. It seemed to me to quieten down somewhat but still actively erupting, and I guess it still is but it’s been too cloudy the last few days to get a good view. The webcam downwind of the volcano still shows what looks like ashfall dropping out of the clouds.


      The other ‘live’ webcam with the annoyingly loud advert was this evening panning around it’s local environment, which appears to be an airport. When the weather is clear this webcam zooms in and a good view of Cotopaxi can be had.


      Better mute the speakers for this one though, it is a bit on the loud side!

      • When clouds cover, do take a look at the helicorders!

        (BREF : BHZ This image should change as the host page refreshes, i.e. a mirror 🙂 )

        Today’s plot shows that she’s in an “on-and-off” mode. When th helicorder shows next to nothing, pressure is building up. then something lets go and you have all that lovely noise as she erupts.

        PS. Volcanoes are female. If not in actually in gender, at least in temperament and predictability. That’s why we love them I guess! (The volcanoes)

        • Nothing wrong with the females either. Just don’t get caught looking at one by her eight year old son. Lycra was meant to be watched, and she was doing a good job of it… My guess is that she was showing off that she had gotten her figure back after dealing with the birth of the eight year old.

      • I get a kick out of Cámara Callo Donosoout where the pig keeps poking its head out of the door in the building at lower right – checking out the ash situation.

        • Me too! I always look closely to see if the pig is still there, and I’m happy when I catch a glimpse of it (and it worries me somewhat if I don’t see it).

    • I had to go back and read that, at first I thought it said “Silly Shark” and not “Silky Shark”…

    • Mopshell has been busy writing diaries at Daily Kos; don’t know about the other nice lady from the UK (Diana Barnes?).

      Mike Wood

        • Thank you Echo and Tam. I wonder what name Mopshell writes under? I occasionally look at Daily Kos. I also see, blush, that Diana is listed as part of the dragon crew – I should have known that. Too bad they are so busy that they no longer comment, their humour kept me chuckling.

  13. It seems the titular volcano made some nods of approval towards this article.

    Two rather large earthquakes were recorded on Jan Mayen earlier today. Through due to a lack of equipment present, not much can be said about the nature of them. And if they are part of a swarm.


    • Thanks for the heads-up! But it rather depends on one’s interpretation of the word “close”. 300 km may be a close pass for an asteroid transiting Earth orbit but still is quite a challenging walk and in relation to volcanoes as close as Robinson Crusoe and R.C.Robertson-Glasgow though the confusion may be understandable with the latter. 🙂

      • These quakes would have been part of the Kolbeinsey ridge, the spreading ridge between Greenland and Scandinavia. It is not supposed to be volcanically active but who knows? Interesting things do happen in the deep.

  14. Apologies for the outage, it appears that the latest WP update had fiddled with how the posts are published, our team of highly trained hamsters have managed to track down and eliminate the problem.

    Thanks to Ruapehu who emailed us to inform us of the issue.


    • Weirdness abounds. I just got an Email from my broker titled “Don’t Panic”. Probably the last thing you want to see is something from someone who has control of some of your money yammering about “panic”… so I did. It had me thinking that the market drove off a cliff (again.)

      • Well, that would be interesting… but I don’t even think he knows that he is sitting on top of an ancient volcano there in Mississippi.

    • According to the newsbulletin the volcanoe erupted 10 days ago, the fourth time this year, and still a lava flow is ongoing.

  15. E/V Nautilus is diving about 90 miles west of Vancouver near the spreading center of the Juan De Fuca Plate and the Pacific plate. Incredible hydrothermal vent features/spires/chimneys.


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