Bulletin of Volcanology

, Volume 70, Issue 4, pp 475–493 | Cite as

Katla volcano, Iceland: magma composition, dynamics and eruption frequency as recorded by Holocene tephra layers

  • Bergrún Arna ÓladóttirEmail author
  • Olgeir Sigmarsson
  • Gudrun Larsen
  • Thor Thordarson
Research Article


The Katla volcano in Iceland is characterized by subglacial explosive eruptions of Fe–Ti basalt composition. Although the nature and products of historical Katla eruptions (i.e. over the last 1,100 years) at the volcano is well-documented, the long term evolution of Katla’s volcanic activity and magma production is less well known. A study of the tephra stratigraphy from a composite soil section to the east of the volcano has been undertaken with emphasis on the prehistoric deposits. The section records ∼8,400 years of explosive activity at Katla volcano and includes 208 tephra layers of which 126 samples were analysed for major-element composition. The age of individual Katla layers was calculated using soil accumulation rates (SAR) derived from soil thicknesses between 14C-dated marker tephra layers. Temporal variations in major-element compositions of the basaltic tephra divide the ∼8,400-year record into eight intervals with durations of 510–1,750 years. Concentrations of incompatible elements (e.g. K2O) in individual intervals reveal changes that are characterized as constant, irregular, and increasing. These variations in incompatible elements correlate with changes in other major-element concentrations and suggest that the magmatic evolution of the basalts beneath Katla is primarily controlled by fractional crystallisation. In addition, binary mixing between a basaltic component and a silicic melt is inferred for several tephra layers of intermediate composition. Small to moderate eruptions of silicic tephra (SILK) occur throughout the Holocene. However, these events do not appear to exhibit strong influence on the magmatic evolution of the basalts. Nevertheless, peaks in the frequency of basaltic and silicic eruptions are contemporaneous. The observed pattern of change in tephra composition within individual time intervals suggests different conditions in the plumbing system beneath Katla volcano. At present, the cause of change of the magma plumbing system is not clear, but might be related to eruptions of eight known Holocene lavas around the volcano. Two cycles are observed throughout the Holocene, each involving three stages of plumbing system evolution. A cycle begins with an interval characterized by simple plumbing system, as indicated by uniform major element compositions. This is followed by an interval of sill and dyke system, as depicted by irregular temporal variations in major element compositions. This stage eventually leads to a formation of a magma chamber, represented by an interval with increasing concentrations of incompatible elements with time. The eruption frequency within the cycle increases from the stage of a simple plumbing system to the sill and dyke complex stage and then drops again during magma chamber stage. In accordance with this model, Katla volcano is at present in the first interval (i.e. simple plumbing system) of the third cycle because the activity in historical time has been characterized by uniform magma composition and relatively low eruption frequency.


Tephra Major-elements Magma plumbing system Subglacial eruptions Basalt Iceland Katla volcano 



This paper is based on a Master-study at the Laboratoire Magmas et Volcans (LMV), CNRS-Université Blaise Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand, financed by the French government through a student’s grant (Bourse d´étude no. 20035296). Michelle Veschambre and Jean-Luc Devidal are genuinely thanked for their great help with electron microprobe analyses. We are grateful to Sveinn Jakobsson and Kristi Wallace for their constructive reviews and last but not least we thank Michael A. Clynne for his positive and helpful editing. Financial support for this work was provided by the French-Icelandic collaboration programme “Jules Verne” and the Icelandic Science Foundation.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bergrún Arna Óladóttir
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Olgeir Sigmarsson
    • 1
    • 2
  • Gudrun Larsen
    • 2
  • Thor Thordarson
    • 2
    • 3
  1. 1.Laboratoire Magmas et VolcansUniversité Blaise Pascal and CNRSClermont-FerrandFrance
  2. 2.Institute of Earth SciencesUniversity of IcelandReykjavíkIceland
  3. 3.School of GeoScienceUniversity of Edinburgh, Grant InstituteEdinburghUK

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