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The Age of the Igneous Rocks of Iceland


DURING a recent visit to the south-west part of Iceland, one or two points connected with the general geological structure of the island came under my observation, which I do not remember to have seen noticed before, and which seem to me to be of sufficient interest to be put on record. It is well known that the rocks of the island are of very different ages, some going back to the Miocene period, while others are quite of yesterday's date. It is also perhaps a general belief that the volcanic forces may have continued to be more or less active from the time that the older Miocene basalts and tuffs were erupted down to our own day. I doubt very much whether there is any evidence to justify this conclusion, and will presently mention some of the facts which lead to a very strong suspicion that a prolonged period of repose supervened after the accumulation of the Miocene rocks, and before the eruption of the later lavas, &c, had begun. The Miocene group consists of a vast series of basalt-rocks with interbedded layers of palagonitic tuff, &c. These rocks, so far as my observations go, exactly resemble those of the Færöe Islands. The basalt-rocks are chiefly anamesites, but some are true basalts, while others are dolerites. But in the areas traversed by me I saw none so coarse-grained or so highly porphyritic as those which occur so abundantly in Stromöe, Österöe, and other islands of the Færöes. They form lofty plateaux, deeply gashed with gorges, and abruptly truncated, so as to present bold cliffs and precipices to the low grounds at their base, as in the case of the Esja near Reykjavik. Moreover, they appear to be developed chiefly in the maritime districts. Only a glance at these basaltic masses is needed to convince one that they are the mere fragments of what must once have been a most extensive plateau. The Esja, built up chiefly of comparatively horizontal beds of basalt, tuff, &c, rises to a height of nearly 3000 feet above the low tracts at its base. Nor can there be any doubt that these beds formerly stretched far away in all directions, and that they have since been removed by the various agents of denudation from the broad undulating low grounds, over which they may still be traced, sometimes continuously for many miles, at other times in sporadic hills and rising grounds, which peer above the surface of the recent lavas by which they are surrounded. In short, the Miocene basalt-rocks of Iceland present precisely the same features as the similar rock-masses of the Færöes. Like the latter they probably formed at one time a wide elevated table-land, which has since been cut down and worn away—the lofty walls of the Esja, &c, serving to give us some idea of the enormous erosion that has taken place. Now all this vast erosion had been effected before any of the later lavas, agglomerates, tuffs, &c, in the south-west part of Iceland were erupted. In the region between Hafnarfjörd and Krísuvík the lavas have poured through old valleys in the Miocene rocks and spread themselves out over the highly denuded surface of the latter in the opener low grounds. In a word, it is evident that in the south-west part of Iceland a long interval separates the accumulation of the Miocene basalt-series from the eruption of the later volcanic rocks, and I incline to think that the same break in the continuity of volcanic action will be found to hold true for the rest of the island. I believe it will be found that there is no more connection between the display of volcanic activity in Miocene times and that of the present day in Iceland, than there appears to have been between the volcanic action which manifested itself in Scotland at such widely separated periods as those of the Lower Old Red Sandstone and the Carboniferous. Had there been more or less continuous volcanic activity in Iceland from Miocene times down to the present, we might well be surprised that the later volcanic masses are not much more considerable than they are. If we think of the time required for the removal by denudation of some 3000 feet of basalt-rocks, &c, over thousands of square miles, we must be prepared to admit that the volcanic forces cannot have been continuously active. Either they have not been so, or the denuding agents have far surpassed them in energy.


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GEIKIE, J. The Age of the Igneous Rocks of Iceland . Nature 24, 605–606 (1881).

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