Gradual inflation of magma chambers often precedes eruptions at highly active volcanoes. During such eruptions, rapid deflation occurs as magma flows out and pressure is reduced. Less is known about the deformation style at moderately active volcanoes, such as Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland, where an explosive summit eruption of trachyandesite beginning on 14 April 2010 caused exceptional disruption to air traffic, closing airspace over much of Europe for days. This eruption was preceded by an effusive flank eruption of basalt from 20 March to 12 April 2010. The 2010 eruptions are the culmination of 18 years of intermittent volcanic unrest. Here we show that deformation associated with the eruptions was unusual because it did not relate to pressure changes within a single magma chamber. Deformation was rapid before the first eruption (>5 mm per day after 4 March), but negligible during it. Lack of distinct co-eruptive deflation indicates that the net volume of magma drained from shallow depth during this eruption was small; rather, magma flowed from considerable depth. Before the eruption, a ∼0.05 km(3) magmatic intrusion grew over a period of three months, in a temporally and spatially complex manner, as revealed by GPS (Global Positioning System) geodetic measurements and interferometric analysis of satellite radar images. The second eruption occurred within the ice-capped caldera of the volcano, with explosivity amplified by magma-ice interaction. Gradual contraction of a source, distinct from the pre-eruptive inflation sources, is evident from geodetic data. Eyjafjallajökull's behaviour can be attributed to its off-rift setting with a 'cold' subsurface structure and limited magma at shallow depth, as may be typical for moderately active volcanoes. Clear signs of volcanic unrest signals over years to weeks may indicate reawakening of such volcanoes, whereas immediate short-term eruption precursors may be subtle and difficult to detect.