What and where: Iceland is the second largest island in Europe, measuring about 300 miles from west to east and 180 from north to south. It is located in the mid-North Atlantic Ocean, with Greenland as its closest neighbor. Air flights to Europe take about three hours and to the USA, about six hours.|
Population: The population of Iceland is about 275,000 inhabitants Of the total population, approximately 180,000 Icelanders live in the capital of Reykjavík, located in the southwestern corner of the island. The rest of the population lives in towns and villages spread along the coast, the largest centers being Akureyri in the North, Ísafjör›ur in the West and Egilssta›ir in the East. The Central Highlands are completely uninhabited.
Weather and Daylight: Iceland is a sub-Arctic environment, though the proximity of the Gulf Stream tempers the climate. The average temperature in July is 56°F and in January, 32°F. The average precipitation is 31 inches per year. The amount of daylight changes dramatically during the year. The midnight sun of July lights up the land for a full 24 hours a day, but inexorably gives way to the darkness of December, when the nighttime rules and there is but a scant 4 hours of dusky daylight per day.
Government: Iceland is a parliamentary democracy, and its head of state is the president. It is a fully independent nation now, though was under the rule of Denmark until 1944.
Language: Icelandic is the language of Icelanders. In the 800's, the first settlers brought with them this Viking tongue, and it has remained virtually unchanged in Iceland, where physical isolation, widespread literacy, and a national passion for the Sagas, the literature of the Vikings, has kept this ancient language intact and alive.
Currency: The Icelandic Crown, or Kronur, is the officially currency of the land. It is currently worth approximately 88 US cents.
Religion: Lutheran is the state religion of Iceland. Icelandic children receive mandatory religious training in public schools, and priests are state employees.
Geology: No summary of facts on Iceland is complete without mentioning the unusual geology of the country. Iceland is located where two of the colossal plates of the Earth's crust meet, called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Here the forces that shape the planet are active and visible. Iceland has over 200 volcanoes, with an eruption on average every four years. Below the earth's surface are boiling geothermal waters heated by a 'stovepipe' in the earth's mantle. This hot water is harvested to heat 96% of all homes, and fill the many outdoor public swimming pools so luxuriously that swimming is delightful even in the middle of a winter storm! This inexpensive and non-polluting heat also allows huge greenhouses to provide year-round fruits and vegetables for the nation. Geysers, hot springs, bubbling mud pots, and steaming landscapes are evidence of a direct connection to the earth's fiery core.
Why is Iceland called Iceland? What with all the hot springs and erupting volcanoes, one might wonder about the name given to this country. It has certainly not helped the country's image in the world to be called Iceland. In fact, legend has it that it was named by a disgruntled Viking settler who packed his bags and fled the land after a particularly harsh winter, and christened the island to warn others not to bother coming this way. And the cold fact is that there is a lot of ice here. One-ninth of the country is permanently under glaciers. The Vatnajökull glacier in the southeast is the largest icecap in Europe measuring 5000 square miles. This glacier has a volcano under its surface which last erupted in 1996, in a violent spectacle of ash, steam and torrential floods of melted glacial ice. Another location where ice and fire meet is the beautiful Snæfelsnes Glacier in the west, setting for Jules Vernes' Journey to the Center of the Earth. But there is also a surprising lushness in the summer months and a plethora of wildlife that shares this island with humans. Our nearest neighbor, Greenland, is much more deserving of the name 'Iceland', whereas Iceland would be far better described by the name 'Greenland'!
A Very Brief History of Iceland: Iceland was the last country in Europe to be settled when thousands of Vikings made their way here from Norway and England in the 9th and 10th century. They founded a commonwealth in 930, and their national assembly, the Althing, is the oldest surviving parliament in the world. Because of internal feuding, the commonwealth ended in 1262, when Norway took over the rule of Iceland. Control of the country was later passed to the Danes as they absorbed Norway. A national reawakening took place in the 19th century, culminating in a constitution in 1874. Iceland became independent under the Danish crown in 1918, and became a fully independent Republic in 1944.
The Icelandic Sagas: The Sagas comprise tales of adventure and conflict, set in the Viking Age but written down by anonymous Icelandic authors in the 13t and 14th centuries. The action spans the whole known Viking world of the time, but focuses mainly on the unique Viking society in Iceland. The Sagas rank with world's greatest literary treasures, and combine history with dramatic narrative, providing insight into the life of these ancient peoples. Old Icelandic poetry records the old Viking mythologies that are preserved no where else. It would be difficult to overstate the importance that these writings on Icelandic culture. They are read, studied and admired not only by Icelanders but by the world's greatest authors and scholars. They are a rich source of pride and identity for this nation. Many of the actual vellum books and beautifully illustrated medieval manuscripts are preserved and displayed in Reykjavík's Manuscript Institute.
Iceland's Economy: Cod is to Icelanders as oil is to Arabs or coffee to Brazilians. Fishing is not only the country's principal sector, but part of the culture itself. Despite its small population, Iceland ranks 16th in global catch volume, harvesting about 1.5 million tons per year. The principal species harvested in Iceland's pristine waters are cod, haddock, pollock, redfish, shrimp, herring and capelin, as well as aquaculture salmon. But here cod is king, accounting for almost one-third of the national export earnings.
However, in recent years, Iceland has made rapid advancements in other sectors, such as Biotechnology. The country's isolation through the centuries has made it the perfect research grounds for tracing genetic material and making discoveries concerning the heredity of diseases. Furthermore, thermophilic bacteria that thrive in Iceland's hot springs have proven to be important in the development of new and better drugs.
Computer literacy is widespread in Iceland and this is reflected in an expanding information technology industry, with the export of homegrown software ever increasing.
Technological developments related to the harvesting of geothermal power and the uses of geothermal mineral water in the health care fields are expanding every year and may one day become a large sector of the economy in Iceland. Tourism is constantly increasing and becoming an important income-producer for the nation. The unusual purity of the environment here, far from smog-filled cities and industrial centers, holds a strong attraction for the traveler. Even Icelandic drinking water is a treat, having been naturally filtered through layers of porous lava before making its way into the glass, and has become an important export item for this tiny nation.