Iceland is a meeting place of the forces of nature which conjure up contrasts with a variety and ingenuity that almost defy belief. Active volcanoes and boiling geothermal springs coexist side by side with glaciers and dramatic eruptions even burst forth from beneath the surface of Europe’s largest ice cap.
This is a grand epic landscape of mountains and deep fjords, black volcanic sands and rugged lava fields, majestic waterfalls and rich earth colours, rock formations so bizarre that they are explained away in legends and local folklore as trolls and giants with lives of their own. But even on the rim of the Artic Circle there are tender sides to nature’s character, in idyllic grassy valleys and plains, colourful coastal towns and villages, peaceful farmsteads and the romantic hues of the midnight sun. Besides a huge variety of native and migrant birds, Iceland’s fauna includes reindeer and foxes on land and whales and seals at sea.
By far the youngest country in Europe from geological perspective, Iceland is literally split down the middle on tectonic plates, one moving towards Europe, the other towards North America, at a centimetre or two a year. An apt setting for the ocean outpost where Vikings would bring their ancient tongue which is still spoken hardly changed today. Iceland was also a stepping-stone to the New World, the starting place for the Viking settlement of Greenland and birthplace of Leif the Lucky, who in the year 1000 became the first European to set foot in North America.
Facts About Iceland
Iceland is an island of 103.000 km2 (39,756 sq.miles), with an average height of 500 m above sea level. Its highest peak, Hvannadalshnjúkur, rises to 2.119 m and over 11 per cent of the country is covered by glaciers, including Vatnajökull, the largest in Europe.
Situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland is a hot spot of volcanic and geothermal activity: 30 post-glacial volcanoes have erupted in the past two centuries, and natural hot water supplies much of the population with cheap, pollution-free heating. Rivers, too, are harnessed to provide inexpensive hydroelectric power.
Out of a population numbering more than 330.000, half live in the capital Reykjavík and its neighbouring towns in the southwest. Keflavík International Airport is located about 50 km from the capital. The highland interior is uninhabited (and uninhabitable), and most centres of population are situated on the coast.
Iceland was settled by Nordic people in the 9th century – tradition says that the first permanent settler was Ingólfur Arnarson, a Norwegian Viking who made his home where Reykjavík now stands. The Icelanders still speak the language of the Vikings, although modern Icelandic has undergone changes of pronunciation and, of course, of vocabulary! Iceland is alone in upholding another Norse tradtion, i.e. the custom of using patronymics rather than surnames; and Icelander´s christian name is followed by his or her father´s name and the suffix -son or -dóttir, e.g. Guðrún Pétursdóttir (Guðrún, daughter of Pétur). Members of a family can therefore have many different “surnames”, which sometimes causes confusion to foreigners!
In 930, the Icelandic settlers founded one of the world´s first republican governments; the Old Commonwealth Age, described in the classic Icelandic Sagas, lasted until 1262, when Iceland lost its independence, and in 1944 the present republic was founded. The country is governed by the Althing (parliament), whose 63 members are elected every four years. four-yearly elections are also held for the presidency; President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson was elected in June 1996 to succeed Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, and was re-elected in June 2000. The head of state plays no part in day-to-day politics.
The economy is heavily dependent upon fishing. Despite effort to diversify, particularly into the travel industry, seafood exports continue to account for nearly three-quarters of merchandise exports and approximately half of all foreign exchange earnings. Yet less than 10 per cent of the workforce is involved in fishing and is processing. The travel industry makes up the second-largest export industry in Iceland. The standard of living is high, with income per capita among the best in the world. The financial sector has been liberalised in recent years. The economy is service-oriented: two-thirds of the working population are employed in the service sector, both public and private. Iceland is a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the European Economic Area (EEC).