The Land of Fire and Ice
Iceland is a country of extreme contrasts. Widely known as “The Land of Fire and Ice” Iceland is home to some of the largest glaciers in Europe, and some of the world’s most active volcanoes. Iceland is also the land of light and darkness. Long summer days with near 24-hours of sunshine are offset by short winter days with only few hours of daylight.
Geography and Geology
Iceland is relatively large island in the Atlantic Ocean. The nearest neighboring country is Greenland, just 286 km (180 miles) away, followed by the Faroe Islands 420 km (260 miles), Scotland 795 km (495 miles) and Norway 950 km (590 miles).
Iceland is located near the Arctic Circle, and in fact, half the land-mass of Grímsey, an island off the north coast of Iceland, lies within the Arctic Circle. It takes approximately five hours to fly from New York to Reykjavík, and three hours from London.
Iceland is the second largest island in Europe, following Great Britain, and the 18th largest island in the world. The island itself stretches across 103,000 km2 (40,000 square miles), which is about the same size as Hungary and Portugal, or Kentucky and Virginia. In its widest parts Iceland measures 500 km (305 miles) east to west and 300 km (185 miles) north to south. The coastline is 4,970 km, and Iceland maintains a 200 nautical-miles exclusive economic zone. It is possible to drive right around the island on the lovely coastal route on a 10-day holiday.
With almost 80% of the country uninhabited, much of Iceland’s terrain consists of plateaux, mountain peaks, and fertile lowlands. There are many long, deep fjords and glaciers, including Europe’s largest, Vatnajökull. The landscape is characterized by waterfalls, geysers, volcanoes, black sand beaches and otherworldly steaming lava fields.
Iceland’s highest peak is Hvannadalshnjúkur, standing 2,119 m (6,852 ft) over sea level. More than 11 percent of the country is covered by glaciers. Its landmass comprises glaciers (12,000 km2), lava (11,000 km2), sand (4,000 km2), water (3,000 km2) and pasture (1,000 km2).
Formed about 25 million years ago, Iceland is one of the youngest landmasses on the planet, and consequently home to some of the world’s most active volcanoes. The island ows its existence to a large volcanic hotspot created by a fissure in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the Eurasian and American tectonic plates meet. Even today, the country is growing by about 5 cm per year, as it splits wider at the points where the two tectonic plates meet. The last volcanoes to erupt were Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 and Grímsvötn in 2011. Iceland even has the world’s newest island, Surtsey, formed in a volcanic eruption in 1963.
People and Language
Iceland was the last country to be settled in Europe, when emigrants from Scandinavia and the British Isles first came to live on the island in the ninth and tenth century. It remains the most sparsely populated country of the continent with less than three inhabitants per square kilometer. Shaped by the unrelenting forces of nature, Iceland’s harsh natural environment has bred a resilient nation that has learned to exist under extreme conditions, and harness the natural resources they create for its own prosperity.
Today, Iceland is a progressive, modern society that continuously ranks at the top of measurements for quality of life, such as the United Nations Human Development Index. Iceland is annually considered to be one of greenest countries on the planet, due in large parts to its vast renewable energy resources.
The Icelandic language is the cornerstone of Icelandic culture. It has spawned a literary tradition that dates back to the ancient Icelandic Sagas. Violent tales of blood feuds, traditions, family and character. A strong literary tradition still thrives in modern Iceland. and Icelandic authors publish more books per capita than in any other country in the world. Iceland also prides itself of a prospering music scene, a burgeoning film industry, and Icelandic design, that is coming of age.
Icelandic customs and traditions are inspired by centuries long insular existence and a curious mixture of pagan influence on a Christian religion. Icelandic folk tales are ripe with mysticism, ghosts and elves and trolls, and further shaped by the natural forces and a taxing environment.
Icelandic is the official language of Iceland. It is an Indo-European language, belonging to the sub-group of North Germanic languages. It is closely related to Norwegian and Faroese, although there are slight traces of Celtic influence in ancient Icelandic literature.
Icelandic is an insular language, and as such, has not been influenced greatly by other languages. As a result, the language has changed very little from when the country was settled in the ninth and tenth centuries. It did not become markedly different from Norwegian until the 14th century, when Norwegian became increasingly influenced by its neighbouring languages, Swedish and Danish. Because of this resistance to change, texts from the 12th century are still more or less understandable to Icelandic schoolchildren.
Since the 18th century, when the Icelandic language was under threat from Danish influence, a movement of language purism rose, and has since been the dominant linguistic policy in the country. Icelandic does not usually adopt foreign words for new concepts, opting instead to coin new words, or give old words new meaning, to keep the langauge free of outside influence.
A Country of Many Contrasts
Iceland is also a young country with old traditions. In fact, Iceland is the youngest landmass in Europe, and home to the world’s oldest parliament, formed in 930 AD. The parliament’s original location, Thingvellir, is a designated UNESCO world heritage site.
From the moss-covered lava fields in the southwest, through the barren highlands in the center, to the soaring fjords in the northwest, Iceland will attest to the great diversity of landscape and light, taking new forms with every turn in the road and every changing season.
Iceland is home to the largest glaciers in Europe, as well as some of the world’s most active volcanoes, and is widely known as “The Land of Fire and Ice”. But Iceland escapes definition. It is also the land of light and darkness.
Its location, just below the Arctic Circle, makes for long summer days with near 24-hours of sunlight; offset by short winter days with very little sunlight at all. Fortunately, while winters in Iceland are dark, they are relatively mild and play host to one of nature’s most spectacular exhibitions of beauty; the Aurora Borealis.
Clean and Sustainable
In addition to recreational pools, Icelanders enjoy natural hot springs and geothermal lagoons, such as the famous Blue Lagoon and My?vatn Nature Baths, whose high levels of silicates and other minerals have an especially rejuvenating effect on the skin.
The quality of the drinking water in Iceland is also exceptionally good due to a wealth of fresh water rivers that stream down from the mountains and glaciers. In fact, it’s perfectly safe and highly recommended to drink this water straight from the source. Otherwise, it’s still just a pipe away to your tap.
Icelanders have long enjoyed one of the highest life expectancies in the world. There is no definitive explanation for this, but a clean environment and a healthy diet and lifestyle probably have something to do with it.
The Icelandic diet is rich in quality raw materials, farmed, bred and caught in an unpolluted environment, and produced with the utmost care.
The air quality in Iceland is good due to the island’s North Atlantic oceanic climate and steady winds. Furthermore, most of the electricity needs are met with renewable energy sources. Geothermal energy, a much cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, is used to heat more than ninety percent of Iceland’s buildings and most of the swimming pools.