Iceland At Glance

Iceland. A pristine wonderland abundant with hot springs, virgin glacial lagoons, breathtaking waterfalls and active volcanoes and geysers. From the long, bright days of summer, to the strange half-light of winter, the Icelandic landscape has a magic all of its own, an endless array of panoramas and startling, natural contrasts to delight the eye and dazzle the senses.

One of Europe's most pristine countries, Iceland is also one of the best-kept secrets: a vast natural playground filled with opportunities for adventure and relaxation backed up by range of quality service and accommodations. From Iceland's protected environs come some of the freshest fish, lamb, and water on Earth.


Geography of Iceland

Iceland is the second-largest island in Europe. The island is located east of Greenland and immediately south of the Arctic Circle, atop the divergent boundary of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the North Atlantic Ocean. It lies about 4,200 km (2,610 mi) from New York City and 860 km (534 mi) from Scotland.

Iceland has extensive volcanic and geothermal activity. The rift associated with the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which marks the division between the European and North American tectonic plates, runs across Iceland from the southwest to the northeast. This geographic feature is prominent at the Þingvellir National Park, where the promontory creates an extraordinary natural amphitheatre. The site was the home of Iceland's parliament, the Alþing, which was first convened in 930.

About half of Iceland's land area, which is of recent volcanic origin, consists of a mountainous lava desert (highest elevation 2,119 m [6,952 ft] above sea level) and other wasteland. Eleven percent is covered by three large glaciers:

Vatnajökull (8300 km²), Langjökull (953 km²), Hofsjökull (925 km²), and several smaller ones: Mýrdalsjökull (695 km²), Drangajökull (199 km²), Eyjafjallajökull (107 km²).

Twenty percent of the land is used for grazing, and only 1% is cultivated. An ambitious reforestation program is under way. Fossilized tree pollen and descriptions by the early settlers indicate that prior to human settlement in the 8-900s, trees covered about 30-40% of the island. Today, however, there are only small patches of the original birch forests left, the most prominent are Hallormsstaðaskógur and Vaglaskógur.

The inhabited areas are on the coast, particularly in the southwest; the central highlands are totally uninhabited.

Because of the Gulf Stream's moderating influence, the climate is characterized by damp, cool summers and relatively mild but windy winters. In Reykjavík, the average temperature is 11 °C (51.8 °F) in July and 0 °C (32 °F) in January (Koppen: Cfc).

Climate of Iceland

The climate of Iceland is cold oceanic (Köppen climate classification: Cfc) near the coast and tundra inland in the highlands. The island lies in the path of the North Atlantic Current, which makes the climate of the island more temperate than would be expected for its latitude just south of the Arctic Circle. This effect is aided by the Irminger Current, which also helps to moderate the island’s temperature. The weather in Iceland can be notoriously variable. The aurora borealis is often visible at nighttime during the winter.

Winter

The Icelandic winter is relatively mild for its latitude. The southerly lowlands of the island average around 0 °C in winter, while the highlands tend to average around –10 °C. The lowest temperatures in the northern part of the island range from around –25 °C to –30 °C. The lowest temperature on record is –39.7 °C.

Summer

The average July temperature in the southern part of the island is 10–13 °C. Warm summer days can reach 20–25 ºC. The highest temperature recorded was 30.5 °C in the Eastern fjords in 1939. Annual average sunshine hours in Reykjavik are around 1300, which is similar to towns in Scotland and Ireland.

History of Iceland

In geological terms, Iceland is a young island. It started to form about 20 million years ago from a series of volcanic eruptions on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The Iceland hotspot is likely partly responsible for the island's creation and continued existence.

Iceland remained for a long time one of the world's last larger islands uninhabited by humans. It has been suggested that the land called Thule by the Greek merchant Pytheas was actually Iceland, although it seems highly unlikely considering Pytheas' description of it as an agricultural country with plenty of milk, honey, and fruit. The exact date that humans first reached the island is uncertain. Ancient Roman coins dating to the 3rd century have been found in Iceland, but it is unknown whether they were brought there at that time, or came later with Viking settlers, having already circulated for centuries.

There is some literary evidence that Irish monks had settled in Iceland before the arrival of the Norse. However, there is no archaeological evidence to support such settlement. The 12th-century scholar Ari Þorgilsson wrote in his book, Íslendingabók, that small bells, corresponding to those used by Irish monks, were found by the settlers. However, no such artifacts have been discovered by archaeologists. Some Icelanders claimed descent from Kjarvalr Írakonungr at the time of the Landnámabók's creation.

Republic of Iceland

Iceland had prospered during the course of World War II, amassing considerable currency reserves in foreign banks. The government, led by an unlikely three-party majority cabinet made up of conservatives (the Independence Party, Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn), social democrats (the Social Democratic Party, Alþýðuflokkurinn), and socialists (People's Unity Party – Socialist Party, Sósíalistaflokkurinn), decided to put the funds into a general renovation of the fishing fleet, the building of fish processing facilities, and a general modernization of agriculture. These actions were aimed at keeping Icelanders' standard of living as high as it had become during the prosperous war years.

The government's fiscal policy was strictly Keynesian, and their aim was to create the necessary industrial infrastructure for a prosperous developed country. It was considered essential to keep unemployment down to an absolute minimum and to protect the export fishing industry through currency manipulation and other means. Due to the country's dependence both on unreliable fish catches and foreign demand for fish products, Iceland's economy remained very unstable well into the 1990s, when the country's economy was greatly diversified.

Recent history (1946–present)

In 1946, the Allied occupation force left Iceland, which formally became a member of NATO on 30 March 1949, amid domestic controversy and riots. On 5 May 1951, a defence agreement was signed with the United States. American troops returned to Iceland and remained throughout the Cold War, finally leaving on 30 September 2006.

The immediate post-war period was followed by substantial economic growth, driven by industrialization of the fishing industry and Marshall aid. The 1970s were marked by the Cod Wars—several disputes with the United Kingdom over Iceland's extension of its fishing limits. The economy was greatly diversified and liberalised when Iceland joined the European Economic Area in 1994.

During the period of 2003–07, Iceland developed from a nation best known for its fishing industry into a global financial powerhouse, but was consequently hit particularly hard by the 2008 global financial crisis, which extended into 2009.

Government of Iceland

Iceland is a representative democracy and a parliamentary republic. The modern parliament, called "Alþingi" (English: Althing), was founded in 1845 as an advisory body to the Danish monarch. It was widely seen as a re-establishment of the assembly founded in 930 in the Commonwealth period and suspended in 1799. Consequently, it is arguably the world's oldest parliamentary democracy. It currently has 63 members, elected for four-year term.

The president of Iceland is a largely ceremonial head of state and serves as a diplomat but can block a law voted by the parliament and put it to a national referendum. The current (2010) president is Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson. The head of government is the prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, who, together with the cabinet, is responsible for executive government. The cabinet is appointed by the president after a general election to Althing; however, the appointment is usually negotiated by the leaders of the political parties, who decide among themselves after discussions which parties can form the cabinet and how its seats are to be distributed, under the condition that it has a majority support in Althing. Only when the party leaders are unable to reach a conclusion by themselves in a reasonable time does the president exercise this power and appoint the cabinet himself or herself. This has not happened since the republic was founded in 1944, but in 1942 the regent of the country (Sveinn Björnsson who had been installed in that position by the Althing in 1941) did appoint a non-parliamentary government. The regent had, for all practical purposes, the position of a president, and Sveinn in fact became the country's first president in 1944.

The governments of Iceland have almost always been coalitions with two or more parties involved, as no single political party has received a majority of seats in Althing during the republic. The extent of the political power possessed by the office of the president is disputed by legal scholars in Iceland; several provisions of the constitution appear to give the president some important powers but other provisions and traditions suggest differently. In 1980, Icelanders elected Vigdís Finnbogadóttir as president, the world's first directly elected female head of state. She retired from office in 1996. Elections for town councils, presidency and parliament are each held every four years.

Language

Iceland's official written and spoken language is Icelandic, a North Germanic language descended from Old Norse. It has changed less from Old Norse than the other Nordic languages, has preserved more verb and noun inflection, and has to a considerable extent developed new vocabulary based on native roots rather than borrowings from other languages. It is the only living language to retain the runic letter Þ. The closest existing language to Icelandic is Faroese. In education, the use of Icelandic Sign Language for Iceland's deaf community is regulated by the National Curriculum Guide.

English is widely spoken as a secondary language. Danish is also widely understood and spoken. Studying both languages is a mandatory part of the school curriculum. Other commonly spoken languages are German, Norwegian and Swedish. Danish is mostly spoken in a way largely comprehensible to Swedes and Norwegians—it is often referred to as Skandinavíska (Scandinavian) in Iceland.

Rather than using family names as is the custom in all mainland European nations, the Icelanders use patronymics. The patronymic follows the person's given name, e.g. Ólafur Jónsson ("Ólafur, Jón's son") or Katrín Karlsdóttir ("Katrín, Karl's daughter"). It is for this reason that the Icelandic telephone directory is listed alphabetically by first name rather than surname.

Economy and Infrastructure

In 2007, Iceland was the seventh most productive country in the world by list of countries by GDP (nominal) per capita (US$54,858), and the fifth most productive by GDP at purchasing power parity ($40,112). Except for its abundant hydroelectric and geothermal power, Iceland lacks natural resources; historically its economy depended heavily on the fishing industry, which still provides almost 40% of export earnings and employs 8% of the work force. The economy is vulnerable to declining fish stocks and drops in world prices for its main material exports: fish and fish products, aluminum, and ferrosilicon. Whaling in Iceland has been historically significant. Although the Icelandic economy still relies heavily on fishing, its importance is diminishing as the travel industry and other service, technology and various other industries grow.

Although Iceland is a highly developed country, it is still one of the most newly industrialized in Europe. Until the 20th century, it was among the poorest countries in Western Europe. The strong economic growth that Iceland has experienced in recent decades has only just allowed for the modernization of infrastructure. Many political parties remain opposed to EU membership, primarily due to Icelanders' concern about losing control over their natural resources.

Iceland ranked 5th in the Index of Economic Freedom 2006 and 14th in 2008. Iceland has a flat tax system. The main personal income tax rate is a flat 22.75 percent and combined with municipal taxes the total tax rate is not more than 35.72%, and there are many deductions. The corporate tax rate is a flat 18 percent, one of the lowest in the world. Other taxes include a value-added tax and a net wealth tax. (The wealth tax was eliminated in 2006.) Employment regulations are relatively flexible. Property rights are strong and Iceland is one of the few countries where they are applied to fishery management. Taxpayers pay various subsidies to each other, similar to European countries with welfare state, but the spending is less than in most European countries. Despite low tax rates, overall taxation and consumption is still much higher than countries such as Ireland. According to OECD, agricultural support is the highest among OECD countries and an impediment to structural change. Also, health care and education spending have relatively poor return by OECD measures. OECD Economic survey of Iceland 2008 highlighted Iceland's challenges in currency and macroeconomic policy. There was a currency crisis that started in the spring of 2008 and on 6 October trading in Iceland's banks was suspended as the government battled to save the economy.

Iceland was ranked first in the United Nations' Human Development Index report for 2007/2008. Icelanders are the fourteenth longest-living nation with a life expectancy at birth of 80.67 years. The Gini coefficient ranks Iceland as one of the most egalitarian countries in the world.

Education and science

The Ministry of Education, Science and Culture is responsible for the policies and methods that schools must use, and they issue the National Curriculum Guidelines. However, the playschools and the primary and lower secondary schools are funded and administered by the municipalities.

Nursery school or leikskóli, is non-compulsory education for children younger than six years, and is the first step in the education system. The current legislation concerning playschools was passed in 1994. They are also responsible for ensuring that the curriculum is suitable so as to make the transition into compulsory education as easy as possible.

The largest seat of higher education is the University of Iceland, which has its main campus in central Reykjavík. Other schools offering university-level instruction include Reykjavík University, University of Akureyri and Bifrost University.

By 1999, 82.3% of Icelanders had access to a computer. Iceland also had 1,007 mobile phone subscriptions per 1,000 people in 2006, the 16th highest in the world.

Culture

Icelandic culture has its roots in Norse traditions. Icelandic literature is popular, in particular the sagas and eddas which were written during the High and Late Middle Ages. Icelanders place relatively great importance on independence and self-sufficiency; in a European Commission public opinion analysis over 85% of Icelanders found independence to be "very important" contrasted with the EU25 average of 53%, and 47% for the Norwegians, and 49% for the Danes.

Some traditional beliefs remain today; for example, some Icelanders either believe in elves or are unwilling to rule out their existence. Iceland ranks first on the Human Development Index, and was recently ranked the fourth happiest country in the world.

Iceland is progressive in terms of lesbian, gay bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) matters. In 1996, Parliament passed legislation to create registered partnerships for same-sex couples, covering nearly all the rights and benefits of marriage. In 2006, by unanimous vote of Parliament, further legislation was passed, granting same-sex couples the same rights as different-sex couples in adoption, parenting and assisted insemination treatment.

Art

The distinctive rendition of the Icelandic landscape by its painters can be linked to nationalism and the movement to home rule and independence.

Contemporary Icelandic painting is typically traced to the work of Þórarinn Þorláksson, who, following formal training in art in the 1890s in Copenhagen, returned to Iceland to paint and exhibit works from 1900 to his death in 1924, almost exclusively portraying the Icelandic landscape. Several other Icelandic men and women artists learned in Denmark Academy at that time, including Ásgrímur Jónsson, who together with Þórarinn created a distinctive portrayal of Iceland's landscape in a romantic naturalistic style. Other landscape artists quickly followed in the footsteps of Þórarinn and Ásgrímur. These included Jóhannes Kjarval and Júlíana Sveinsdóttir. Kjarval in particular is noted for the distinct techniques in the application of paint that he developed in a concerted effort to render the characteristic volcanic rock that dominates the Icelandic environment.

In the recent years artistic practice has multiplied, and the Icelandic art scene has become a setting for many large scale projects and exhibitions. The artist run gallery space Kling og Bang, members of which later ran the studio complex and exhibition venue Klink og Bank has been a significant portion of the trend of self organized spaces, exhibitions and projects. The Living Art Museum, Reykjavík Municipal Art Museum and the National Gallery of Iceland are the larger, more established institutions, curating shows and festivals.

Sources:
• Video courtesy of the Icelandic Tourist Board
• "Iceland." Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iceland

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