Photograph by: Jonas Bendiksen, National Geographic March 2008
Iceland, a volcanic island in the North Atlantic Ocean, is Europe’s westernmost country and home to the most northerly national capital in the world, Reykjavík. With an area of 39,769 square miles (103,000 square kilometers), Iceland is roughly the size of Virginia but with considerably fewer inhabitants: The total population is about 310,000, with two-thirds living in or near Reykjavík. Although glaciers cover more than 10 percent of the island, the Gulf Stream and warm southwesterly winds help moderate the climate.
Almost all of Iceland’s electricity and heating needs are met by hydroelectric and geothermal power sources. The explosive geysers, geothermal spas, and glacier-fed waterfalls that dot the landscape attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, making tourism the nation’s fastest-growing industry.
The country’s national language closely resembles the Old Norse spoken in Scandinavia during the Viking age. In fact, Icelandic has remained relatively unchanged since the 12th century, and so old Icelandic manuscripts can still be read by today’s Icelanders. While the language can be daunting to outsiders, most Icelanders are fluent in English, and many also speak Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish. With a 99.9 percent literacy rate, the population is well educated and enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world.
National Geographic Atlas of the World, 8th ed. National Geographic, 2005.
Statistics on Iceland
Jónsson, Einar Már. Iceland. Harry N. Abrams, 2005.
Lacy, Terry G. Ring of Seasons: Iceland—Its Culture and History. University of Michigan Press, 1998.
Leffman, David, and James Proctor. The Rough Guide to Iceland. Rough Guides, 2007.
Roberts, David. Iceland: Land of the Sagas. Villard, 1998.
Wilcox, Jonathan, and Zawiah Abdul Latif. Cultures of the World: Iceland. Marshall Cavendish, 2007.
The landscape of Iceland is wild and rugged. Writer Marguerite Del Giudice describes it as a “rocky, windswept, treeless terrain, unsuitable for much of anything beyond raising sheep.” About 11 percent is covered by glaciers, including Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap in Europe, with an area of more than 3,100 square miles. Seven volcanoes underlie Vatnajökull, most of them active: Grímsvötn, for example, erupted in 1996, 1998, and 2004. A subarctic hot spot, Iceland sits astride the volatile Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the seafloor mountain range where two of the colossal slabs of rock that make up Earth’s crust—the North American plate and the Eurasian plate—part company. As the plates pull apart, magma rises between them. Iceland has 35 volcanoes that have erupted in the past 10,000 years, with an eruption occurring about once every five years.
Recently scientists have been keeping an eye on the region around Upptyppingar, a mountain north of Vatnajökull. Located in the country’s remote interior, this area has not seen a volcanic eruption since the end of the Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. But geologists point to an upsurge in seismic activity last year as a sign of an imminent eruption. According to volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson of the University of Rhode Island, the earthquake activity “started at unusual depth—about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles)—which is just under the crust in Iceland, and it is getting shallower and closer to the surface.” At the current rate of upward motion of the magma—as much as one kilometer a month, Sigurdsson says—an eruption might be expected sometime in 2008.
Some scientists speculate that the filling of the new reservoir behind Kárahnjúkar Dam, some 13 miles away, may be to blame for the increased seismic activity. Sigurdsson notes that Earth’s crust could bend under the weight of the water and begin to break, resulting in faults and possibly triggering earthquakes. Geologists have no firsthand experience with volcanic eruptions at Upptyppingar, making it difficult to predict exactly what will happen—or to pinpoint a cause. But in a country defined by glacial melt, subterranean fire, and volcanic landscapes, it’s well worth watching. To follow the ongoing seismic activity, see the website of the Icelandic Meteorological Office.
Roberts, Matthew J., and others. “A magmatic origin for the 2007 micro-earthquake swarms at Upptyppingar, Iceland?” Presentation at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, 2007.
Winter, Steve. “Iceland’s Trial by Fire,” National Geographic (May 1997), 58-71.
Icelandic Meteorological Office.
Sigurdsson, Haraldur, and others. Encyclopedia of Volcanoes. Academic Press, 1999.
It wasn’t until 1784 that a scientist suggested that volcanic eruptions could affect global climate. It was a year after the Laki fissure zone in Iceland erupted for eight months—the greatest outpouring of lava in historic time. Ash and sulfur dioxide spread through the atmosphere. Haze reduced sunlight, and acid rain destroyed crops and livestock. The scientist, residing in Paris at the time, puzzled over the strange weather and postulated to the philosophical society in Manchester, England, that the “universal fog” was a result of an Iceland eruption. That scientist was none other than Benjamin Franklin.
Schulz, Heidi. “Fire and Ice.” National Geographic (March 2005).
By Marisa J. Larson, National Geographic staff
Iceland was first settled in 870 by Norse settlers called Vikings, who supposedly discovered the landmass when a ship sailing from Norway to the Faroe Islands was blown off course. Although most of the settlers were from Norway, others came from Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and the British Isles. They likely weren’t the first people to live on Iceland, however. It’s believed that Irish monks had been summering on the island for several years before the Vikings made it their permanent home.
The Vikings were restless in Scandinavia for a variety of reasons, including a shortage of land and other finite resources while the population was growing. Some people left in search of new trade markets; others hoped to escape harsh rule back home.
Stories of Iceland’s founding are told in sagas that were written by unknown authors in the 13th and 14th centuries and contain 40 narratives describing the life of Icelanders in the Viking age immediately before and after the year 1000. They provide the most detailed accounts of Viking life, since brief runic inscriptions are the only written documentation the Vikings left behind. The sagas are “masterpieces of literature,” says Alma Gudmundsdóttir, curator of the Icelandic Saga Center in Hvolsvöllur, Iceland. They “rank with …the epics of Homer, the Greek tragedy, and the plays of William Shakespeare.”
The Vikings. NOVA.
Byock, Jesse L. Viking Age Iceland. Penguin, 2001.
Hall, Richard. The World of the Vikings. Thames and Hudson, 2007.
Kellogg, Robert, and Jane Smiley. Introduction to The Sagas of Icelanders. Penguin Classics, 2001.
Map by Icelandic Meteorological Office
Other National Geographic Resources
Krist, Bob. “Iceland.” National Geographic Traveler (January/February 2004), 56-60.
Vesilind, Priit J. “In Search of Vikings.” National Geographic (May 2000), 2-27.
Tourtellot, Jonathan B. “Ring Around Iceland.” National Geographic Traveler (May/June 1998), 66-81.
Winter, Steve. “Iceland’s Trial by Fire.” National Geographic (May 1997), 58-71.
Lavathes, Louise. “Iceland: Life Under the Glaciers,” National Geographic (February 1997), 184-215.
Grove, Noel. “Vestmannaeyjar: Up From the Ashes,” National Geographic (May 1977), 690-701.
Grove, Noel. “An Icelandic Village Fights for Its Life.” National Geographic (July 1973), 40-67.
Last updated: January 25, 2008
Keywords: Iceland, Icelanders, Reykjavík, Vikings, glaciers, volcanoes, Upptyppingar, Vatnajökull, Kárahnjúkar