OFFICIAL NAME: Republic of Iceland
FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Constitutional republic
OFFICIAL LANGUAGE: Icelandic (Others include: English, Nordic languages, German)
MONEY: Icelandic króna
AREA: 39,769 square miles (103,001 square kilometers)
Map of Iceland
Iceland is a small island nation that is Europe's westernmost country and home to the world’s northernmost capital, Reykjavik. Eleven percent of the country is covered in glacial ice and is surrounded by water. If global warming continues, rising water levels and melting ice could be devastating to Iceland.
A volcanic island, Iceland experiences severe volcanic activity. In 2010, the Eyjafjallajokull volcano at an elevation of 5,466 feet (1,666 meters) erupted, blowing ash high into the atmosphere and disrupting European air traffic for weeks.
The land is plateau with mountain peaks, and ice fields, with a coastline marked by fjords, which are deep inlets carved by glaciers.
PEOPLE & CULTURE
Icelanders are of Scandinavian descent and are generally tall, blonde, and light-skinned. Because there is little diversity in the population, genetic researchers have studied diseases among Icelanders. These studies have helped find cures for many hereditary diseases.
Icelanders take care to preserve their traditions and language. Some Icelanders still believe in elves, trolls, and other mythical characters that date back to their Celtic and Norse beginnings. Most Icelanders live in the southwest part of the country.
School is free for all Icelanders all the way through college. Every student is taught to speak both Danish and English in school. Handball and soccer are the two most popular sports for children, but they also enjoy swimming and horseback riding.
Foxes were the only land mammals in Iceland when it was settled. Newcomers brought in domesticated animals and reindeer. Most of the wildlife is under conservation and protection. There are four national parks and more than 80 nature preserves.
Vatnajökull, or Vatna Glacier, is an extensive ice field in southeastern Iceland, which covers 3,200 square miles (8,400 square kilometers) with an average ice thickness of more than 3,000 feet (900 meters).
Iceland contains about 200 volcanoes and has one-third of Earth’s total lava flow. One-tenth of the total land area is covered by cooled lava beds and glaciers. Because Iceland is volcanic, almost all of their electricity and heating comes from hydroelectric power and geothermal water reserves.
The Gulf Stream current and warm southwesterly winds make the climate more moderate and pleasant than one might expect from a northern country.
Iceland is known for explosive geysers, geothermal spas, glacier-fed waterfalls like Gullfoss (Golden Falls), and whale watching. More than 270,000 tourists visit each year.
Photograph by Asafta, Dreamstime
Iceland is the world’s oldest democracy. The country is governed by a president, who is elected by popular vote for a four-year term. There are no term limits so the president can stay in power until another is elected by the people.
The 2008 election was not held because no one ran against Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who served that term and was then re-elected in 2012. He is the current president.
The first settlers were Irish religious people who wanted to live a simple life. The country was prosperous in the Middle Ages. They established a national assembly, called Althingi, in 930. Althingi is the world's oldest continuous parliament.
Iceland was part of Norway and then was ruled by Denmark for more than 500 years, but the country became an independent republic in 1944.
The colors in the flag represent three of the elements that make up the island: Red is for the island's volcanic fires; white for the snow and ice fields of the island; and blue is for the surrounding ocean.