The official name
The Republic of Iceland (in Icelandic, Lýðveldið Ísland).
Iceland is an island of 103.000 square kilometres, with 4.970 kilometres of coastline, making it the 16th largest island in the world. Only Madagascar, Britain and Cuba are larger single independent island states. Iceland is sometimes called the “land of ice and fire” for the striking contrasts in its landscapes, where grand glaciers and magnificent fjords coexist with over 200 volcanoes, many of which are active.
The highest peak, Hvannadalshnúkur, rises to 2,110m. Over 11% of the country is covered by glaciers, including Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland.
The geography in figures
Geographic size 103.000 square kilometres. Thereof:
- Land at altitude of 0-200 metres covers 24.700 square kilometres
- Land at Altitude 200-400 metres covers 18.400 square kilometres
- Land at altitude above 400 metres covers 59.900 square kilometres
- Glaciers cover 12.000 square kilometres
- Lava fields cover 11.000 square kilometres
- Lakes cover 3.000 square kilometres
- Cultivated area covers 1.100 square kilometres
- Cultivable area is 20.000 square kilometres
- The seabed out to 200 metre depth is 111.000 square kilometres
- The seabed out to 400 metre depth is 183.000 square kilometres
- The fishing zone (200 miles) is 758.000 square kilometres
The shortest distance to other land masses is Jan Mayen (550 kilometres), Scotland (798 kilometres) and Norway (970 kilometres).
Considering the northerly location of Iceland, the climate is much milder than might be expected, especially in winter. The mean temperature for Reykjavík is 5°C (41°F), averaging -0.4°C (31.4°F) in January and 11.2°C (52.2°F) in July. The weather in Iceland on the whole is changeable and coastal areas tend to be windy.
Situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland is a hot spot of volcanic and geothermal activity, with thirty post-glacial volcanoes having erupted in the past two centuries! It also has natural hot water that supplies much of the population with cheap, pollution-free heating and great swimming pools. Rivers, too, are harnessed to provide inexpensive hydroelectric power. The electrical current in Iceland is 220 volts, 50 Hz.
Hydro electric power
The first people believed to have settled in Iceland were Irish monks who came in the eight century AD. They left, however, with the arrival of pagan Norsemen, who came in 874 to seek freedom from Norway’s oppressive king Harald Fairhair. In 930 the Icelanders founded the Althing, their supreme general assembly, the oldest national parliament in the world.
In 1262, Iceland became subject to Norwegian control and in 1380 came under Danish control, along with Norway. After the granting of a constitution (1874) and with an improving economy, Iceland became an independent sovereign state under the Danish king in 1918. The Republic of Iceland was formally founded on June 17, 1944. Iceland is governed by the 63 member Althing (Parliament), whose members are elected every four years. Four-yearly elections are also held for the presidency; with the current President, Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson being elected continuously since 1996. The President plays no part in day-to-day politics.
Icelands membership in international organizations
- IMF (1945)
- The World Bank (1945)
- United Nations (1946)
- OECD (1949)
- NATO (1949)
- The Nordic Council (1952)
- IFC (1956)
- IDA (1961)
- GATT (1964)
- EFTA (1970)
The economy is heavily dependent upon fisheries, which are the nation’s major resource. Almost 60% of all Iceland’s exports are made up of seafood products. However, only a small proportion of the Icelandic workforce is active in this sector – 5% in fishing and 6.2% in the fish processing. This compares to over 50% of the Icelandic workforce being employed in services, public and private.
The Icelandic currency is the Icelandic “króna”, IKR. It´s exchange rate can fluctuate so be sure to check regularly what it is in relation to your national currency.
People and population
The population is around 330 thousand people with almost 70% living in the capital Reykjavík, and the surrounding area in the southwest. The remaining population lives in small coastal towns or villages. The Keflavík International Airport is located about 50 km south of the capital city Reykjavik. The highland interior is uninhabited, and uninhabitable, allowing only the coastal regions for settlement.
The average life expectancy of Icelandic women is 80.8 years and 76.3 year for the men. These figures are some of the highest in the world, and a comprehensive state health-care system aims to keep it that way.
Iceland was settled by Nordic people in the 8th century – the story says that the first permanent settler was Ingólfur Arnarson, a Norwegian Viking who made his permanent 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 vocabulary! Icelandic is therefore one of the oldest living languages in Europe.
The Icelanders have comprehensive records of their origin as a nation, in their native language: the Sagas. Most Icelanders can in fact trace their ancestry through a genealogical database to Ingólfur Arnarson, the first settler.
Danish and English are mandatory subjects in school. Literacy is 99.9%, the highest in the world. Iceland is alone still upholding another Norse tradition, the custom of using patronymics rather than surnames. Icelanders thus to not have family names, instead members of a family will have many different “surnames,” which sometimes causes confusion to those unfamiliar with this naming tradition. The surname is typically the fathers (lately also the mothers) first name, followed by son or daughter – or Jónsson / Jónsdóttir.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed in Iceland, in practice and through the country´s constitution. None the less, in the Nordic tradition the Evangelical Lutheran Church is the National Church of Iceland, with 97% of the population belonging. In addition to the many Lutheran churches, there is a Roman Catholic Cathedral in Reykjavík and a Muslim Mosque. Other religious groups practice their faith in various chosen locations.
In spite of its mid-Atlantic location, Iceland is on Greenwich Mean Time all year round.
Daily flights link Iceland with more than 20 gateways in Europe and North America. Flight time is 2-4 hours to Western Europe and 5-6 hours to North America. Domestic services operate to several main regional communities, with a flight time of less than one hour.
Fishing and fish processing is the main economic activity in Iceland, accounting for 50% of foreign currency revenues. Some 99% of imports and exports are carried by marine transport, most of them handled by Iceland’s three major shipping companies, Atlantsskip, Samskip and Eimskip.
Ships, motor vehicles, fuel, metal ores, household appliances, numerous food items. Iceland is not self reliant in may areas and therefore heavily dependent on imported products.
Marine products, aluminium and ferrosilicon.
Names of the Icelandic people
Everyone in Iceland is on first name terms, and people are even listed by first names in the telephone directory. Calling somebody by their surname and or using titles such as Mr and Mrs, or Professor and Doctor is unheard of.
Most Icelanders still use the old Viking patronymics instead of family surnames, with different forms for sons and daughters. For example, a man called Haraldur Magnússon and his wife Helga Jónsdóttir might have a son called Pétur whose last name would then be Haraldsson, and a daughter called Ingibjörg Haraldsdottir.
Logical enough, but the naming system sometimes raises eyebrows at passport control and hotel reception desks when Icelanders travel abroad. In the age of women’s liberation, increasing numbers of children are being given matronymics, i.e. identified as the son or daughter of their mother rather or in addition to their father. In the example above, Pétur would then be Helguson or Pétur Helguson Haraldsson and Ingibjörg Helgudóttir. So how will your name sound if you changed it to the Icelandic way? Why not try it if you are visiting Iceland?
Travel safe in Iceland
Iceland might be quite different from your country. In general it is very safe to travel around the country, the crime rate is low and pick pockets basically unheard of, for example. However, there are still several things that every traveller in Iceland must prepare for, for example in relation to road safety and weather conditions. In order to assist you in your preparation please check out this website (safety.is) where you can learn what to avoid and how to prepare and travel safe in Iceland.