Faroe and Iceland - Facts and Information
Geography of Iceland
A land of paradox
Made by heat, shaped by cold. Culturally part of Europe, geologically in both North America and Eurasia.


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Location and geology
Iceland sits in the middle of the North Atlantic, just outside the Arctic Circle. It's position virtually midway on the great circle route from Washington to Moscow gave it a considerable strategic significance in Cold War times which continues to this day.

The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is formed at the junction of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. These plates are slowly moving apart and molten material rises to the surface from within the Earth. Iceland is on top of a marked plume in this process. This activity is usually very gentle (and means that Iceland gets about an inch wider every year), but is sometimes accompanied by significant and damaging volcanic eruptions as well as earthquakes. Another sign of the enormous energy involved in this is the presence of hot springs and geysers. The main line of volcanic activity runs roughly diagonally across the island from south-west to north-east.

Glaciation has played a major part in shaping Iceland, the entire country was covered by ice during the Pleistocene glaciations, and is still significant given that over 10% of the island is covered by permanent ice. In addition to landforms created by ice and frost others are due to both erosion and deposition by seasonal meltwater from the ice. One of the greatest paradoxes in Iceland is, perhaps, the juxtaposition of heat and cold. Volcanoes are surrounded, or even covered, by icecaps; there are subice lakes of water melted by volcanic activity and subice eruptions can on occasions lead to floods of the most frightening intensity.

Topography and climate
The landscape is new in geological terms and almost entirely based on material of volcanic origin, be that different types of lava, ash, dust or intrusive rocks. The north-west and south-east have a deeply indented fjord coastline surrounded by mountains. The interior is largely sparsely vegetated or barren upland plateau or icecap. Rivers, running with great force when ice is melting, frequently plunge off the plateau at spectacular waterfalls then carve significant valleys. In their higher and middle reaches these can give the chance of reasonable farmland, but near the sea they may become extensive deposits of silt.

For its high latitude Iceland has a reasonably mild climate. Average winter temperatures hover around freezing on the coast, but the interior can be much colder (the record for the country is -36°F in 1918). Summers are not hot, but can be cloudy and wet. Wind can always be strong, especially in winter, and cause dust storms in the interior which reach to the coast. The climate is perhaps best described as variable (on consecutive May days we experienced a hot dust storm then frost and snow) or, as a National Park Ranger remarked to us, "Iceland doesn't have a climate - it has samples of weather". However the south and west tend to be warmer, wetter and cloudier than the north and east.

Total population of Iceland is about 300,000. Of these about 115,000 live in Reykjavík, the capital, with perhaps another 75,000 in its surrounding area. Outside the south-west the only town of any size is Akureyri in the north with 17,000 people. Otherwise the population is scattered around the country, mainly strung along the coastal fringe and valleys or loosely clustered at good harbours or transport nodes. Of these even major regional centres like Egilsstadir and Húsavík have populations of less than 2,500.

Despite its apparently unpromising environment and meagre mineral resources Iceland does have the economic environment of rich seas, hydro power and geothermal energy (which between them produce virtually all Iceland's electricity). It is one of the most prosperous countries in the world and has an extremely high standard of living. Life expectancy is very high.

The most substantial single element in the economy is associated with fish (though not to such a great extent as Faroe). Tourism is becoming increasingly important and there are also ongoing efforts to broaden the economy, particularly by developing high value industries and services.

Cheap power has led to the establishment of a number of aluminium smelters. Further development in this field is highly controversial. There is currently an immense project being built in the south-east at Kárahnjúkar which will generate electricity for a projected smelter on the coas at Reydarfjördur. There is little doubt that this will do immense ecological damage which will be compounded by emissions from the smelter. There is a risk that the dam structure may present serious safety problems in the event of an earthquake. There has been much opposition to the whole scheme but the Icelandic government, despite the traditional democracy of the country, is not only ignoring the strength of local international protest but planning a series of similar projects.

More information
A number of worthwhile web sites are shown on the external links page for Iceland.

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