FAROE & ICELAND
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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.
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.
A number of worthwhile
web sites are shown on the external links page for Iceland.