The Republic of Iceland is an island country located in the North Atlantic Ocean. It has a population of about 320,000 and a total area of 103,000 km². Its capital and largest city is Reykjavík.
Located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland is volcanically and geologically active on a large scale; this defines the landscape. The interior mainly consists of a plateau characterised by sand fields, mountains and glaciers, while many big glacial rivers flow to the sea through the lowlands. Warmed by the Gulf Stream, Iceland has a temperate climate relative to its latitude and provides a habitable environment and nature.
According to Landnámabók, the settlement of Iceland began in 874 when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfur Arnarson became the first permanent Norwegian settler on the island. Others had visited the island earlier and stayed over winter. Over the next centuries, people of Nordic origin settled in Iceland. Until the 20th century, the Icelandic population relied on fisheries and agriculture, and was from 1262 to 1918 a part of the Norwegian, and later the Danish monarchies. In the 20th century, Iceland’s economy and welfare system developed quickly. In recent decades, Iceland has implemented free trade in the European Economic Area and diversified from fishing to new economic fields in services, finance and various industries.
Today, Iceland has some of the world’s highest levels of economic and civil freedoms. In 2007, Iceland was ranked as the most developed country in the world by the United Nations’ Human Development Index. It was also the fourth most productive country per capita, and one of the most egalitarian, as rated by the Gini coefficient. Icelanders have a rich culture and heritage, such as cuisine and poetry and the medieval Icelandic Sagas are internationally renowned. Iceland is a member of the UN, NATO, EFTA, EEA, UEFA, and OECD. Iceland is the sole partner of the Faroe Islands signatory to the Hoyvík Agreement.
Iceland has been especially badly affected by the current world financial crisis. The nation’s ongoing economic crisis has caused significant unrest and made Iceland the first western country to borrow from the International Monetary Fund since 1976. In February 2009 a minority government took office, headed by Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, the world’s first openly gay head of government in modern times.
Iceland is located in the North Atlantic Ocean just south of the Arctic Circle, which passes through the small island of Grímsey off Iceland’s northern coast, but not through mainland Iceland. Unlike neighbouring Greenland, Iceland is a part of Europe, not of North America, though geologically the island is part of both continental plates. Because of cultural, economic and linguistic similarities, Iceland in many contexts is also included in Scandinavia making it a Nordic country. The closest bodies of land are Greenland (287 km) and the Faroe Islands (420 km). The closest distance to the mainland of Europe is 970 km (to Norway).
Iceland is the world’s 18th largest island, and Europe’s second largest island following Great Britain. The main island is 101,826 km² but the entire country is 103,000 km² (39,768.5 sq mi) in size, of which 62.7% is tundra. Lakes and glaciers cover 14.3%; only 23% is vegetated. The largest lakes are Þórisvatn (Reservoir): 83–88 km² (32-34 sq mi) and Þingvallavatn: 82 km² (32 sq mi); other important lakes include Lögurinn and Mývatn. Öskjuvatn is the deepest lake at 220 m (722 ft).
Many fjords punctuate its 4,970 km long coastline, which is also where most settlements are situated because the island’s interior, the Highlands of Iceland, is a cold and uninhabitable combination of sand and mountains. The major towns are the capital Reykjavík, Kópavogur, Hafnarfjörður, Reykjanesbær, where the international airport is located, and Akureyri. The island of Grímsey on the Arctic Circle contains the northernmost habitation of Iceland.
Iceland has four national parks: Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, Skaftafell National Park, Snæfellsjökull National Park, and Þingvellir National Park.
In 1814, following the Napoleonic Wars, Denmark-Norway was broken up into two separate kingdoms via the Treaty of Kiel. Iceland remained a Danish dependency. A new independence movement arose under the leadership of Jón Sigurðsson, inspired by the romantic and nationalist ideologies of mainland Europe.
In 1874, Denmark granted Iceland home rule, which was expanded in 1904. The Act of Union, an agreement with Denmark signed on 1 December 1918, recognised Iceland as a fully sovereign state under the Danish king. During the last quarter of the 19th century many Icelanders emigrated to North America, mainly Canada, in search of better living conditions. About 15,000 out of a total population of 70,000 left.
Iceland during World War II joined Denmark in asserting neutrality. After the German occupation of Denmark on 9 April 1940, Iceland’s parliament declared that the Icelandic government should assume the Danish king’s authority and take control over foreign affairs and other matters previously handled by Denmark on behalf of Iceland. A month later, British Armed Forces occupied Iceland, violating Icelandic neutrality. In 1941, responsibility for the occupation was taken over by the United States with the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade landing in the country. Allied occupation of Iceland lasted throughout the war.
On 31 December 1943, the Act of Union agreement expired after 25 years. Beginning on 20 May 1944, Icelanders voted in a four-day plebiscite on whether to terminate the union with Denmark and establish a republic. The vote was 97% in favour of ending the union and 95% in favour of the new republican constitution. Iceland formally became an independent republic on 17 June 1944, with Sveinn Björnsson as the first president.
In 1946, the Allied occupation force left Iceland, which formally became a member of NATO on 30 March 1949, amid domestic controversy and riots. On 5 May 1951, a defence agreement was signed with the United States. American troops returned to Iceland and remained throughout the Cold War, finally leaving in autumn of 2006.
The immediate post-war period was followed by substantial economic growth, driven by industrialisation of the fishing industry and Marshall aid and Keynesian government management of the economies of Europe, all of which promoted trade. The 1970s were marked by the Cod Wars – several disputes with the United Kingdom over Iceland’s extension of its fishing limits. The economy was greatly diversified and liberalised following Iceland’s joining of the European Economic Area in 1992.
In 2003, Iceland decided to transform itself from a nation best known for its fishing industry into a global financial powerhouse. By 2008 the nation’s currency (the króna) was defunct and the national debt had soared to over eight times GDP.
The southwest corner of Iceland is the most densely populated region. It is also the location of the capital Reykjavík, the northernmost capital in the world. The largest towns outside the greater Reykjavík area are Akureyri and Reykjanesbær, although the latter is relatively close to the capital.
The 2008–2009 Icelandic financial crisis is a major ongoing economic crisis in Iceland that involves the collapse of all three of the country’s major banks following their difficulties in refinancing their short-term debt and a run on deposits in the United Kingdom. Relative to the size of its economy, Iceland’s banking collapse is the largest suffered by any country in economic history.
The financial crisis has had serious consequences for the Icelandic economy; the national currency has fallen sharply in value, foreign currency transactions were virtually suspended for weeks, the market capitalisation of the Icelandic stock exchange has dropped by more than 90%, and a severe economic recession is expected.
Iceland’s official written and spoken language is Icelandic, a North Germanic language descended from Old Norse. Icelanders enjoy freedom of religion under the constitution, though the National Church of Iceland, a Lutheran body, is the state church. The National Registry keeps account of the religious affiliation of every Icelandic citizen.
The social structure of Iceland is very dependent upon the personal car. Icelanders have one of the highest levels of car ownership per capita: on average one car per inhabitant older than 17 years. By tradition old or seldom used cars are often kept in laybys or turnoffs in rural areas.
Route 1 or the Ring Road (Icelandic: Þjóðvegur 1 or Hringvegur) is a main road in Iceland that runs around the island and connects all inhabited parts (the interior of the island is uninhabited). The road is 1,337 km long (830 miles). It has one lane in each direction, except near larger towns and cities and in the Hvalfjörður Tunnel where it has more lanes.
Renewable energy provides over 70% of the nation’s total energy, with the balance coming from imported coal and oil. Iceland also expects to be energy-independent by 2050.
Iceland is a very technologically advanced society. By 1999, 82.3% of Icelanders had access to a computer. Iceland also had 1,007 mobile phone subscriptions per 1,000 people in 2006, the 16th highest in the world.
Iceland is home to the European Mars Analog Research Station.
Some traditional beliefs remain today; for example, some Icelanders either believe in elves or are unwilling to rule out their existence. Inhabitants of mountainous areas still pay homage to these beliefs by constructing stone piles near roads and tracks. Iceland ranks first on the Human Development Index, and was recently ranked the fourth happiest country in the world.
Iceland is progressive in terms of lesbian, gay bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) matters. In 1996, Parliament passed legislation to create registered partnerships for same-sex couples, covering nearly all the rights and benefits of marriage. In 2006, by unanimous vote of Parliament, further legislation was passed, granting same-sex couples the same rights as different-sex couples in adoption, parenting and assisted insemination treatment.
Icelandic music is related to Nordic music, and includes vibrant Electronic music, folk and pop traditions, including medieval music group Voces Thules, alternative rock band The Sugarcubes, singers Björk and Emiliana Torrini; and Sigur Rós. The national anthem of Iceland is “Lofsöngur“, written by Matthías Jochumsson, with music by Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson.
Traditional Icelandic music is strongly religious. Icelandic contemporary music consists of a big group of bands, ranging from pop-rock groups such as Bang Gang, Quarashi and Amiina to solo ballad singers like Bubbi Morthens, Megas and Björgvin Halldórsson. Independent music is also very strong in Iceland, with bands such as múm, Sigur Rós and solo artists Emiliana Torrini and Mugison being fairly well-known outside Iceland.
Many Icelandic artists and bands have had great success internationally, most notably Björk and Sigur Rós but also Quarashi, Hera, Ampop, Mínus and múm. The main music festival is arguably Iceland Airwaves, an annual event on the Icelandic music scene, where Icelandic bands along with foreign ones occupy the clubs of Reykjavík for a week.
Sport is an important part of the Icelandic culture. The main traditional sport in Iceland is Glíma, a form of wrestling thought to have originated in medieval times.