Iceland has a population of roughly 280,000 people (three inhabitants
per square mile), making it the least populated country in Europe.
The nation's capital, Reykjavik, the oldest permanent settlement
in the country, was settled by Norwegian Vikings in A.D. 874.
Reykjavik means "smoky bay," so named for the steam that rises
from the natural hot springs ringing the coast.
Reykjavik is the world's northernmost capital. Nearly half
of Iceland's population lives there.
Iceland is governed by the Althing (General Assembly),
the world's oldest still-functioning parliament, established
in A.D. 930.
The average life span for Icelanders is nearly 80 years, which
puts them among the longest-living humans on the planet.
Iceland has a literacy rate of nearly 100 percent. Icelanders
read more books per capita than any other citizenry in the world.
Iceland celebrates Independence Day on June 17; on that day
in 1944, Icelanders voted overwhelmingly for independence from
Denmark.back to top
Iceland lies below the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic Ocean.
At roughly 103,000 square kilometers, Iceland is slightly smaller
Summers in Iceland are marked by nearly unbroken days and
nights of sunlight. Winter brings darkness almost around the
clock, with only three to four hours of sunlight per day in
December and January.
Temperatures are mild; the average temperature in Reykjavik
is 41 degrees Fahrenheit.
Glaciers cover 11 percent of the country.
Glacial lakes and mountainous lava deserts cover almost 80 percent
of the country. Only 1 percent of the land is forested, and
roughly 25 percent is suitable for agricultural use. Approximately
200 volcanoes, some of them still active, dot the landscape.
Because of Iceland's abundance of hot springs, geysers and
volcanoes, the country is a geothermal paradise, helping to
make it the only country in the world where the availability
of electricity exceeds the demand.
Two-thirds of the energy produced in Iceland comes from two
renewable sources -- hydroelectric energy and geothermal power.
Iceland produces more greenhouse gas per capita than any other
nation, largely because of exhaust generated by automobiles,
mass transit vehicles, and huge fishing trawlers.back
Iceland's biggest industry is fishing, which provides 70 percent
of its export revenue and employs 12 percent of the workforce.
Tourism makes up roughly 4 percent of Iceland's gross national
product and is the second-largest source of foreign revenue
earnings, behind fishing.
In the last decade, tourism in Iceland grew at an average
annual rate of 9 percent.
In 2000, more people (300,000) visited Iceland than live there.
Other principal industries in the country include aluminum
smelting, ferrosilicon production and geothermal power.
Iceland has a per capita gross domestic product of nearly
$25,000. The comparable figure for the United States is $36,300.
In 1999, Iceland's biggest trading partners were Germany and
the United States.
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Icelanders speak Icelandic, a North Germanic language derived
from the Old Norse spoken by Viking settlers. The language has
changed so little over the centuries that modern-day readers
can still understand Viking sagas written 800 years ago.
The language retains three genders (masculine, feminine and
neutral) from its Viking roots, which makes it different from
other Scandinavian languages. Iceland has had one Nobel Prize
winner, Halldor Laxness, who won for literature in 1955. Laxness
began publishing at age 17, produced more than 60 books and
is best known for depictions of working-class life. His best-known
works are Independent People and Atom Station.
Asgrimur Jonsson was one of Iceland's most admired painters,
best known for his stunning landscapes.
One Viking tradition still revered in the country is Thorrablot,
a midwinter feast celebrated in February. At Thorrablot, revelers
partake of Viking delicacies like svith (boiled lamb's
head) and slatur (sheep blood pudding rolled in lard).
In Iceland, the Thursday that falls on or between April 19
and April 25 each year is celebrated as the First Day of Summer.
This national holiday dates back to the 16th century and is
marked with the giving of summer gifts. The traditional drink
of Iceland is brennivin, a spirit made from potatoes
and flavored with caraway seeds. Its nickname is Black Death
because of its potency.
The Icelandic horse is one of the most genetically pure breeds
of horses in the world because the original Viking settlers
forbade further importation of horses shortly after they settled
there. Because of Iceland's rugged volcanic terrain, the horse
has evolved two unique gaits -- the tolt and the flying
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Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. (2001); CIA Worldfactbook (2002),
Country Profile: Iceland; "South Iceland," http://www.south.is/;
Atlapedia Online, http://www.atlapedia.com;
National Power Company of Iceland, Nordlingaalda Diversion;
"Worldwide direct uses of geothermal energy 2000" by John W.
Lund and Derek H. Freeston, in Geothermics 30, no. 1
(2001); "Iceland launches energy revolution" by Tim Hirsch,
at BBC.com (Dec. 24, 2001); Iceland Tourism Board.