Frontline World

ICELAND - The Future of Sound, January 2003

Synopsis of "The Future of Sound"

World Music's Global Reach

Sample Sounds From the Edge of the World

Learn More about Iceland

History, Culture and Unique Approach to Energy




Images of Nigerian people and architecture
Facts & Stats

• General Background
• Land/Geography
• Economy/Industry
• Culture

General Background
General Background
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

General Background
Iceland lies below the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic Ocean. At roughly 103,000 square kilometers, Iceland is slightly smaller than Kentucky.

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 to top

General Background
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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General Background
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 pace.

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Sources:;;; Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. (2001); CIA Worldfactbook (2002), Country Profile: Iceland; "South Iceland,"; Atlapedia Online,; 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 (Dec. 24, 2001); Iceland Tourism Board.