Iceland (Ísland) is a Nordic island country at the juncture of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. The main island is entirely south of the Arctic Circle, which passes through the small Icelandic island of Grímsey off the main island’s northern coast. Iceland is closer to continental Europe than to mainland North America; thus, the island is generally included in Europe for historical, political, cultural, and practical reasons. The closest body of land is Greenland (180 miles, 290 kilometers). The closest bodies of land in Europe are the Faroe Islands (260 miles, 420 kilometers); Jan Mayen Island (350 mi, 570 km); Shetland and the Outer Hebrides, both about 460 miles (740 km); and the Scottish mainland and Orkney, both about 470 miles (750 km). The mainland of Norway is about 600 miles (970 km) away.
It has a population of 332,529 and an area of 40,000 square miles (103,000 km²), making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe. The capital and largest city is Reykjavík. Iceland is volcanically and geologically active. The interior consists of a plateau characterized by sand and lava fields, mountains and glaciers, while many glacial rivers flow to the sea through the lowlands. Iceland is warmed by the Gulf Stream and has a temperate climate, despite a high latitude just outside the Arctic Circle. Its high latitude and marine influence still keeps summers chilly, with most of the archipelago having a tundra climate. Icelandic culture is founded upon the nation’s Scandinavian heritage. Most Icelanders are descendants of Germanic and Gaelic settlers. Icelandic, a North Germanic language, is descended from Old Norse and is closely related to Faroese and West Norwegian dialects. The country’s cultural heritage includes traditional Icelandic cuisine, Icelandic literature and medieval sagas. Iceland has the smallest population of any NATO member and is the only one with no standing army, its lightly armed coast guard being in charge of defense.
According to both Landnámabók and Íslendingabók, Celtic monks known as the Papar lived in Iceland before Scandinavian settlers arrived, possibly members of a Hiberno-Scottish mission. Recent archaeological excavations have revealed the ruins of a cabin in Hafnir on the Reykjanes peninsula. Carbon dating indicates that it was abandoned sometime between 770 and 880. In 2016, archaeologists uncovered a longhouse in Stöðvarfjörður that has been dated to as early as the year 800.
Swedish Viking explorer Garðar Svavarsson was the first to circumnavigate Iceland in 870 and establish that it was an island. He stayed over winter and built a house in Húsavík. Garðar departed the following summer but one of his men, Náttfari, decided to stay behind with two slaves. Náttfari settled in what is now known as Náttfaravík and he and his slaves became the first permanent residents of Iceland.
The Norwegian-Norse chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson built his homestead in present-day Reykjavík in the year 874. Ingólfr was followed by many other emigrant settlers, largely Scandinavians and their thralls, many of whom were Irish or Scottish. By 930, most arable land on the island had been claimed; the Althing, a legislative and judicial assembly, was initiated to regulate the Icelandic Commonwealth. Lack of arable land also served impetus to the settlement of Greenland starting in 986. The period of these early settlements coincided with the Medieval Warm Period, when temperatures were similar to those of the early twentieth century. At this time, about 25% of Iceland was covered with forest, compared to 1% in the present day. Christianity was adopted by consensus around 999–1000, although Norse paganism persisted among some segments of the population for some years afterwards.
The Icelandic Commonwealth lasted until the thirteenth century, when the political system devised by the original settlers proved unable to cope with the increasing power of Icelandic chieftains. The internal struggles and civil strife of the Age of the Sturlungs led to the signing of the Old Covenant in 1262, which ended the Commonwealth and brought Iceland under the Norwegian crown. Possession of Iceland passed from the Norwegian Empire to the Kalmar Union in 1415, when the kingdoms of Norway, Denmark and Sweden were united. After the break-up of the union in 1523, it remained a Norwegian dependency, as a part of Denmark–Norway.
In the ensuing centuries, Iceland became one of the poorest countries in Europe. Infertile soil, volcanic eruptions, deforestation and an unforgiving climate made for harsh life in a society where subsistence depended almost entirely on agriculture. The Black Death swept Iceland twice, first in 1402–1404 and again in 1494–1495. The former outbreak killed 50% to 60% of the population, and the latter 30% to 50%
Around the middle of the sixteenth century, as part of the Protestant Reformation, King Christian III of Denmark began to impose Lutheranism on all his subjects. Jón Arason, the last Catholic bishop of Hólar, was beheaded in 1550 along with two of his sons. The country subsequently became officially Lutheran and Lutheranism has since remained the dominant religion.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Denmark imposed harsh trade restrictions on Iceland. Natural disasters, including volcanic eruption and disease, contributed to a decreasing population. Pirates from several countries, including the Barbary Coast, raided its coastal settlements and abducted people into slavery. A great smallpox epidemic in the eighteenth century killed around a third of the population. In 1783, the Laki volcano erupted, with devastating effects. In the years following the eruption, known as the Mist Hardships (Móðuharðindin), over half of all livestock died in the country. Around a quarter of the population died in the ensuing famine.
In 1814, following the Napoleonic Wars, Denmark-Norway was broken up into two separate kingdoms via the Treaty of Kiel but Iceland remained a Danish dependency. Throughout the nineteenth century, the country’s climate continued to grow colder, resulting in mass emigration to the New World, particularly to the region of Gimli, Manitoba in Canada, which was sometimes referred to as New Iceland. About 15,000 people emigrated, out of a total population of 70,000.
A national consciousness arose in the first half of the nineteenth century, inspired by romantic and nationalist ideas from mainland Europe. An Icelandic independence movement took shape in the 1850s under the leadership of Jón Sigurðsson, based on the burgeoning Icelandic nationalism inspired by the Fjölnismenn and other Danish-educated Icelandic intellectuals. In 1874, Denmark granted Iceland a constitution and limited home rule. This was expanded in 1904, and Hannes Hafstein served as the first Minister for Iceland in the Danish cabinet.
The Danish–Icelandic Act of Union, an agreement with Denmark signed on December 1, 1918, and valid for 25 years, recognized Iceland as a fully sovereign state in a personal union with Denmark. The Government of Iceland established an embassy in Copenhagen and requested that Denmark handle Icelandic foreign policy. Danish embassies around the world displayed two coats of arms and two flags: those of the Kingdom of Denmark and those of the Kingdom of Iceland.
During World War II, Iceland joined Denmark in asserting neutrality. After the German occupation of Denmark on April 9, 1940, the Althing replaced the King with a regent and declared that the Icelandic government would take control of foreign affairs and other matters previously handled by Denmark. A month later, British armed forces invaded and occupied the country, violating Icelandic neutrality. In 1941, the occupation was taken over by the United States so that Britain could use its troops elsewhere.
On December 31, 1943, the Danish–Icelandic Act of Union expired after 25 years. Beginning on May 20, 1944, Icelanders voted in a four-day plebiscite on whether to terminate the personal union with Denmark, abolish the monarchy, and establish a republic. The vote was 97% to end the union, and 95% in favor of the new republican constitution. Iceland formally became a republic on June 17, 1944, with Sveinn Björnsson as its first president.
In 1946, the Allied occupation force left Iceland. The nation formally became a member of NATO on March 30, 1949, amid domestic controversy and riots. On May 5, 1951, a defense agreement was signed with the United States. American troops returned to Iceland as the Iceland Defense Force, and remained throughout the Cold War. The US withdrew the last of its forces on September 30, 2006.
Iceland had prospered during the war. The immediate post-war period was followed by substantial economic growth, driven by industrialization of the fishing industry and the US Marshall Plan program, through which Icelanders received the most aid per capita of any European country (at US $209, with the war-ravaged Netherlands a distant second at US $109).
The 1970s were marked by the Cod Wars — several disputes with the United Kingdom over Iceland’s extension of its fishing limits to 200 miles offshore. Iceland hosted a summit in Reykjavík in 1986 between United States President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, during which they took significant steps toward nuclear disarmament. A few years later, Iceland became the first country to recognize the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as they broke away from the USSR. Throughout the 1990s, the country expanded its international role and developed a foreign policy oriented toward humanitarian and peacekeeping causes. To that end, Iceland provided aid and expertise to various NATO-led interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq.
Iceland joined the European Economic Area in 1994, after which the economy was greatly diversified and liberalized. International economic relations increased further after 2001, when Iceland’s newly deregulated banks began to raise massive amounts of external debt, contributing to a 32% increase in Iceland’s gross national income between 2002 and 2007.
In the years 2003–2007, following the privatization of the banking sector under the government of Davíð Oddsson, Iceland moved toward having an economy based on international investment banking and financial services. It was quickly becoming one of the most prosperous countries in the world but was hit hard by a major financial crisis. The crisis resulted in the greatest migration from Iceland since 1887, with a net emigration of 5,000 people in 2009. Iceland’s economy stabilised under the government of Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, and grew by 1.6% in 2012. Many Icelanders, however, have remained unhappy with the state of the economy and government austerity policies. The center-right Independence Party was returned to power in coalition with the Progressive Party in the 2013 elections.
Many fjords punctuate Iceland’s 3,088-mile long (4,970-km) coastline, which is also where most settlements are situated. The island’s interior, the Highlands of Iceland, is a cold and uninhabitable combination of sand, mountains, and lava fields. The major towns are the capital city of Reykjavík, along with its outlying towns of Kópavogur, Hafnarfjörður, and Garðabær, nearby Reykjanesbær where the international airport is located, and the town of Akureyri in northern Iceland. The island of Grímsey on the Arctic Circle contains the northernmost habitation of Iceland, whereas Kolbeinsey contains the northernmost point of Iceland. Iceland has three national parks: Vatnajökull National Park, Snæfellsjökull National Park, and Þingvellir National Park. The country is considered a “strong performer” in environmental protection, having been ranked 13th in Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index of 2012.
A geologically young land, Iceland is located on both the Iceland hotspot and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which runs right through it. This location means that the island is highly geologically active with many volcanoes, notably Hekla, Eldgjá, Herðubreið, and Eldfell. The volcanic eruption of Laki in 1783–1784 caused a famine that killed nearly a quarter of the island’s population. In addition, the eruption caused dust clouds and haze to appear over most of Europe and parts of Asia and Africa for several months afterward, and affected climates in other areas.
Iceland has many geysers, including Geysir, from which the English word is derived, and the famous Strokkur, which erupts every 8–10 minutes. After a phase of inactivity, Geysir started erupting again after a series of earthquakes in 2000. Geysir has since grown quieter and does not erupt often.
With the widespread availability of geothermal power, and the harnessing of many rivers and waterfalls for hydroelectricity, most residents have access to inexpensive hot water, heating, and electricity. The island is composed primarily of basalt, a low-silica lava associated with effusive volcanism as has occurred also in Hawaii. Iceland, however, has a variety of volcanic types (composite and fissure), many producing more evolved lavas such as rhyolite and andesite. Iceland has hundreds of volcanoes with about 30 active volcanic systems.
Surtsey, one of the youngest islands in the world, is part of Iceland. Named after Surtr, it rose above the ocean in a series of volcanic eruptions between November 8, 1963, and June 5, 1968. Only scientists researching the growth of new life are allowed to visit the island.
On March 21, 2010, a volcano in Eyjafjallajökull in the south of Iceland erupted for the first time since 1821, forcing 600 people to flee their homes. Additional eruptions on April 14 forced hundreds of people to abandon their homes. The resultant cloud of volcanic ash brought major disruption to air travel across Europe. Another large eruption occurred on May 21, 2011. This time it was the Grímsvötn volcano, located under the thick ice of Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull. Grímsvötn is one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, and this eruption was much more powerful than the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull activity, with ash and lava hurled 12 miles (20 km) into the atmosphere, creating a large cloud.
Scott #645 was released on September 16, 1987, part of a multi-year series of definitives portraying various birds. The 90-krona photogravure stamp on granite paper, perforated `11½, features a mallard (Anas platyrhynchos). This is a wild duck which breeds throughout the temperate and subtropical Americas, Eurasia, and North Africa, and has been introduced to New Zealand, Australia, Peru, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, the Falkland Islands and South Africa. This duck belongs to the subfamily Anatinae of the waterfowl family Anatidae.
The male birds (drakes) have a glossy green head and are grey on wings and belly, while the females (hens or ducks) have mainly brown-speckled plumage. Both sexes have an area of white-bordered black speculum feathers which commonly also include iridescent blue feathers especially among males. Mallards live in wetlands, eat water plants and small animals, and are social animals preferring to congregate in groups or flocks of varying sizes. This species is the main ancestor of most breeds of domesticated ducks.