The Geo-Joint recently prattled on about the grand phenomenon that built the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Though it would be quite a sight, most of its very long, sinuous outline is well undersea and out of viewing range for tourists. A striking exception to this is the little country on the sizeable island called Iceland. Iceland is built of the magma rising from the spreading center between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This active geology has constructed a rather scenic locale, replete with craggy mountains and geothermal wonders. Two of its volcanoes have captured the world’s attention—Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, when its plume of ash closed some European airspace for most of a week, and the island volcano of Surtsey, which rose from the sea off Iceland in 1963, and in three years built a new island that still exists today. That the Mid-Atlantic Ridge happened to produce enough magma to create these islands big and small at such a high latitude has only added to their natural splendor. Glaciers, ice caves, icebergs, and snowy landscapes collide with the earth’s inner heat to give Iceland its nickname as the Land of Fire and Ice.
The capital Reykjavik and Iceland’s other towns and cities are mostly found around the edges of the island.
Much bigger Greenland has only one sixth of Iceland’s population, but a lot more ice.
Iceland, however, is not all ice, and seems to be named oppositely from its neighboring island, the much larger and ice-covered Greenland. The mixed-up monikers have been laid to attempts to dissuade or encourage new arrivals, but that suggestion is only half right. Iceland went by a couple of different names over the course of history, until a Viking trying to settle there experienced a particularly harsh, icy time and declared the place to be “Iceland” when he got back home to Norway. The name gained enough currency with the Vikings that it remained just that. As for Greenland, the fossil record reveals that its southern end was indeed a more verdant place when first encountered by Viking explorers, about a thousand years ago. Still, it had more than enough ice upon it, and climatic changes in the 1300s froze out the Norse settlers. Later, when Erik the Red was sent off in exile from Iceland for bad behavior, he settled in Greenland and promoted that name so as to draw more pioneers to his mostly frozen outpost.
Reykjavik—a handsome city with a dramatic backdrop.
Eric was only marginally successful, but Iceland has drawn enough immigrants over the centuries to establish a country nearing 338,000 people. For an island just shy of 40,000 square miles, that’s less than nine Icelanders per square mile. They’re not evenly spread out, though—more than a third of them live in the southwestern capital city of Reykjavik, and nearly two-thirds are within the greater Reykjavik region. The smaller northern city of Akureyri and a few others scattered around the coastlines account for the rest of the folks.
The interior is rougher country than the coastal areas where the early fishermen naturally settled. The lightly populated center is both remote and sprinkled with 120 to 200 volcanoes both dormant and active, which makes some areas dicey for habitation. The people of Iceland are about 60 percent Norse, descendants of the early Viking settlers. The rest are mostly Celtic/Gaelic. It’s possible those inhabitants predated Viking arrival, but more likely that those of such ancestry were brought to Iceland as prisoners and slaves of Viking raids on Ireland and Scotland. After centuries under the royal rule of Denmark, Iceland developed a parliamentary democracy in the mid-1940s and has become a very forward-thinking country, socially and environmentally. Social justice issues such as the women’s movement and generous work leave for new parents are important to Icelanders. Welfare, though, is not as liberal as in other countries with Scandinavian roots—Iceland has a strong work ethic, and low unemployment. The country doesn’t spend a lot of money on an army, navy or air force either, because they don’t have any of those. Given its natural beauty, social stability and freedom, as well as its opportunities, Iceland consistently ranks near the top of the list of the world’s happiest countries. Or maybe that contentment comes from other qualities: It is reported that Iceland is the most prolific nation on the planet for movie-watching, and Coca-Cola-drinking. And believe it or not, they have no mosquitoes.
As part of that happiness-inducing natural beauty, Iceland teems with the features of a well-watered volcanic landscape: hot springs, mudpots, steam- and gas-emitting fumaroles, and geysers, among others. The very word “geyser” stems from Iceland’s Great Geysir, the first known to Europeans. The easy access to abundant terrestrial heat has allowed the country to generate a quarter of its electrical power needs cheaply and without pollution. The other 75 percent of production comes from hydropower, driven by Iceland’s many rivers, often springing from glaciers. Iceland is a world leader in clean energy, with more than enough for its citizens. In fact, electricity-hungry aluminum smelting operations and computer data centers have been lured to the island by its cheap power, and advantageous natural conditions—to cool the hot servers of data farms, all it takes is the circulation of the freely available chilly outside air. As another economic stream, some would like to export a portion of Iceland’s excess electrical power to nations in need of cleaner energy. Despite a wave of financial troubles a decade ago, with its plentiful energy and booming tourist trade, Iceland looks to have rich reserves for the future.
Iceland shows off its volcanic capabilities.
Geothermal energy powers the country, and makes entertaining displays, too.
Stunning scenery is Iceland’s specialty.
Iceland lives up to its name.
As if the landscape wasn’t beautiful enough—add the northern lights, too!
Tundra, birch and pine forests, glaciers, roaring rivers, waterfalls, and striking volcanic rock formations draw people to Iceland’s wilderness, and with luck, the sky may put on a show as well. Thanks to its high latitude and pristine skies, the aurora borealis makes colorful displays overhead, although it will likely be a cold night during the best viewing season, September to April. Summer, of course, brings very long days, as Iceland sits immediately below the Arctic Circle. Driving the 825-mile ring road and sightseeing around the island can be fairly leisurely done in about a week’s time, though you could go nonstop and be around the circuit in less than 15 hours. But why hurry? Plenty of light to set up camp or find lodging whenever you pull in.
So whether by society or nature, Iceland looks to be sitting pretty. The foreboding nature of its name seems uncalled for, but Iceland may yet live up to that name. Climate change, which once made Greenland inhospitable to its first settlers, is now having the opposite effect there. Greenland’s vast ice sheets are melting rapidly, sending some very cold liquid into the surrounding seas. The North Atlantic is already feeling the chill and is slowing the warm Gulf Stream, which Iceland depends on to maintain its mellower climate. As Greenland sheds its icy cloak, Iceland could become the new frozen Greenland, and vice versa. Not a happy prospect, but at least the names would finally fit.