Iceland

Official name : Republic of Iceland

Area: 103,000 square kilometers (39,769 square miles)

Highest point on mainland: Öraefajökull (Hvannadalshnukur) (2,119 meters/ 6,952 feet)

Lowest point on land: Sea level

Hemispheres: Northern and Western

Time zone: Noon = noon GMT

Longest distances: 490 kilometers (304 miles) from east to west; 312 kilometers (194 miles) from north to south Land boundaries: None

Coastline: 4,988 kilometers (3,099 miles)

Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)

1 LOCATION AND SIZE

The westernmost European country, Iceland is an island nation in the North Atlantic Ocean just below the Arctic Circle. It is northwest of the United Kingdom and southeast of Greenland. With a total area of about 103,000 square kilometers (39,769 square miles), the country is slightly smaller than the state of Kentucky. Iceland is administratively divided into twenty-three counties and fourteen independent towns.

2 TERRITORIES AND DEPENDENCIES

Iceland claims no territories or dependencies.

3 CLIMATE

Iceland has a relatively mild and steady climate despite its high altitude and its proximity to the Arctic. Because of oceanic influences such as the North Atlantic Drift (a continuation of the Gulf Stream), climatic conditions are moderate in all sections of the island. The mean annual temperature at Reykjavík is about 5°C (about 41°F), with a range from -1°C (31°F) in January to 11°C (52°F) in July. In the northwestern, northern, and eastern coastal regions, which are subject to the effects of polar currents and drifting ice, temperatures are generally lower. Windstorms of considerable violence are characteristic during much of the winter season.

Annual precipitation ranges between about 127 and 203 centimeters (about 50 and 80 inches) along the southern coast, but is only about 51 centimeters (about 20 inches) along the northern coast. The southern slopes of some of Iceland's interior mountains receive up to about 457 centimeters (about 180 inches) of precipitation per year.

4 TOPOGRAPHIC REGIONS

Iceland consists mainly of a central volcanic plateau that has elevations ranging from 700 to 800 meters (2,297 to 2,625 feet) and is ringed by mountains. Lava fields cover about one-ninth of the country and glaciers cover about one-eighth. Geologically, the country is still very young and bears signs of still being in the making. It appears abrupt and jagged without the softness of outline that characterizes more mature landscapes. The average height is 500 meters (1,640 feet) above sea level.

The largest lowland areas include Árnessýsla, Rangárvallasýsla, and Vestur-Skaftafellssýsla in the south and Myar in the west. In the plateaus, land is broken into more or less tilted blocks, with most leaning toward the interior of the country. Glacial erosion has played an important role in giving the valleys their present shape. In some areas, such as between Eyjafjördhur and Skagafjördhur, the landscape possesses alpine characteristics. There are numerous and striking gaping fissures within the glacially active volcanic belts.

Iceland straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is a large fissure resulting from the continuing separation of the North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate. This plate activity is responsible for most of the volcanic and seismic activity in the country.

5 OCEANS AND SEAS

Seacoast and Undersea Features

The Greenland Sea, an extension of the Arctic Ocean, borders Iceland on the north. It also has a southern coastline on the Atlantic Ocean.

Sea Inlets and Straits

The Denmark Strait lies to the northwest of Iceland and separates the country from Greenland. The Strait connects the Arctic Ocean with the Atlantic Ocean.

The peninsula on which Reykjavík sits encloses the Faxa Bay.

The rugged northern coast offers many good natural harbors where the fjords have been deepened by glacial erosion. From east to west, some of these fjords are: Vopna Fjord, separated from Thistil Fjord by Fontur Point; Axar Fjord; Eyja Fjord; and Skaga Fjord. West of Skaga Fjord the coast sweeps in, forming Húna Bay, then turns north toward Denmark Strait. The western coast also contains many fjords; among these are Ísa Fjord, Gils Fjord, and Breidha Fjord.

Islands and Archipelagos

Numerous islands, some of which are inhabited, lie off the coast. The largest ones are the Westman Islands in the south, Hrísey Island in the north, and Grímsey Island at the edge of the Arctic Circle. Several small islands were formed due to underwater volcanic eruptions. The last such eruption, which began in 1963 and ended in 1967, built up the island of Surtsey, which now covers an area of 2.8 square kilometers (1.1 square miles). Other islands have been destroyed by similar eruptions, such as that of Vestmannaeyjar crater in 1973, which erupted and buried one-third of the island of the same name.

Coastal Features

Icelandic coasts can be divided into two main types. In regions not drained by the debris-laden glacial rivers, the coasts are irregular, incised with numerous fjords and smaller inlets. The other type of coast is sand, with smooth outlines featuring extensive offshore bars with lagoons behind them. The beaches from Djúpivogur in the southeast to Ölfusá in the southwest belong to this category.

Cape Reykjanes lies at the tip of the same peninsula where Reykjavík is located. Moving around the coast to the southeast, one can travel halfway around the island without encountering any notable features other than Stokks Point. Glettinga Point is located at the northeast corner of the country.

DID YOU KNOW?

Sprouting hot springs, or geysers, are found in areas of low temperatures (near glacial regions for instance), where underwater hot springs are located. The most famous is the Great Geysir in Haukadalur in South Iceland, from which the international word geyser is derived. It has been known to eject a column of hot water to a height of about 60 meters (200 feet). Another renowned geyser in the vicinity of the Great Geysir is Strokkur.

6 INLAND LAKES

Iceland possesses numerous lakes, mostly of tectonic origin (created by the shifting of tec-tonic plates). Others resulted from the deepening of valleys by glacial erosion or damming of rivers by lava flows, glacial deposits, and rockslides. Small crater lakes are common, especially in the Landmannalaugar-Veidivötn area, where the Lake Oskjuvatn Caldera has an area of 11 square kilometers (4.2 square miles) and a depth of 217 meters (712 feet). On the sandy shores, lagoon lakes are common. The largest lake in the country is Thingvallavatn in the southwest, at 84 square kilometers (32 square miles). Mývatn-Laxa Lake, in the northeast, is well-known, both for the large variety of birds that inhabits its shores and for its excellent fishing.

7 RIVERS AND WATERFALLS

Due to the heavy rainfall, Icelandic rivers are numerous and relatively large. Thjórsá, the longest river, has a length of 237 kilometers (147 miles). Jökulsá á Fjöllum, the second-longest river, is 206 kilometers (128 miles) long. Other major rivers include Hvítá and Ölfusá in the south, Skjálfanda in the north, and Lagarfljót and Jökulsá á Brú in the east.

Icelandic rivers are mainly of two types: glacial and clear-water rivers. Glacial rivers usually divide into numerous intertwined tributaries that constantly change their courses and swing over the plains lying below the glaciers. This is especially true of the rivers running south from Vatnajökull. In that area, it is extremely difficult to build a permanent road, since the bridges and parts of the roads are constantly being washed away when the glacial rivers reach their maximum discharge, usually in July and August.

Clear-water rivers are of two kinds. One drains the old basalt areas and has a variable amount of water with maximum flow in late spring. The other kind drains regions covered with post-glacial lava and usually has small variations in water volume, which makes them ideally suited for hydroelectric power production. Swift currents make Icelandic rivers for the most part unnavigable.

An impressive characteristic of the youthful Icelandic landscape is its waterfalls. The most famous are Gullfoss in Hvítá, Dettifoss in Jökulsá á Fjöllum, Aldeyjarfoss and Godhafoss in Skjálfandafljót, Hraunfossar in Hvítá in Borgarfjördhur, and Skógafoss in Skógá.

Iceland presently has three sites designated as wetlands of international importance by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. The sites cover a total area of 590 square kilometers (228 square miles). The Grudnarfjördur wetland is an estuary and sea bay consisting of mudflats rich in invertebrates, supporting musselbanks, and saltmarsh vegetation. Part of the region of Mývatn-Laxa Lake is a marsh complex fed by both cold and thermal springs. The site supports freshwater marshes, a rich submerged variety of flora, algal communities, woodland, bog, and moorland. The abundant invertebrate fauna here provide food for large numbers of waterfowl. The site is especially important for two duck species that nest only in Iceland and for a large number of molting Anatidae (another type of waterfowl). The last site, Thjórsárver, includes abundant pools and lakes and extensive marshland dominated by sedges.

8 DESERTS

There are no desert regions in Iceland.

9 FLAT AND ROLLING TERRAIN

Glaciers cover an area of 11,200 square kilometers (4,323 square miles), or 11 percent of the total land area. Nearly all types of glaciers, from small cirque glaciers to extensive plateau icecaps, are represented. The biggest of these icecaps, Vatnajökull, with an area of 8,300 square kilometers (3,204 square miles) and a maximum thickness of 1,000 meters (3,281 feet), is larger than all the glaciers in continental Europe put together. One of its southern outlets, Breidamerkurjökull, reaches more than 120 meters (394 feet) below sea level. Other large icecaps are Langjökull (1,025 square kilometers/396 square miles) and Hofsjökull (953 square kilometers/368 square miles), both located in the Central Highlands; Mýrdalsjökull (700 square kilometers/270 square miles) in the south; and Drangajökull (160 square kilometers/62 square miles) in the northwest. The altitude of the glaciation limit is lowest in the northwest, at about 600 meters (1,961 feet), and highest in the highlands north of Vatnajökull, at over 1,500 meters (4,922 feet).

10 MOUNTAINS AND VOLCANOES

Many mountain peaks form a ring around the central plateau. Most of these peaks are volcanic in nature, affected by the underlying thermal activity that characterizes most of the country. Nearly every type of volcanic activity is found underground in Iceland. Fissures creating lava fountains, which are called "crater rows," are the most common. The most notable one is the Lakagígar (The Laki Eruption), which in 1783 poured out the most extensive lava flow in history, covering 565 square kilometers (218 square miles). Other crater rows include Reykjanes, Krisuvik, and Brennisteinsfjoll. Shield volcanoes such as the Skjaldbreidhur are built up over time from repeated lava eruptions.

DID YOU KNOW?

The Arctic Circle is the imaginary line that circles the globe at about 66.5° north latitude. Areas north of the circle experience the phenomenon known as the midnight sun, which is a period of time when the sun is visible for twenty-four hours or longer. During the summer solstice (usually June 21 or 22), the sun is visible on the horizon at midnight from all points along the Arctic Circle. As you move farther north, seasons of sunshine get longer, so that at the North Pole, there are six months of continuous sunshine from the vernal equinox (usually March 21 or 22) until the autumnal equinox (usually September 21 or 22). The Arctic Circle also serves as a boundary between the North Temperate and the North Frigid climate zones.

Iceland also has active volcanoes fed by magma chambers. Many of them are blanketed by perpetual ice, such as those under the Vatnajökull glacier: Grímsvötn and Bardarbunga. Each eruption of these volcanic centers is accompanied by flooding as volcanic activity melts the ice. These floods occur about every five to ten years even without volcanic eruptions, due to underground thermal activity.

In 1362, the eruption of Öraefajökull (Hvannadalshnukur) devastated the settlement at the foot of the volcano. Öraefajökull, a three-peaked volcano, is the highest point in the country at a height of 2,119 meters (6,952 feet) on the southeastern coast of the island. The Vatnajökull glacier covers this volcano. The most famous Icelandic volcano is Hekla, which was renowned throughout the Roman Catholic world during the Middle Ages as the so-called "Abode of the Damned."

11 CANYONS AND CAVES

The Kverkfjöll Glacial Cave is one of the most famous of its kind. It is located at the northern rim of the Vatnajökull glacier and extends for about 2,850 meters (9,350 feet) long and 525 meters (1,722 feet) deep. Glacial caves such as this are carved out by hot water volcanic springs below the glaciers.

Víðgelmir, Surtshellir, and Stafanshellir are lava tubes found in the Hallmundarhraun area. These caverns are formed when lava streams flow continuously in the same river-like channel for many hours or even many days. The outer edges of the flow may begin to cool and form a solid crust, creating a tube through which the molten lava continues to flow. Parts of the tube remain once the initial eruption is completed and the molten lava drains to lower ground, leaving behind a long tunnel. Lava tubes sometimes feature lava stalactites and stalagmites. The Surtshellir Cave (also known as the Fire Giants Cave) is one of the longest lava tubes in the world: 1,970 meters (6,463 feet) long and about 37 meters (121 feet) high.

Ásbyrgi is a horseshoe-shaped canyon that is part of Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, east of Húsavík and north of Dettifoss. Eldgjá is a fifteen-mile-long canyon-like rift located northeast of Mýrdalsjökull. It is actually one of the most extensive explosion fissures in the world. It also contains one of Iceland's most beautiful waterfalls, the Ofaerufoss.

12 PLATEAUS AND MONOLITHS

The inland plateau is a rugged, barren area above sea level. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge runs directly under the center of this region. It makes the plateau the land of violent natural wonders, including volcanoes, hot springs, steaming geysers, glaciers, and glistening lava fields. Earthquakes are frequent in Iceland, but they are rarely dangerous.

13 MAN-MADE FEATURES

A 1995 avalanche, resulting in twenty deaths, led the small village of Flateyri (population 300) to construct a massive barrier dam system to protect the area from future avalanche dangers. The "A"-shaped structure stretches uphill from the village, which lies on the coast of the Denmark Strait, and serves to deflect the massive snow slides around the village.

14 FURTHER READING

Books

Baxter, Colin. Iceland . Moray, Scotland: Baxter, Colin Photography, Ltd, 2001.

Lepthien, E. Iceland . Chicago: Children's Press, 1987.

McBride, Francis. Iceland, Vol.37. Santa Barbara, CA: Clio Press, 1996.

Swaney, Deanna. Lonely Planet: Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands 2001 . London: Lonely Planet, 2001.

Web Sites

"Iceland Volcanoes and Volcanics." The United State Geological Survey . http://vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/Volcanoes/Iceland/description_iceland_volcanics.html (accessed June 13, 2003).

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