Basic island data


Location: North Atlantic Ocean


Coordinates: 65° N, 18 W° [1]


Area: 39,702 sq miles / 102,828 sq km


Highest point: Hvannadalsnúkur (6,952 feet /2,119 meters) [13]


Population: 304,000 (2008) [1]


Alternate names:

– Icelandic, German: Island

– Latin: Islandia, Yslandia

– Former Icelandic: Gardarholm [11]



– 1. Central Intelligence Agency, “Iceland,” The World Factbook, October 9, 2008.

– 2. “Country Profile: Iceland,” BBC News, October 9, 2008.

– 3. Noel Grove, “A Village Fights for Its Life,” National Geographic, July 1973.

– 4. Noel Grove, “Vestmannaeyjar: Up from the Ashes,” National Geographic, May 1977.

– 5. Lyndon B. Johnson, "Friendly Flight to Northern Europe," National Geographic, February 1964, 290.

– 6. Louise E. Levathes, “Iceland: Life Under the Glaciers,” National Geographic, February 1987.

– 7. James Surowiecki, “Iceland’s Deep Freeze,” New Yorker, April 21, 2008.

– 8. Charles Forelle, “As Banking 'Fairy Tale' Ends, Iceland Looks Back to the Sea, Wall Street Journal, October 10, 2008.

– 9. Nicholas Wade, “A Genomic Treasure Hunt May Be Striking Gold,” New York Times, June 18, 2002.

– 10. “Volcanoes under the Ice: Recipe for a Flood,” Science News Vol. 150, November 23, 1996, 327.

– 11. Count Oxenstierna, Scandinavia (London: Thames and Hudson, 1963), 27-28, 40-41.

– 12. “History of Iceland,”, viewed October 2008.

– 13. Encyclopedia Britannica, “Iceland,”, viewed October 2008.

– 14. Peter Kidson, Iceland in a Nutshell (Reykjavik: Ferðahandbækur S/F, 1968), 4.

– 15. Ellen E. Schultz, “In Iceland, Kids Go Out at Night To Pick Up Chicks,” Wall Street Journal, September 1, 2004.

– 16. Wright Britton, “Sailing Iceland’s Rugged Coasts,” National Geographic, August 1969.

– 17. Jared Diamond, Collapse (New York: Penguin, 2005), 197-205.





Iceland is a large volcanic island in the North Atlantic Ocean, forming with its small offshore islands the nation of Iceland.  It is culturally part of Europe, but is geologically separate, an oceanic island formed by eruptions along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.


At 39,702 sq miles / 102,828 sq km, it is the 18th largest island in the world.  The island forms a roughly oval shape, with a large, irregular peninsula jutting out from the northwest side. The highest mountain is Hvannadalsnúkur at 6,952 feet /2,119 meters.[13]  


With some 200 volcanoes, most of the island is covered by lava and ashfields and volcanic hills, and there are frequent volcanic eruptions and eruption-induced glacial floods.  Icelanders take advantage of this geology by using geothermal energy extensively.  Iceland has about 700 geysers.[11]


About 200 species of seabirds are found on the island, including 10 million puffins.[11, 15]


The island has a cool temperate climate, moderated by warm waters of the Gulf Stream.  Vegetation is largely limited to grasslands and small areas—about 1% of the island—of woodland.[17]  Some 13% of the island is covered by glaciers and ice fields.[5]


Iceland is one of the wealthiest countries on Earth, with an extremely high quality of life and unusually egalitarian income distribution.  More than half the population of 300,000 lives in the capital, Reykjavik, in southwestern Iceland, with the remainder scattered around the coast.


The Icelanders, of Norse and Irish descent, still speak a language little changed from that of their medieval ancestors.


Fish and aluminum are the island’s chief exports.[1]  Only about 2% of the land is farmed.[6]  Biotechnology is a rising sector, aided by Iceland’s distinct genetic isolation.[9]



Iceland was formed perhaps 20-25 million years ago by volcanic eruption, possibly as a group of smaller islands, and grew slowly over millions of years.  Its climate was at times much warmer; 10 million years ago the island had sequoias and redwoods.[6]  During the Ice Ages over the last 2.5 million years, the island was largely covered by glaciers.  Plants and animals gradually found their way to the island during interglacial periods.


Iceland was one of the last major landmasses to be settled by people.  Irish hermits may have been first, in the 9th century, but they fled after Norwegian Viking visits began in 861.  Ingólfur Arnarson was the first permanent settler, arriving in 874.  He was followed by thousands of others, mostly Norwegians, who often brought Irish wives and slaves.[6]  Settlement was largely complete by 930, when the island’s population reached about 20,000.[12, 11]


About a quarter of the island was wooded at discovery, but settlers cut down the island’s forests rapidly, and erosion destroyed inland grasslands and much of the potential farmland.[6, 17]


The Althing, Iceland’s parliament, began meeting in 930, making it the world’s oldest surviving body of its kind.  In the late 10th century Icelandic expeditions explored parts of the North American coast, and established settlements in southwest Greenland.  Iceland converted to Christianity in the year 1000.


After half a century of violent instability, Iceland submitted itself to Norwegian rule in 1262; Denmark became Iceland’s master in 1380.[12, 6]  Islanders suffered from eruptions of Hekla Volcano in 1300, 1341 and 1389, and a pneumonic plague outbreak in 1402 killed half the population.[12, 9]


The Protestant Reformation was imposed on the island by the Danes in the mid-sixteenth century.  Iceland faced raids by Algerian, Spanish, and English pirates in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the 1600s were made more difficult by a Danish trade monopoly imposed in 1602.[14]


Harsh conditions over the next few centuries culminated in the 1700s.  In 1708, about a third of Icelanders were killed by smallpox.  A giant fissure eruption at Laki in 1783 killed crops and caused famine on the island, killing a fifth of the population over the next year.[9]  From 1703 to 1801, the population of the island actually declined overall, from 50,000 to 47,000.[13]


Nineteenth and twentieth centuries

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries about 15,000 Icelanders left the island for North America, with the peak exodus in the 1880s.[12]  At the same time, rising national consciousness bolstered support for independence.[14]


The twentieth century saw rapid urbanization, population growth, and a slow climb out of the poverty that marked the island since settlement.  Iceland developed its own commercial fishing fleet in the first half of the century, boosting exports.[17]


Denmark recognized Iceland as a sovereign state under the Danish crown in 1918.[12]  The population became predominately urban in 1923.[17]


When Denmark was invaded by Germany in 1940, British troops occupied the island.  They were joined by American forces after the US entered the war, and US military bases remained on the island for the next 60 years.  The island achieved independence from Denmark in 1944.  Iceland joined NATO in 1949, a controversial decision that was met by riots.[6]


Since World War II Iceland has seen fairly rapid population expansion, doubling from 140,000 in 1950.[13]


The island of Surtsey erupted from under the sea off the southwestern coast of Iceland in 1963, attracting worldwide attention.


Television was introduced for the first time in 1966.[16]


Disputes over fishing grounds led to tension with Britain in the early 1970s, when the fishing industry accounted for 80% of Iceland’s foreign exchange earnings.[3]


During the 1973 eruption on Heimaey, one of the Westmann Islands off the southwestern coast, the population of 5,000 had to be evacuated to the main island, though most returned over the next few years.[3, 4]


Declining fish stocks triggered a severe economic downturn in the early 1980s.[6] The other defining event of that decade was a 1986 summit meeting in Reykjavik between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US President Ronald Reagan that helped set the stage for the winding down of the Cold War.


A volcanic eruption under the Vatnajökull Ice Cap in 1996 caused a giant jökulhlaup—a flood from under an ice cap—that did millions of dollars of damage to roads and bridges on the south coast.[10]


The last US military forces left the island in 2006, as the Keflavik airbase was shut down.[2]


Iceland turned to banking in the 1990s and 2000s, building up immense wealth based on heavy borrowing, and driving rapid economic growth.[7]  The financial system came crashing down in 2008, when Iceland was caught up in the global credit crisis.[8]




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--------------------------- Copyright 1995-2009 Joshua Calder

Contact Joshua Calder at calder.josh[at] with questions or suggestions.