Thursday, 27 August 2009

Iceland


The Republic of Iceland ( /ˈaɪslənd/ ) (Icelandic: Ísland or Lýðveldið Ísland (names of Iceland); IPA: [ˈislant]), is an island country located in the North Atlantic Ocean.



Globe showing North and South Atlantic Ocean



It has a population of about 320,000 and a total area of 103,000 km².




Its capital and largest city is Reykjavík.









Located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland is volcanically and geologically active on a large scale; this defines the landscape.


The interior mainly consists of a plateau characterised by sand fields, mountains and glaciers, while many big glacial rivers flow to the sea through the lowlands. Warmed by the Gulf Stream, Iceland has a temperate climate relative to its latitude and provides a habitable environment and nature.


Settlement
According to Landnámabók, the settlement of Iceland began in AD 874 when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfur Arnarson became the first permanent Norwegian settler on the island. Others had visited the island earlier and stayed over winter. Over the next centuries, people of Nordic origin settled in Iceland. Until the 20th century, the Icelandic population relied on fisheries and agriculture, and was from 1262 to 1918 a part of the Norwegian, and later the Danish monarchies. In the 20th century, Iceland's economy and welfare system developed quickly, and in recent decades the nation has implemented free trade in the European Economic Area and diversified from fishing to new economic fields in services, finance and various industries. Iceland is a free market economy with low taxes compared to other OECD countries. The country maintains a Nordic welfare system providing universal health care and post-secondary education for its citizens.
Icelandic culture is based on the nation’s Norse heritage and its status as a developed and technologically advanced society.


Gettir Saga



Cultural heritages include traditional Icelandic cuisine, the nation’s poetry, and the medieval Icelandic Sagas which are internationally renowned. Modern Icelandic culture, such as the nation's music scene and cinema, is influenced by the nation’s ideologies. In recent years, Iceland has been one of the wealthiest and most developed nations in the world. In 2007, it was ranked as the most developed country in the world by the United Nations' Human Development Index and the fourth most productive country per capita. In 2008, the nation’s banking system systematically failed, causing significant economic contraction and political unrest that lead to early parliamentary elections making Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir the country's prime minister. She is the first openly gay head of government in modern times.


Topography

A map of Iceland with major towns marked.







Iceland, as seen from space on 29 January, 2004 (NASA).



Iceland is located in the North Atlantic Ocean just south of the Arctic Circle, which passes through the small island of Grímsey off Iceland's northern coast, but not through mainland Iceland.


Unlike neighbouring Greenland, Iceland is a part of Europe, not of North America, though geologically the island is part of both continental plates. Because of cultural, economic and linguistic similarities, Iceland is one of the Nordic countries and participates in the Nordic cooperation. The closest bodies of land are Greenland (287 km) and the Faroe Islands (420 km). The closest distance to the mainland of Europe is 970 km (to Norway).

Geography
Iceland is the world's 18th largest island, and Europe's second largest island following Great Britain. The main island is 101,826 km² but the entire country is 103,000 km² (39,768.5 sq mi) in size, of which 62.7% is tundra. Lakes and glaciers cover 14.3%; only 23% is vegetated.
The largest lakes are Þórisvatn (Reservoir): 83–88 km² (32-34 sq mi) and
Þingvallavatn: 82 km² (32 sq mi);
other important lakes include Lögurinn and Mývatn. Öskjuvatn is the deepest lake at 220 m (722 ft).
Politically Iceland belongs to the continent of Europe.
However geologically Iceland is a subaerial part of Mid-Atlantic spreading ridge, the ridge along which the oceanic crust spreads and forms new oceanic crust. In addition to this, this part of the MOR (mid ocean ridge) is located atop a mantle plume causing Iceland to be subaerial (above sea level). Tectonically Iceland belongs neither to European continent nor to North America since it is a raised part of the oceanic crust, not a continental land mass.
Many fjords punctuate its 4,970 km long coastline, which is also where most settlements are situated because the island's interior, the Highlands of Iceland, is a cold and uninhabitable combination of sand and mountains. The major towns are the capital Reykjavík, Kópavogur, Hafnarfjörður, Reykjanesbær, where the international airport is located, and Akureyri.


Akureyri is the largest town in Iceland outside of the greater Reykjavík area. Most rural towns are based on the fishing industry, which provides 40% of Iceland's exports.


The island of Grímsey just south of the Arctic Circle contains the northernmost habitation of Iceland.
Iceland has three national parks: Vatnajökull National Park, Snæfellsjökull National Park, and Þingvellir National Park.

Geological activity

The erupting Great Geysir in Haukadalur valley, the oldest known geyser in the world.



A geologically young land, Iceland is located on both the Iceland hotspot and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which runs right through it.



Hekla Volcano


This combined location means that geologically the island is extremely active, having many volcanoes, notably Hekla, Eldgjá, Herðubreið and Eldfell. Iceland is one of two places on Earth where a mid-ocean ridge rises above sea level, making it an easily accessible site to study the geology of such a ridge. The volcanic eruption of Laki in 1783-1784 caused a famine that killed nearly a quarter of the island's population; the eruption caused dust clouds and haze to appear over most of Europe and parts of Asia and Africa for several months afterward.



Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe, located in northeast Iceland.



There are also many geysers in Iceland, including Geysir, from which the English word is derived, as well as the famous Strokkur which erupts every 5–10 minutes. After a phase of inactivity, Geysir started erupting again after a series of earthquakes in the year 2000. With this widespread availability of geothermal power, and because many rivers and waterfalls are harnessed for hydroelectricity, most residents have inexpensive hot water and home heat.
The island itself is composed primarily of basalt, a low-silica lava associated with effusive volcanism like Hawaii. But Iceland has various kinds of volcanoes, many of which produce more evolved lavas such as rhyolite and andesite. Iceland was also formed by those volcanoes.








Surtsey erupting 1963


Iceland controls Surtsey, one of the youngest islands in the world. Named after Surtr, it rose above the ocean in a series of volcanic eruptions between 8 November, 1963 and 5 June, 1968. Only scientists researching the growth of new life are allowed to visit the island.

Climate

Eyjafjallajökull glacier, one of the smallest glaciers of Iceland.

The climate of Iceland's coast is subpolar oceanic. The warm North Atlantic Current ensures generally higher annual temperatures than in most places of similar latitude in the world. Regions in the world with similar climate include the Aleutian Islands, Alaska Peninsula and Tierra del Fuego although these regions are closer to the equator. Despite its proximity to the Arctic, the island's coasts remain ice-free through the winter. Ice incursions are rare, the last having occurred on the north coast in 1969.
There are some variations in the climate between different parts of the island. Very generally speaking, the south coast is warmer, wetter and windier than the north. Low-lying inland areas in the north are the most arid. Snowfall in winter is more common in the north than the south (there is ca 50% chance of a white Christmas in Reykjavík but ca 70% in Akureyri).


Aeriel picture of the Central Highlands



The Central Highlands are the coldest part of the country.
The highest air temperature recorded was 30.5 °C (86.9 °F) on 22 June, 1939 at Teigarhorn on the southeastern coast. The lowest was -38 °C (-36.4 °F) on 22 January, 1918 at Grímsstaðir and Möðrudalur in the northeastern hinterland. The temperature records for Reykjavík are 26.2 °C (79.2 °F) on 30 July 2008, and -24.5 °C (-12.1 °F) on 21 January 1918.

Flora and fauna

An Icelandic sheep.


Few plants and animals have migrated to the island or evolved locally since the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. There are around 1,300 known species of insects in Iceland, which is a rather low number compared with other countries (over one million species have been described worldwide). The only native land mammal when humans arrived was the Arctic Fox, which came to the island at the end of the ice age, walking over the frozen sea. There are no native reptiles or amphibians on the island.
Phytogeographically, Iceland belongs to the Arctic province of the Circumboreal Region within the Boreal Kingdom. According to the WWF, the territory of Iceland belongs to the ecoregion of Iceland boreal birch forests and alpine tundra. Approximately three-quarters of the island are barren of vegetation; plant life consists mainly of grassland which is regularly grazed by livestock. The most common tree native to Iceland is the Northern Birch Betula pubescens, which formerly formed forest over much of Iceland along with "Aspen" (Populus Tremola), "Rowan" (Sorbus Aucuparia) and "Common Juniper" (Juniperus communis) and other smaller trees. Permanent human settlement greatly disturbed the isolated ecosystem of thin, volcanic soils and limited species diversity. The forests were heavily exploited over the centuries for firewood and timber. Deforestation caused a loss of critical topsoil due to erosion, greatly reducing the ability of birches to grow back. Today, only a few small birch stands exist in isolated reserves. The planting of new forests has increased the number of trees, but does not compare to the original forests. Some of the planted forests include new foreign species.

The animals of Iceland include the Icelandic sheep, cattle, chicken, goat and the sturdy Icelandic horse. Many varieties of fish live in the ocean waters surrounding Iceland, and the fishing industry is a main contributor to Iceland's economy, accounting for more than half of its total exports. Wild mammals include the Arctic Fox, mink, mice, rats, rabbits and reindeer. Polar bears occasionally visit the island, travelling on icebergs from Greenland. In May 2008 two polar bears came only two weeks apart. Birds, especially seabirds, are a very important part of Iceland's animal life. Puffins, skuas, and kittiwakes nest on its sea cliffs. In Iceland commercial whaling is practiced along with scientific whale hunts.

History
Settlement and the establishment of the Commonwealth (874-1262)


A 19th-century depiction of a meeting of the Alþingi at Þingvellir.



The first people believed to have inhabited Iceland were Irish monks or hermits, known as Papar, who came in the 8th century. No archaeological discoveries support this theory; the monks are supposed to have left with the arrival of Norsemen, who systematically settled Iceland in the period circa AD 870-930. The first known permanent Norse settler was Ingólfur Arnarson, who built his homestead in Reykjavík in the year 874.


Thingvellir Rock, site of the Althing and National Park


Ingólfur was followed by many other emigrant settlers, largely Norsemen and their Irish slaves. By 930, most arable land had been claimed and the Althing, a legislative and judiciary parliament, was founded as the political hub of the Icelandic Commonwealth. Christianity was adopted 999-1000. The Commonwealth lasted until 1262 when the political system devised by the original settlers proved unable to cope with the increasing power of Icelandic chieftains.

Middle Ages to the Early Modern Era



Sturlung Era, Man became a vassal to the King



The internal struggles and civil strife of the Sturlung Era led to the signing of the Old Covenant, which brought Iceland under the Norwegian crown. Possession of Iceland passed to Denmark-Norway in the late 14th century when the kingdoms of Norway and Denmark were united in the Kalmar Union. In the ensuing centuries, Iceland became one of the poorest countries in Europe. Infertile soil, volcanic eruptions, and an unforgiving climate made for harsh life in a society whose subsistence depended almost entirely on agriculture. The Black Death swept Iceland in 1402-1404 and 1494-1495, each time killing approximately half the population.
Around the middle of the 16th century, King Christian III of Denmark began to impose Lutheranism on all his subjects. The last Catholic bishop in Iceland was beheaded in 1550, along with two of his sons and the country subsequently became fully Lutheran. Lutheranism has since remained the dominant religion. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Denmark imposed harsh trade restrictions on Iceland, while pirates from England, Spain and Algeria (Turkish Abductions) raided its coasts. A great smallpox epidemic in the 18th century killed around one-third of the population. In 1783 the Laki volcano erupted, with devastating effects. The years following the eruption, known as the Mist Hardships (Icelandic: Móðuharðindin), saw the death of over half of all livestock in the country, with ensuing famine in which around a quarter of the population died.

Language
Iceland's official written and spoken language is Icelandic, a North Germanic language descended from Old Norse. It has changed less from Old Norse than the other Nordic languages, has preserved more verb and noun inflection, and has to a considerable extent developed new vocabulary based on native roots rather than borrowings from other languages. It is the only living language to retain the runic letter Þ. The closest living language to Icelandic is Faroese. In education, the use of Icelandic Sign Language for Iceland's deaf community is regulated by the National Curriculum Guide.
English is widely spoken as a secondary language. Danish is also widely understood. Studying both these languages is a mandatory part of the compulsory school curriculum. Other commonly spoken languages are Norwegian and Swedish. Danish is mostly spoken in a way largely comprehensible to Swedes and Norwegians – it is often referred to as "Scandinavian" in Iceland.

Icelandic name
Rather than using family names as is the custom in all mainland European nations, the Icelanders use patronymics. The patronymic follows the person's given name, e.g. Ólafur Jónsson ("Ólafur, son of Jón") or Katrín Karlsdóttir ("Katrín, daughter of Karl"). It is for this reason that the Icelandic telephone directory is listed alphabetically by first name rather than surname.

Economy


Whalers in the harbour



Iceland was the seventh most productive country in the world by List of countries by GDP (nominal) per capita (54,858 USD), and the fifth most productive by GDP at purchasing power parity (40,112 USD). Except for its abundant hydro-electric and geothermal power, Iceland lacks natural resources; historically its economy depended heavily on the fishing industry, which still provides almost 40% of export earnings and employs 8% of the work force. The economy is vulnerable to declining fish stocks and drops in world prices for its main material exports: fish and fish products, aluminium, and ferrosilicon. Whaling in Iceland has been historically significant. Although the Icelandic economy still relies heavily on fishing, its importance is diminishing as the travel industry and other service, technology and various other industries grow.
Although Iceland is a highly developed country, it is still one of the most newly-industrialised in Europe. Until the 20th century, it was among the poorest countries in Western Europe. The strong economic growth that Iceland has experienced in recent decades has only just allowed for the modernisation of infrastructure. The government coalition plans to continue its generally neo-liberal policies of reducing the budget and current account deficits, limiting foreign borrowing, containing inflation, revising agricultural and fishing policies, diversifying the economy, and privatising state-owned industries. Many political parties remain opposed to EU membership, primarily due to Icelanders' concern about losing control over their natural resources.
Iceland's economy has been diversifying into manufacturing and service industries in the last decade, including software production, biotechnology, and financial services. Despite the decision to resume commercial whale hunting in 2006, the tourism sector is expanding, with the recent trends in ecotourism and whale-watching. Iceland's agriculture industry consists mainly of potatoes, green vegetables (in greenhouses), mutton and dairy products. The financial centre is Borgartún in Reykjavik, hosting a large number of companies and three investment banks. The three investments banks collapsed in October 2008 taking down the entire financial sector, stock market, and currency with it.
The national currency of Iceland is the Icelandic króna (ISK). An extensive poll, released on 11 September, 2007, by Capacent Gallup showed that 53% of respondents were in favour of adopting the euro, 37% opposed and 10% undecided.
Iceland ranked 5th in the Index of Economic Freedom 2006 and 14th in 2008. Iceland has a flat tax system. The main personal income tax rate is a flat 22.75 percent and combined with municipal taxes the total tax rate is not more than 35.72%, and there are many deductions. The corporate tax rate is a flat 18 percent, one of the lowest in the world. Other taxes include a value-added tax and a net wealth tax. Employment regulations are relatively flexible. Property rights are strong and Iceland is one of the few countries where they are applied to fishery management. Taxpayers pay various subsidies to each other, similar to European countries with welfare state, but the spending is less than in most European countries. Despite low tax rates, overall taxation and consumption is still much higher than countries such as Ireland. According to OECD, agricultural support is the highest among OECD countries and an impediment to structural change. Also, health care and education spending have relatively poor return by OECD measures. OECD Economic survey of Iceland 2008 highlighted Iceland's challenges in currency and macroeconomic policy. There was a currency crisis that started in the spring of 2008 and on 6 October trading in Iceland's banks was suspended as the government battled to save the economy.
Iceland was ranked first in the United Nations' Human Development Index report for 2007/2008. Icelanders are the second longest-living nation with a life expectancy at birth of 81.8 years. The Gini coefficient ranks Iceland as one of the most egalitarian countries in the world.
Culture
Icelandic culture has its roots in Norse traditions.



Traditional Grass Covered Houses



Icelandic literature is popular, in particular the sagas and eddas which were written during the High and Late Middle Ages. Icelanders place relatively great importance on independence and self-sufficiency; in a European Commission public opinion analysis over 85% of Icelanders found independence to be "very important" contrasted with the EU25 average of 53%, and 47% for the Norwegians, and 49% for the Danes.
Some traditional beliefs remain today; for example, some Icelanders either believe in elves or are unwilling to rule out their existence. Iceland ranks first on the Human Development Index, and was recently ranked the fourth happiest country in the world.
Iceland is progressive in terms of lesbian, gay bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) matters. In 1996, Parliament passed legislation to create registered partnerships for same-sex couples, covering nearly all the rights and benefits of marriage. In 2006, by unanimous vote of Parliament, further legislation was passed, granting same-sex couples the same rights as different-sex couples in adoption, parenting and assisted insemination treatment.


The poet Steinn Steinarr by Einar Hákonarson, one of Iceland's best known artists.


Literature
Iceland's best-known classical works of literature are the Icelanders' sagas, prose epics set in Iceland's age of settlement. The most famous of these include Njáls saga, about an epic blood feud, and Grœnlendinga saga and Eiríks saga, describing the discovery and settlement of Greenland and Vinland (modern Newfoundland). Egils saga, Laxdæla saga, Grettis saga, Gísla saga and Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu are also notable and popular Icelanders' sagas.




An example from Brennu-Njáls saga.


The sagas are a significant part of the Icelandic heritage.
A translation of the Bible was published in the 16th century. Important compositions since the 15th to the 19th century include sacred verse, most famously the Passion Hymns of Hallgrímur Pétursson, and rímur, rhyming epic poems. Originating in the 14th century, rímur were popular into the 19th century, when the development of new literary forms was provoked by the influential, National-Romantic writer Jónas Hallgrímsson. In recent times, Iceland has produced many great writers, the best-known of which is arguably Halldór Laxness who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. Steinn Steinarr was an influential modernist poet.

Initial migration and settlement


Map showing Iceland proximity to Greenland


The first Viking to sight Iceland was Gardar Svavarsson, who went off course due to harsh conditions when sailing from Norway to the Faroe Islands. His reports led to the first efforts to settle the island. The first permanent settler in Iceland is usually considered to be a Norwegian chieftain named Ingólfur Arnarson. He settled with his family at around 874, in a place he named Bay of Smokes, or Reykjavík in Icelandic.
Following Ingólfur also in 874, another group of Norwegians set sail across the North Atlantic Ocean with their families, livestock, slaves and possessions, escaping the domination of the first King of Norway, Haraldur Harfagri. They traveled 1,000 km (600 mi) in their Viking longships to the island of Iceland. These people were primarily of Norwegian, Irish, and Scottish origin, the Irish and Scots being mainly slaves and servants of the Norse chiefs, according to the Icelandic sagas. Recent evidence suggests that approximately 60% of the Icelandic maternal gene pool is derived from Ireland and Scotland.
The Icelandic Age of Settlement (Icelandic: Landnámsöld) is considered to have lasted from 874 to 930, at which point most of the island had been claimed and Alþing (English: Althing), the assembly of the Icelandic Commonwealth, was founded in Þingvellir.

Hardship and conflict

Althingissaid /Parliament


In 930, on the Þingvellir (English: Thingvellir) plain near Reykjavík, the chieftains and their families met and established the Alþing, Iceland's first national assembly. However, the Alþing lacked the power to enforce the laws it made. In 1262, struggles between rival chieftains left Iceland so divided that King Haakon IV of Norway was asked to step in as a final arbitrator for all disputes, as part of the Old Covenant. This is known as the Age of the Sturlungs.
Iceland was under Norwegian leadership until 1380, when the Royal House of Norway died out. At this point, both Iceland and Norway came under the control of the Danish Crown. With the introduction of absolute monarchy in Denmark, the Icelanders relinquished their autonomy to the crown, including the right to initiate and consent to legislation. This meant a loss of independence for Iceland, which led to nearly 300 years of decline. The reasons are largely attributed to the fact that Denmark and its crown did not consider Iceland to be a colony to be supported and assisted. In particular, the lack of help in defense led to constant raids by marauding pirates along the Icelandic coasts.
Emigration
The last written records of the Norse Greenlanders are from a 1408 marriage in the church of Hvalsey – today the most well-preserved of the Norse rui.
Greenland
Greenland was first settled by some 500 Icelanders under the leadership of Erik the Red in the late 10th century, CE. Isolated fjords in this harsh land offered sufficient grazing to support cattle and sheep, though the climate was too cold for cereal crops. Royal trade ships from Norway occasionally went to Greenland to trade for walrus tusks and falcons. The population eventually reached a high point of perhaps 3,000 in two communities and developed independent institutions before fading away during the 15th century. A papal legation was sent there as late as 1492, the year Columbus attempted to find a shorter spice route but instead found the Americas.


North America
Gimli, Manitoba, pop. 5,797(Statistics Canada, 2006) is home to the largest concentration of Icelanders outside of Iceland.

According to the Saga of Eric the Red, Icelandic immigration to North America dates back to 1006, when Icelandic Snorri was born in Vinland. This colony was short-lived though and by the 1020s the Icelanders abandoned it. Icelandic immigration to North America would not resume for some 800 years.
One of the first new instances of Icelandic immigration to North America occurred in 1855, when a small group settled in Spanish Fork, Utah. Another Icelandic colony is Washington Island, Wisconsin though only a fifth of its residents are of Icelandic descent. Immigration to the United States and Canada began in earnest in the 1870s, with most migrants initially settling in the Great Lakes area. These settlers were fleeing famine and overcrowding on Iceland. Today, there are sizable communities of Icelandic descent in both the United States and Canada. Gimli, in Manitoba, Canada, is home to the largest population of Icelanders outside of the main island of Iceland.

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