Iceland

A sparsely-populated North Atlantic island, Iceland is famous for its hot springs, geysers and active volcanoes. Lava fields cover much of the land and hot water is pumped from under the ground to supply much of the country’s heating.

QUICK FACTS:

OFFICIAL NAME: Republic of Iceland

FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Constitutional republic

CAPITAL: Reykjavík

POPULATION: 317,000

OFFICIAL LANGUAGE: Icelandic (Others include: English, Nordic languages, German)

MONEY: Icelandic króna

AREA: 39,769 square miles (103,001 square kilometers)

GEOGRAPHY

Iceland is a small island nation that is Europe’s westernmost country and home to the world’s northernmost capital, Reykjavik. Eleven percent of the country is covered in glacial ice and is surrounded by water. If global warming continues, rising water levels and melting ice could be devastating to Iceland.

A volcanic island, Iceland experiences severe volcanic activity. In 2010, the Eyjafjallajokull volcano at an elevation of 5,466 feet (1,666 meters) erupted, blowing ash high into the atmosphere and disrupting European air traffic for weeks.

Iceland is located between the Greenland Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. It is northwest of the United Kingdom, and is slightly smaller than the state of Kentucky.

The land is plateau with mountain peaks, and ice fields, with a coastline marked by fjords, which are deep inlets carved by glaciers.

NATURE

Foxes were the only land mammals in Iceland when it was settled. Newcomers brought in domesticated animals and reindeer. Most of the wildlife is under conservation and protection. There are four national parks and more than 80 nature preserves.Vatnajökull, or Vatna Glacier, is an extensive ice field in southeastern Iceland, which covers 3,200 square miles (8,400 square kilometers) with an average ice thickness of more than 3,000 feet (900 meters).

Iceland contains about 200 volcanoes and has one-third of Earth’s total lava flow. One-tenth of the total land area is covered by cooled lava beds and glaciers. Because Iceland is volcanic, almost all of their electricity and heating comes from hydroelectric power and geothermal water reserves.

The Gulf Stream current and warm southwesterly winds make the climate more moderate and pleasant than one might expect from a northern country.

Iceland is known for explosive geysers, geothermal spas, glacier-fed waterfalls like Gullfoss (Golden Falls), and whale watching. More than 270,000 tourists visit each year.

PEOPLE & CULTURE

Icelanders are of Scandinavian descent and are generally tall, blonde, and light-skinned. Because there is little diversity in the population, genetic researchers have studied diseases among Icelanders. These studies have helped find cures for many hereditary diseases.

Icelanders take care to preserve their traditions and language. Some Icelanders still believe in elves, trolls, and other mythical characters that date back to their Celtic and Norse beginnings. Most Icelanders live in the southwest part of the country.

School is free for all Icelanders all the way through college. Every student is taught to speak both Danish and English in school. Handball and soccer are the two most popular sports for children, but they also enjoy swimming and horseback riding.

LEADERS

President: Olafur Ragnar Grimsson

Iceland's President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson

Mr Grimsson was re-elected president in 2012 for a record fifth term, having first been elected in 1996.

An academic political scientist by profession who studied at the University of Manchester in England, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson was elected to parliament for the left-wing People’s Alliance in 1978 and served as finance minister in a coalition government in 1988-1991.

He often speaks out on controversial issues, and his relations with the conservative Independence Party – the dominant party in Icelandic politics until 2009 – has been uneasy.

Interim prime minister: Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson

Interim Icelandic Prime Minister Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson

Iceland’s ruling centre-right coalition named Mr Johannsson as the country’s new prime minister after Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson stepped aside from the post in the wake of revelations contained in leaked documents from the Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca, which showed that Mr Gunnlaugsson had failed to declare his co-ownership of an offshore firm when he became an MP in 2009.

Mass demonstrations were held outside the Icelandic parliament building when it emerged that Mr Gunnlaugsson had failed to disclose a potential financial conflict of interest, arising from the fact that the offshore company he co-owned with his wife until after he entered parliament had a stake in several failed Icelandic banks.

Both Mr Johannsson and Mr Gunnlaugsson are members of the Progressive Party – of which Mr Gunnlaugsson continues to be the leader – which has governed in coalition with the conservative Independence Party since the 2013 parliamentary election.

The two centre-right parties came to power after voters became disillusioned with the Social Democrats, who won the 2009 election but faced an uphill task in rebuilding the Icelandic economy following the catastrophic collapse of the country’s main banks in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis.

The coalition government has promised to hold early elections in the autumn. In the meantime, it has vowed to push ahead with a plan to phase out the capital controls imposed after the collapse of the banks.

Some key dates in Iceland’s history:

1918 – Iceland achieves full self-government under the Danish crown.

A view of Iceland's capital Reykjavik

1940 – German forces occupy Denmark. British forces occupy Iceland.

1941 – The United States takes over the defence of Iceland and stations tens of thousands of troops there.

1943 – The Treaty of Union with Denmark runs out, with Denmark still occupied by Nazi Germany.

1944 – Icelanders vote in a referendum overwhelmingly to cut all ties with Denmark and become a republic. The Republic of Iceland is proclaimed.

1944 – Iceland becomes a member of Nato.

1970 – Iceland joins European Free Trade Association (EFTA).

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