Geography of Iceland

Ice cave, Fallsjokull glacier, Iceland
Arctic-Images/ Stone/ Getty Images

Iceland, officially called the Republic of Iceland, is an island nation located in the North Atlantic Ocean just south of the Arctic Circle. A large part of Iceland is covered with glaciers and snowfields and most of the country's inhabitants live in the coastal areas because those are the most fertile regions on the island. They also have a milder climate than other areas. Iceland is highly active volcanically and had a volcanic eruption under a glacier in April 2010. The ash from the eruption caused disruptions all over the world.

Fast Facts

  • Official Name: Republic of Iceland
  • Capital: Reykjavik 
  • Population: 343,518 (2018)
  • Official Languages: Icelandic, English, Nordic languages, German
  • Currency: Icelandic kronur (ISK)
  • Form of Government: Unitary parliamentary republic 
  • Climate: Temperate; moderated by North Atlantic Current; mild, windy winters; damp, cool summers 
  • Total Area: 39,768 square miles (103,000 square kilometers)
  • Highest Point: Hvannadalshnukur (at Vatnajokull Glacier) at 6,923 feet (2,110 meters)
  • Lowest Point: Atlantic Ocean at 0 feet (0 meters)

History of Iceland

Iceland was first inhabited in the late 9th and 10th centuries. The Norse were the main migrants to move to the island, and in 930 CE, Iceland's governing body created a constitution and an assembly. The assembly was called the Althingi. Following the creation of its constitution, Iceland was independent until 1262. In that year it signed a treaty that created a union between itself and Norway. When Norway and Denmark created a union in the 14th century, Iceland became a part of Denmark.

In 1874, Denmark gave Iceland some limited independent ruling powers, and in 1904 after a constitutional revision in 1903, this independence was expanded. In 1918, the Act of Union was signed with Denmark, which officially made Iceland an autonomous nation that was united with Denmark under the same king.

Germany then occupied Denmark during World War II and in 1940, communications between Iceland and Denmark ended and Iceland attempted to independently control all of its lands. In May 1940 though, British forces entered Iceland and in 1941, the United States entered the island and took over defensive powers. Shortly thereafter, a vote took place and Iceland became an independent republic on June 17, 1944.

In 1946, Iceland and the U.S. decided to end U.S. responsibility for maintaining Iceland's defense but the U.S. kept some military bases on the island. In 1949, Iceland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and with the start of the Korean War in 1950, the U.S. again became responsible for defending Iceland militarily. Today, the U.S. is still Iceland's main defensive partner but there are no military personnel stationed on the island. According to the U.S. Department of State, Iceland is the only member of NATO with no standing military.

Government of Iceland

Today, Iceland is a constitutional republic with a unicameral parliament called the Althingi. Iceland also has an executive branch with a chief of state and head of government. The judicial branch consists of the Supreme Court called Haestirettur, which has justices who are appointed for life, and eight district courts for each of the country's eight administrative divisions.

Economics and Land Use in Iceland

Iceland features a strong social-market economy typical of Scandinavian countries. This means its economy is capitalistic with free-market principles, but it also has a large welfare system for its citizens. Iceland's main industries are fish processing, aluminum smelting, ferrosilicon production, geothermal power, and hydropower. Tourism is also a growing industry in the country and the associated service-sector jobs are growing. In addition, despite its high latitude, Iceland has a relatively mild climate due to the Gulf Stream, which allows its people to practice agriculture in the fertile coastal regions. The largest agricultural industries in Iceland are potatoes and green vegetables. Mutton, chicken, pork, beef, dairy products, and fishing also contribute considerably to the economy.

Geography and Climate of Iceland

Iceland has a varied topography but it is one of the most volcanic regions in the world. Because of this, Iceland has a rugged landscape dotted with hot springs, sulfur beds, geysers, lava fields, canyons, and waterfalls. There are approximately 200 volcanoes in Iceland, most of which are active.

Iceland is a volcanic island primarily because of its location on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which separates the North American and Eurasian Earth plates. This causes the island to be active geologically, as the plates are constantly moving away from each other. In addition, Iceland lies on a hotspot (like Hawaii) called the Iceland Plume, which formed the island millions of years ago. As a result, Iceland is prone to volcanic eruptions and features the aforementioned geologic features such as hot springs and geysers.

The interior portion of Iceland is mostly an elevated plateau with small areas of forest, but it has little land that's suitable for agriculture. In the north, however, there are extensive grasslands that are used by grazing animals such as sheep and cattle. Most of Iceland's agriculture is practiced along the coast.

Iceland's climate is temperate because of the Gulf Stream. Winters are usually mild and windy and summers are wet and cool.


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Briney, Amanda. "Geography of Iceland." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Briney, Amanda. (2021, February 16). Geography of Iceland. Retrieved from Briney, Amanda. "Geography of Iceland." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).