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For other uses, see Iceland (disambiguation).
Lýðveldið Ísland
Flag of Iceland Iceland: Coat of Arms
(In Detail) (In Detail)
National motto: None
Location of Iceland
Official language Icelandic
Capital and largest city Reykjavík
President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson
Prime Minister Halldór Ásgrímsson
 - Total
 - % water
Ranked 107th
103,125 km²
 - Total (July 2005)
 - Density
Ranked 169th
Independence (from Denmark)
 - Sovereignty
 - Republic

1 December 1918
17 June 1944
GDP (2003)
  - Total (PPP)
  - Total
  - GDP/capita (PPP)
  - GDP/capita

$9 billion (127th)
$15 billion (87th)
$35,686 (5th)
$52,063 (4th)
HDI (2004) 0.956 (2nd) – high
Currency Icelandic króna (ISK)
Time zone
 - in summer
National anthem Lofsöngur
Internet TLD .is
Calling Code +354

The Republic of Iceland (Icelandic: Lýðveldið Ísland) is a borderless country, a volcanic island in the northern Atlantic Ocean between Greenland, Norway, and the British Isles.



Main article: History of Iceland

Iceland remained one of the world's last larger islands uninhabited by humans until it was discovered and settled by Norse immigrants from Western Norway in the late 9th century. Ingólfur Arnarson is believed to have been the first man to settle in Iceland (Reykjavík) in 874. The families were accompanied by servants and slaves, whereof many were Celts from Scotland and Ireland (known as Westmen to the Norse). Some literary evidence suggests that Irish monks may have been living in Iceland before the arrival of Norse settlers, but no archaeological evidence has been found.

The Althing (general assembly) was founded in 930, marking the beginning of the Icelandic Commonwealth. It was the predecessor to the modern Icelandic legislature. The Althing is the oldest parliament in the world.

Iceland was fairly independent from Norway until 1262, when it became a Norwegian crown colony, and from 1387 Iceland was in practice ruled by Denmark, following the union of the two kingdoms. When that union was dissolved in 1814, through the Treaty of Kiel, which saw Norway being handed over to Sweden, Iceland became a Danish dependency. Limited home rule was granted by the Danish government in 1874, and protectorate-like independence and sovereignty over domestic matters followed in 1918. Foreign relations and defence remained under the authority of the Danes until the World War II military occupation of Denmark by Germany in 1940. Subsequently, Iceland was occupied by the Allies. The Danish king remained the de jure sovereign of the nation until 1944, when the current republic was founded in the absence of Danish authority.

The new republic became a charter member of NATO in 1949 and signed a treaty with the United States in 1951 to take responsibility for the defence of Iceland. Today the US continues to operate a military base in Keflavík based on this agreement, but Iceland has no armed forces of its own. The economy of Iceland remained dependant of fisheries in the post-war decades and the country has had several clashes with its neighbours over this vital resource, most notably the Cod Wars with the British. The economy has become more diverse recently owing to large investments in heavy industry such as aluminium smelting and deregulation and privatization in the financial sector. Iceland is a member of the Common market of the European Union through the EEA agreement but has never applied for membership of the EU itself. If Iceland were to join the EU they would have to share the fishing waters near Iceland and that is still a complicated issue for their economy.

Iceland, as seen from space.
Iceland, as seen from space.


Main article: Politics of Iceland

The modern parliament, called "Althing" or "Alþingi", was founded in 1845 as an advisory body to the Danish king. It was widely seen as a reestablishment of the assembly founded in 930 in the Commonwealth period and suspended in 1799. It currently has 63 members, each of whom is elected by the population every four years. The president of Iceland is a largely ceremonial office that serves as a diplomat, figurehead and head of state. The head of government is the prime minister, who, together with the cabinet, takes care of the executive part of government. The cabinet is appointed by the president after general elections to Althing; however, this process is usually conducted by the leaders of the political parties, who decide among themselves after discussions which parties can form the cabinet and how its seats are to be distributed (under the condition that it has a majority support in Althing). Only when the party leaders are unable to reach a conclusion by themselves in reasonable time does the president exercise this power and appoint the cabinet himself. This has never happened since the republic was founded in 1944, but in 1942 the regent of the country (Sveinn Björnsson, who had been installed in that position by the Althing in 1941) did appoint a non-parliamentary government. The regent had, for all practical purposes, the position of a president, and Björnsson in fact became the country's first president in 1944. The governments of Iceland have almost always been coalitions with two or more parties involved, due to the fact that no single political party has received a majority of seats in Althing in the republic period. The extent of the political powers possessed by the office of the president are disputed by legal scholars in Iceland; several provisions of the constitution appear to give the president some important powers but other provisions and traditions suggest differently.

The president is elected every four years (last 2004), the cabinet is elected every four years (last 2003) and town council elections are held every four years (last 2002).

Related topics

Administrative division

The municipalities of Iceland
The municipalities of Iceland


Main article: Municipalities of Iceland

There are 95 municipalities in Iceland which govern most local matters like schools, transportation and zoning.

The administrative counties of Iceland
The administrative counties of Iceland


Main article: Counties of Iceland

Iceland's 23 counties are for the most part historical divisions. Currently, Iceland is split up between 26 magistrates that are the highest authority over the local police (except in Reykjavík, where there is a special office of police commissioner) and carry out administrative functions such as declaring bankruptcy and marrying people outside of the church.

The regions of Iceland
The regions of Iceland


Main article: Regions of Iceland

There are eight regions which are primarily used for statistical purposes; the district court jurisdictions also use an older version of this division.

The constituencies of Iceland
The constituencies of Iceland
A large low pressure area swirls off the southeastern coast of Iceland. September 4, 2003
A large low pressure area swirls off the southeastern coast of Iceland. September 4, 2003


Main article: Constituencies of Iceland

Until 2003, the constituencies for the parliament elections were the same as the regions, but by an amendment to the constitution they were changed to the current six constituencies. The change was made in order to balance the weight of different districts of the country since a vote cast in the sparsely populated areas around the country would count much more than a vote cast in the Reykjavík city area. The imbalance between districts has been reduced by the new system, but still exists.


Main articles: Geography of Iceland and List of settlements in Iceland.
The World Factbook map of Iceland

Iceland is located in the North Atlantic Ocean just south of the Arctic Circle, which passes through the small island of Grimsey off Iceland's northern coast, but not through mainland Iceland. Unlike neighbouring Greenland, Iceland is considered to be a part of Europe, not a part of North America. The island is the world's 18th largest island.

Iceland is located on both a geological hot spot, thought to be caused by a mantle plume, and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This combined location means that the island is extremely geologically active, having many volcanoes, notably Hekla, and geysers (itself an Icelandic word). With this widespread availability of geothermal power, and also because of the numerous rivers and waterfalls that are harnessed for hydropower, residents of most towns have hot water and home heat for a low price.

Approximately 10 percent of the island is glaciated. Many fjords punctuate its coastline, which is also where most towns are situated because the island's interior, the Highlands of Iceland, is a cold and uninhabitable desert. The major towns are the capital Reykjavík, Keflavík, where the national airport is situated, and Akureyri. The island of Grímsey on the Arctic Circle contains the northernmost habitation of Iceland.

Iceland has four national parks: Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, Skaftafell National Park, Snæfellsnes National Park, and Þingvellir

Related topics


Main article: Military of Iceland

The Republic of Iceland has no regular armed forces. Defense is provided by a predominantly US-manned NATO base in Keflavík. Iceland has a Coast Guard (Landhelgisgæslan) and an anti-terrorism team called the Sérsveitin (The Special Operations Task Force) commonly known as Víkingasveitin (Viking Squad). The Special Operations Task Force is intended to be similar to Germany's GSG-9 and Britain's SAS, a small and well trained group of operatives. The team handles security of the state, anti-terrorism projects, security of foreign dignitaries, as well supporting the police forces in the country when needed. Members of the Task Force were deployed in the Balkans as a part of an operations lead by NATO. The Special Operations Task Force used to be under the command of the Reykjavík Chief of Police; however, in 2004, a new law was passed that put the Special Operations Task Force directly under the command of the minister of justice (currently Björn Bjarnason). According to this new law, the minister of justice appoints a national chief of police to control and direct the Icelandic police force, including the Special Operations Task Force.


Main article: Economy of Iceland

Iceland is one of the ten richest countries in the world based on GDP per capita at purchasing power parity. The economy depends heavily on the fishing industry, which provides over 60% of export earnings and employs 8% of the work force. In the absence of other natural resources (except for abundant hydro-electric and geothermal power), Iceland's economy is vulnerable to changing world fish prices. The economy remains sensitive to declining fish stocks as well as to drops in world prices for its main exports: fish and fish products, aluminium, and ferrosilicon. Although the Icelandic economy is heavily dependant on fishing it is constantly becoming less important as the travel industry, the technology industry and various other industries grow.

The only natural resource conversion is the manufacture of cement. Most buildings are concrete with expensive imported wood used only sparingly and where necessary.

The centre-right government plans to continue its 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. The government remains opposed to EU membership, primarily because of Icelanders' concern about losing control over their fishing resources.

Iceland's economy has been diversifying into manufacturing and service industries in the last decade, and new developments in software production, biotechnology, and financial services are taking place. The tourism sector is also expanding, with the recent trends in ecotourism and whale-watching. Growth slowed between 2000 and 2002, but the economy expanded by 4.3% in 2003 and grew by 6.2% in 2004. The unemployment rate of 3.0% (2nd quarter of 2005) is among the lowest in the European Economic Area.

Over 99% of the country's electricity is produced from hydropower and geothermal energy.

Related topics


Main article: Demographics of Iceland

The original population of Iceland was of Nordic and Celtic origin. This is evident by literal evidence from the settlement period as well as from later scientific studies such as blood type and genetics analysis. One such genetics study has indicated that the majority of the male settlers were of Nordic origin while the majority of the women were of celtic origins (Am. J. Hum. Genet, 2001). The modern population of Iceland is often described as a "homogeneous mixture of descendants of Norse and Celts" (The CIA World Factbook) but several history scholars reject the alleged homogeneity as a myth that fails to take into account the fact that Iceland was never isolated from the rest of Europe and actually has had a lot of contact with traders and fishermen from many nations through the ages.

Iceland has extensive medical and genealogical records about its population dating back to the age of settlement. Although the accuracy of these records is debated, biopharmaceutical companies such as deCODE Genetics see them as a valuable tool for conducting research on genetic diseases.

The population of the island is believed to have varied from 40,000 to 60,000 in the period from initial settlement until the mid-19th century. During that time, cold winters, ashfall from volcanic eruptions, and plagues adversely affected the population several times. The first census was carried out in 1703 and revealed that the population of the island was then 50,358. Improving living conditions triggered a rapid increase in population from the mid-19th century to the present day - from about 60,000 in 1850 to about 290,000 in 2004.

In 2004, 20,669 (7% of the total population) people born abroad were living in Iceland, including children of Icelandic parents living abroad. 10,636 people (3.6% of the total population) had foreign citizenship. The most populous nationalities are Poland (1903), Denmark (890), Former Yugoslavian states (670), Philippines (647) and Germany (540).

The island's spoken tongue is Icelandic, a North Germanic language, and the predominant religion is Lutheran.

Important foreign languages include Danish and other Scandinavian languages, English and German.


Icelanders enjoy freedom of religion as stated by the constitution; however, church and state are not separated and the Church of Iceland, a Lutheran body, is the state church. The national registry keeps account of the religious affiliation of every Icelandic citizen and according to it Icelanders were in 2004 divided into religious groups as follows:

The remaining 6.5% is mostly divided between a number of other Christian denominations and sects, with less than 1% of the population in non-Christian religious organisations including a tiny group of Ásatrú followers. Most Icelanders are very liberal in their religious beliefs and do not attend church regularly.


Main article: Culture of Iceland

Some famous Icelanders include alternative rock band The Sugarcubes, its singer Björk; avant-garde rock band Sigur Rós; and novelist Halldór Laxness, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955. In addition, the former world chess champion Bobby Fischer became an Icelandic citizen on March 21, 2005. Russian pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy has been a citizen since 1972.

Iceland's literacy rate is among the highest in the world, and the love of literature, chess, and other intellectual pursuits is widespread.

Iceland has world renowned nightlife. Downtown Reykjavík has many clubs and pubs that often feature live bands. Icelanders tend to go out very late, so the party starts around midnight.

An important key to understanding Icelanders and their culture (and which differentiates them from many contemporary Nordic peoples) is the high importance they place on the traits of independence and self-reliance. Icelanders are proud of their Viking heritage and Icelandic language. Modern Icelandic remains close to the Old Norse spoken in the Viking Age.

Icelandic society and culture are very "woman friendly" with women in leadership positions in government and business. Women retain their names after marriage, since Icelanders generally do not use surnames but patronyms or matronyms. In addition, homosexuals are very well accepted in the society.

Cliffs at the town of Grímsey, on the Arctic Circle.
Cliffs at the town of Grímsey, on the Arctic Circle.

Related topics

Miscellaneous facts about Iceland

  • It is mandatory to keep headlights on while driving, even in daylight. Most cars commercially sold in Iceland are equipped to make this automatic.
  • In 2004, British citizens made up the single largest group of tourists to Iceland (60,000) followed by Americans (48,000).
  • The tallest structure in Western Europe is located in Iceland; it is the 412 metre high Longwave radio mast Hellissandur near Hellissandur.
  • The state television service in Iceland did not broadcast during July until 1983, or on Thursdays until 1987 - however, there are now several terrestrial channels, and foreign channels are widely available via satellite and cable.
  • Iceland is located partly on the North American tectonic plate and partly on the Eurasian one.
  • The Icelandic language is the closest language to Old Norse, the language of the Vikings.
  • The only native mammal when humans arrived was the arctic fox (except from the sea mammals of course). It came to the island at the end of the ice age, walking over the frozen sea.
  • There are no reptiles or amphibians on the island.
  • There are around 1300 known species of insects on Iceland (ca. 1100 of them endemic), which is rather low compared with other countries.
  • During the last Ice Age almost all of the country was covered by permanent snow and glacier ice. This explains the low number of living species.
  • Another explanation on the low number of plants and animals are the fact that this is one of the newest land masses in the world, and is built almost exclusively of volcanic rocks made of magma which welled up from the core of the Earth. The oldest rocks which can be found on the surface was formed about 16 million years ago. Most of the island is much younger, while parts of the Iceland basalt plateau which is not exposed on the surface can be up to 25 million years old. The whole island is actually a part of a mid-ocean ridge that is exposed above sea level, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge to be be precise. Formed out in the ocean, it would be very hard for animals and plants to get out to the island.
  • When humans arrived birch forest and woodland probably covered 25-40% of Iceland’s land area. But soon the settlers started to remove the trees and forests to create fields and grazing land. During the early 20th century the forests were at their minimum and was almost wiped out of existence. The planting of new forests has increased the number of trees since, but this can not be compared with the original forests. Some of those planted forests have included new foreign species.

Miscellaneous topics

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