2023 Icelandic Field Stations

A Brief Overview of Iceland

by Lea Rekow

Iceland is a small, sparsely populated island in the North Atlantic Ocean that covers around 103,000 km2. The country has about 350,000 people, 40 percent of whom live in towns or on isolated farms in lowlands near the coast, with the other 60% living in the Reykjavik area and adjacent municipalities. About 75 percent of the island’s interior is made up of high elevation plateaus, known as Highlands. Most of the Highlands are undulating plains with glaciofluvial deposits. They are the only place where permafrost can be found. Heathlands and wetlands dominate these areas, just like in the tundra further north in the Arctic. In addition, the Highlands are home to extensive deserts with sparse vegetation. Some deserts are naturally formed by volcanic processes, others are the result of human activity. During the summer months, the Highlands are used primarily for sheep grazing.

[1] According to the National Statistics Office, the total population of the country was 348,450 in 2018.

[2] A Highland is generally defined as an area at an elevation above 400m. Most of the Icelandic Highlands lie between 500m and 700m, with the highest mountains rising up to 1000-1100m.

Iceland’s maritime climate is mild despite its location just south of the Arctic Circle, thanks to the warm water that comes up from lower latitudes via the North Atlantic current. Even though there’s no midnight sun in summer, it’s effectively light throughout the entire 24 hour period. During the warmest month, temperatures range from 7.6 degrees to 12 degrees. North to south, precipitation varies significantly (400-700mm to 700-1600mm). There is a nearly constant movement of air over Iceland because of its position within the polar cell of global circulation. Thus, Iceland experiences a high degree of wind. A large semi-permanent low-pressure center, called the Icelandic Low, also plays a significant role in determining the weather.

The country is situated on the mid-Atlantic Ocean ridge, on the boundary between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, which spread about 2.5cm each year. This volcanic hotspot, in an area known as the Icelandic plume, is fed by an anomalously hot mantle compared to the mantle that surrounds it. Eruptions are frequent and geothermal activity is high, especially on the part of the island known as the volcanic active zone. As a result, accessible geothermal energy is abundant. Geothermal heats 90 percent of homes, businesses, and greenhouses, and generates approximately 30% of Iceland’s electricity (the rest comes from hydropower).

Glaciers have shaped both landscapes and biodiversity, carving valleys and fjords, disrupting terrestrial ecosystems, and limiting where plants and animals can exist. Most biodiversity has been destroyed by glaciers, which still cover approximately 11% of the country today. Almost all of Iceland’s glaciers are receding in response to climate change, and scientists predict they will disappear entirely within 100-200 years.

A warming climate and retreating glaciers are transforming the landscape. Plants are now able to establish themselves in areas that were previously frozen. Volcanic andosol soils, however, are particularly vulnerable to erosion, and volcanic ash (tephra) is also damaging to vegetation in several ways. Sheep, introduced to Iceland in the 9th century by Norse settlers, also contribute to erosion and environmental degradation.

Iceland is home to only one native land mammal, the Arctic fox. It is a breeding ground for several bird species, however, and serves as a stopover for many species of migratory geese on their journey to breeding grounds in the Arctic.  The country is also home to more than 60% of the world’s entire Atlantic puffin population, with 8 to 10 million puffins inhabiting the island.

Iceland is parliamentary democracy that has historically protected political rights and civil liberties. Its economy depends on tourism, aluminum smelting, and fishing, which was its predominant industry in the early 20th Century. It also hosts the world’s largest bitcoin mining farm. Both its smelting and bitcoin industries are made possible by the low-cost renewable energy it generates. Its divestment in fossil fuels from the 1970s on, and a rapid transition to rely almost exclusively on renewable energy, has enabled it to shift from an extremely poor nation, to one of the wealthiest countries in Europe, over the course of several decades. It has a low rate of unemployment (around 2.7 percent) and a well-developed education system with a highly literacy rate (99 percent).

The nation is considered one of the most literary countries in the world. Since it was settled in the 9th century, literature has been the primary continual cultural activity undertaken by Icelanders. Because of such a high literacy rate, people across socio-economic strata wrote prose narratives in the Icelandic language almost since the time of first settlement. Historical translations of the Germanic epic poetry and European literature were activities that were carried out across socio-economic strata. Most notably, the Icelandic sagas were written in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The idea of a 19th century Icelandic literary revival has been espoused in connection with the romantic movement, many but literary scholars believe this to be a romantic-nationalistic idea. Though some centuries have produced more Icelandic literature than others, it can generally be said that the country’s relationship to producing literature has remained relatively unbroken since the writing of the sagas. This continued throughout the 20th century, which produced many notable writers, including the prolific writings of Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness. 21st century environmental humanities scholars, including Dr. M Jackson and Andri Snær Magnason, carry this tradition forward, writing about glacial retreat and climate change.

It is estimated that Iceland is losing approximately 40 km2 of ice each year. This is an extraordinary amount of land to become deglaciated annually, and its evidenced in the tremendous toll it is taking on the landscape. Glaciers exert significant downward force on underlying land, but now that force is weakening. As a result of this mass ice loss, Iceland’s interior and its coastlines are rising by about 1.4 inches a year. It is anticipated that this phenomenon will persist over time, resulting in distorted infrastructure and negative economic consequences. Underground sewerage pipes have already warped and twisted in Höfn. Receding glaciers are also bad for tourism, which is crucial to the country. In 2018, tourism generated USD $3.73 billion – equivalent to 39% of Iceland’s total exports. Some 30,000 people were employed in the sector in 2017, representing more than 15 percent of the total workforce, and contributing 8.6% of the GDP.

Iceland’s age-old fishing industry is also being affected by climate change. Large fishing trawlers are finding it more and more difficult to enter and exit ports due to land rise near important harbors. Large-scale natural disasters are also a threat. Land and mudslides happen as glaciers retreat, damaging steep slopes once supported by ice. These slides can wreak havoc on their surrounds, flood glacial lakes, and even cause tsunamis. There hasn’t been a serious consideration of how to use this increase in land mass emerging from glaciers. Even though climate change is a priority issue, no policies have been set to keep new land in the public domain for purposes of afforestation and carbon sequestration.

Despite its problems, Iceland is one of the world’s most peaceful, sustainable places, embued with a rich history embedded in magnificent landscapes, and a culture that supports human rights, choice, tolerance, freedom, and affordable access to health care and higher education. Iceland is a great place to undertake place-based research, and can teach us a lot from a range of perspectives. Join us for the northern summer in Iceland in 2023!