Exploring the Unique Geography of Iceland

Northern lights by a waterfall in Þingvellir, Iceland

Iceland lies on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. The land formed due to volcanic eruptions along the ridge of the North Atlantic Ocean. Due to volcanic activity, deglaciation, and earthquakes, the land is constantly evolving. Iceland is located between latitudes 63-68°N and longitudes 25-13°W in Northern Europe, making it an ideal place to see the northern lights in the wintertime. Its eight geographical regions are the South, the Southern Peninsula, the Northeast, the Northwest, the West, the Westfjords, the East, and the Capital Region. The Highland of Iceland, a 42,000 km² [16,000 mi²] area of lava fields and mountains, takes up about 40% of the land. Approximately 25% of the country is under official protection, mainly as national parks. Vatnajökull National Park, Þingvellir National Park, and Surtsey island are designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Population distribution in Iceland

Due to the Highland being uninhabitable, Iceland’s population of over 399,000 primarily lives along the coasts and surrounding islands. The capital, Reykjavik, and its suburbs host 64% of the population or about 255,000 people. Other large cities include Reykjanesbær, with a population of 23,000 and Akureyri, in the north of the island, with a population of 20,000. The rest live in smaller towns and rural communities. In addition, Iceland has over 30 islands, six of which are inhabited: Grímsey island, Hrísey island, Heimaey island, Flatey island, Vigur island, and Æðey island.

Gunnuhver, geothermal hot spring in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Gunnuhver hot spring.

Iceland’s energy and water

Iceland has an extensive amount of unpolluted freshwater resources. The tap water is fresh and ready to drink, and geothermal water is used to heat 85% of houses. Iceland is known for being the world’s largest green energy and electricity producer per capita. Iceland’s renewable energy provides almost 100% of its electricity production from hydropower and geothermal power.

The climate in Iceland

Iceland’s climate is classified as subarctic, with short, cool to mild summers and cold winters. In the capital region, the average temperatures in the summer are 10°C [52°F] and in the winter 0°C [32°F].

Lakes and waterfalls in Iceland

Iceland has over 60 lakes that exceed 2.5 km² [one mi²] in size. The largest is Þingvallavatn, with an area of 84 km² [32 mi²] and at its deepest point, 114 m [374 ft]. Out of thousands of mountains, the highest peak is Hvannadalshnjúkur, with its highest point at 2,110 m [6,920 ft]. Due to the many mountains and hills, you can find over 10,000 waterfalls in Iceland, the tallest being Morsárfoss in Vatnajökull National Park, towering at 240 m [787 ft].

The Icelandic Horse, Iceland
Photo: Golli.

The flora and fauna of Iceland

The only native wild mammal in Iceland is the Arctic Fox. Some of the more prominent animals include the Icelandic horse, the Icelandic sheep, the Icelandic sheepdog, cattle, goats, and 75 species of birds, including Atlantic puffins, skuas, and ptarmigans. Iceland has a rich marine life in its lakes, rivers, and oceans: over 270 species of fish, whales, dolphins, and seals. Fish is one of the country’s main exports, making it crucial to its economy.

Iceland’s greenery consists primarily of moss, downy birch, aspens, and flowers such as the Mountain Aven, Alaskan Lupine, and Marigolds. Despite the cold climate, geothermal energy makes it possible to grow vegetables and fruit outside, including potatoes, carrots, beets, rhubarb, cauliflower, and broccoli. Fruit grown outside includes wild berries like blueberries, crowberries, and redcurrants. Using geothermal energy, tomatoes, cucumbers, leafy greens, and herbs are grown in greenhouses.

Volcanic Eruption in Reykjanes Iceland, 2023
Photo: Volcanic Eruption in Reykjanes Peninsula, 2023.

Iceland: The land of fire and ice

Iceland has 269 glaciers, including Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull. This massive glacier is 8,100 km² [3,100 mi²] but sadly continues to decrease in size due to climate change.

In Iceland’s geothermal areas, there are hot springs and geysers. Forty-one volcanic systems are believed to be active in Iceland, the largest being the Bárðabunga system, responsible for most of the country’s largest lava fields. Some of Iceland’s most active volcanoes are Hekla, Katla and Grímsvötn. The volcanic systems on Reykjanes peninsula have had the most activity recently, erupting every year since 2021 after laying dormant for eight centuries. Its eruption on January 14th, 2024, caused lava to flow into the town of Grindavík. Three houses burned, but the town had been evacuated two nights prior. This was the first time lava entered an inhabited area since the eruption in Vestmannaeyjar islands in 1973.

 

A Wealth of Water

natural resource iceland

Close your eyes and picture Iceland. What comes to mind? A powerful waterfall streaming down a cliffside? Bluish icebergs floating in a glacier lagoon? A hulking jeep fording a highland river? Or maybe a steaming hot spring or a neighbourhood swimming pool? Whichever image is most evocative of Iceland for you, there’s one thing they […]

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Where is Iceland?

map iceland

Iceland is a North Atlantic island nation located between Greenland and Norway. The country is situated at the juncture of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, and its closest neighbours are Greenland to the west and the Faroe Islands to the southeast. Iceland’s total land area is 103,000 square kilometres, making it the 18th largest island in the world.

Iceland is known for its diverse and dramatic geography, which includes volcanic landscapes, glaciers, hot springs, and geysers. The island is largely composed of a plateau that rises gradually from the coast to an average elevation of 500 meters. This plateau is characterized by volcanic mountains, which are the result of Iceland’s position on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a divergent tectonic plate boundary that runs through the centre of the island.

Iceland’s climate is classified as subarctic, with cool summers and relatively mild winters compared to other areas at similar latitudes. The island’s location on the edge of the Arctic Circle means that it experiences long periods of daylight in the summer, with the sun not setting for several weeks in some parts of the country. Conversely, in winter, Iceland experiences long periods of darkness, with the sun not rising for several weeks in some parts of the country, such as deep valleys.

The climate in Iceland is heavily influenced by the Gulf Stream, which brings warm up to the North Atlantic, and by the country’s high latitude and oceanic setting. As a result, Iceland experiences relatively mild temperatures compared to other areas at similar latitudes, with average temperatures ranging from around 1°C (33°F) in winter to 10°C (50°F) in summer. However, the weather in Iceland can be unpredictable and changeable, and it is not uncommon for the country to experience extreme weather events such as blizzards, heavy rain, and strong winds.

April Warmer and Sunnier than Average in Iceland

Árbæjarsafn Reykjavík on April 20, 2023, the First Day of Summer

Last month was the seventh-warmest April on record in Reykjavík, according to the latest figures from the Icelandic Met Office. April weather was calm and warm across Iceland, though it cooled down in the last week of the month.

The average temperature in Reykjavík in April was 5.3°C [41.5°F], which is 1.6°C above the 1991-2020 average and 1.2°C above the average for the last ten years. The average temperature in Akureyri, North Iceland, was also 1.6°C above the 1991-2020 average, at 4.2°C [39.6°F]. That is one degree higher than the average for the last decade. In Stykkishólmur, West Iceland, the average temperature was 4.0°C [39.2°F] and in Höfn, Southeast Iceland, the average temperature was 4.4°C [39.9°F]. The April temperatures recorded at 12 weather stations across the country all averaged higher than the April average of the past decade.

Surprise spring snow in Reykjavík

Despite pleasantly warm temperatures, Reykjavík received 87 millimetres of precipitation in April: 50% more than the 1991-2020 average. Akureyri received only about 85% of its average precipitation compared to the same period, or 21.7 mm. Reykjavík residents were surprised by heavy snowfall on April 27, which measured 11 cm [4.3 in] – such heavy snowfall is indeed rarely seen in the region in the second half of April. In Akureyri, however, no such “white” days were recorded last month, a drop from the monthly average of five. Both Reykjavík and Akureyri had more sunshine last month than the monthly average.

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The highest average temperature for last month was 6.3°C [43.3°F], recorded on Surtsey island in the Westman Islands archipelago off South Iceland. Visits to the island are forbidden for all but the members of an annual research expedition, so it can’t be said that these balmy temperatures were enjoyed by any of Iceland’s human residents – though the island’s avian inhabitants hopefully profited.

Iceland to Buy Emission Allowances to Meet Kyoto Commitments

Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson.

The Ministry of Environment, Energy, and Climate has decided to buy emission allowances from other nations in order to meet its commitments to the Kyoto Protocol, an international environmental treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It has been clear for some time that Iceland has fallen significantly behind meeting it climate goals, far exceeding its original allotment of carbon credits in the quota system established by the Kyoto Protocol. By the time the figures are settled in the middle of this year, Iceland will need to buy emission credits for the equivalent of 3.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, according to the Environment Agency of Iceland.

Read More: Energy Credit Market Means Only 13% of Icelandic Energy is Renewable

Notably, Iceland has up until now refrained from buying emission allowances. In a recent memo by Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, however, buying emission credits will become key to Iceland meeting its environmental commitments.

According the results of a working group commissioned in 2020, Iceland could best make use of AAU and CER credits. AAU credits, or Assigned Amount Units, correspond to the original emission allowance given to nations under the Kyoto Protocol. Nations with unused emission credits can sell these on the market to other nations exceeding their allotment. CER credits, or Certified Emission Reduction, are given to nations engaged in climate-friendly development projects in under-developed nations.

Vísir reports that no decision has yet been taken on which credit is to purchased by government.

Current estimates indicate that some 800 million ISK [$5.7 million; €5.3 million] will be needed to purchased the required credits. The decision to buy credits is still under consideration, so the funds are not currently allocated. Such an expenditure would require a budget authorisation to finalise.

Critics Say Emission Allowance Leads to No Change

Some critics have vocally opposed Iceland’s intention to “greenwash” through accounting. One particularly outspoken critics has been Pirate representative Andrés Ingi Jónsson.

In a statement to Vísir, Andrés Ingi said: “Iceland will get away with not having implemented real, systematic changes for environmental issues. It will instead be able to resort to accounting tricks and paying fines, actions which have no actual affect on improving the climate.”

According to Andrés Ingi, flaws in the Kyoto system have led to an oversupply of emission credits, meaning that Iceland is allowed to buy these credits at a significant discount. At current market prices, Iceland will be able to buy off each tonne of carbon dioxide produced with around 235 ISK [1.$67; €1.57].

 

 

Reshuffling of Environmental Agencies Merges Ten into Three

Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson.

Plans to reorganize ten agencies in environment, energy, and climate into three were announced today by the government.

The plans were first discussed yesterday at a meeting where Minister of the Environment, Energy, and Climate Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson. He highlighted the need to have fewer, stronger agencies to streamline regulations, while also highlighting the benefits of institutional knowledge that will allow employees to work in and move between what were previously different agencies.

Under the new organization, environmental regulations in Iceland will be split between the Nature Conservation and Heritage Foundation, the Institute for Environmental Sciences, and the Climate Agency.

environment iceland
Stjórnarráð Íslands

Under the new schema, the Nature Conservation and Heritage Foundation would combine Vatnajökull National Park, Þingvellir National Park, and the Nature Conservation Department of the Environmental Agency. The new Institute for Environmental Sciences will bring together the Meteorological Office, the Icelandic Institute of Natural History, the Icelandic Land Survey, Iceland GeoSurvey, and the Natural Research Centre at Mývatn. The new Climate Agency will then comprise of the National Energy Authority and all departments of the Environmental Agency outside of Nature Conservation.

The new structure will hopefully bring greater flexibility to energy and environmental policy in Iceland, with projects now more easily transferred between formerly separate agencies.

While final details of the new structure have not yet been decided, minister Guðlaugur also announced that they will prioritize job creation in rural areas, and involve the municipalities as much as possible in the decision-making process.

In the announcement, the minister stated: “the main goal is to strengthen the institutions of the ministry to deal with the enormous challenges that await us as a society, where climate issues are at the top of the list. With the new institutional structure, the aim is to increase efficiency and reduce waste resulting from redundancy and lack of cooperation. There is also great scope for increasing the number of jobs in rural areas, and creating more desirable workplaces.”

The reorganization will affect approximately 600 employees in various agencies, some 61% of which are in the capital region.

 

 

 

Pollution Report Brings Strætó Energy Transition into Question

straetp bus reykjavik

Jóhannes Svavar Rúnarsson, managing director of Strætó, has recently spoken out in response to statements by the Minister of Environment, saying that his critique of Strætó may represent a misunderstanding.

See also: Capital Area Limit on Pollution Exceeded

In light of a recent report on emissions in the capital area, Minister of Environment Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson has called for municipalities to cut down on emissions by reducing the number of diesel vehicles. In the minister’s statement, he specifically singled out Strætó, saying that the energy transition must be expedited in the case of public transportation.

In a statement to RÚV, the minister said: “Strætó is currently increasing the number of vehicles […] Right now, very few of the 160 vehicles in service are electric. In the coming months, some 25 new buses will be added to the fleet.”

However, in identifying the older diesel engines in many of the system’s buses as key culprits, Jóhannes Rúnarsson believes that public transportation’s overall share in emissions is exaggerated.

In an interview with RÚV, Jóhannes stated: A significant majority of the buses meet the highest environmental standards governing vehicle import, the Euro 6 emission standards. Claims that Strætó significantly contributes to emissions are based on a misunderstanding. However, we would have liked to have progressed further in the energy transition by this date.”

Due to COVID-19 and recent budgetary setbacks, Strætó has not made progress towards its climate goals that it has set out for itself. Currently, some 140 of Strætó’s 160 vehicles are diesel powered. Strætó’s current goal is to go all-electric by 2030.

Engineer Wages Advertising War Against Aluminium Factories

ISAL aluminium smelter

Electrical engineer Reynir Þór Eyvindsson has bought advertising time for a period of some years on national broadcaster RÚV during the holidays, with the intention of reminding the nation of some inconvenient truths about aluminium production in Iceland.

His advertisements come in response to what he identifies as a preponderance of aluminium industry PR in the media during the holidays, which could be seen as “greenwashing” an activity that has a worse environmental impact than many may think.

Aluminium production is a highly energy-intensive industry which has found a home in Iceland thanks to the supply of green electricity. Environmental critics, however, have pointed out that the use of geothermal and hydroelectric power do not simply neutralise the environmental impact of this industry.

iceland aluminium
Screensot – RÚV

The text of the advertisements reads in English: “Icelandic Aluminium Plants: Pay very little in taxes. Emit twice as much CO2 as the entire automobile fleet.  Around 1.5 million tonnes of toxic sludge are produced annually. This could fill the outdoor swimming pool at Laugardalur 1,500 times over. Happy New Year, Reynir Eyvindsson.”

In a statement to Morgunblaðið, Reynir said: “This is a highly political issue. Not everyone agrees that this highly polluting industry should be here.”

Reynir admits that advertising slots on RÚV during the holidays are rather expensive, but he says he doesn’t have much else to do with his money. He pays for the advertisements out of his own pocket, but recognises that they may not stand up to the production quality of the aluminium industry’s professional advertisements. Nevertheless, he counts the money as well spent.

Read more about protecting Iceland’s environment here.

Sustainability Conference Centres Around Iceland’s Climate Goals

katrín jakobsdóttir prime minister iceland

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Mayor of Reykjavík Dagur B. Eggertsson met today with other ministers and officials for the founding of the Council for Sustainability.

The meeting was held at 14:00 today in the House of Collections.

Read more: Iceland Lagging Behind on Climate

Pursuant to Iceland’s being a signatory of the Paris Agreement, Iceland is obligated to cut greenhouse emissions by 40% by 2030. Additionally, Icelandic policy aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040. Mechanisms exist to incentivize the fulfilment of these goals, and if Iceland fails in this, then the consequences may prove costly.

Although heating and electricity are covered by renewable energy, much of Iceland’s energy goes towards energy-intensive industries, such as aluminium smelting. Iceland is still also very dependent on cars, especially in rural parts of the country.

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir gave a speech at the meeting, calling for a more ambitious approach to Iceland’s climate goals.

The Council of Sustainability will be chaired by the Prime Minister, and will work in cooperation with local municipalities, parliament, NGOs, and private companies.

According to Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the energy transition must be a top priority, but it must also act as a “guiding light in all areas of society.”

Read more of our coverage of Icelandic conservation efforts here

New Study Shows Large Hole in Arctic Ozone Layer

mosaic polarstern

A major research expedition has recently shed new light on the extent to which the arctic ozone layer has been depleted.

The MOSAiC program, then the largest research expedition ever of the Arctic Ocean, set off in September 2019. Hundreds of scientists representing some twenty nations were involved with the project.

Central to the project was the German ice breaker “Polarstern,” or Polar Star, which was left adrift in polar ice for a year. Instruments aboard the vessel took atmospheric measurements, and the results of the study are now being discussed at the Arctic Round Table.

A key finding in the study was that even after the international banning of ozone-harming substances, the largest hole ever found in the ozone was detected over the Arctic at an altitude of some 20km.

Dr. Markus Rex, a German researcher at the University of Potsdam, stated that: “the ozone layer is not improving. Things are getting worse in the Arctic. Now we understand that it is because the decomposers from the gas are still present in the atmosphere. Climate change makes them more aggressive: it’s bad news for the future of the ozone layer in the Arctic.”

Nevertheless, there is some occasion for hope.

Dr. Markus Rex continued: “We saw that under the ice the sea reaches a freezing point down to a depth of 14 meters in the winter. There is a healthy base for winter ice formation, and we believe we are still in a position to save the ice if we stop global warming. It responds very linearly to warming, and if we stop the warming, the melting of the ice will stop. That is good. This puts a lot of responsibility on our shoulders. We are the last generation that can save the sea ice in the Arctic.” 

Read more about the MOSAiC expedition here.