Iceland 101: All the Basic Facts You Need to Know

Akureyri sign post.

Planning a trip to Iceland? Here are some interesting facts and essential information to read before you arrive.

How big is Iceland, and who lives there?

The surface area of Iceland is 103,001 square kilometres [39,769 square miles], and the total population is just under 400,000, with most people living in and around Reykjavík. For the longest time, most people living in Iceland were natives, but in the past two decades, the foreign-born population has grown immensely and is now about 18% of the total. The language spoken is Icelandic, but most people speak English relatively well. 

The Icelandic climate

The climate in Iceland is temperate, meaning that, for the most part, swings in temperature are not huge. In fact, the most reliable thing about the weather here is the cool temperatures. The lowest temperature in Reykjavík during winter is usually -10°C [14°F], and only on rare occasions does it go higher than 20°C [68°F] during summer. For other parts of the country, the average temperature is slightly lower.

In terms of other weather factors, Iceland has it all. If you’re lucky, you might even get the whole spectrum in the span of 24 hours. The weather patterns can be unpredictable, but you can expect to encounter strong winds and storms in fall and winter, along with any form of precipitation. From April and throughout August, storms are considerably less likely to occur, but rain is common. That’s not to say the sun never comes out or the wind never stops, but be prepared by bringing the right clothes!

The power of Icelandic water

Iceland is known for its exceptional quality of water, which you can drink from the tap everywhere you go. In most places, it’s even safe to drink straight from the country’s many springs and rivers. Bring your refillable bottle to avoid spending money on overly expensive bottled water. 

The vast amount of running water has also enabled us to generate significant amounts of electricity, powering the country with green energy all year round. There’s plenty of hot water going around as well, so much so that 90% of Icelandic houses are heated with geothermal energy. The energy is both cheap and renewable, which is why most Icelanders have their radiators on full blast when it’s cold.

The Icelandic currency

Iceland is one of the world’s smallest countries with its own currency: The Icelandic Króna, ISK. Businesses do not accept cash from other countries, but most accept card payments if you don’t want to carry cash. You could almost call that the Icelandic way, as many Icelanders pay solely with their cards, phones or smartwatches. 

Weather warnings and road conditions 

One of the most incredible things about Iceland is its marvellous nature, and we highly recommend exploring it. Whether it’s a trip to the Highland, a short hike, or a tour of one of our glaciers, be sure to bring all the essentials, such as good walking shoes, food, and fluids, as well as warm layers of clothing that you can take off or put on according to the situation. Circumstances, especially the weather, might not be what you’re used to. If travelling outside the capital area, check for weather warnings at the Icelandic Met Office, and the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration (vegagerðin) for road conditions.

Medical assistance for tourists in Iceland

You can seek medical attention at the nearest health care centre (heilsugæsla). You can also call 1700, a 24/7 medical advice line, or use the Heilsuvera online chat, open 8am-10pm. In case of emergencies, the number to call is 112. Those with the European Health Insurance Card will be charged the same fee as persons insured in Iceland, but necessary documents must be presented. Others will be charged in full. 

Westman Islands Company Turns to Seawater Purifiers Amid Crisis

Heimaklettur

After an Emergency Phase was declared in the Westman Islands due to a damaged drinking water pipeline, VSV, a local fishing company, has purchased three containers for seawater purification. VSV plans to use one container for its needs and has offered the others to another local company and the municipality of the Westman Islands.

Emergency Phase declared

At the end of last month, the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management declared an Emergency Phase in the Westman Islands after the only drinking water pipeline that runs from the mainland to the Westman Islands was damaged beyond repair. While the pipe is still fully functional, it could break at any moment, leaving Heimaey island’s 4,523 inhabitants without water. The pipe was damaged on November 17 when the trawler Huginn VE unintentionally dropped an anchor on it, which then got stuck on the pipe.

As noted on VSV’s website yesterday, the fishing company has secured the purchase of three containers capable of converting seawater into drinking water. The first container is expected to arrive in the country between Christmas and New Year, with the remaining two arriving early next year.

The press release further notes that since the company only needs one container to meet its own needs, Ísfélagið, another fishing company based in the Westman Islands, and the municipality of the Westman Islands have been offered to buy the other two. Each container and its equipment cost approximately ISK 100 million [$718,000 / €666,000], and it is relatively simple to connect the equipment to the municipal or company water systems.

Green light from Africa

Willum Andersen, VSV’s Technical Operations Manager, revealed that their quest for water purification equipment began after the pipeline was damaged. “We initiated an extensive search for seawater filtration technology, a method prevalent in Florida, USA, the Arabian Peninsula, and many African countries. Despite contacting about 40 global manufacturers, production times ranged from 20 to 40 weeks, too long for our urgent needs,” Willum is quoted as saying on the company’s website. 

In a fortunate turn of events, VSV discovered a Dutch company ready to ship three containers to an African client. These clients were amenable to postponing their order, allowing VSV to step in. “We received approval from the African party midweek, leading to our signing purchase agreements today. Each container, including equipment and delivery to our location, costs between ISK 90-100 million [$718,000 / €666,000], plus installation expenses. Setting up the necessary connections for water production is a quick process,” Willum confirmed. 

VSV’s website details the technology: seawater, drawn from boreholes, undergoes intensive filtration, producing crystal clear, contaminant-free water. Each container can generate approximately 600 tonnes of water daily, totalling 1,800 tonnes if all are used together. This capacity can largely meet the water demands of the Westman Islands’ households and businesses. Additionally, the container’s electric pumps are energy-efficient and cost-effective to operate, VSV maintains.

Drinking Water Pipe to Westman Islands Damaged Beyond Repair

Heimaey, Westman Islands

The pipe that transports drinking water to the Westman Islands has been damaged beyond repair. While the pipe is still fully functional, it could break at any moment, leaving Heimaey island’s 4,523 inhabitants without water. The pipe was damaged ten days ago when the trawler Huginn VE unintentionally dropped an anchor on it, which then got stuck on the pipe.

Pipe must be replaced

A notice from the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management states that the damage to the pipe stretches across a 300-metre [980-foot] section. Underwater pictures taken to assess the damage show that the pipe has shifted significantly from its former location. “This situation makes the possibility of a temporary repair difficult,” the notice reads. “The only permanent solution is a new pipe.”

The National Police Commissioner and the Chief Superintendent of the Westman Islands have jointly declared a “danger phase” in effect for the Westman Islands due to the situation. Íris Róbertsdóttir, the local mayor, told RÚV that a response plan is in the works to lay down new piping, which she insists will need to be done by next summer at the latest.

Town will not be evacuated

For the time being, there is no need for Westman Islands residents to save or store water. The town’s water tanks store 5,000 tonnes of drinking water, which could last anywhere from several days to over a week if the water pipe does break fully. The local heating is also dependent on the water supply. Westman Islands’ Chief Superintendent Karl Gauti Hjaltason stated that if the damaged water pipe does break, the town would be able to continue heating homes and buildings for up to two weeks with its stored water.

If additional water is necessary, the current plan is to transport it to the Westman islands rather than evacuate residents. The town authorities are, however, reviewing evacuation plans.

Drinking Water Contaminated in Borgarfjörður Eystri

Residents of Borgarfjörður Eystri, Northeast Iceland, have had to boil their drinking water for two weeks due to the discovery of coliform bacteria in both of their water sources, RÚV reports. The water supply has been drained and chlorinated.

East Iceland’s Public Health Authority discovered bacterial contamination in the supply during routine sampling in late September. The results came in on October 2 and residents were immediately told to boil all drinking water.

Soil subsidence a likely cause

The cause of the contamination is likely a pipe that was pulled out of a well in the spring above Brekkubær, providing a way for pollution to enter the water. “This has probably come about because of soil subsidence [sinking ground] in the wet land in that area,” stated Glúmur Björnsson, a geologist at utilities contractor HEF Veitur. Glúmur stated that staff has since chlorinated the wells and water tank and rinsed the system. “And we hope that will be enough for us to solve this.”

No illnesses reported

However, contamination was also detected in other wells, which means the dislocated pipe may not be the only cause. Authorities may install a UV water purifier in the system to kill germs. For the time being, residents must continue to boil drinking water. No illnesses have been reported in connection to the contaminated water.

Read More: A Wealth of Water

About 95% of Iceland’s drinking water is groundwater, most of it untreated. This groundwater is extracted from springs, wells, or boreholes. While Iceland’s drinking water is generally safe, waterborne disease outbreaks do occur. During the two decades between 1998 and 2017, there were 15 registered waterborne outbreaks in Iceland affecting 8,000 people and leading to over 500 registered illnesses. All of them occurred in small water supplies.

#Kranavatn Campaign Encourages Tourists to Drink Tap Water

A new ad campaign by Iceland’s official tourism website encourages tourists to drink tap water when visiting the country. The new ad promotes the hashtag #kranavatn (#tapwater) and aims to reduce the number of people buying bottled water in Iceland.

A recent survey of 16,000 people in North America and Europe found that 65% of travelers use more bottled water and beverages while traveling than when they are at home. Reasons cited for this increase in usage include concerns about the safety of tap water in the host country (70%) and convenience (19%).

In order to combat these specific concerns, the new ad campaign, which was launched in collaboration with the Environment Agency of Iceland, presents Icelandic tap water as a luxury product that can be enjoyed for free all over the country. Icelandic tap water is, per the Environment Agency, some of the cleanest and best tasting water in the world.