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 New Clam in Town

Razor clams are the newest addition to Iceland’s resident fauna, RÚV reports. Researchers believe that the bivalves, which got their name in English from their long skinny shape, sharp edges, and resemblance to old fashioned straight razors, were brought to Iceland in the bilge water of cargo ships. Razor clams are known in Icelandic as sindraskel (pl. sindraskeljar).

The first razor clams, dead, were found on a shore in Hafnarfjörður on New Year’s Eve 2020. A few days later, a live clam was found near the mouth of the Hafnarár river in Borgarfjörður, West Iceland. This is the first time razor clams have been found in Iceland, excepting an isolated incident in 1957, when one was found on the other side of the country, on Lónsfjörður in East Iceland. But up until now, no other razor clams have been found in the country. Six species of razor clam can, however, be found elsewhere in the North Atlantic.

Researchers believe that razor clams were brought to Iceland in the bilge water of cargo ships from the east coast of North America, most likely five to ten years ago.

“If alien species are able to establish themselves in new environments, it’s possible in some cases that they could cause damage to the preexisting ecosystem,” explains a new study published by researchers at the Icelandic Museum of Natural History. “Monitoring the razor clam is, therefore, important.” The museum is currently conducting a study on the razor clam population in Iceland in collaboration with the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute, Matís, the Southwest Iceland Nature Research Centre, and Canada’s Anishinabek/Ontario Fisheries Resource Center.

Steady Growth on Surtsey Island

Vegetation is growing at a relatively rapid rate on volcanic island Surtsey. A team of biologists from The Icelandic Institute of Natural History found one new plant species and two new bug species in a recent expedition. Expeditions head over there yearly to assess how life has developed on the island, which formed following an undersea volcanic eruption in 1963.

The new plant species is coltsfoot while the recently arrived bugs are lesteva longoelytrata and mitopus morio, an arachnid species often named harvestman. Mitopus morio is quite common all over in Iceland, but scientists believed it to be unlikely for the species to arrive all the way in Surtsey. These species are the first new species to be discovered since 2015.

Grass has slowly and steadily grown around the island, assisted by a sizable seagull population which fertilizes the soil with their droppings. There is now a sizable colony of birds in the area, around 200 pairs in total, most of which are seagulls. Scientists saw at least two exotic butterflies as well.

The team cleared out rubbish from the Surtsey beach, most of which came from fishing vessels. The cleaning has been performed yearly since 2016. For more information on the expedition, albeit in Icelandic, head to https://www.ni.is/frettir/2019/07/surtseyjarleidangur-liffraedinga-2019

Island untouched by humans
Surtsey is the southernmost point in Iceland, just south of the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago. The volcanic eruption started at a depth of 130 metres below sea level and reached the surface on November 14 1963. The eruption lasted until June 5, 1967. At that point, Surtsey’s surface area reached a maximum of 2.7 square kilometres, which eventually whittled down to the 1.3 square kilometres it is today. Surtsey is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a nature reserve, humans are strictly forbidden on the island except for the yearly scientific expedition. The island has a small house, as well as a weather station and a permanent webcam.