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.


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.

Citizen Scientists Wanted to Monitor Land

GróLind, a project to monitor Iceland’s soil and vegetation resources through remote sensing data, is turning to the public for help.

Jóhann Helgi Stefánsson, environmental scientist and project manager at GróLind, has stated that the project “is an opportunity for people to monitor the land in an organized way, see the results of reforestation, see the development of vegetation and have a direct impact on the knowledge we are creating every day.”

GróLind’s land monitoring began in 2019. Among other research goals, the project investigates sheep grazing patterns, and how vegetation develops on grazed and protected lands.

Now, the project is looking for citizen volunteers to help gather further data. Volunteers will use an app, and along with some basic training, monitor small areas of land throughout the country. By using a pole provided by Landgræðslan, Iceland’s foundation for land reclamation, volunteers will mark the center of a 50m area in diameter and report the findings back to GróLind.

In combination with other systems like satellite imagery, the data will hopefully contribute to a fuller picture of land use in Iceland.

Those interested in volunteering are encouraged to watch the instructional videos provided on the Landgræðslan YouTube channel, or else to visit the GróLind website.



Iceland’s Wilderness Mapped in More Detail than Ever

Hálendi Landmannalaugar Highland Iceland

Scientists have mapped Iceland’s uninhabited wilderness in more detail than ever before. A new report on the project, prepared by the Wildland Research Institute (WRi) on behalf of Icelandic initiative Óbyggð kortlagning provides information that can help policymakers and nature conservationists preserve these areas in their best possible form. Previous studies for the European Union Wilderness Register have shown that Iceland retains approximately 43% of Europe’s top one percent wildest areas.

Around half of Iceland’s Central Highland falls under the definition of uninhabited wilderness, and the report divides it into 17 distinct areas. One third of the uninhabited wilderness mapped in the project is privately owned, while the other two thirds are on public land. The areas were mapped and defined according to international standards.

Maps are essential for conservation efforts

WRi Director Dr. Steve Carver told RÚV it is important for Icelanders to be able to clearly distinguish between wilderness and other areas, and that as wild areas diminish globally, Iceland’s wilderness will become still more valuable.

“If we look at biodiversity goals after 2020, the top priority is protecting the remaining unspoilt areas,” Dr. Carver stated. “That’s why they need to be mapped. Once a line has been drawn on a map, it can be put into context legally, in Icelandic law on nature conservation, so it’s possible to make decisions about where to build, where power lines can be laid, and where hydropower plans can be built so as not to spoil this important resource.”

Iceland’s Nature Conservation Act No 60/2013 outlines the goal of mapping wilderness across the whole of Iceland by June 2023.

Planned power plants threaten wild areas

The report identifies four main historical threats to wilderness in Iceland: impacts from geothermal and hydropower infrastructure; tourism; recreational 4×4 driving; and off-road driving. “These have resulted in the steady attrition of wilderness areas over the last 80 years. Many of these threats are ongoing with further expansion of electrical power generation and associated transmission infrastructure,” the report states.

Proposals to expand hydropower, geothermal power, and wind power generation in the Central Highlands are “of particular concern,” according to the report’s authors, as they are “all capable of vastly impacting wilderness qualities.”

Interested readers can view the full report online.

Iceland Wins Trademark Dispute Against Supermarket Chain

Iceland supermarket

The European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) has ruled that UK-based supermarket chain Iceland Foods Ltd. may not register a trademark on the word “Iceland” within the European Union, Kjarninn reports.

The supermarket chain secured a EU-wide trademark for the word “Iceland” in 2014, which Icelandic authorities sued to have invalidated on the basis of being far too broad and creating a monopoly that prevented Icelandic companies from registering their products with reference to their country of origin. Moreover, said the Icelandic government, “Iceland” is widely received as a geographical name and should have never been approved for trademark in the first place.

Now, years later, EUIPO has ruled in favour of Iceland – the country – and invalidated the supermarket’s trademark entirely, noting that “It has been adequately shown that consumers in EU countries know that Iceland is a country in Europe and also that the country has historical and economic ties to EU countries, in addition to geographic proximity.”

Foreign Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson said he welcomed the ruling, but was not surprised by it. “…[I]t defies common sense that a foreign company can stake a claim to the name of a sovereign nation as was done [in this case],” he remarked. “What we’re talking about here is a milestone victory in a matter of real importance for Icelandic exporters. Our country is known for its purity and its sustainability, hence the value of indicating the origin of Icelandic products.”

Iceland Foods Ltd. has two months to appeal the ruling.

Large Fissure Forms on Landslide Site

Icelandic Coast Guard staff noticed a large fissure on the top of Fagraskógarfjall mountain during training operations last weekend, the Icelandic Met Office reports. The fissure has formed near the site of a landslide which occurred on July 7, believed to be Iceland’s largest ever.

The section of land that has been separated by the fissure measures around 50-150,000 square metres. Due to its large size, it is believed unlikely that the section will fall into the valley and will most likely fall on top of the original landslide.

The Icelandic Met Office reminds readers that further movement is likely following a large landslide, and advises travellers to avoid the area.