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.

 

Over 13% of Icelanders Live Abroad

Tenerife elderly senior Spain

Over 13% of Icelandic citizens live abroad, according to the latest figures from Registers Iceland. While 324,193 Icelanders live in Iceland, 49,870 live outside of the country. About three-fifths of Icelandic emigrants live in other Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland). RÚV reported first.

Denmark tops the list for relocation

Denmark, Iceland’s former coloniser, is the most popular country for Icelanders to relocate to, with 11,982 Icelandic citizens living there currently. This represents 24% of all Icelanders who live abroad or nearly one-quarter. Norway and Sweden are in second and third place, home to 9,250 and 9,046 Icelanders respectively.

Number of Icelanders living abroad growing

The US and UK round out the top five, with 6,583 Icelanders living in the United States and 2,518 in the United Kingdom. Over 900 Icelanders live in Spain, a popular vacation destination for Icelandic citizens. In most of the top 15 countries on the list, the number of Icelandic residents has been steadily increasing. The same is true of the number of Icelandic citizens living abroad in general. In 2004, they numbered 29,591, and at the end of 2023, they numbered 49,870.

It bears noting that Iceland’s population has also grown in recent years, though not as much as previously believed.

 

Population of Iceland Far Lower Than Previously Tallied

Secret Solstice - Laugardalur - tónlist - tónlistarhátíð

The population of Iceland is actually 14,000 fewer people than was previously believed, a statement from the government of Iceland has announced, due to how the population was previously calculated.

How the miscount happened

The miscalculation essentially comes down to incentives. Statistics Iceland has up until this point been deriving their population figures from the National Registry. When people move to Iceland, they are highly incentivised to register, in order to receive an Icelandic identity number (kennitala), legal address and bank account.

However, when people move away from Iceland, they have little incentive to de-register from the National Registry. As a result, thousands of people who do not live in Iceland anymore were still being counted as a part of Iceland’s population.

How it was corrected

After this error was detected, Statistics Iceland changed how they calculate the country’s population, and will now be drawing their data from numerous sources.

The good news is this means that Iceland’s economy is actually doing better than previously reported; fewer people naturally means the GDP is in fact higher than believed before. Specifically, Iceland’s GDP is now 11 million ISK per capita, on par with pre-pandemic levels.

Iceland’s Population to Reach 400,000 This Year

Reykjavík old historic centre

In the first six months of 2024, Iceland’s population should pass 400,000, Morgunblaðið reports. As it stands, the population is only around 1,000 away from that mark.

The growth in Iceland’s population has been much more rapid than expected. Statistics Iceland projected in 2008 that the population would only surpass 400,000 people in the year 2050. “This projection was very good, even if we’re reaching this goal 26 years earlier than expected,” Professor Stefán Hrafn Jónsson, Dean of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Iceland, told Morgunblaðið. “The projection showed a 0.6 percent yearly growth, but it turned out different. The shifts in Icelandic society were simply larger than expected in the projection.”

Population ageing faster

According to new projections, the population could grow by another 200,000 people in the next 40 years or so. “The latest projection from Statistics Iceland expects us to reach a population of 600,000 in the year 2067 or so,” Stefán said. “There is much uncertainty in such projections like in any projections about the future. That uncertainty grows the further we go into the future.”

Population projections are based on birth rates, mortality rates and migration. Historical developments, such as wars and pandemics, can influence these developments. “Even if births and deaths are biological processes, and therefore both the subject of health sciences, these events and everything that happens in between them are affected by social factors,” Stefán said. He added that Iceland will see an increasingly ageing population, which will put pressure on the healthcare system. The number of inhabitants over the age of 80 could triple in the next 50 years. “But the effects will also be seen in the pension system, the economy, labour market, governance, political ideologies, inequality, crime, customs, traditions, legislation, social services, housing, welfare, domestic and foreign trade, governance of businesses and institutions, markets, disability issues, cultural policy, language, religion, and morality, just to mention a few of the subjects of the humanities and social sciences,” Stefán added. “It could be a real cause for concern in the next decades whether we respond correctly to the ageing of our population.”

No Restrictions Imposed on This Season’s Ptarmigan Hunt

Rock ptarmigan

The ptarmigan hunting season starts today and continues until November 21. Hunting is permitted every day except Wednesdays and Thursdays, with no set limits on the number of ptarmigans hunters can shoot. A ptarmigan hunter from Egilsstaðir told RÚV that weather conditions have been challenging on the first day of hunting.

Ptarmigan hunting season begins

The ptarmigan hunting season starts today and will continue until November 21. Although the ptarmigan population has trended upward since last year, the Environment Agency of Iceland advises hunters to hunt responsibly. The agency’s hunting guidelines remain consistent with past years: hunting is allowed from Friday to Tuesday, from October 20 to November 21.

RÚV reports that this year’s ptarmigan hunting is based on comprehensive scientific data, utilizing a model that incorporates nearly two decades of data. This research suggests that the ptarmigan population can endure 25 hunting days without falling below the average count of these years. Unlike previous seasons where hunters were advised to limit their catch to three to six ptarmigans, no such restrictions have been set this year.

Bjarni Jónasson, the team leader of Wildlife Management at the Environment Agency of Iceland, told RÚV that the population has grown by 33% compared to last year. While there are regional variations, the overall outlook is positive. Nonetheless, he reiterates the importance of hunting with moderation.

Weather conditions not ideal

RÚV also spoke to Þórhallur Borgarsson, a ptarmigan hunter from Egilsstaðir, who begins preparing his Christmas meal in May by collecting birch twigs to season the ptarmigans. He was not in a rush to start hunting this morning, speaking to RÚV from his job at the Egilsstaðir Airport.

“Given the current weather conditions, it’s not ideal for ptarmigan hunting. It’s windy out, so the bird is likely tucked away tightly, probably among the rocks,” Þórhallur stated. He also noted that there was no snowline yet. “So, the birds are dispersed and somewhat challenging to find; they don’t fly until you’re nearly stepping on them. They’re very stubborn in this kind of weather and hard to locate,” he added.

Despite this, Þórhallur maintained that there was an abundance of birds in the area, having observed them during his reindeer guiding and sheep herding activities. Þórhallur expressed moderate satisfaction with the structure of this hunting season. “Yes, people will get their Christmas meal; I’m not particularly concerned about that.” He does believe, however, that it would have been more sensible if the hunting season was continuous, affording hunters more flexibility in choosing the weather conditions for their hunts.

The sale ban on ptarmigans remains in effect, and it is prohibited to export, offer for sale, or sell ptarmigans and ptarmigan products.

Record Population Growth Last Year – 400,000 Milestone in Sight

Locals and tourists enjoy the sunshine in Reykjavík's Austurvöllur square.

Iceland’s population rose by 11,500 in 2022, potentially reaching 400,000 this year, according to a report from the Housing and Construction Authority. The proportion of working immigrants in the national labour market has quadrupled since 2003.

On course to reach 400,000 by end of the year

Iceland’s population increased by 11,500 last year, marking the most significant growth since records began. According to a monthly report of the Housing and Construction Authority, this growth trend has continued in 2023; in the first six months of the year, the country’s population increased by 1.7%. If this trend continues, the increase this year will surpass last year’s, with Iceland’s population reaching 400,000 by year-end.

The report also notes that foreign nationals currently compose nearly 18% of the population or over 70,000 individuals. Furthermore, foreign nationals constitute about 30% of the age group between 26-36 years. The institution notes that, based on tax data, the proportion of working immigrants in the Icelandic labour market has quadrupled since 2003, rising from just over 5% to over 20% last year.

In an interview with RÚV yesterday, Katrín Ólafsdóttir, an associate professor at the University of Reykjavik, stated that since the tourism sector began its rapid growth, there had been a strong correlation between Iceland’s economic growth and the number of foreign nationals: “The correlation was much weaker in the years before, but the last ten years show a very strong link.”

Foreign nationals nearly 50% of the unemployed

While working immigrants in the Icelandic labour market have quadrupled since 2003, the proportion of foreign nationals among the country’s unemployed population has also seen a sharp increase in recent years, now reaching nearly 50%.

Speaking to RÚV, Unnur Sverrisdóttir, Head of the Directorate of Labour, expressed concerns about this trend, noting that various measures had been tried without the desired success. Unnur speculated that several factors may be contributing to the trend, including language proficiency and challenges related to childcare, especially for single mothers who might not have the same support system as native Icelanders.

Unnur also emphasised the need for a better understanding of the issue and highlighted potential gaps in educational opportunities for younger foreign nationals in Iceland, especially those who aren’t proficient in Icelandic.

Puffin Population Declining More Rapidly than Previously Believed

puffins iceland

The Icelandic puffin population has shrunk by 70% in the last thirty years. The Managing Director of the Icelandic Travel Industry Association (SAF) has stated that this is bad news for the ecosystem and for companies within the tourist sector, who have marketed the puffin as a kind of national symbol.

Decline much worse than previously believed

Iceland plays host to a significant portion of the world’s puffins, with approximately 20% of the global population nesting in the Westman Islands every year. While the Icelandic puffin population may not be as substantial as that of other bird species in the country, it has experienced a substantial decline over the past thirty years.

In an interview with RÚV, biologist Erpur Snær Hansen revealed that the latest data indicates a staggering 70% decline in the puffin population since 1995, surpassing the previously believed figure of 40%.

“We hadn’t analysed population trends from such an early period before, and it was shocking to discover that the decline was much more severe than previously estimated,” Erpur stated.

While puffin populations naturally fluctuate over time, the recent measurements unveiled an unprecedented pattern. “This recent decline appears to be distinct. This consistent delay in nesting and poor breeding is unprecedented in the 140-year history we have been studying.”

The primary cause of this decline stems from a scarcity of food for the birds, which can be attributed to rising sea temperatures. Additionally, puffin hunting accounts for at least 10% of the population decrease. Erpur emphasised that puffin hunting is not sustainable, despite recent declines in its prevalence. “Generally speaking, hunting declining populations is not a good philosophy.”

When asked about the potential ban on puffin hunting, Erpur responded:

“This spring, there was a consideration, in collaboration with the Environment Agency, to have scientists assess the impact of a sales ban because protecting this species is a challenging endeavour. This form of hunting, tied to land ownership, appears to have a peculiar exemption from common sense.”

Bad news for Icelandic tourism

In an interview with Vísir, Jóhannes Þór Skúlason, the Managing Director of the Icelandic Travel Industry Association (SAF), highlighted the negative consequences of the declining puffin population, particularly for the tourism industry:

“Naturally, this is detrimental to the ecosystem and to the tourism industry, too, which has embraced the puffin as its emblem. The puffin is an incredibly beautiful and unique bird. When people visit Iceland, being able to witness puffin nests in places like Borgarfjörður Eystri, Reynisjfara, West Iceland, and the Westman Islands enhances their experience. It would be truly unfortunate if the population fails to recover.”

Jóhannes further emphasised that some tourists specifically travel to Iceland for the opportunity to see puffins: “It is quite possible that individuals come here solely to observe the puffin, especially those from countries where the puffin is protected and, therefore, less visible.”

The constant changes in the biosphere can significantly impact tourism, as Jóhannes noted: “We have already witnessed changes in the distribution of other bird species, such as arctic terns. These developments raise various concerns.”

Record Population Increase in Iceland

pedestrian street Laugavegur Reykjavík

Iceland’s population increased by 3.1% between January 2022 and January 2023: the largest increase since 1734 or as far back as population figures for Iceland go. The population was 387,758 on January 1 of this year, and had increased by 11,510 from last year, according to the latest figures from Statistics Iceland. Population increase was proportionally greatest in the southwest.

Proportionally greatest population increase in the Southwest

The population in the Reykjavík capital area increased by 2.8% between the start of 2022 and the start of 2023 or an increase of 6,651 residents. The southwest region showed the highest proportional increase in population, at 6.7%, or 1,941 residents. The population increase was 4.2% in South Iceland and 3.1% in West Iceland, which was above the country’s average. The population growth was proportionally lower in the Westfjords (2.4%), Northeast Iceland (2.0%) and East Iceland (1.8%). The smallest increase was in the Northwest, where the number increased by only 27 individuals or 0.4%.

Population decreased in 8 of 64 municipalities

There were 64 municipalities in Iceland on 1 January 2023, which is a decrease by five, due to merger. The municipalities are diverse in size of population. Reykjavík was the most populous with 139,875 inhabitants while Árneshreppur had the smallest population of 47 inhabitants. Twenty-nine municipalities had less than 1,000 inhabitants, but only eleven had 5,000 inhabitants or more. While the country’s overall population increased, the population decreased in eight of the country’s 64 municipalities.

Nearly two thirds of the population live in the capital area

About 63% of the population lived in the Reykjavík capital area at the start of this year, that is within the connected municipalities stretching from Hafnarfjörður to Mosfellsbær. This is a total of 242,995 people of the total population of 387,758. The second largest urban area in the country was Keflavík and Njarðvík, with 21,950 inhabitants. Akureyri, North Iceland and the surrounding area come in third at 19,887 inhabitants. Inhabitants in all of Iceland’s rural areas, defined as the countryside or localities with less than 200 inhabitants, totalled 22,752 individuals or 5.9% of the total population.

Baby Boom in North Iceland

baby swimming

Almost 500 babies were born in the Akureyri Hospital in North Iceland last year. RÚV reports that this is an increase of nearly 26% from the year before. The announcement was made at the hospital’s annual meeting this week. There was a general increase in patient numbers: Akureyri Hospital treated 13,500 patients in 2021, up 22% from the year before.

In 2021, there were precisely 491 babies born in 488 births (three sets of twins) at Akureyri Hospital. In 2020, by contrast, there were 397 babies born in 392 births (that year, five sets of twins). This makes 2021 Akureyri’s second-most fruitful year on the books; the current record for most babies born in Iceland’s ‘capital of the north’ in one year is 515 babies in 2010.

Births were up in the actual capital as well, but not nearly as much. In 2021, 3,466 babies were born at Reykjavík’s National and University Hospital, which is just 5% over the previous year’s rate.

Akureyri Hospital CEO Hildigunnur Svavarsdóttir says the reason for the jump in birth numbers is difficult to determine with any certainty, although she readily concedes to the winking supposition that “people got bored during COVID.”

“That’s one explanation for sure, and a lot of people are giving each other knowing smiles,” she remarked. “But I have no explanation for it—I just think it’s a really joyous thing. We could do with more of us up here.”

How many people are born in Iceland and how many die on average per year? What can you tell me about Iceland’s population growth?

school children

Every year, around 4,000-5,000 people are born, and between 1,800-2,300 people die in Iceland. As recorded by Statistics Iceland:

  • in 2020, there were 4,512 births and 2,301 deaths;
  • in 2010, there were 4,907 births and 2,020 deaths;
  • in 2000, there were 4,315 births and 1,828 deaths.

In the third quarter of 2021, more babies were born in Iceland than in any other quarter over the past ten years: 1,310 babies were born while 580 people died. The population increased by 3,260 from the previous quarter to a total of 374,830. Inhabitants in the Reykjavík capital region numbered 240,050 and 134,780 lived in other parts of the country.

It is expected that in 2021, over of 5,000 babies will be born, which would be the most babies ever to be born in one year in Iceland. The current record is from 2010.

Net migration to Iceland during the third quarter was 2,530 people: 340 for Icelandic citizens and 2,190 for foreign citizens. Icelanders who immigrated during this period came mostly from Denmark, Norway, or Sweden (600 out of 900), while most immigrants of foreign nationality came from Poland (720 out of 3,200). Romania came second with 230 immigrants. 

With 190 Icelandic citizens moving to Sweden, this was the most popular emigration destination for Icelanders. Of the 560 Icelandic citizens who emigrated, 330 went to Denmark, Norway, or Sweden. Most foreign citizens who emigrated from Iceland during this period went to Poland (350 out of 1,000). 

There were 54,140 foreign citizens living in Iceland by the end of the third quarter of 2021, which is 14.4% of the total population.