2023 in Review: Culture

Diljá Pétursdóttir iceland eurovision

As the year draws to a close, Iceland Review brings you a summary of the biggest stories in community, culture, and nature in 2023. Here are some of the biggest culture-related stories from the year.

Laufey Sets New Jazz Standard

It’s been a big year for Icelandic musician Laufey. In September, Laufey’s sophomore album, Bewitched, set a record for the most streams in the jazz category on Spotify on its day of release, accumulating 5.7 million streams. The previous record was held by Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett’s 2021 album Love for Sale, which received 1.1 million streams on its first day. Bewitched features the British Philharmonic Orchestra on two of its tracks and consists mostly of original compositions, along with one cover song.

On November 10, Laufey released two Christmas songs in collaboration with Norah Jones, a cover of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and an original composition entitled Better Than Snow. Both of the songs were recorded in a single take.

 On the same day that the duets with Norah Jones were released, Laufey announced to the crowd at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas, that she had received her first Grammy nomination (for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album): “I especially love Austin now because this will forever be the city where I found out that I received a Grammy nomination,” Laufey remarked.

Laufey is the artistic mononym of Icelander Laufey Lín Jónsdóttir. A former cello soloist and talent show finalist, Laufey graduated from Berklee College of Music. She released her debut EP, Typical of Me, in 2021.

Power Outage: Diljá Misses Out on Eurovision Finals

Earlier this year, Diljá Pétursdóttir was chosen to represent Iceland in the 67th annual Eurovision Song Contest. Diljá, a long-time Eurovision fan, went on to perform her energetic ballad, aptly named Power (co-written by Pálmi Ragnar Ásgeirsson), during the second semi-final night of the Eurovision Song Contest. It took place in Liverpool on May 11, and ten entries advanced to the final. Despite Diljá’s performance receiving favourable reviews from Icelanders, she did not advance to the finals.

Read More: Power Player (Brief Profile of Diljá Pétursdóttir in Iceland Review)

Diljá spoke to Eurovision commentator Sigurður Gunnarsson for the National Broadcaster (RÚV) following her performance. Despite failing to qualify, she was pleased with her performance: “It went amazingly well.”

Icelandic Lamb Receives Protected Status

In March, the European Commission approved the first-ever Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) from Iceland for Icelandic lamb (ice. Íslenskt lambakjöt). The product name is applied to the meat from purebred Icelandic lambs, which have been born, raised, and slaughtered on the island of Iceland. The designation is the same type granted to champagne and means that no product that does not fulfil the above conditions can be labelled as Icelandic lamb.

Read More: Labour of Love (A Profile of a Young Farmer)

“Sheep farming has a long and rich cultural tradition in Iceland,” a notice from the European Commission read. “The characteristics of ‘Íslenskt lambakjöt’ first and foremost consists [sic] of a high degree of tenderness and gamey taste, due to the fact that lambs roam freely in demarcated wild rangelands and grow in the wild, natural surroundings of Iceland, where they feed on grass and other plants. The long tradition of sheep farming passing down generations on the island has led to high standards of flock management and grazing methods.”

Trouble at the Opera

On Saturday, March 3, the Icelandic Opera premiered its production of Madame Butterfly, authored by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini and first performed publicly in 1904. Three days after the premiere, Laura Liu, a Chinese-American violinist for the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, published a post on Facebook in which she accused individuals involved in the production of yellowface (i.e. where a non-Asian performer uses makeup to make their skin look yellow in order to portray an Asian character). Liu shared pictures of the performers, who were shown wearing makeup, including painted-on black eyebrows and black wigs: 

“Are we bringing yellowface back, Iceland?” Liu asked. “Furthermore, Madame Butterfly is Japanese. Those are Chinese characters. ‘All look [the] same,’ right? It’s disturbing to have to repeat this: yellowing up is the same as blacking up. When you wear another race as your costume that’s called dehumanisation. Do better.”

On March 9, Steinunn Birna Ragnarsdóttir, Director of the Icelandic Opera, addressed accusations of racism and cultural appropriation in an interview with the radio programme Reykjavík Síðdegis. 

Steinunn iterated some of the points made by her colleague Michiel Dijkema: “I was very clear about not using yellowface in this production,” Steinunn stated, adding that the producers had taken “different routes” to make the production believable, Kabuki makeup, for example.

When asked what she made of the accusations, Steinunn replied: “We celebrate this discussion and listen with an open mind to these different perspectives.”

On Saturday, March 11, Steinunn Birna was interviewed by the nightly news, in which she stated that a few minor changes would be made: “We had a good meeting yesterday with the performers, and the director, where we listened to their experience. We decided that we would tone down the makeup. Even though we believed that we had not been guilty of yellowface, we decided to remove painted-on, slanted eyebrows and wigs, for such a thing would not serve to detract from the overall performance. There are two guidelines that I follow: that my people feel good, and making a good show even better. 

Háskólabíó Movie Theatre Shuttered

The Icelandic company Sena cancelled its contract for the operation of a cinema in the Háskólabíó theatre as as of July 1 of this year. Konstantín Mikaelsson, Manager of Sena’s Film Division, told the media that Sena’s decision was informed by increased consumer demands for facilities and declining attendance.

Sena has managed the operation of Háskólabíó since 2007, but Háskólbíó’s history stretches back to the year 1961. During the first decades, the theatre featured a single large auditorium. Smaller auditoriums were later added. The building was the main concert hall of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra for years until the Harpa Music and Conference Hall was put into use in 2011.

In addition to film screenings, Háskólabíó has been the venue for university classes, concerts, and various events. In June, Guðmundur R. Jónsson, Director of Administration of the University of Iceland, told the media that the university would likely continue to use the building for concerts, conferences, meetings, and teaching.

2023 in Review: Nature

Grindavík earthquakes crevasse

As the year draws to a close, Iceland Review brings you a summary of the biggest stories in community, culture, and nature in 2023. Here are some of the biggest nature-related stories from the year, which included two volcanic eruptions in Reykjanes.

Grindavík Evacuated

It has been a time of upheaval for the Southwest Iceland town of Grindavík (pop. 3,600), which was evacuated on November 10 amid powerful seismic activity. This was the first time since 1973 that an Icelandic town has been evacuated (or ever since the eruption on the Westman Islands). Earthquakes and the formation of a magma dike under the town opened crevasses and damaged roads, homes, and infrastructure in and around Grindavík.

Read More: Out of Harm´s Way (The Evacuation of Grindavík)

In early December, it appeared that magma had stopped flowing into the dike and experts believed that an eruption was less likely. However, they warned that the seismic events could repeat over the coming months, with magma flowing into the dike once more and threatening Grindavík. While the town’s evacuation order was in effect, Grindavík residents were permitted to enter the town to retrieve belongings and maintain their homes and properties. Some businesses in the town have also restarted operations.

Volcanic Eruption Near Sýlingarfell

On the night of December 18, following weeks of waning seismic activity, and with some Grindavík residents complaining about the evacuation orders remaining in effect, a powerful volcanic eruption began near the town of Grindavík and by Mt. Sýlingarfell. The eruption occurred along a 4 km long fissure and the magma flow was much greater when compared to the previous three eruptions that had occurred on the Reykjanes peninsula over the past three years. Construction workers rushed to fill in gaps in the protective barriers by the Svartsengi Power Station. Fortunately, the lava did not damage infrastructure, although it could have threatened the Grindavíkurvegur road if it had continued flowing.

The eruption was short-lived, fortunately, and by December 21, it appeared that volcanic activity had completely ceased.

On December 22, the authorities announced the lifting of the evacuation orders, starting December 23. A handful of residents chose to return and spend Christmas at home; however, many residents, contending that it was still not safe to stay in town, chose to remain in temporary housing outside of Grindavík. The government had previously announced that it would extend housing support throughout the winter for Grindavík residents (the government had also secured additional housing through rental companies).

With land uplift having continued near the Svartsengi Power Station, experts believe that further volcanic activity is likely in the future.

Eruption at Litli-Hrútur

Starting July 4, 2023, a significant increase in seismic activity on the Reykjanes peninsula led to over 12,000 earthquakes near the area where two volcanic eruptions had occurred in 2021 and 2022 respectively. This seismic activity eventually culminated in a powerful eruption on July 10 near Litli-Hrútur. The eruption was strong: ten times more lava flow than the previous two eruptions. The eruption initially featured multiple fissures extending over 1 km and a very high lava flow rate, but it soon settled into a single fissure with a steadily growing cone.

Read More: Live, Laugh, Lava (the Litli-Hrútur Eruption)

Given how dry it had been, the eruption set off multiple wildfires, which kept firefighters working around the clock. Once again, the eruption, which was relatively brief, proved highly popular among tourists; volcanic activity ceased on August 5.

Whaling Season Postponed

On June 20, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, the Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries, announced that she would be postponing the start of the fin-whale hunting season until August 31. The decision followed on the heels of a report authored by a council of specialists on animal welfare, which found that the methods employed in the hunting of whales did not comply with the Act on Animal Welfare.

Read More: Sea Change (Has Iceland Seen Its Last Whaling Season?)

After much clamour from anti-whaling activists around the world, the Minister did not extend the temporary postponement of the whaling season, which commenced on September 6. The ships of Iceland´s only whaling company, Hvalur hf., were, however, subjected to increased surveillance and stricter regulations set by the Minister of Fisheries in September. Charges were pressed against two activists, who had climbed into the crow´s nests of two of Hvalur´s whaling vessels to protest.

Sea-Lice in Tálknafjörður, the Great Escape — More Controversy Surrounding Salmon Farming

On August 20, approximately 3,500 farm-raised salmon escaped through two holes on an open-pen fish farm operated by Arctic Fish in Patreksfjörður, a fjord in Iceland’s Westfjords. Arctic Fish had not inspected the condition of the pens for 95 days.

In September, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST), confirmed that 26 farmed salmon traced to the escape in Patreksfjörður had been caught in several fishing rivers in West and North Iceland. By October, the Federation of Icelandic River Owners claimed that 344 farmed salmon had been captured in 46 different locations. In response to the escape, the Directorate of Fisheries announced that it would provisionally extend the angling season until mid-November to increase the chances of farmed salmon being caught (teams of Norwegian divers were dispatched to aid in the capture of the escaped fish).

Read More: Balancing the Scales (Do the Costs of Fish Farming in Iceland Outweigh the Benefits?)

On October 7, a protest against salmon farming in open-net pens was held on Austurvöllur Square in Reykjavík. Less than a month later, Heimildin reported that at least one million salmon had perished or had been discarded due to an uncontrollable outbreak of sea lice in Tálknafjörður in the southern Westfjords. Speaking to Heimildin, Karl Steinar Óskarsson, Head of the Aquaculture Department at the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST), stated that “no one had seen a sea lice infestation spread like this before.”

New Climate Report Published

In September, a report titled “Climate Resilient Iceland” (i.e. Loftslagsþolið Ísland in Icelandic) was unveiled. Commissioned by the Minister of the Environment, Energy, and Climate, a steering committee produced the report to assess the necessary measures for society to adapt to climate change, emphasising that the impacts of climate change are already evident.

Read More: In Due Force (Unprecedented Mudslides)

According to the report, altered weather patterns, increased landslides, and heightened flood risks are among the challenges Icelanders will face in the coming years. When asked whether emphasising adaptation to climate change signified a form of resignation, Anna Hulda Ólafsdóttir, Office Manager of Climate Services and Adaptation at the Icelandic Meteorological Office and a co-author of the report, replied, “Yes and no; this is the reality we are facing. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the truth. Humans have always adapted to changing circumstances.”

 

2022 (Year-In Review): The Good News Is …

fireworks new year's eve Reykjavík

Such is the nature of the news that it often focuses on the negative; bad things tend to happen quickly – and large-scale trends are overlooked. As Swedish author Hans Rosling once pointed out, if newspapers would only be published every 100 years, the messaging, in all likelihood, would be very different, e.g., highlighting how many people were raised above the poverty line, the gradual decline in infant mortality rates, etc.

“We’ve cut the number of people living in extreme poverty by half over the last twenty years, but there was never a morning when “POVERTY RATES DROP INCREMENTALLY” dominated newspaper headlines,” Bill Gates wrote in 2018, summarising the ideas of Rosling.

In this edition of our year-in-review, we highlight a few positive news stories, intended to balance out the negative – and to remind readers that there is still a lot of good in the world:

Safety Signs and Cameras Installed at Reynisfjara Beach (December)

Safety signs
New signs at Reynisfjara beach (photo courtesy of the Icelandic Tourist Board)

Last summer, a consultation team was established in order to better ensure the safety of visitors to Reynisfjara beach, a popular travel destination near the town of Vík in South Iceland. As noted in an article in Iceland Review from 2019, the tides that lap the black sand beaches of Reynisfjara possess “an immensely strong undertow, and waves that creep quickly upon travellers.”

As of last summer, five travellers had died on Reynisfjara beach since 2013.

As noted in a press release from the Icelandic Tourist Board earlier this month, the consultation team recommended the installation of informatory signage on the beach, which has now been completed. In addition to the signs, a 300-metre long chain was strung alongside the parking lot, guiding visitors along a path and past the signs. Cameras were also installed on a mast on the beach ridge, which will stream live video from the beach to the police authorities in Selfoss.

Hussein Hussein Returns to Iceland (November)

Asylum seeker protest Reykjavík

The deportation of Hussein Hussein, a refugee from Iraq who uses a wheelchair, in November caused widespread outrage; footage surfaced on social media of authorities forcefully removing him from his wheelchair, in addition to airport authorities attempting to suppress media coverage.

In December, however, the District Court of Reykjavík ruled that Hussein’s deportation had been illegal. Following the decision, Hussein and his family returned to Iceland from Greece.

Although Hussein and his family have won their suit against the Immigration and Asylum Appeals Board, it is still possible for state representatives to appeal the case to the Court of Appeals. At this time, state representatives have made no comments with regard to this possibility.

Road Administration Launches New Website (October)

www.umferdin.is
www.umferdin.is (screenshot)

The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration launched a new website in October, offering more detailed information on road and weather conditions. This was good news in light of the often hazardous conditions on Icelandic roads, especially during winter.

According to a press release from IRCA, this new website – which replaces the previous road-conditions map on the administration’s site (www.road.is) – is “more advanced, more accessible (especially on smart devices), and will offer greater opportunities for development going forward.”

If you’re planning on a road trip, we recommend consulting the website prior to leaving.

Geysir’s Protected Status Confirmed in Signing Ceremony (September)

Geysir Iceland tourism
by Golli

The Geysir area was originally protected by law in 2020, but its status was officially recognized with a signing ceremony in September.

In addition to being a popular tourism destination – and the namesake of all other geysers – Geysir is home to many unique geological features, plant life, and microorganisms, meaning that the area is also important for scientific research. In addition to conserving the Geysir area, the new management plan hopes to place increased emphasis on education on Geysir’s significance.

At the ceremony, Katrín Jakobsdóttir stated: “The conservation of the Geysir area is an important step in nature conservation in Iceland, given its unique natural beauty. The conservation plan confirmed today ensures that future generations will be able to enjoy the area as we do today.”

Scrapie-Resistant Sheep Become a Reality (August)

A sheep waiting to be sorted into its pen in Þverárrétt
Tara Tjörva. A sheep waiting to be sorted into its pen in Þverárrétt

Over a dozen rams with scrapie-resistant genes were sold for breeding this fall. Bred in Reyðarfjörður in East Iceland, the sheep carry a special gene, and it is hoped that they will help form a more resilient stock in Iceland.

The gene, called ARR, is not found anywhere else in Iceland. It has been recognised internationally as scrapie-resistant, and herds with the ARR gene have already been bred in Europe for some two decades.

Scrapie is a fatal, degenerative disease found in sheep and goats, the ovine equivalent of mad cow disease. There is no cure, and even one case of scrapie can be a death sentence for an entire agricultural community. If a sheep tests positive for scrapie, the entire herd is culled, the entire farm’s hay must be destroyed, and the entire farm and its implements must be sanitised, either chemically or through fire. Even after this deep-cleaning, farmers are not able to raise sheep for a set time, and the scorched-earth policy may even affect neighbouring herds and farms.

For the full story on the fight against scrapie and the efforts to breed this new, resistant stock, read more in our article: Good Breeding.

New Plant to Capture Ten Times More CO2 from Atmosphere at Hellisheiði (July)

Carbfix Hellisheiðarvirkjun
Carbfix

In June, spokesperson for the Hellisheiði Power Station announced the construction of a new plant, capable of capturing 36,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide directly out of the atmosphere, increasing the direct air carbon capture at Hellisheiði Power Station tenfold.

Named Mammoth, the new facility adds to the existing 4,000 tonnes captured by the plant Orca, which commenced operations at the same location in September 2021, the first of its kind in the world. The plants are a project of Swiss company Climeworks, in collaboration with Carbfix and ON Power.

Construction is expected to last 18-24 months before operations commence.

Increased Legal Rights for Victims of Sexual Assault in Iceland (June)

As of June of this year, victims of sexual assault in Iceland were granted increased rights: receiving information on the proceedings of the police investigation of their case and permitted to be present at the trial, thanks to legislative amendments passed by Parliament.

A spokesperson from Stígamót, a centre for survivors of sexual violence, stated that the changes were a step forward but more needed to be done:

“I think this is a turning point and shows that there is will within the system towards victims of violence and there is a strong need for that. As we know, many cases are dismissed and victims are often unhappy with how they are received in the legal system and feel their need for justice is not fulfilled,” Steinunn Gyðu- og Guðjónsdóttir, a spokesperson for Stígamót, stated.

Unpublished Poem by Davíð Stefánsson Discovered (May)

Davíð Stefánsson
Screenshot from RÚV

In May, a curator of the Akureyri Museum announced that they had likely discovered a 19-verse poem by celebrated poet Davíð Stefánsson (best known for his volumes of poetry). The style of the poem and the handwriting offered a strong indication of its origin, suggesting that it may be among the very first poems that Davíð composed.

“We believe that Davíð composed the poem during his school years,” Haraldur Þór Egilsson, curator of the Akureyri Museum, told Fréttablaðið. “It was probably written before Svartar fjaðrir (Black Feathers) was published.”

Svartar Fjaðrir (Black Feathers) was Davíð Stefánsson’s first book of poetry, published in 1919. As noted on the website of the Akureyri Museum, the book was “accorded immediate acclaim and established the young author’s reputation. His poems captured the feelings and longings of the general public in crisp, clear and picturesque writing.”

Forests Cover 2% of Iceland, Icelandic Forestry Service Announces (April)

Skógræktin, FB

In late March, the Icelandic Forestry Association (IFA) held a conference to celebrate an important milestone, namely that forests and bushes had increased to cover over 2% of Iceland.

That number may not seem like much, but since 1990, the surface area covered by forest or shrubs in Iceland has increased more than six times over – from 7,000 hectares to 45,000. In 20 years, the number is expected to be 2.6%.

“This is big news,” stated Arnór Snorrason, a forester at the IFA research station at Mógilsá. It’s not only forestry efforts that have increased these numbers, but also Iceland’s remaining natural birch forests, which Arnór says have finally begun expanding for the first time since Iceland was settled.

Fewer Icelandic Teens Drinking and Having Sex (March)

Nightlife after COVID in Reykjavík
Golli

In 2006, 36% of Icelandic girls in the 10th grade stated that they had had intercourse, and 29% of boys of the same age. In March of this year, a new survey indicated that those figures had fallen to 24% among girls and 27% among boys.

The data originated from an international survey called Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children, which has been carried out in Iceland since 2006.

“Decreased alcohol consumption is likely a big factor,” University of Iceland Professor Ársæll Arnarsson, who is a director of Icelandic youth research, told Fréttablaðið. “Drinking among Icelandic teenagers has decreased sharply in recent decades and the same can be said of other countries to which we compare ourselves, though the development there has not been as decisive as here in Iceland.”

Iceland Lifts All COVID-19 Restrictions (February)

reykjavík nightlife covidOn midnight February 25, All COVID-19 social restrictions were officially lifted.

Individuals who tested positive for the coronavirus were no longer required to quarantine, and all disease prevention measures at the border were abolished.

To celebrate this milestone, Iceland Review hit the Reykjavík nightlife to interview partygoers on the new reality. Read the full article here.

 

Year in Review 2019: Most Entertaining

sheep on the road Iceland

Now that we’ve covered some of the heavy hitter news articles this year, it’s time for a different tune. There’s always some news which are just too weird, too random, or even mind-boggling, for us to not mention them in the Year in Review. Last year we witnessed NATO troops drinking Reykjavík dry as 7,000 thirsty troops descended upon the capital. “They were hardworking, the dear boys,” a brewery employee remarked when asked about the military invasion. This year, there’s a lot to look at. Without further ado, here’s the year’s most entertaining news.

Oldest McDonald’s Burger in the World?

In 2009, Hjörtur Smárason purchased the last McDonald’s burger sold in Iceland before the fast-food restaurant ceased operations in the country for good. One decade later, the burger, and its accompanying fries, still look as good as new. The order is currently being displayed at a guesthouse in South Iceland, which provides a live stream of the peculiar exhibit. “I had heard something about McDonald’s never decaying, so I just wanted to find out for myself whether this was true or not,” Hjörtur explained. Hjörtur gifted the burger to the National Museum of Iceland, who sought advice from a Danish specialist on how to preserve the item. The specialist deemed the task impossible – though Hjörtur pointed out it seemed to be doing just fine. “I think he was wrong because this hamburger preserves itself.” Hjörtur eventually reached out to friends who run Snotra House in Þykkvibær, South Iceland, and the burger and fries are now on display in the lounge of the guesthouse. Ten years since their purchase, neither seems to show any signs of decay. McDonald’s opened its doors in Iceland in 1993. In October 2009, the chain announced that it would be closing

Bright start

The year started out with two mini controversies that prove Icelanders have an opinion on everything. The mayor of Westfjords town Bolungarvík complained to Google Maps as satellite images of the town always show it covered in a blanket of snow. Apparently, it isn’t always like that! He got his wish in the end – just have a look for yourself. Bolungarvík hit the news again later as they intend to use piglets for weed control. You do you, Bolungarvík.

In other news – palm trees in Reykjavík? January saw an uproar for planned outdoor palm trees in a glass case which were due to be placed outside Reykjavík apartment complex. Maybe it isn’t the correct climate, as that same month a very rare occurrence happened on a capital-area golf course – picture-perfect snow rolls. Later that month, nude paintings on the walls of the Central Bank of Iceland were taken down due to employee complaints.

Cloning a dog and McAfee

August came and went, with scientists discovering an unidentified creature on Iceland’s ocean floor and the bra fence in Brekkukot continued to grow. Oh, and Parliament passed a bill which finally allowed Icelanders to play bingo on Sundays.

Things took a weird turn as former president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson cloned his dog Sámur and named it Samson. Diligent Iceland Review readers will have known that although there’s a naming committee for humans, you can name animals whatever you want. Unless it’s a horse, of course. Then you must go through the Horse Naming Committee.

John McAfee, founder of McAfee Antivirus, was discovered to have been in hiding in Dalvík, North Iceland. The owner of the restaurant which he supposedly lived above didn’t spot him at least. Maybe McAfee knew that Icelanders don’t exactly love talking to strangers.

Iceland vs. Iceland

Iceland – the country – finally won a years-long legal battle against the supermarket chain of the same name, who had secured an EU-wide trademark for the word “Iceland” in 2014. Icelandic authorities sued to have the trademark 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.

This year, the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) closed the case, ruling in favour of the country, and invalidating 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.”

Sports can be entertaining – right?

In June, a dishwashing brush and an airport wait strained the diplomatic relationship between Turkey and Iceland. A Belgian man stuck a dishwashing brush in star players’ Emre Belozoglu’s face like a microphone while he was being interviewed by reporters. This happened following an unusually long wait at the airport. The Turkish government issued a diplomatic note to Iceland denouncing what it is calling “disrespectful” and “violent” behaviour against the country’s men’s national football team. Iceland won 2-0, but Turkey has not lost a single match since then.

This July, the Icelandic Cricket Association (an association that, yes, does exist, and is doing quite well) went viral in India as it offered Indian cricket star Ambadi Rayudu to play in Iceland. The offer was not accepted. In November, a Moldovan female choir amazed Icelanders with their beautiful rendition of Iceland’s national anthem before a EURO 2020 qualifier in Moldova.

December delights

December saw contestants in the Great British Bake Off attempt to make Icelandic Christmas delight laufabrauð. Earlier that month, Hollywood felt threatened by a single star in the small town of Hafnarfjörður, as musician Björgvin Halldórsson had his star removed. The beginning of the month saw the Christmas Cat arrived in downtown Reykjavík. The Christmas Cat is a favourite Icelandic Christmas tradition – it will eat children who do not get clothes as Christmas present. Fun? Maybe not. Entertaining? Very much so.

Headline highlights

Iceland Review writers did their part to provide entertainment with some exquisite headlines. Dunkin Donuts’ arrival in Iceland was a failure, having arrived in 2015 and left in 2019. But we did get this headline: ‘Iceland Did Not Go Nuts for Dunkin Donuts’.

Another one to mention is an unfortunate event in Kenya when an airplane once owned by an Icelandic airline went off the runway. But we got the headline ‘Old Icelandic Fokker Skids Off Runway’.

Hope you enjoyed the most entertaining news of the year as much as we did! Happy New Year!

 

 

 

Year in Review 2019: Society

Reykjavík walking district laugavegur

From Iceland’s last McDonald’s order turning ten to a dramatic increase in injectable filler procedures, here are a few news stories of note involving Icelandic society in 2019.

Minister for the Environment meets with climate strike organisers

In March, Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson met with organisers of a weekly climate strike. The strikes are organised by the National Union for Icelandic Students (LÍS) and the Icelandic Upper Secondary Student Union (SÍF), with the aim of urging governmental action on climate issues. At the meeting, the Minister and strike organisers reviewed the protesters’ demands, which first and foremost involve immediate and more ambitious measures to fight climate change and increased budget allocation to address the issue. The Minister and organisers agreed that the government could not solve the problem alone; however, the organisers emphasised the importance of the government taking the lead, as it holds legislative power. 2019 also marked the “funeral” of the former Ok glacier. Writer Andri Snær Magnason authored the text for Ok’s memorial plaque, which was installed in August.

Inhabitants of Iceland to reach 434,000 in 2068

In November, Statistics Iceland published population projections for 2019-2068. The forecast was predicated on statistical models for migration, fertility, and mortality. As of January 1, 2019, the population in Iceland was 357,000, but according to the forecast’s median variant, the Icelandic population is expected to grow by 77,000 over the next 50 years, reaching 434,000 in 2068. The median variant also predicted that from 2055 the number of yearly deaths would exceed the number of births. Life expectancy at birth is expected to increase from 84.0 years in 2019 to 88.7 years in 2068 for women, and from 79.9 to 84.4 years for men. By 2035, 20% of the population will be older than 65 years. By 2055, that number will rise to 25%. After 2046, inhabitants of Iceland over 65 years old will become more numerous than those inhabitants under the age of 20. Immigrants in Iceland currently account for 14.1% of the population.

Iceland’s last McDonald’s order turns ten

In 2009, Hjörtur Smárason purchased the last McDonald’s burger sold in Iceland before the fast-food restaurant ceased operations in the country for good. One decade later, the burger, and its accompanying fries, still look as good as new. The order is currently being displayed at a guesthouse in South Iceland, which provides a live stream of the peculiar exhibit. “I had heard something about McDonald’s never decaying, so I just wanted to find out for myself whether this was true or not,” Hjörtur explained. Hjörtur gifted the burger to the National Museum of Iceland, who sought advice from a Danish specialist on how to preserve the item. The specialist deemed the task impossible – though Hjörtur pointed out it seemed to be doing just fine. “I think he was wrong because this hamburger preserves itself.” Hjörtur eventually reached out to friends who run Snotra House in Þykkvibær, South Iceland, and the burger and fries are now on display in the lounge of the guesthouse. Ten years since their purchase, neither seems to show any signs of decay. McDonald’s opened its doors in Iceland in 1993. In October 2009, the chain announced that it would be closing its doors, with less than a week’s notice. The decision was attributed to the 2008 banking collapse, which had doubled the fast-food restaurant’s expenses for meat, cheese, and vegetables.

Icelandic names will no longer be gendered

As part of the Gender Autonomy Act, which Parliament passed in June, Icelandic given names are no longer designated “male” or “female” in the national naming registry. The new law applies to both parents naming their children and to adults who want to change their names officially. The new legislation means that anyone can now take any name in the registry, irrespective of gender. The law marked a significant change in Icelandic naming conventions. Per the previous provisions of the country’s naming laws, “Girls shall be given female names and boys shall be given male names.” The Gender Autonomy Act also gives individuals the right to change their official gender according to their lived experience and register as neither male nor female (denoted with an “x” on documents). The first person to legally change their name was farmer Sigríður Hlynur Helguson Snæbjörnsson (formerly Sigurður Hlynur Helguson Snæbjörnsson), who adopted the name in honour of his grandmother.

A dramatic increase in unregulated injectable filler procedures

Beautifying procedures involving injectable fillers saw a dramatic increase in 2019. The Directorate of Health does not regulate such procedures. “There’s just been this explosion,” Björn Geir Leifsson senior physician at the Directorate of Health stated earlier this year. “It’s become so popular, and there’s become such a market in Iceland, that foreign doctors have even begun inquiring what they must do to inject their clients with fillers.” Procedures involving Botox – which is categorised as a drug – are regulated by the Directorate of Health, but as injectable fillers are not classified as healthcare, they are not regulated by the Directorate of Health. According to Björn Geir, this needs to be changed: “These operations aren’t without their risks. We’ve received several damage-related complaints regarding these procedures.” The Directorate of Health is currently drawing up a proposal for the Ministry of Health. “We need to review the regulatory environment,” Björn Geir stated. “It’s full of grey areas and, at times, rather patchy. These are invasive procedures where bodies are being injected. We need to monitor who is doing these procedures, how they’re being done, and what kinds of fillers are being used.” More and more people are injecting fillers into their lips, cheeks, chins, jawlines, or into the area beneath their eyes.

The ninth annual slutwalk

Reykjavík’s ninth annual Drusluganga, or SlutWalk, took place this summer. The main goal of the march is to “create a platform for solidarity with survivors of sexual violence and return the shame to where it belongs, with the perpetrator,” organisers wrote, as well as to bring an end to rape culture. The Reykjavík SlutWalk has grown continually since it began in July 2011. Last year, 20,000 people took part. The protest was founded in Toronto, Canada and took place in April 2011 after a police officer suggested that if women didn’t want to be assaulted, they “should avoid dressing like sluts.”

Parental leave extended to 12 months

In its final session before Christmas, Parliament passed new legislation extending parental leave to twelve months. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir called the new law a huge step forward for Icelandic families, and also an important step toward greater equality. The history of parental leave in Iceland traces its origins to 1980. In that year, a new law guaranteed women a three-month maternity leave with six months’ worth of compensation. Mothers who worked from home were entitled to one-third of what working mothers received. In 1986, Parliament extended maternity leave to six months. The right of fathers to paternity leave was enacted in 1998. Otherwise, the parental leave system remained almost unchanged for twenty years, from 1980 to 1999, until the 2000 legislation that extended the leave to nine months.

Year in Review 2019: Business & Economy

Central Bank Ásgeir Jónsson seðlabankastjóri

From a downturn in tourism to a scandal in Namibian waters, here are Iceland’s biggest business and economy stories of 2019.

Emergency landing

This year proved challenging for the Iceland economy, in large part due to the bankruptcy of WOW air in March and the downturn in tourism that followed. (More on this year’s tourism news in Year in Review 2019: Travel.) The fall of WOW led to the biggest mass layoff in Icelandic history, and high rates of unemployment.

The gloomy climate pervaded other industries as well. Arionbanki and Íslandsbanki let 120 employees go on the same day in September, with Íslandsbanki laying off another 20 just two months later. As a result of the downturn, the Central Bank of Iceland lowered interest rates for three consecutive months this fall, to a historic low of 3%.

Aquaculture industry set to grow

While the tourism industry took a hit, the aquaculture industry saw significant expansion. Export value of farmed fish grew by over 60% compared to 2018. The export value of the industry is expected to grow to ISK 40 billion ($322m/€294m) per year by 2021, or nearly 3% of national exports, which would put the industry on par with traditional fishing.

Open-net salmon farms account for around three quarters of all fish farms in Iceland. Environmental activists have been vocal in their opposition of such farms, which pollute the surrounding marine environment and carry risks of genetic damage to wild stocks. In November, a petition signed by 180,000 people was delivered to the Icelandic parliament, urging it to stop granting licenses for open-net fish farming and to rescind currently valid licenses in stages.

Activists are not the only challenges the industry faces. In November, IPN virus was detected in salmon in an open-net fish farm in the East Fjords. It’s the first time the virus has been detected in salmon in Iceland.

Iceland on financial grey list

Having failed to comply with the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) concerning anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing measures, Iceland was added to the FATF’s grey list in October. The decision was made after Iceland’s Parliament failed to act quickly and extensively enough to implement recommended changes to their financial legislation recommended in a 2018 FATF report.

It is unclear what exactly being greylisted means for Iceland. Besides undermining the country’s reputation, the categorisation may also make it more difficult for Icelandic companies to do business abroad. Insiders have claimed that the greylisting is a serious indictment of Icelandic governance.

Samherji accused of tax evasion and bribery 

Iceland made global headlines just last month when one of its largest fishing companies Samherji was accused of tax evasion and bribery in Namibia. Leaked documents showed convincing evidence the company paid high-ranking officials in the country – and individuals connected to them – more than ISK 1 billion ($8.1m/€7.3m) since 2012 to ensure access to horse-mackerel fishing quotas in the country.

In the wake of the documents going public, Samherji’s CEO Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson stepped down from his position, while the Namibian Ministers of Justice and Fisheries resigned shortly after the leaked documents were made public. An investigation into the company’s operations is in progress.

Iceland vs. Iceland

In lighter business news, Iceland – the country – finally won a years-long legal battle against the supermarket chain of the same name, who had secured an EU-wide trademark for the word “Iceland” in 2014. Icelandic authorities sued to have the trademark 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.

This year, the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) closed the case, ruling in favour of the country, and invalidating 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.”

Year in Review 2019: Travel

wow air tourism Iceland

Iceland’s tourism industry faced a difficult year, most notably due to the bankruptcy of WOW air, which led to a steep drop in the number of foreign visitors. Nevertheless, big strides were made toward improving infrastructure for the country’s visitors, and preserving some of the natural areas that draw tourists in the first place. Here’s a summary of Iceland’s biggest travel news stories of 2019.

WOW air

After months of operational difficulties, Iceland’s only budget airline WOW air unceremoniously ceased all service on March 28, 2019, leaving thousands of passengers stranded. The company’s bankruptcy prompted the biggest mass layoffs in Icelandic history, with some 2,000 people losing jobs either directly or indirectly due to WOW’s downfall. The national unemployment rate has since risen, particularly in Suðurnes, where Keflavík Airport is the largest employer.

Two would-be companies, one led by former WOW executives and the other by USAerospace Associates, have been rushing to fill the gap left by WOW. So far, the task seems easier said than done: both have delayed their official launch.

Icelandair didn’t have a much easier year either, having to ground their three Boeing 737 Max 8 planes in March following two crashes involving the same models in other airlines. The planes remain grounded currently, and will be so well into next year.

Conservation

Minister for the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson and Minister of Tourism Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir announced extensive plans to build up tourism infrastructure at 130 popular nature sites across the country. The government will allocate ISK 3.5 billion ($28.8m/€25.5m) over the next three years to the initiative, which will be used to protect both Icelandic nature and cultural heritage.

It’s not only local authorities that are recognising the value in Iceland’s sights. In July, Vatnajökull National Park was approved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, becoming the third in the country. In October, however, Þingvellir National Park’s UNESCO status was revealed to be at risk, due to the extensive diving and snorkelling operations in the park’s Silfra rift.

Safe salmon

While some come to Iceland to look at nature, others want to reel it in. British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe bought additional property in Northeast Iceland, with the stated intention of protecting its salmon stocks. Ratcliffe has announced he will undertake conservation measures in the area that include installing salmon ladders, releasing fertilised roe into the rivers, and even improving the ecosystems along the banks of rivers. While some have expressed concern over how easily foreigners can purchase land in Iceland, salmon fishermen are undoubtedly supportive of the initiative. For a recap on news of Iceland’s flora and fauna this year, readers can consult Iceland Review’s Year in Review 2019: Nature.

New destinations

Despite the difficulties, there are reasons for optimism in Icelandic travel. Juneyao Airlines of China has announced they will launch direct flights to Iceland in March, expecting to carry 20,000 tourists to the country in 2020. Local airline Icelandair Connect has also announced they will be expanding their operations in Greenland, which is expected to grow as a tourist destination in its own right. Entrepreneurs are optimistic as ever: seven hotels are currently under construction in Reykjavík, and expect to offer a combined 800 new hotel rooms to visitors next year.

Year in Review 2019: Nature

Vatnajökull

Spanning across glaciers, whales, and extreme weather, here’s a summary of Iceland’s biggest nature news stories of 2019.

Glacier goodbye

Iceland made international headlines this August when a memorial ceremony was held for Ok glacier, the country’s first glacier lost to climate change. The monument installed at the site of the former glacier is styled as a letter to the future, reading in part “This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

Early in the year, many Icelanders said they had changed some of their behaviour due to climate change, while Icelandic youth started a weekly climate strike in February. The government hasn’t been inactive on the issue, instituting small changes like a ban on plastic bags and larger ones like a new ISK 140 million ($1.1 million/€1 million) climate fund.

Whale beachings

While there was no whaling conducted in Iceland this summer for the first time in 17 years, the gentle giants seem to be facing other threats. A large number of beached whales were found in the country throughout the summer, either as individuals or in groups as large as 50 whales. An international investigation is now looking into whether navy sonar devices could be causing whales (which use sonar to navigate) to become disoriented.

Animal ailments

In spring, the first cases of acquired equine polyneuropathy (AEP) were confirmed in Icelandic horses this year. The disease, which affects the animals’ nervous system, first appeared in Scandinavia 25 years ago. AEP is not contagious, and most horses recover fully from the disease, though in Sweden and Norway up to 30% must be put down as a result of it.

A much smaller animal made headlines in the summertime: the sandfly, also known as biting midge. Though the insect is not new to Iceland, it has been accosting locals in South and Southwest Iceland earlier in the year and in greater numbers than usual. Sandflies are tiny and not easily seen, but their bites are said to be more painful than those of mosquitoes (of which Iceland luckily still has none).

Geology

While Iceland’s volcanoes remained calm in 2019, earthquakes let themselves be felt, most notably in an earthquake swarm in Northeast Iceland in late March and on the Reykjanes peninsula in Southwest Iceland in December. For a geologically active country these events, just like this year’s glacial flood in South Iceland, are nothing out of the ordinary.

Weather

As usual, Iceland had its fair share of notable weather in 2019. While in 2018 most of the country experienced a cold, rainy summer, this year rewarded residents with an unusually warm spring, with temperatures in April and May well above average, as well as more sunny, dry weather than usual in most parts of the country. The spring was a bit too dry, in fact, putting pressure on South Iceland’s water systems and putting farmers’ hay harvest at risk. In July, Iceland felt the effects of the heatwave hitting mainland Europe (admittedly milder than elsewhere), with temperatures of 25.9°C (78.6°F) recorded in North Iceland and 26.9°C (80.4°F) in South Iceland. High temperatures led to a thunderstorm in the same month, a rare occurrence in Iceland’s cool climate.

Winter storm

The year’s weather ended with a bang, bringing the worst winter storm the country has seen in years. Hurricane-force winds, snow, and ice made travel in Iceland virtually impossible between December 9 and 10. The storm also caused widespread power outages in North Iceland, some of which lasted up to a week. One tragic casualty resulted from the weather when a 16-year-old who was helping clear ice from a power station fell into a river and died. Local authorities in the worst-affected regions criticised the government’s failure to update the region’s infrastructure and ensure reserve power.