Iceland is an island of 103,00sq. km (39,756 square miles, about
the size of Virginia), with an average height of 500m above
sea level. Its highest peak, Hvannadalshnukur, rises to 2,119m,
and over 11 percent of the country is covered by glaciers,
including Vatnajokull, the largest in Europe.
Situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland is a hot spot of
geothermal activity. Thirty post-glacial volcanoes have
erupted in the past two centuries, and natural hot water
supplies much of the population with cheap, pollution-free
heating. Rivers, too, are harnessed to provide inexpensive
hydroelectric power. The electrical current is 220 volts,
Iceland was settled by Nordic people in the 9th century. Tradition
says that the first permanent settler was Ingolfur Arnarson,
a Norwegian Viking who made his home where Reykjavik now stands.
The Icelanders still speak the language of the Vikings, although
modern Icelandic has undergone changes of pronunciation and,
of course, vocabulary! Iceland is alone upholding another Norse
tradition, i.e. the custom of using patronymics rather than
surnames; an Icelanders Christian name is followed by his or
her fathers name and the suffix son or dottir, e.g. Gudrun
Petursdottir (Gudrun, daughter of Petur). Members of a family
can therefore have many different surnames, which
sometimes causes confusion to foreigners!
Of a population numbering just over a quarter of a million,
half live in the capital, Reykjavik, and its neighboring
towns in the southwest. Keflavik International Airport
is located about 50km from the capital. The highland interior
is uninhabited (and uninhabitable), and most of the population
is situated along the coast.
In spite of its mid-Atlantic location, Iceland is on Greenwich
Mean Time all year round.
In 930, the Icelandic settlers founded one of the worlds
first republican governments; the Old Commonwealth Age, described
in the classic Icelandic Sagas, lasted until 1262, when Iceland
lost its independence. In 1918 it regained its independence
and in 1944 the present republic was founded. The country is
governed by the Althing (parliament), whose members are elected
every four years, along with the president. President Olafur
Ragnar Grimsson was elected in June 1996 to succeed Vigdis
Finnbogadottir. The head of state plays no part in day-to-day
The economy is heavily dependent upon fisheries, which are
the nations major resource, and almost 60 percent
of all exports are made up of seafood products. Yet only
a small proportion of the workforce is active in this sector
(5 percent in fishing, 6.5 percent in fish processing),
and over 50 percent of the workforce is employed in services,
public and other.
Life expectancy, at 80 years for women and 74 for men, is one
of the highest in the world, and a comprehensive state
health-care system aims to keep it that way.
The National Church of Iceland, to which 97 percent of the
population belongs, is Evangelical Lutheran. In addition
to the many Lutheran churches in Reykjavik, there is a
Roman Catholic Cathedral at Landakot, with regular Sunday