Iceland is a Nordic European island country situated at the confluence of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

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Iceland i/ˈaɪslənd/ (Icelandic: Ísland, IPA: [ˈislant])[4] is a Nordic European island country situated at the confluence of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.[5] The country has a population of about 320,000 and a total area of 103,000 km2 (40,000 sq mi), which makes it the most sparsely populated country in Europe.[6] The capital and largest city is Reykjavík,[7] with the surrounding areas in the southwestern region of the country being home to two-thirds of the country's population. Iceland is volcanically and geologically active. The interior consists mainly of a plateau characterised by sand and lava fields, mountains and glaciers, while many glacial rivers flow to the sea through the lowlands. Iceland is warmed by the Gulf Stream and has a temperate climate despite a high latitude just outside the Arctic Circle.

According to Landnámabók, the settlement of Iceland began in AD 874 when the chieftain Ingólfur Arnarson became the first permanent Norse settler on the island.[8] Others had visited the island earlier and stayed over winter. Over the following centuries, Norsemen settled Iceland, bringing with them thralls of Gaelic origin. From 1262 to 1918, Iceland was part of the Norwegian and later the Danish monarchies. The country became independent in 1918 and a republic was declared in 1944. Until the 20th century, the population relied largely on fishing and agriculture, and the country was one of the poorest and least developed in the world. Industrialisation of the fisheries and aid from the Marshall Plan brought prosperity in the years after World War II, and by the 1990s Iceland was one of the world's wealthiest countries. In 1994, Iceland became party to the European Economic Area, which made it possible for the economy to diversify into economic and financial services.

Iceland has a free-market economy with relatively low corporate taxes compared to other OECD countries,[9] while maintaining a Nordic welfare system that provides universal health care and tertiary education for its citizens.[10] In recent years, Iceland has become one of the wealthiest and most developed nations in the world. In 2011, it was ranked as the 14th most developed country in the world by the United Nations' Human Development Index,[3] and the fourth most productive country per capita.[11] In 2008, the nation's entire banking system systemically failed, resulting in substantial political unrest. Iceland ranks high in economic and political stability, though it is still in the process of recovering from the crisis.[12] Gender equality is highly valued in Iceland. In the Global Gender Gap Report 2012, Iceland holds the top spot, closely followed by Finland, Norway and Sweden.[13]

culture is founded upon the nation's Norse heritage. Most Icelanders are descendants of Norse and Gaelic settlers. , a North Germanic language, is descended from Old Norse and is closely related to Faroese and some West Norwegian dialects. The country's cultural heritage includes traditional cuisine, poetry, and the medieval Icelanders' sagas. Among NATO members, Iceland has the smallest population and is the only one with no standing army.


Settlement and Commonwealth 874–1262

Ingólfr Arnarson (modern : Ingólfur Arnarson), the first permanent Norse settler in Iceland

According to both Landnámabók and Íslendingabók, Celtic monks known as the Papar lived in Iceland before the Norse settlers arrived, possibly members of a Hiberno-Scottish mission. Recent archaeological excavations have revealed the ruins of a cabin in Hafnir on the Reykjanes peninsula, and carbon dating indicates that it was abandoned somewhere between 770 and 880, suggesting that Iceland was populated well before 874. This archaeological find may also indicate that the monks left Iceland before the Norse arrived.[14]

The first known permanent Norse settler was Ingólfr Arnarson, who built his homestead in present-day Reykjavík in the year 874. Ingólfr was followed by many other emigrant settlers, largely Norsemen and their thralls, many of whom were Irish or Scottish. By 930, most arable land had been claimed and the Althing, a legislative and judiciary parliament, was initiated to regulate the Commonwealth. Christianity was adopted around 999–1000, although Norse paganism persisted among some segments of the population for several years.

The Commonwealth lasted until the 13th century, when the political system devised by the original settlers proved unable to cope with the increasing power of chieftains.[15]

Ósvör, a replica of an old fishing outpost outside Bolungarvík

During these early Celtic and Viking settlements, the climate was significantly warmer and about 25% of Iceland was covered with forest compared to 1% now.[16]

The Middle Ages

A 19th-century depiction of the Alþingi of the Commonwealth in session at Þingvellir

The internal struggles and civil strife of the Sturlung Era led to the signing of the Old Covenant in 1262, which ended the Commonwealth and brought Iceland under the Norwegian crown. Possession of Iceland passed to Denmark-Norway around 1380, when the kingdoms of Norway, Denmark and Sweden were united in the Kalmar Union. In the ensuing centuries, Iceland became one of the poorest countries in Europe. Infertile soil, volcanic eruptions, deforestation and an unforgiving climate made for harsh life in a society where subsistence depended almost entirely on agriculture. The Black Death swept Iceland twice, first in 1402–04 and again in 1494–95.[17] The former outbreak killed 50% to 60% of the population, and the latter 30% to 50%.[18]

Reformation and the Early Modern period

Around the middle of the 16th century, King Christian III of Denmark began to impose Lutheranism on all his subjects. Jón Arason, the last Catholic bishop of Hólar, was beheaded in 1550 along with two of his sons. The country subsequently became fully Lutheran. Lutheranism has since remained the dominant religion. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Denmark imposed harsh trade restrictions on Iceland, while pirates from several countries raided its coasts.[19][20] A great smallpox epidemic in the 18th century killed around a third of the population.[21][22] In 1783 the Laki volcano erupted, with devastating effects.[23] The years following the eruption, known as the Mist Hardships (: Móðuharðindin), saw the death of over half of all livestock in the country, with ensuing famine in which around a quarter of the population died.[24]

Independence movement 1814–1918

In 1814, following the Napoleonic Wars, Denmark-Norway was broken up into two separate kingdoms via the Treaty of Kiel. Iceland, however, remained a Danish dependency. Throughout the 19th century, the country's climate continued to worsen, resulting in mass emigration to the New World, particularly Manitoba in Canada. About 15,000 people out of a total population of 70,000 left.[25]

However, a new national consciousness had arisen, inspired by romantic and nationalist ideas from mainland Europe. An independence movement took shape in the 1850s under the leadership of Jón Sigurðsson, riding on the burgeoning nationalism inspired by the Fjölnismenn and other Danish-educated intellectuals. In 1874, Denmark granted Iceland a constitution and limited home rule, which was expanded in 1904, with Hannes Hafstein serving as the first Minister for Iceland in the Danish cabinet.

Kingdom of Iceland 1918–1944

HMS Berwick led the British invasion of Iceland.

The Danish- Act of Union, an agreement with Denmark signed on 1 December 1918 and valid for 25 years, recognized Iceland as a fully sovereign state in a personal union with Denmark. The Government of Iceland established an embassy in Copenhagen and requested that Denmark should handle foreign policy; Danish embassies around the world would display two coats of arms and two flags: those of the Kingdom of Denmark and those of the Kingdom of Iceland.

During World War II, Iceland joined Denmark in asserting neutrality. After the German occupation of Denmark on 9 April 1940, the Althing replaced the King with a regent and declared that the government should assume the control of foreign affairs and other matters previously handled by Denmark. A month later, British armed forces invaded and occupied the country, violating neutrality. In 1941, the occupation of Iceland was taken over by the United States so that Britain could use its troops elsewhere, an arrangement reluctantly agreed to by the authorities.

Independent republic 1944–present

British and vessels collide in the Atlantic Ocean during the Cod Wars

On 31 December 1943, the Danish- Act of Union expired after 25 years. Beginning on 20 May 1944, Icelanders voted in a four day plebiscite on whether to terminate the personal union with Denmark, abolish the monarchy, and establish a republic. The vote was 97% in favour of ending the union and 95% in favour of the new republican constitution.[26] Iceland formally became a republic on 17 June 1944, with Sveinn Björnsson as its first president.

In 1946, the Allied occupation force left Iceland, which formally became a member of NATO on 30 March 1949, amid domestic controversy and riots. On 5 May 1951, a defence agreement was signed with the United States. American troops returned to Iceland, as the Iceland Defence Force, and remained throughout the Cold War; the US withdrew the last of its forces on 30 September 2006.

Iceland had prospered during the war, and the immediate post-war period was followed by substantial economic growth, driven by industrialisation of the fishing industry and the Marshall Plan programme, through which Icelanders received by far the most aid per capita of any European country (at USD 209, with the war-ravaged Netherlands a distant second at USD 109).[27][28] The 1970s were marked by the Cod Wars — several disputes with the United Kingdom over Iceland's extension of its fishing limits. The economy was greatly diversified and liberalised when Iceland joined the European Economic Area in 1994.

Iceland hosted a summit in Reykjavik in 1986 between United States President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, during which they took significant steps toward nuclear disarmament. Only a few years later, Iceland would become the first country to recognize the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as they broke away from the USSR. Throughout the 1990s, the country expanded its international role and developed a foreign policy that was oriented toward humanitarian and peacekeeping causes. To that end, Iceland provided aid and expertise to various NATO-led interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq.[29]

Rise and fall of Iceland as a financial centre

In the years 2003–2007, following the privatization of the banking sector under the government of Davíð Oddsson, Iceland moved from being a nation best known for its fishing industry toward having an economy based on financial services and investment banking.[30] It was quickly becoming one of the most prosperous countries in the world before getting hit hard by a major financial crisis.[30] The crisis resulted in the greatest migration from Iceland since 1887, with a net emigration of 5,000 people in 2009.[31] Iceland's economy has since stabilized under the government of Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, and is expected to grow by 2.8% in 2012.[32][33]


General topographic map

Iceland is located at the juncture of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. The main island is entirely south of the Arctic Circle, which passes through the small island of Grímsey off the main island's northern coast. The country lies between latitudes 63° and 67° N, and longitudes 25° and 13° W.

Although Iceland is closest to Greenland (North America), it is closer to continental Europe than to mainland North America; thus, the island is generally included in Europe for historical, political, cultural, and practical reasons. Geologically the island includes parts of both continental plates. The closest body of land is Greenland (290 km (180 mi)). The closest bodies of land in Europe are the Faroe Islands (420 km (260 mi)); Jan Mayen Island (570 km (350 mi)); Shetland and the Outer Hebrides, both about 740 km (460 mi); and the Scottish mainland and Orkney, both about 750 km (470 mi). The mainland of Norway is about 970 km (600 mi) away.

Iceland is the world's 18th largest island, and Europe's second largest island after Great Britain. The main island is 101,826 km2 (39,315 sq mi), but the entire country is 103,000 km2 (39,768.5 sq mi) in size, of which 62.7% is tundra. There are thirty minor islands in Iceland, including the lightly populated Grímsey and the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago. Lakes and glaciers cover 14.3% of its surface; only 23% is vegetated.[34] The largest lakes are Þórisvatn (Reservoir): 83–88 km2 (32.0–34.0 sq mi) and Þingvallavatn: 82 km2 (31.7 sq mi); other important lakes include Lagarfljót and Mývatn. Jökulsárlón is the deepest lake, at 248 m (814 ft).[35]

Geologically, Iceland is part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a ridge along which the oceanic crust spreads and forms new oceanic crust. This part of the mid-ocean ridge is located above a mantle plume, causing Iceland to be subaerial (above the surface of the sea). The ridge marks the boundary between the Eurasian and North American Plates, and Iceland was created by rifting and accretion through volcanism along the ridge.[36]

Many fjords punctuate Iceland's 4,970 km long coastline, which is also where most settlements are situated. The island's interior, the Highlands of Iceland, is a cold and uninhabitable combination of sand, mountains and lava fields. The major towns are the capital city of Reykjavík, along with its outlying towns of Kópavogur, Hafnarfjörður and Garðabær, nearby Reykjanesbær where the international airport is located, and the town of Akureyri in northern Iceland. The island of Grímsey on the Arctic Circle contains the northernmost habitation of Iceland.[5] Iceland has three national parks: Vatnajökull National Park, Snæfellsjökull National Park, and Þingvellir National Park.[37] The country is considered a "strong performer" in environmental protection, having been ranked 13th in Yale University's Environmental Performance Index of 2012.[38]


The erupting Geysir in Haukadalur valley, the oldest known geyser in the world

Dettifoss, located in northeast Iceland. It is the largest waterfall in Europe in terms of volume discharge, with an average water flow of 200 m3/second.

Eyjafjallajökull major eruption, photo taken May 10, 2010

A geologically young land, Iceland is located on both the Iceland hotspot and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which runs right through it. This location means that the island is highly geologically active with many volcanoes, notably Hekla, Eldgjá, Herðubreið and Eldfell.[39] The volcanic eruption of Laki in 1783–1784 caused a famine that killed nearly a quarter of the island's population;[40] the eruption caused dust clouds and haze to appear over most of Europe and parts of Asia and Africa for several months afterward.[41]

Iceland has many geysers, including Geysir, from which the English word is derived, and the famous Strokkur, which erupts every 5–10 minutes. After a phase of inactivity, Geysir started erupting again after a series of earthquakes in 2000. Geysir has since then grown more quiet and does not erupt often.

With the widespread availability of geothermal power, and the harnessing of many rivers and waterfalls for hydroelectricity, most residents have access to inexpensive hot water, heating and electricity. The island itself is composed primarily of basalt, a low-silica lava associated with effusive volcanism as has occurred also in Hawaii. Iceland, however, has a variety of volcanic types (composite and fissure), many producing more evolved lavas such as rhyolite and andesite. Iceland has hundreds of volcanoes within approx. 30 volcanic systems active.[42]

Surtsey, one of the youngest islands in the world, is part of Iceland. Named after Surtr, it rose above the ocean in a series of volcanic eruptions between 8 November 1963 and 5 June 1968.[5] Only scientists researching the growth of new life are allowed to visit the island.[43]

On 21 March 2010, a volcano in Eyjafjallajökull in the south of Iceland erupted for the first time since 1821, forcing 600 people to flee their homes.[44] Further eruptions on 14 April forced hundreds of people to abandon their homes.[45] The resultant cloud of volcanic ash brought major disruption to air travel across Europe.[46]

An iceberg near Jökulsárlón with Vatnajökull, Europe's largest glacier, in the background.

Another large eruption occurred on 21 May 2011. This time it was the Grímsvötn volcano, located under the thick ice of Europe's largest glacier, Vatnajökull. Grímsvötn is one of Iceland's most active volcanoes and this eruption was much more powerful than the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull activity. The eruption hurled ash and lava 20 km (12.43 mi) up into the atmosphere, creating a large cloud that for a while was thought to pose a danger to jet aircraft over a wide area of northern Europe.


Eyjafjallajökull glacier, one of the smallest glaciers of Iceland

The climate of Iceland's coast is subpolar oceanic. The warm North Atlantic Current ensures generally higher annual temperatures than in most places of similar latitude in the world. Regions in the world with similar climate include the Aleutian Islands, the Alaska Peninsula, and Tierra del Fuego, although these regions are closer to the equator. Despite its proximity to the Arctic, the island's coasts remain ice-free through the winter. Ice incursions are rare, the last having occurred on the north coast in 1969.[47]

There are some variations in the climate between different parts of the island. Generally speaking, the south coast is warmer, wetter and windier than the north. The Central Highlands are the coldest part of the country. Low-lying inland areas in the north are the most arid. Snowfall in winter is more common in the north than the south.

The highest air temperature recorded was 30.5 °C (86.9 °F) on 22 June 1939 at Teigarhorn on the southeastern coast. The lowest was −38 °C (−36.4 °F) on 22 January 1918 at Grímsstaðir and Möðrudalur in the northeastern hinterland. The temperature records for Reykjavík are 26.2 °C (79.2 °F) on 30 July 2008, and −24.5 °C (−12.1 °F) on 21 January 1918.

Climate data for Reykjavík, Iceland (1961–1990)
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Average high °C (°F) 1.9
Average low °C (°F) −3
Source #1: Icelandic Meteorological Office[48]
Source #2: Reykjavík weather station (#1) climatic means chart[49]
Climate data for Akureyri, Iceland (1961–1990)
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Average high °C (°F) 0.9
Average low °C (°F) −5.5
Source #1: Icelandic Meteorological Office[48]
Source #2: Reykjavík weather station (#1) climatic means chart[49]


An horse in his winter fur

There are around 1,300 known species of insects in Iceland, which is a rather low number compared with other countries (over one million species have been described worldwide). The only native land mammal when humans arrived was the Arctic Fox,[50] which came to the island at the end of the ice age, walking over the frozen sea. On rare occasions, bats have been carried to the island with the winds, but they are not able to breed there. Polar bears occasionally come over from Greenland, but they are just visitors, and no populations exist.[51] There are no native or free-living reptiles or amphibians on the island.[52]

An sheep

Phytogeographically, Iceland belongs to the Arctic province of the Circumboreal Region within the Boreal Kingdom. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the territory of Iceland belongs to the ecoregion of Iceland boreal birch forests and alpine tundra.[citation needed] Approximately three quarters of the island are barren of vegetation; plant life consists mainly of grassland which is regularly grazed by livestock. The most common tree native to Iceland is the Northern Birch (Betula pubescens), which formerly formed forest over much of Iceland along with Aspen (Populus tremula), Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) and Common Juniper (Juniperus communis) and other smaller trees.

When the island was first settled, it was extensively forested. In the late 12th-century Íslendingabók, Ari the Wise described it as "forested from mountain to sea shore".[53] Permanent human settlement greatly disturbed the isolated ecosystem of thin, volcanic soils and limited species diversity. The forests were heavily exploited over the centuries for firewood and timber.[50] Deforestation, climatic deterioration during the Little Ice Age and overgrazing by sheep caused a loss of critical topsoil due to erosion. Today, many farms have been abandoned and three-quarters of Iceland's hundred thousand square kilometres are affected by soil erosion, eighteen thousand square kilometres so seriously as to be useless.[53] Only a few small birch stands now exist in isolated reserves. The planting of new forests has increased the number of trees, but does not compare to the original forests. Some of the planted forests include introduced species.[50]

The Arctic Fox was the only indigenous mammal in Iceland prior to the arrival of humans

The animals of Iceland include the sheep, cattle, chicken, goat, the sturdy horse, and the Sheepdog. Many varieties of fish live in the ocean waters surrounding Iceland, and the fishing industry is a major part of Iceland's economy, accounting for approximately half of the country's total exports. Wild mammals include the Arctic Fox, mink, mice, rats, rabbits and reindeer. Polar bears occasionally visit the island, travelling on icebergs from Greenland. In June 2008, two polar bears arrived in the same month.[54] Birds, especially seabirds, are a very important part of Iceland's animal life. Puffins, skuas, and kittiwakes nest on its sea cliffs.[55]

Commercial whaling is practised intermittently[56][57] along with scientific whale hunts.[58] Whale watching has become an important part of Iceland's economy since 1997.[59] In early 2010, Iceland's proposed quota in killing fin whales was much larger than the amount of whale meat the Japanese market could absorb. In negotiations with Marc Wall, Economic Minister-Counselor at the US embassy in Tokyo, Jun Yamashita of the Japanese Fisheries Agencies, however, rejected a proposal to suggest to Iceland to reduce the number of killed fin whales to a more reasonable number.[60]


The political system of Iceland.

Iceland has a left–right multi-party system. The biggest parties are the centre-left Social Democratic Alliance (Samfylkingin), the centre-right Independence Party (Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn) and the Left-Green Movement (Vinstrihreyfingin – grænt framboð). Other political parties with seats in the Althing are the centrist Progressive Party (Framsóknarflokkurinn) and The Movement (Hreyfingin). Many other parties exist on the municipal level, most of which run only locally in a single municipality.

Iceland was the first country in the world to have a political party formed and led entirely by women.[61] Known as the Women's List or Women's Alliance (Kvennalistinn), it was founded in 1983 to advance the political, economic, and social needs of women. After participating in its first parliamentary elections, the Women's List helped increase the proportion of female parliamentarians by 15%.[62] Although it disbanded in 1999, merging with the Social Democratic Alliance, it left a lasting influence on Iceland's politics: every major party has a 40% quota for women, and nearly a third of the current members of parliament (as of 2009) is female, compared to a global average of 16%.[63]

As of 2011, Iceland was ranked 2nd in the strength of its democratic institutions[64] and 13th in government transparency.[65] The country has a high level of civic participation, with 84% voter turnout during the most recent elections, compared to an OECD average of 72%. However, only 50% of Icelanders say they trust their political institutions, slightly less than the OECD average of 56% (and most probably a consequence of the political scandals in the wake of the financial crisis).[66]


The Althing, Iceland's national parliament, in Reykjavík

Iceland is a representative democracy and a parliamentary republic. The modern parliament, Alþingi (: Althing), was founded in 1845 as an advisory body to the Danish monarch. It was widely seen as a re-establishment of the assembly founded in 930 in the Commonwealth period and suspended in 1799. Consequently, "it is arguably the world's oldest parliamentary democracy."[67] It currently has 63 members, elected for a maximum period of four years.[68] The president is elected by popular vote for a term of four years, with no term limit. The elections for president, the Althing and local municipal councils are all held separately every four years.[69]

Stjórnarráðið, the seat of the Cabinet of Iceland, the executive branch of the government

The president of Iceland is a largely ceremonial head of state and serves as a diplomat, but can veto laws voted by the parliament and put them to a national referendum. The current president is Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson. The head of government is the prime minister (currently Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir) who, together with the cabinet, is responsible for executive government. The cabinet is appointed by the president after a general election to the Althing; however, the appointment is usually negotiated by the leaders of the political parties, who decide among themselves after discussions which parties can form the cabinet and how its seats are to be distributed, under the condition that it has a majority support in the Althing. Only when the party leaders are unable to reach a conclusion by themselves within a reasonable time span does the president exercise this power and appoint the cabinet personally. This has not happened since the republic was founded in 1944, but in 1942 regent Sveinn Björnsson, who had been installed in that position by the Althing in 1941, appointed a non-parliamentary government. The regent had, for all practical purposes, the position of a president, and Sveinn would later become the country's first president in 1944.

The governments of Iceland have always been coalition governments, with two or more parties involved, as no single political party has ever received a majority of seats in the Althing throughout the republican period. The extent of the political power possessed by the office of the president is disputed by legal scholars in Iceland; several provisions of the constitution appear to give the president some important powers, but other provisions and traditions suggest differently. In 1980, Icelanders elected Vigdís Finnbogadóttir as president, the world's first directly elected female head of state. She retired from office in 1996. In 2009, Iceland became the first country with an openly gay head of government when Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir became prime minister.[70]

Administrative divisions

Iceland is divided into regions, constituencies, counties, and municipalities. There are eight regions which are primarily used for statistical purposes; the district court jurisdictions also use an older version of this division.[5] Until 2003, the constituencies for the parliamentary elections were the same as the regions, but by an amendment to the constitution, they were changed to the current six constituencies:

  • Reykjavík North and Reykjavík South (city regions);
  • Southwest (four non-contiguous suburban areas around Reykjavík);
  • Northwest and Northeast (northern half of Iceland, split); and,
  • South (southern half of Iceland, excluding Reykjavík and suburbs).

The redistricting change was made in order to balance the weight of different districts of the country, since previously a vote cast in the sparsely populated areas around the country would count much more than a vote cast in the Reykjavík city area. The imbalance between districts has been reduced by the new system, but still exists.[5]

Iceland's 23 counties are, for the most part, historical divisions. Currently, Iceland is split up among 26 magistrates (sýslumenn, singular sýslumaður) who represent government in various capacities. Among their duties are tax collection, administering bankruptcy declarations, and performing civil marriages. After a police reorganisation in 2007, which combined police forces in multiple counties, about half of them are in charge of police forces.[5]

There are 75 municipalities in Iceland which govern local matters like schools, transport and zoning.[citation needed] These are the actual second-level subdivisions of Iceland, as the constituencies have no relevance except in elections and for statistical purposes. Reykjavík is by far the most populous municipality, about four times more populous than Kópavogur, the second one.[5]

Foreign relations

Nordic prime ministers in 2010, with Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir in the centre

Iceland maintains diplomatic and commercial relations with practically all nations, but its ties with the Nordic countries, Germany, the US, Canada, and the other NATO nations are particularly close. Historically, due to cultural, economic and linguistic similarities, Iceland is a Nordic country, and it participates in intergovernmental co-operation through the Nordic Council.

Iceland is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), which allows the country access to the single market of the European Union (EU). It is not a member of EU, but in July 2009 the parliament, the Althing, voted in favour of application for EU membership[71] and officially applied on 17 July 2009.[72] Iceland is also a member of the UN, NATO, EFTA and OECD.


Iceland has no standing army. The U.S. Air Force maintained four to six interceptor aircraft at the Keflavík base, until they were withdrawn on 30 September 2006. Since May 2008, NATO nations have periodically deployed fighters to patrol airspace under the Air Policing mission.[73][74] Iceland supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq despite much domestic controversy, deploying a Coast Guard EOD team to Iraq[75] which was replaced later by members of the Iceland Crisis Response Unit. Iceland has also participated in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. Despite the ongoing financial crisis the first new patrol ship in decades was launched on 29 April 2009.[76]

Icelanders remain especially proud of their role in hosting the historic 1986 Reagan–Gorbachev summit in Reykjavík, which set the stage for the end of the Cold War. Iceland's principal historical international disputes involved disagreements over fishing rights. Conflict with the United Kingdom led to a series of so-called Cod Wars in 1952–1956 due to the extension of Iceland's fishing zone from 3 to 4 nmi (5.6 to 7.4 km; 3.5 to 4.6 mi), 1958–61 following a further extension to 12 nmi (22.2 km; 13.8 mi), 1972–73 with another extension to 50 nmi (92.6 km; 57.5 mi); and in 1975–76 another extension to 200 nmi (370.4 km; 230.2 mi).

According to the Global Peace Index, Iceland is the most peaceful country in the world, due to its lack of armed forces, low crime rate, and high level of sociopolitical stability.[77]


Akureyri is the largest town in Iceland outside the Greater Reykjavík Area. Most rural towns are based on the fishing industry, which provides 40% of Iceland's exports.

In 2007, Iceland was the seventh most productive country in the world per capita (US$54,858), and the fifth most productive by GDP at purchasing power parity ($40,112). Except for its abundant hydroelectric and geothermal power, Iceland lacks natural resources; historically its economy depended heavily on fishing, which still provides 40% of export earnings and employs 7% of the work force.[5] The economy is vulnerable to declining fish stocks and drops in world prices for its main material exports: fish and fish products, aluminium, and ferrosilicon. Whaling in Iceland has been historically significant. Iceland still relies heavily on fishing, but its importance is diminishing from an export share of 90% in the 1960s to 40% in 2006.[78]

Until the 20th century, Iceland was among the poorest countries in Western Europe. Currently, it remains one of the most developed countries in the world. Strong economic growth had led Iceland to be ranked first in the United Nations' Human Development Index report for 2007/2008,[3] although as of 2011 its HDI rating had fallen to 14th place as a result of the economic crisis. Nevertheless, according to the Economist Intelligence Index of 2011, Iceland has the 2nd highest quality of life in the world.[79] Based on the Gini coefficient, Iceland also has one of the lowest rates of income inequality in the world,[80] and when adjusted for inequality, its HDI ranking climbs to 5th place.[81] Iceland's unemployment rate has declined consistently since the crisis, with 4.8% of the labor force being unemployed as of June 2012, compared to 6% in 2011 and 8.1% in 2010.[5][82][83]

Many political parties remain opposed to EU membership, primarily due to Icelanders' concern about losing control over their natural resources (particularly fisheries).[84] The national currency of Iceland is the króna (ISK). A poll released on 5 March 2010 by Capacent Gallup showed that 31% of respondents were in favour of adopting the euro and 69% opposed.[85] Another Capacent Gallup poll conducted in February 2012 found that 67.4% of Icelanders would reject EU membership in a referendum.[86]

Graphical depiction of Iceland's product exports in 28 color coded categories.

Iceland's economy has been diversifying into manufacturing and service industries in the last decade, including software production, biotechnology, and finance; industry accounts for around a quarter of economic activity, while services comprise close to 70%.[87] Despite the decision to resume commercial whale hunting in 2006, the tourism sector is expanding, especially in ecotourism and whale-watching. On average, Iceland receives around 1.1 millions visitors annually, which is more than three times the native population.[66] Iceland's agriculture industry, accounting for 5.4% of GDP,[5] consists mainly of potatoes, green vegetables (in greenhouses), mutton and dairy products.[5] The financial centre is Borgartún in Reykjavík, which hosts a large number of companies and three investment banks. Iceland's stock market, the Iceland Stock Exchange (ISE), was established in 1985.[88]

Iceland is ranked 27th in the 2012 Index of Economic Freedom, lower than in prior years but still among the freest in the world.[89] As of 2012, it ranks 30th in the World Economic Forum's Global Competitive Index, one place higher than in 2011.[90] According to INSEAD's Global Innovation Index, Iceland is the 11th most innovative country in the world.[91] Unlike most Western European countries, Iceland has a flat tax system: the main personal income tax rate is a flat 22.75%, and combined with municipal taxes, the total tax rate equals no more than 35.72%, not including the many deductions that are available.[92] The corporate tax rate is a flat 18%, one of the lowest in the world.[92] There is also a value added tax, whereas a net wealth tax was eliminated in 2006. Employment regulations are relatively flexible and the labour market is one of the freest in the world. Property rights are strong and Iceland is one of the few countries where they are applied to fishery management.[92] Like other welfare states, taxpayers pay various subsidies to each other, but with spending being less than in most European countries.

Despite low tax rates, agricultural assistance is the highest among OECD countries and a potential impediment to structural change. Also, health care and education spending have relatively poor returns by OECD measures, though improvements have been made in both areas. The OECD Economic Survey of Iceland 2008 had highlighted Iceland's challenges in currency and macroeconomic policy.[93] There was a currency crisis that started in the spring of 2008, and on 6 October trading in Iceland's banks was suspended as the government battled to save the economy.[94] The latest assessment by the OECD[95] determined that Iceland has made progress in many areas, particularly in creating a sustainable fiscal policy and restoring the health of the financial sector; however, challenges remain in making the fishing industry more efficient and sustainable, as well as in improving monetary policy in order to address inflation.[96] Iceland's public debt remains around 130%, the 6th highest in the world by proportion of national GDP.[97]

Economic contraction

The Reykjavík headquarters of Íslandsbanki.

Iceland has been hit especially hard by the ongoing late-2000s recession, because of the failure of its banking system and a subsequent economic crisis. Before the crash of the country's three largest banks, Glitnir, Landsbanki and Kaupthing, their combined debt exceeded approximately six times the nation's gross domestic product of €14 billion ($19 billion).[98][99] In October 2008, the parliament passed emergency legislation to minimise the impact of the financial crisis. The Financial Supervisory Authority of Iceland used permission granted by the emergency legislation to take over the domestic operations of the three largest banks.[100] officials, including central bank governor Davíð Oddsson, stated that the state did not intend to take over any of the banks' foreign debts or assets. Instead, new banks were established around the domestic operations of the banks, and the old banks will be run into bankruptcy.

On 28 October 2008, the government raised interest rates to 18%, (as of August 2010, it was 7%) a move which was forced in part by the terms of acquiring a loan from the IMF. After the rate hike, trading on the króna finally resumed on the open market, with valuation at around 250 ISK per Euro, less than one-third the value of the 1:70 exchange rate during most of 2008, and a significant drop from the 1:150 exchange ratio of the week before. Iceland appealed to the Nordic countries for an additional €4 billion in aid to avert the crisis.[101]

On 26 January 2009, the coalition government collapsed due to the public dissent over the handling of the financial crisis. A new left-wing government was formed a week later and immediately set about removing Central Bank governor Davíð Oddsson and his aides from the bank through changes in law. Oddsson was removed on 26 February 2009 in the wake of protests outside the Central Bank.[102]

Thousands of Icelanders have moved from the country after the collapse, and many of those moved to Norway. In 2005, 293 people moved from Iceland to Norway; in 2009, the figure was 1,625.[103] In April 2010, the Parliament‘s Special Investigation Commission published the findings of its investigation,[104] revealing the extent of control fraud in this crisis.[105] By June 2012, Landsbanki managed to repay about half of the Icesave debt.[106]


The Ring Road of Iceland and some towns it passes through: 1. Reykjavík, 2. Borgarnes, 3. Blönduós, 4. Akureyri, 5. Egilsstaðir, 6. Höfn, 7. Selfoss.

Iceland has a high level of car ownership per capita; with a car for every 1.5 inhabitants, it is the main form of transportation.[107] Many of these can be found abandoned in rural areas. Iceland has 13,034 km (8,099 mi) of administered roads, of which 4,617 km (2,869 mi) are paved and 8,338 km (5,181 mi) are not. A great number of roads remain unpaved, mostly little-used rural roads. The road speed limits are 50 km/h (31 mph) in towns, 80 km/h (50 mph) on gravel country roads and 90 km/h (56 mph) on hard-surfaced roads.[108] Iceland currently has no railways.

Route 1, or the Ring Road (: Þjóðvegur 1 or Hringvegur), was completed in 1974, and is a main road that runs around Iceland and connects all the inhabited parts of the island, with the interior of the island being uninhabited. This paved road is 1,337 km (831 mi) long with one lane in each direction, except near larger towns and cities and in the Hvalfjörður Tunnel (also the site of a toll) where it has more lanes. Many bridges on it, especially in the north and east, are single lane and made of timber and/or steel.

The main hub for international transport is Keflavík International Airport, which serves Reykjavík and the country in general. It is 48 km (30 mi) to the west of Reykjavík. Domestic flights, flights to Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and business flights operate mostly out of Reykjavík Airport, which lies in the city centre. Most general aviation traffic is also in Reykjavík. There are 103 registered airports and airfields in Iceland; most of them are unpaved and located in rural areas. The biggest airport in Iceland is Keflavík International Airport and the biggest airfield is Geitamelur, a four-runway field around 100 km (62 mi) east of Reykjavík, dedicated exclusively to gliding. There are a number of international airlines that fly to and from Iceland regularly.[109]


The Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Station services the Greater Reykjavík Area's hot water and electricity needs. Virtually all of Iceland's electricity comes from renewable resources.[110]

Renewable sources—geothermal and hydropower—provide effectively all of Iceland's electricity[110] and around 80% of the nation's total energy,[110] with most of the remainder consisting of imported oil used in transportation and in the fishing fleet.[111][112] Iceland expects to be energy-independent by 2050. Iceland's largest geothermal power plants are Hellisheiði and Nesjavellir,[113][114] while Kárahnjúkavirkjun is the country's largest hydroelectric power station.[115]

Icelanders emit 6.29 tonnes of CO2 in 2009 equivalent of greenhouse gases per capita.[116] Iceland is one of the few countries that have filling stations dispensing hydrogen fuel for cars powered by fuel cells. It is also one of a few countries currently capable of producing hydrogen in adequate quantities at a reasonable cost, because of Iceland's plentiful renewable sources of energy.

On January 22, 2009, Iceland announced its first round of offshore licences for companies wanting to conduct hydrocarbon exploration and production in a region northeast of Iceland, known as the Dreki area.[117]

As of 2012, the government of Iceland is in talks with the government of United Kingdom about the possibility of constructing a high-voltage direct-current connector for transmission of electricity between the two countries. Iceland has considerable renewable energy resources, especially geothermal energy and hydropower resources, and most of the potential has not been developed, partly because there is not demand for additional electricity generation capacity from the residents and industry of Iceland, but the United Kingdom is interested in importing inexpensive electricity from renewable sources of energy, and this could lead to further development of the energy resources.

Education and science

Reykjavík Junior College (Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík), located in downtown Reykjavík, is the oldest gymnasium in Iceland.

The Ministry of Education, Science and Culture is responsible for the policies and methods that schools must use, and they issue the National Curriculum Guidelines. However, playschools, primary schools, and lower secondary schools are funded and administered by the municipalities. The government does allow citizens to Home educate their children, however under a very strict set of demands.[118] Students must stick to the government mandated curriculum, the parent teaching must acquire a government approved teaching certificate.[119]

Nursery school, or leikskóli, is non-compulsory education for children younger than six years, and is the first step in the education system. The current legislation concerning playschools was passed in 1994. They are also responsible for ensuring that the curriculum is suitable so as to make the transition into compulsory education as easy as possible.

The main building of the University of Iceland

Compulsory education, or grunnskóli, comprises primary and lower secondary education, which often is conducted at the same institution. Education is mandatory by law for children aged from 6 to 16 years. The school year lasts nine months, beginning between 21 August and 1 September, ending between 31 May and 10 June. The minimum number of school days was once 170, but after a new teachers' wage contract, it increased to 180. Lessons take place five days a week. All public schools have mandatory education in Christianity, although an exemption may be considered by the Minister of Education.[120]

Upper secondary education, or framhaldsskóli, follows lower secondary education. These schools are also known as gymnasia in . Though not compulsory, everyone who has had a compulsory education has the right to upper secondary education. This stage of education is governed by the Upper Secondary School Act of 1996. All schools in Iceland are mixed sex schools. The largest seat of higher education is the University of Iceland, which has its main campus in central Reykjavík. Other schools offering university-level instruction include Reykjavík University, University of Akureyri, Agricultural University of Iceland and Bifröst University.

An OECD assessment found 64% of Icelanders aged 25–64 have earned the equivalent of a high-school degree, which is lower than the OECD average of 73%. Among 25–34 year-olds, only 69% have earned the equivalent of a high-school degree, significantly lower than the OECD average of 80%.[66] Nevertheless, Iceland's education system is considered to be of excellent quality: the Programme for International Student Assessment currently ranks it as the 16th best performing, above the OECD average.[121] Students were particularly proficient in reading and math.

According to a 2011 Eurostat report by the European Commission, Iceland spends around 2.75% of its GDP on scientific research and development (R&D), about 1% higher than the EU average, and the 4th highest of any European country.[122] A 2010 UNESCO report found that out of 72 countries that spend the most on R&D (100 million US dollars or more), Iceland ranked 9th by proportion of GDP, tied with Taiwan, Switzerland, and Germany and ahead of France, the UK, and Canada.[123] It is now one of the richest countries in the world.


Reykjavík, Iceland's largest metropolitan area and the centre of the Greater Reykjavík Area which, with a population of 200,000, makes for 64% of Iceland's population.

Residents in Iceland by country of origin
(1 January 2012)[124]
298,618 93.44%
Poland 9,049 2.83%
Lithuania 1,605 0.50%
Germany 919 0.29%
Denmark 900 0.28%
Latvia 673 0.21%
United Kingdom 600 0.19%
Philippines 582 0.18%
Thailand 526 0.16%
United States 477 0.15%
Portugal 456 0.14%
Sweden 322 0.10%
France 295 0.09%
Norway 241 0.08%
Vietnam 221 0.07%
Spain 217 0.07%
China 210 0.07%
Italy 173 0.05%
Russia 166 0.05%
Netherlands 164 0.05%
Slovakia 161 0.05%
Romania 153 0.05%
Ukraina 142 0.04%
Czech Republic 140 0.04%
Hungary 139 0.04%
Estonia 111 0.03%
Finland 110 0.03%
Canada 109 0.03%
stateless 106 0.03%
others 1,990 0.62%
Total 319,575 100.00%
Total (excluding Icelanders) 20,957 6.59%

The original population of Iceland was of Nordic and Gaelic origin. This is evident from literary evidence dating from the settlement period as well as from later scientific studies such as blood type and genetic analyses. One such genetics study has indicated that the majority of the male settlers were of Nordic origin while the majority of the women were of Gaelic origin.[125]

Iceland has extensive genealogical records dating back to the late 17th century and fragmentary records extending back to the Age of Settlement. The biopharmaceutical company deCODE genetics has funded the creation of a genealogy database which attempts to cover all of Iceland's known inhabitants. It views the database, called Íslendingabók, as a valuable tool for conducting research on genetic diseases, given the relative isolation of Iceland's population.

The population of the island is believed to have varied from 40,000–60,000 in the period ranging from initial settlement until the mid-19th century. During that time, cold winters, ash fall from volcanic eruptions, and bubonic plagues adversely affected the population several times.[8] According to Bryson (1974), there were 37 famine years in Iceland between 1500 and 1804.[126] The first census was carried out in 1703 and revealed that the population was then 50,358. After the destructive volcanic eruptions of the Laki volcano during 1783–84, the population reached a low of about 40,000.[127] Improving living conditions have triggered a rapid increase in population since the mid-19th century—from about 60,000 in 1850 to 320,000 in 2008. Iceland has a relatively young population for a developed country, with one out of five people being 14 years-old or younger. With a fertility rate of 2.1, Iceland is one of only a few European countries with a birth rate sufficient for long-term population growth (see table on the left).[128][129]

Population projection
(1 January)[130]
Year Low Medium High
2012 319,575
2015 327,603 328,062 328,726
2020 343,134 345,066 348,288
2025 356,109 361,010 368,393
2030 366,122 375,256 388,182
2035 374,459 388,082 406,980
2040 381,363 399,724 425,110
2045 386,825 410,302 442,956
2050 390,756 419,860 460,689
2055 392,957 428,220 478,050
2060 393,261 435,106 494,529

In December 2007, 33,678 people (13.5% of the total population) living in Iceland had been born abroad, including children of parents living abroad. Around 19,000 people (6% of the population) held foreign citizenship. Polish people make up the largest minority group by a considerable margin (see table on the right for more details), and still form the bulk of the foreign workforce. About 8,000 Poles now live in Iceland, 1,500 of them in Reyðarfjörður where they make up 75% of the workforce who are constructing the Fjarðarál aluminium plant.[131] The recent surge in immigration has been credited to a labour shortage due to the booming economy at the time, as well as to the lifting of restrictions on the movement of people from the countries that were a part of the 2004 enlargement of the European Union. Large-scale construction projects in the east of Iceland (see Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Project) have also brought in many people whose stay is expected to be temporary. Many Polish immigrants were also considering leaving in 2008 as a result of the financial crisis.[132]

The southwest corner of Iceland is the most densely populated region. It is also the location of the capital Reykjavík, the northernmost national capital in the world. The largest towns outside the Greater Reykjavík area are Akureyri and Reykjanesbær, although the latter is relatively close to the capital.

Some 500 Icelanders under the leadership of Erik the Red colonized Greenland among the existing paleo-Eskimo inhabitants in the late 10th century.[133] The total population reached a high point of perhaps 5,000 and developed independent institutions before disappearing by 1500.[134] From Greenland the Norsemen launched expeditions to settle in Vinland, but these attempts to colonise North America were soon abandoned in the face of hostility from the indigenous peoples. Emigration to the United States and Canada began in the 1870s. Today, Canada has over 88,000 people of descent,[135] while there are more than 40,000 Americans of descent, according to the 2000 US census.[136]


Iceland's 10 most populous urban areas:


Iceland's de facto official written and spoken language is , a North Germanic language descended from Old Norse. In grammar and vocabulary, it has changed less from Old Norse than the other Nordic languages; has preserved more verb and noun inflection, and has to a considerable extent developed new vocabulary based on native roots rather than borrowings from other languages. The puristic tendency in the development of vocabulary is to a large degree a result of conscious language planning, in addition to centuries of isolation. is the only living language to retain the use of the runic letter Þ in Latin script. The closest living relative of the language is Faroese.

Sign Language was officially recognised as a minority language in 2011. In education, its use for Iceland's deaf community is regulated by the National Curriculum Guide.

and Danish are compulsory subjects in the school curriculum. Both languages are widely understood and spoken.[137] Other commonly spoken languages are Faroese, German, Norwegian and Swedish. Danish is mostly spoken in a way largely comprehensible to Swedes and Norwegians—it is often referred to as skandinavíska (i. e. Scandinavian) in Iceland.[138]

Rather than using family names, as is the custom in all mainland European nations, the Icelanders use patronymics or matronymics. The patronymic and matronymic follows the person's given name, e.g. Elísabet Jónsdóttir ("Elísabet, Jón's daughter") or Ólafur Katrínarson ("Ólafur, Katrín's son"). Consequently, Icelanders refer to one another by their given name, and the telephone directory is listed alphabetically by first name rather than by surname.


Iceland has a universal health care system that is administered by The Ministry of Welfare (: Velferðarráðuneytið)[139] and paid for mostly by taxes (85%) and to a lesser extent by service fees (15%). Unlike most developed nations, there are no private hospitals, and private insurance is practically nonexistent.[140]

A considerable portion of the government budget is assigned to health care,[140] and Iceland ranks 11th in health care expenditures as a percentage of GDP [141] and 14th in spending per capita.[142] Over all, the country’s health care system is one of the best performing in the world, ranked 15th by the World Health Organization.[143] According to an OECD report, Iceland devotes far more resources to healthcare than most industrialized nations. As of 2009, Iceland had 3.7 doctors per 1,000 people (compared with an average of 3.1 in OECD countries) and 15.3 nurses per 1,000 people (compared with an OECD average of 8.4).[144]

Icelanders are among the world’s healthiest people, with 81% reporting to be in good health, according to an OECD survey.[66] Although it is a growing problem, obesity is not as prevalent as in other developed countries,[144] infant mortality is one the lowest in the world,[145] and the proportion of the population that smokes is lower than the OECD average.[144] The average life expectancy is 81.8 (compared to an OECD average of 79.5), the 4th highest in the world.[146]

Additionally, Iceland has a very low level of pollution, thanks to an overwhelming reliance on cleaner geothermal energy, a low population density, and a high level of environmental consciousness among citizens.[147] According to an OECD assessment, the amount of toxic material in the atmosphere is far lower than any other industrialized country measured.[148]


Affiliation by religious movement (1 January 2012)
Church of Iceland 76.81%
Other Christian 11.07%
Other and unspecified 5.84%
Unaffiliated 4.94%
Germanic Neopaganism 0.65%
Buddhism 0.38%
Islam 0.22%
Bahá'í Faith 0.13%

Icelanders enjoy freedom of religion under the constitution of Iceland, though the Church of Iceland, a Lutheran body, is the state church. The Registers Iceland keeps account of the religious affiliation of every citizen. In 2012, Icelanders were divided into religious groups as follows:

  • 76.81% members of the Church of Iceland.
  • 11.07% members of some other Christian denomination.
  • 5.84% members of unregistered religious organisations.
  • 4.94% unaffiliated with religious organisations.
  • 1.35% members of non-Christian denomination.

Iceland is a very secular country: as with other Nordic nations, religious attendance is relatively low.[149][150] The above statistics represent administrative membership of religious organisations, which does not necessarily reflect the belief demographics of the population of Iceland. According to a study published in 2001, 23% of the inhabitants are either atheist or agnostic.[151] A Gallup poll conducted in 2011 found that 60% of Icelanders considered religion to be unimportant in their daily lives, one of the highest rates of irreligion in the world.[152]


culture has its roots in Norse traditions. literature is popular, in particular the sagas and eddas that were written during the High and Late Middle Ages. Centuries of isolation have helped to insulate the country's Nordic culture from external influence; a prominent example is the preservation of the language, which remains the closest to Old Norse out of any other Scandinavian language except Faroese.

In contrast to other Nordic countries, Icelanders place relatively great importance on independence and self-sufficiency; in a public opinion analysis conducted by the European Commission, over 85% of Icelanders found independence to be "very important," compared to 47% of Norwegians, 49% of Danes, and an average of 53% for the EU25.[153] Icelanders also have a very strong work ethic, working some of the longest hours of any industrialized nation.[154]

According to a poll conducted by the OECD, 66% of Icelanders were satisfied with their lives, while 70% believed that their lives will be satisfying in the future. Similarly, 83% of people in Iceland reported having more positive experiences in an average day than negative ones, compared to an OECD average of 72%, which makes Iceland one of the happiest countries in the OECD.[66] A more recent 2012 survey found that around three quarters of respondents stated they were satisfied with their lives, compared to a global average of about 53%.[155]

Iceland is liberal with regard to gay rights issues. In 1996, the parliament passed legislation to create registered partnerships for same-sex couples, conferring nearly all the rights and benefits of marriage. In 2006, parliament voted unanimously to grant same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples in adoption, parenting and assisted insemination treatment. On 11 June 2010, the parliament amended the marriage law, making it gender neutral and defining marriage as between two individuals, making Iceland one of the first countries in the world to legalise same-sex marriage. The law took effect on 27 June 2010.[156] The amendment to the law also means registered partnerships for same-sex couples are now no longer possible, and marriage is their only option—identical to the existing situation for opposite-sex couples.[156]

Icelanders are known for their deep sense of community: an OECD survey found that 98% believe they know someone they could rely on in a time of need, higher than in any other industrialized country. Similarly, only 6% reported "rarely" or "never" socializing with others.[66] This high level of social cohesion is attributed to the small size and homogeneity of the population, as well as to a long history of harsh survival in an isolated environment, which reinforced the importance of unity and cooperation.[157]

Egalitarianism is highly valued among the people of Iceland, with income inequality being among the lowest in the world.[80] The constitution explicitly prohibits the enactment of noble privileges, titles, and ranks.[158] Everyone is addressed by their first name. As with other Nordic countries, equality between the sexes is very high, Iceland is consistently ranked among the top three countries in the world for women to live in.[159][160][161]


An page of Njáls saga from Möðruvallabók. The sagas are a significant part of the heritage.

Iceland's best-known classical works of literature are the Icelanders' sagas, prose epics set in Iceland's age of settlement. The most famous of these include Njáls saga, about an epic blood feud, and Grænlendinga saga and Eiríks saga, describing the discovery and settlement of Greenland and Vinland (modern Newfoundland). Egils saga, Laxdæla saga, Grettis saga, Gísla saga and Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu are also notable and popular Icelanders' sagas.

A translation of the Bible was published in the 16th century. Important compositions since the 15th to the 19th century include sacred verse, most famously the Passion Hymns of Hallgrímur Pétursson, and rímur, rhyming epic poems. Originating in the 14th century, rímur were popular into the 19th century, when the development of new literary forms was provoked by the influential, National-Romantic writer Jónas Hallgrímsson. In recent times, Iceland has produced many great writers, the best-known of whom is arguably Halldór Laxness, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955 (the only Icelander to win a Nobel Prize thus far). Steinn Steinarr was an influential modernist poet during the early 20th century who remains popular.

Icelanders are avid consumers of literature, with the highest number of bookstores per capita in the world. For its size, Iceland imports and translates more international literature than any other nation.[158] Iceland also has the highest per capita publication of books and magazines,[162] and around 10% of the population will publish a book in their lifetimes.[163]


The distinctive rendition of the landscape by its painters can be linked to nationalism and the movement for home rule and independence, which was very active in the mid-19th century.

Contemporary painting is typically traced to the work of Þórarinn Þorláksson, who, following formal training in art in the 1890s in Copenhagen, returned to Iceland to paint and exhibit works from 1900 to his death in 1924, almost exclusively portraying the landscape. Several other men and women artists studied at Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts at that time, including Ásgrímur Jónsson, who together with Þórarinn created a distinctive portrayal of Iceland's landscape in a romantic naturalistic style. Other landscape artists quickly followed in the footsteps of Þórarinn and Ásgrímur. These included Jóhannes Kjarval and Júlíana Sveinsdóttir. Kjarval in particular is noted for the distinct techniques in the application of paint that he developed in a concerted effort to render the characteristic volcanic rock that dominates the environment. Einar Hákonarson is an expressionistic and figurative painter who by some is considered to have brought the figure back into painting. In the 1980s, many artists worked with the subject of the new painting in their work.

In the recent years artistic practice has multiplied, and the art scene has become a setting for many large scale projects and exhibitions. The artist run gallery space Kling og Bang, members of which later ran the studio complex and exhibition venue Klink og Bank, has been a significant part of the trend of self-organised spaces, exhibitions and projects.[164] The Living Art Museum, Reykjavík Municipal Art Museum, Reykjavik Art Museum and the National Gallery of Iceland are the larger, more established institutions, curating shows and festivals.

  • Icelandic architecture draws from Scandinavian influences. The scarcity of native trees resulted in traditional houses being covered by turf.


music is related to Nordic music, and includes vibrant folk and pop traditions, medieval music group Voces Thules, alternative and indie rock bands The Sugarcubes and Of Monsters and Men, jazz fusion band Mezzoforte, singers Björk and Emilíana Torrini, and post-rock band Sigur Rós. The national anthem of Iceland is Lofsöngur, written by Matthías Jochumsson, with music by Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson.[165]

Singer Björk, the best known musician

Traditional music is strongly religious. Hymns, both religious and secular, are a particularly well-developed form of music, due to the scarcity of musical instruments throughout much of Iceland’s history. Hallgrímur Pétursson wrote many Protestant hymns in the 17th century. music was modernised in the 19th century, when Magnús Stephensen brought pipe organs, which were followed by harmoniums. Other vital traditions of music are epic alliterative and rhyming ballads called rímur. Rímur are epic tales, usually a cappella, which can be traced back to skaldic poetry, using complex metaphors and elaborate rhyme schemes.[166] The best known rímur poet of the 19th century was Sigurður Breiðfjörð (1798–1846). A modern revitalisation of the tradition began in 1929 with the formation of Iðunn.[clarification needed]

contemporary music consists of a big group of bands, ranging from pop-rock groups such as Bang Gang, Quarashi and Amiina to solo ballad singers like Bubbi Morthens, Megas and Björgvin Halldórsson. Independent music is very strong in Iceland, with bands such as múm, Sugarcubes, HAM, Of Monsters and Men, Sigur Rós (of which lead singer Jón Þór Birgisson also has prominent success with bands Jónsi and Jónsi & Alex), Viking metal band Skálmöld as well as solo artists Emilíana Torrini and Mugison.

Some jazz musicians and jazz bands have earned a reputation outside Iceland. Perhaps best known is the jazz fusion band Mezzoforte and Los Angeles-based jazz vocalist Anna Mjöll. Many artists and bands have enjoyed international success, most notably Björk and Sigur Rós but also Quarashi, Hera, Ampop, Mínus and múm. The main music festival is arguably Iceland Airwaves, an annual event on the music scene, where bands along with foreign ones play in the clubs of Reykjavík for a week. Electronic musicians include like Thor and GusGus.


director Baltasar Kormákur, best known for the films 101 Reykjavík, Jar City and Contraband

Iceland's largest television stations are the state-run Sjónvarpið and the privately owned Stöð 2, SkjárEinn and ÍNN. Smaller stations exist, many of them local. Radio is broadcast throughout the country, including some parts of the interior. The main radio stations are Rás 1, Rás 2, X-ID977 and Bylgjan. The daily newspapers are Morgunblaðið and Fréttablaðið. The most popular websites are the news sites Vísir and[167]

Iceland is home to LazyTown (: Latibær), a children's television programme created by Magnús Scheving. It has become a very popular programme for children and adults and is shown in over 100 countries, including the UK, the Americas and Sweden.[168] The LazyTown studios are located in Garðabær.

In 1992 the film industry achieved its greatest recognition hitherto, when Friðrik Þór Friðriksson was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for his film, Children of Nature. Actress Guðrún S. Gísladóttir, who is , played one of the major roles in fabled Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's 1986 film, The Sacrifice. Anita Briem, known for her performance in Showtime's The Tudors, is also . Briem starred in the 2008 film Journey to the Center of the Earth, which shot scenes in Iceland. The 2002 James Bond movie Die Another Day is set for a large-part in Iceland.

On 17 June 2010, the parliament passed the Modern Media Initiative, a resolution proposing greater protection of free speech rights and the identity of journalists and whistleblowers, the strongest journalist protection law in the world.[169] According to a 2011 report by Freedom House, Iceland is one of the highest ranked countries in press freedom.[170]

CCP Games, developers of the critically acclaimed EVE Online and Dust 514, is headquartered in Reykjavik. CCP Games hosts the third most populated MMO in the world, which also has the largest total game area for an online game.

Iceland has a highly developed internet culture, with around 95% of the population having internet access, the highest proportion in the world.[171] Iceland ranked 12th in the World Economic Forum's 2009–2010 Network Readiness Index, which measures a country's ability to competitively exploit communications technology.[172] The United Nations International Telecommunication Union ranks the country 3rd in its development of information and communications technology, having moved up four places between 2008 and 2010.[173]


A typical Þorramatur assortment

Much of Iceland's cuisine is based on fish, lamb, and dairy products, with little to no utilization of herbs or spices. Due to the island's climate, fruits and vegetables aren't generally a component of traditional dishes, although the use of greenhouses has made them more common in contemporary food. Þorramatur is a selection of traditional cuisine consisting of many dishes, and is usually consumed around the month of Þorri, which begins on the first Friday after 19 January. Traditional dishes also include skyr, hákarl (cured shark), cured ram, singed sheep heads, and black pudding. Puffin is considered a local delicacy that is often prepared through broiling.

Breakfast usually consists of pancakes, cereal, fruit, and coffee, while lunch may take the form of a smorgasbord. The main meal of the day for most Icelanders is dinner, which usually involves fish or lamb as the main course. Seafood is central to most cooking, particularly cod and haddock but also salmon, herring, and halibut. It is often prepared in a wide variety of ways, either smoked, pickled, boiled, or dried. Lamb is by far the most common meat, and it tends to be either smoke-cured (known as hangikjöt) or salt-preserved (saltkjöt). Many older dishes make use of every part of the sheep, such as slátur, which consists of offal (internal organs and entrails) minced together with blood and served in sheep stomach. Additionally, boiled or mashed potatoes, pickled cabbage, green beans, and rye bread are prevalent side dishes.

Coffee is a popular beverage in Iceland, and is drunk at breakfast, after meals, and with a light snack in mid-afternoon. Coca-Cola is also widely consumed, to the extent that the country is said to have one of the highest per capita consumption rates in the world.[174] Iceland's signature alcoholic beverage is Brennivín (literally "burnt (i.e. distilled) wine"), which is similar to Scandinavian akvavit. It is a type of vodka made from distilled potatoes and flavored with either caraway seeds or angelica. Its potency has earned it the nickname svarti dauði ("Black Death").


Eiður Smári Guðjohnsen, Iceland's best-known football player

Sport is an important part of culture, as the population is generally quite active.[175] The main traditional sport in Iceland is Glíma, a form of wrestling thought to have originated in medieval times.

Popular sports include association football, track and field, handball and basketball. Handball is often referred to as the national sport,[176] and Iceland's team is ranked among the top 12 in the world. women excel at football relative to the size of the country, with the national team ranked 16th by FIFA.[177]

Iceland has excellent conditions for skiing, fishing, snowboarding, ice climbing and rock climbing, although mountain climbing and hiking are preferred by the general public. Iceland is also a world-class destination for alpine ski touring and Telemark skiing, with the Troll Peninsula in Northern Iceland being the main centre of activity. Although the county's environment is generally ill-suited for golf, there are nevertheless lots of golf courses throughout the island, and Iceland holds the world record for most golf courses per capita with around 5000 individuals per golf course. Iceland regularly hosts an international tournament known as the Arctic Open.[178] Iceland has also won the most competitions for World's Strongest Man, with eight titles shared evenly between Magnús Ver Magnússon and Jón Páll Sigmarsson.

Swimming is popular in Iceland. Geothermally heated outdoor pools are widespread, and swimming courses are a mandatory part of the national curriculum.[179] Horseback riding, which was historically the most prevalent form of transportation on the island, remains a common pursuit for many Icelanders.

The oldest sport association in Iceland is the Reykjavík Shooting Association, founded in 1867. Rifle shooting became very popular in the 19th century with the encouragement of politicians and nationalists who were pushing for independence. To this day, it remains a significant pastime.[180]

Iceland has also produced many chess masters and hosted the historic World Chess Championship 1972 in Reykjavik during the height of the cold war. As of 2008, there have been nine chess grandmasters, a considerable number given the small size of the population.[181] Bridge is also popular, with Iceland participating in a number of international tournaments.

More information

Airports99 (2012)
Coastline4,970 km
Coordinates65 00 N, 18 00 W
Ethnic Grouphomogeneous mixture of descendants of Norse and Celts 94%
Ethnic Grouppopulation of foreign origin 6%
Female Life Expectancy83.29 years (2012 est.)
Female Median Age36.3 years (2012 est.)
Fertility Rate1.89 children born/woman (2012 est.)
GDP$12.41 billion (2011 est.)
GDP$12.04 billion (2010 est.)
GDP$12.55 billion (2009 est.)
GDP Growth3.1% (2011 est.)
GDP Growth-4% (2010 est.)
GDP Growth-6.8% (2009 est.)
Government typeconstitutional republic
Highest PointHvannadalshnukur 2,110 m (at Vatnajokull glacier)
Land Area100,250 sq km
LanguageGerman widely spoken
LocationNorthern Europe, island between the Greenland Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, northwest of the United Kingdom
Lowest PointAtlantic Ocean 0 m
Male Life Expectancy78.81 years
Male Median Age35.4 years
Population Growth0.674% (2012 est.)
RegionNorthern Europe
Roadways12,869 km
Terrainmostly plateau interspersed with mountain peaks, icefields; coast deeply indented by bays and fiords
Total Area103,000 sq km
Total Life Expectancy81 years
Total Median Age35.9 years
Water Area2,750 sq km


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Further reading

Neighboring countries

Important people