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© Anton Berger, 1997

FUNK & WAGNALLS NEW ENCYCLOPEDIA

All information presented within this webpage was compiled from the Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia (1995 edition)

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1997-10-27


ICELAND, republic, in the North Atlantic Ocean, about 300 km (about 185 mi) E of Greenland and about 1000 km (about 620 mi) W of Norway.

The country's extreme dimensions are about 305 km (about 190 mi) from N to S and about 485 km (about 300 mi) from E to W. Iceland has an area of 103,000 sq km (39,769 sq mi).

RESOURCES: shape Iceland is generally elliptic, and the coastline, with a total length of about 5955 km (about 3700 mi), is deeply indented, especially in the W and N. Important embayments on the W Coast are Faxafloi (bay) and Breidhafjoerdhur (fjord). Projecting NW between the latter and Hunafloi (bay), one of the major indentations on the N coast, is an irregularly formed peninsula fringed by precipitous cliffs. The peninsular coastline makes up about 30% of the total for the island.

Volcanic in origin, Iceland consists predominantly of uninhabitable lava tablelands with mountainous outcroppings; the lowlands, situated mainly along the SW coast, occupy about 25% of the total area. The bulk of the Icelandic population lives along the coast, particularly in the SW. in the uplands average between about 610 and 915 m (about 2000 and 3000 ft). Hvannadalshnukur (2119 m/6952 ft), in the SE, is the highest summit.

Nearly 15% of the surface of the island is covered by snowfields and glaciers. Vatnajoekull, a glacier in the SE, has an area of about 8550 sq km (about 3300 sq mi). The island has more than 120 glaciers and numerous small lakes and swift-flowing rivers. is remarkable for the number of its volcanoes, craters, and thermal springs and for the frequency of its earthquakes. More than 100 volcanoes, including at least 25 that have erupted in historic times, are situated on the island. Noteworthy among the volcanoes are Mt. Hekla (1491 m/4891 ft), which has erupted many times, including in 1766, 1947, and 1980, and nearby Laki, with about 100 separate craters. Vast lava fields have been created by volcanoes, and many eruptions have caused widespread devastation. In 1783, when the only known eruption of Laki occurred, molten lava, volcanic ashes and gases, and torrential floods resulting from melting ice and snow ruined large tracts of arable land, destroyed about 80% of the livestock on the island, and led to the deaths of more than 9000 persons.

In 1963 an ocean-floor volcano erupted off the SW coast of Iceland, creating Surtsey Island. In 1973 a volcano on Heimaey Island became active, forcing the evacuation of the island's main town, Vestmannaeyjar. springs are common in Iceland. Particularly numerous in the volcanic areas, the springs occur as geysers, as boiling mud lakes, and in various other forms. Geysir, generally regarded as the most spectacular, erupts at irregular intervals (usually from 5 to 36 hr), ejecting a column of boiling water up to about 60 m (about 200 ft) in height. Most homes and industrial establishments in the Reykjavik area are heated by water piped from nearby hot springs. . has a relatively mild and equable climate, despite its high altitude and its proximity to the Arctic.

Because of oceanic influences, notably the North Atlantic Drift (a continuation of the Gulf Stream), climatic conditions are moderate in all sections of the island. The mean annual temperature at Reykjavik is about 50 C (about 410 F), with a range from 0.60 C (310 F) in January to 11.10 C (520 F) in July. In the NW, N, and E coastal regions, subject to the effects of polar currents and drifting ice, temperatures are generally lower. Windstorms of considerable violence are characteristic during much of the winter season. Annual precipitation ranges between about 1270 and 2030 mm (about 50 and 80 in) along the S coast, and is only about 510 mm (about 20 in) along the N coast. The S slopes of some of Iceland's interior mountains receive up to about 4570 mm (about 180 in) of moisture per year.


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Animals: vegetation of Iceland is of the arctic European type. Grass and heather are abundant along the S coast and afford pasturage for sheep and other livestock. Extensive forests probably existed on the island in prehistoric times, but present-day trees, such as birch and spruce, are relatively scarce. Bilberries and crowberries are the only kinds of fruit that grow on the island. The Arctic fox was probably living in Iceland at the time of the first human settlement. Reindeer were introduced about 1770; rodents were brought in on ships. Neither reptiles nor frogs and toads are found. About 100 species of birds inhabit the island; many of these species are aquatic, among them the whistling swan and several kinds of duck. The eider duck is valued for its down. Whales and seals live along the coast, as do cod, haddock, halibut, and herring. Many salmon and trout inhabit Iceland's freshwater rivers and lakes.

Population: of Iceland is extremely homogeneous, being almost entirely of Scandinavian and Celtic origin. Beginning in the 1940s a large-scale movement to the coastal towns and villages has occurred. More than 90% of the people now live in cities and towns. The population of Iceland (1990 est.) was 256,000. The overall population density was about 2.5 persons per sq km (about 6.4 per sq mi).

Divisions and Principal Cities: is divided into eight regions, each with its own administrative center. Reykjavik (pop., 1989 est., 96,700) is the capital and chief port. Other towns, with their 1989 populations, are Akureyri (14,100), on the N coast; Kopavogur (15,900), Hafnarfjoerdhur (14,500), and Keflavik (7400), on the W coast near Reykjavik; and Vestmannaeyjar (4700), on the tiny island of Heimaey off the S coast.

Language: state church of Iceland is the Evangelical Lutheran church, with which more than 90% of the people are affiliated. Complete religious freedom exists, however. Free Lutherans and Roman Catholics make up a small minority. The language is Icelandic, which has remained closer to the Old Norse of Iceland's original Viking settlers than to the other Scandinavian languages. See Icelandic Language ;

Icelandic Literature . . all Icelanders are literate.

Education is free through the university level and is compulsory for all children between the ages of 7 and 16. In the late 1980s, 25,400 pupils were enrolled in primary schools, 28,600 students attended secondary and vocational schools, and 5000 were enrolled in higher institutions. The leading institution of higher education is the University of Iceland (1911), in Reykjavik. The country also has a technical college and colleges of agriculture and music as well as teacher-training schools.

principal libraries of Iceland are the University Library, the National Library, and the City Library, all located in Reykjavik. The capital is also the site of the Museum of Natural history; the National Museum, containing a major collection of Icelandic antiquities; and an art gallery housing the work of the Icelandic sculptor Einar Jonsson (1874-1954).


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Enterprise forms the basis of the economy of Iceland, but the government exercises a considerable degree of control and supervision over key sectors. Until the close of the 19th century, agriculture was the chief occupation, with fishing as a supplementary source of income. By the middle of the 20th century, however, fishing and fish processing had become the major industries. Hydroelectric power potential is abundant and is being developed to further industrialization. In 1970 Iceland became a member of the European Free Trade Association. The annual national budget in the late 1980s included revenue of about $1.51 billion and expenditure of about $1.55 billion. Iceland suffered from a high rate of inflation in the late 1970s and the '80s.

5% of Iceland's labor force is engaged in agriculture. Less than 1% of the land area is under cultivation. The principal crops are hay, turnips, and potatoes. Livestock raising is a major occupation, and considerable quantities of dairy products, wool, mutton and lamb, and chicken eggs are produced. In the late 1980s the country had about 770,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle, and 57,000 horses. .

Fish processing are the most important Icelandic industries, accounting for about 70% of yearly exports and employing about 16% of the labor force. Iceland is a leading producer of cod, and other major components of the catch include capelin, haddock, halibut, herring, redfish, and saithe. About 1.4 million metric tons of fish were caught annually in the late 1980s. Coastal towns have extensive facilities for fish processing. In response to international pressure, Iceland suspended all whaling operations in 1989. . has few proven mineral resources, and profitable development has been difficult. Minerals of commercial value include pumice and diatomite. . from fish processing, manufacturing is primarily for domestic consumption needs. Principal products are clothing, shoes, soaps, and chemicals.

Book production is also a large trade in Iceland.

Some electrical appliances are made. In addition, major plants producing aluminum (from imported bauxite) and ferrosilicon have been established to take advantage of Iceland's energy resources.

All of Iceland's electricity is produced in hydroelectric installations. Annual output in the late 1980s was about 4.2 billion kwh, based on an installed generating capacity of 951,000 kw. Hot water from springs is used for heating and in some manufacturing operations.

Banking. monetary unit of Iceland is the krona, consisting of 100 aurar (54.134 kronur equal U.S.$1; 1991). In 1981 the government introduced a new krona, equivalent to 100 old kronur. Currency is issued by the state-owned Central Bank (1961). Iceland has several private commercial banks. Trade. yearly value of Iceland's imports is usually greater than that of its exports. In the late 1980s annual imports cost about $1.44 billion, and exports earned about $1.43 billion. Major imports include refined petroleum, machinery, transportation equipment, textiles and clothing, chemicals, and foodstuffs. Fish and fish products make up 70% of Iceland's yearly exports, and aluminum accounts for about 13% of the annual total. The country's main trade partners are Great Britain, the U.S., Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, France, and Japan.


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Communications: Iceland has about 11,390 km (about 7080 mi) of roads, which are mainly located in coastal areas. About 142,600 motor vehicles were registered in the late 1980s. The island has no railroads or navigable rivers. The country has several seaports, including Arkanes, Keflavik, Reykjavik, and Siglufjoerdhur. Icelandair provides domestic and international air service. daily newspapers, all published in Reykjavik, have a combined circulation of nearly 125,000; a sixth daily is published in Akureyri. Telephone and telegraph services are owned and administered by the government; the state monopoly on radio and television broadcasting ended in 1986. In the late 1980s the country had about 155,000 radios and 76,250 television receivers. is governed under a constitution that became effective when the country achieved full independence in 1944.

Politics: Iceland has no armed forces of its own, but is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. . Head of state of Iceland is a president, who is popularly elected to a 4-year term. The president has little power, and the country's chief executive is a prime minister, who is responsible to Parliament. The prime minister is assisted by a cabinet.

Legislature of Iceland is the Althing (q.v.) , which has met almost continually since its establishment in ad 930. It has 63 members, 54 elected to 4-year terms under a system of proportional representation and 9 allotted to the political parties based on their relative vote totals in the elections. The Althing chooses 21 of its members to form the Upper House, and the other 42 constitute the Lower House.

Parties: the late 1980s the leading political organizations of Iceland were the Independence party, a conservative group; the Progressive and Social Democratic parties, both moderately leftist; the People's Alliance, with a Marxist program; the populist Citizens' party; and the Women's Alliance. Government. basic local unit is the commune, governed by an elected council. In the late 1980s, Iceland had 217 communes, of which 29 were towns.

Highest tribunal of Iceland is the supreme court, made up of a chief justice and seven other justices appointed by the president. Other judicial bodies include ordinary and special courts.

Irish monks may have reached Iceland before ad 800, but it remained largely unsettled until about 870. A Norwegian Viking by the name of Ingolfr Arnarson is traditionally considered the first permanent settler; he established his farm at Reykjavik, now the capital. During the next 60 years, other settlers flocked to the island from the Scandinavian countries and the British Isles.
In 930 a central organization for the whole island was superimposed on the already existent regional polities in the form of a general legislature called the Althing.


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State: commonwealth founded by the Icelanders was a republic without executive authority or any head of state. Legislative and judicial powers were wielded by the Althing, but enforcement was the responsibility of the aggrieved party, sometimes assisted by a powerful chieftain. Nevertheless, the state prospered for more than 300 years. The land had ample resources of fish, seal, and fowl, and grazing lands were extensive. Icelandic traders were active in Scandinavia, the continental European countries, and the British Isles, and culture flourished in a golden age that produced the great body of medieval Icelandic literature. Late in the 10th century Icelanders colonized Greenland, and early in the 11th century, according to one tradition, Leif Ericson, the Icelandic explorer, reached the mainland of North America (Vinland), although attempts at settlement there were frustrated. accepted Christianity by arbitration in 1000, and the church gradually destabilized secular authority. For one thing, it undermined the old political order, in which the pagan priests served as secular chieftains. Furthermore, the church sought foreign support in its struggle with secular powers. Iceland was under the archbishopric of Nidaros (now Trondheim), Norway, and King Hakon IV of Norway, aided by the internal squabbles of Icelandic politicians, ruthlessly exploited the situation. In 1262-64 his ambition was fulfilled when Icelanders recognized him as their king.

Domination brought with it a long decline of Icelandic fortunes. This was especially true after the country, along with Norway, passed to the Danish crown in 1380. As Denmark sought to expand its shipping and commerce, it did not want the lucrative Icelandic trade to flow to England or Germany, the two countries that had the greatest interest in the island. Gradually, the Danish managed to reduce the trading activities of these nations in Iceland, and by the middle of the 16th century they had virtually ceased. At the same time, the royal authority greatly increased its interference in other spheres of Icelandic life. In 1550 Lutheranism was forced on the nation, a feat crowned with the execution without trial of the last Roman Catholic bishop, Jon Arason, and two of his sons. Half a century later, in 1602, a trade monopoly was instituted. From that time until 1787, commerce with Iceland was permitted only to licensed merchants, who would buy their charters from the Crown for exorbitant fees with the knowledge that they could recoup their investment manifold from their captive customers. Consequently, prices for necessities, such as grains, lumber, and metal goods, soared, while Icelandic products-mostly fish and wool-were undervalued because their prices were established by the same merchants. In the long run, this system of economic oppression reduced the nation to utter destitution.

1660 King Frederick III of Denmark assumed autocratic powers in his homeland, and two years later Icelandic leaders were forced, under threat of arms, to accept the absolute monarchy in Iceland. The abrogation of the Althing's legislative powers, as well as the denial of its judicial role, quickly followed. The country now stood stripped of all political power. the 18th century, Icelanders reached the lowest point of their national existence. At the end of the Age of Settlement, in 930, some 60,000 to 90,000 people are estimated to have lived in the country; in the early years of the 18th century, when the first national census was taken, the population was down to 50,000.

A series of disasters, including a smallpox epidemic in 1707-9, famines in the middle of the century, and the eruption of the volcano Laki in 1783, further reduced the nation to some 35,000 inhabitants, most of them paupers; Denmark seriously considered evacuating all the remaining Icelanders to the heathlands of the Jutland Peninsula. Point. the 18th century, however, national fortunes reached a turning point. Shortly after the middle of the century an enterprising Icelandic official established some cottage industries in Reykjavik, then a mere collection of huts. Although his effort eventually failed, it provided inspiration for other attempts that improved conditions in the country. The first tangible sign of this was the modification of the trade monopoly in 1787, allowing commerce with any Danish subject. the 19th century began with the total suspension of the Althing, it eventually became an age of reawakening. The waves of revolution on the European continent brought about the end of absolutism in Denmark, and soon the Icelanders began to clamor for their national rights. In this struggle they were led by the scholar-politician Jon Sigurdsson (1811-79), now revered as a national hero. The Althing was reconvened in 1843; trade was made free to all nations in 1854; and 20 years later a new constitution was promulgated, granting the Althing partial control over domestic finances.


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Progress: this time, the Icelandic economy had remained practically medieval, but with financial authority established inside the country, it began to progress at a relatively fast pace. At the same time the struggle for independence continued; in 1904 Iceland attained home rule, and in 1918 Denmark finally recognized it as an independent kingdom. For the next 25 years, however, under the Treaty of Union, it was bound to Denmark in a personal union under Christian X. During this time, until World War II, great economic strides were made, despite the lean years of the Great Depression. Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany in April 1940, Iceland was cut off from its head of state. A month later, it, too, was occupied, but by British troops. In May 1941 the Icelandic government appointed Sveinn Bjoernsson, a former minister to Denmark, as regent. Treaty of Union ran out in 1943, and by early 1944, given that Denmark was still occupied, Icelanders decided to act unilaterally to terminate it. In a national referendum, with 98.6 percent of eligible voters participating, 97.3 percent voted to sever all ties with Denmark, and 95 percent chose a republic. The Icelandic republic was accordingly proclaimed at Thingvoellur on June 17, 1944, with Sveinn Bjoernsson as the first president. but Occupied. , Iceland celebrated its final deliverance from alien rule while still occupied by another foreign power. In 1941 the Icelandic government had been pressed by Britain and the U.S. to ask for U.S. protection, primarily to free the British occupation troops for service elsewhere. Contrary to contractual obligations, however, the U.S. did not withdraw its forces at the end of the war, instead requesting permanent military bases in the country. These were refused. A compromise agreement was made in 1946, permitting the U.S. control of the Keflavik airport for six and a half years. Before that pact expired, Iceland became a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and in 1951, during the Korean War, the U.S. again obtained Icelandic permission to station troops in the country, this time under a NATO umbrella. This U.S. presence, uninterrupted since 1941, has been profoundly divisive for more than a generation; Icelanders, while overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Western democracies, are still evenly split on the issue. second, perhaps more fundamental, question of national existence since World War II involved another Western democracy, Britain. In 1958 Iceland decided to extend its fisheries juris diction from 4 to 12 mi; the British responded by sending warships to protect their trawlers in Icelandic waters.

The so-called Cod War that resulted lasted until 1961, but it was renewed with every extension of Icelandic jurisdiction over adjacent waters-to 50 mi in 1972 and 200 mi in 1975. It was not until 1977 that Icelanders finally became the undisputed masters of their most vital resources. The intractable problem of inflation remained; during 1980-88 it averaged 38 percent annually, and no government was able to break the upward spiral. By 1990 inflation was somewhat lower at 16 percent. Even so, Icelanders enjoy a standard of living among the highest in the modern world. Icelandic politics have generally been dominated by coalition governments, a situation that continues in the 1990s.


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