A land of fire, ice, water, elves and magic. Iceland is a veritable wonderland of natural oddities, cultural quirks and fascinating stories – the primal, unspoilt landscape and friendly people make it one of the most interesting places to travel in the world. Here are 8 surprising facts you may not have known about the the small Nordic island nation.
1. There aren’t that many people in Iceland
The total population of the small Nordic island nation is only 330,000 people, and over two-thirds live in the capital of Reykjavik, making Iceland’s only city feel more like a big town than a metropolis. There are less people in Iceland then there are people living in the smaller Australian island state of Tasmania! Such a small national population makes for some interesting facts – one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime, a smartphone app exists to prevent people from dating their cousins, and in the prime tourism season, visitors to the country can often outnumber the locals. There are only 3.2 people for every square kilometre of land, making the country one of the most sparsely populated in the world.
2. It doesn’t actually get that cold in Iceland
Given Iceland’s position in the Far North Atlantic, only kilometres shy of the Arctic Circle, you would expect the country to be bitterly cold and covered in ice and snow. However, due to the effects of the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Current, the island nation enjoys mild, temperate climatic conditions for its latitude – temperatures in the south reach lows of 0°C (32°F) during the winter, and about 13°C (54°F) during summer. During the summer months, temperatures can reach 20-25°C on warm days, and the number of sunny hours for Reykjavik is comparable to cities in Ireland and Scotland. Of course the coldest parts of Iceland are it’s glacial highlands and mountains, where temperatures can each lows of -25 to -30°C and snow is common.
3. There aren’t any Icelandic family names and given names must be on an approved list
Icelandic people do not have surnames, but rather follow a patronymic or matronymic reference, rather than a family lineage. The last name of a male Icelander thus usually ends in the suffix -son (“son”) while the last name of a female Icelander ends in -dóttir (“daughter”). For example, famous Icelandic singer Björk’s full name is Björk Guðmundsdóttir – meaning daughter of Guðmundur. For given first names, the Icelandic Naming Committee must approve all names in Iceland – as of 2012 there is 1,712 male names and 1,853 female names on the lists of approved Icelandic names. If parents wish to name their children names not on the approved state lists, they must seek permission from the Committee. The reason? To help preserve Icelandic language and culture.
4. Some Icelandic people believe in elves and trolls
The Huldufólk, or “hidden people”, are the elves of Icelandic folklore, said to live beneath the rocks and around the lava fields of Iceland. Surveys conducted in the last decade have indicated that over half of Icelandic people believe in the existence of the hidden folk, with the majority refusing to categorically rule their existence out. The belief is so common in Iceland, that some road construction plans are altered so as to not displace elf populations and miniature homes are built in the grass for the use of hidden folk. The magical setting of the Icelandic landscape and small population has clearly fostered the belief in the mythological figures, with it being said “…in the old times we doubled our population with tales of elves and fairies”. To this day, Icelandic people do not throw stones, out of fear of hitting the invisible Huldufólk – what a fitting belief for such a friendly and peace-loving people.
5. Iceland really is a land of fire and ice
With over 11% of its landmass covered by glaciers, 30% covered by lava fields, and 18 active volcanoes that have erupted in the past 1000 years, Iceland’s diverse and untouched landscape is the epitome of fire and ice – the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull famously disrupted air traffic over Europe in 2011, and the island of Surtsey rose from the ocean in 1963 curtesy of an underwater eruption. In fact, this combination of fire and ice can have devastating consequences – volcanic eruptions in Iceland are typically associated with Jökulhlaups, or glacial outburst floods. Heat from these geothermal events can melt overlying ice cover and cause river torrents of up to 50,000 m3/s – such events have occurred in Southern Iceland, causing damage to the Ring Road and creating the great sand plains of Skeiðarársandur. The 1755 eruption of Katla under the Mýrdalsjökull glacier caused a Jökulhlaup with a peak discharge of 400,000 m3/s – Katla is overdue for an eruption, having not violently erupted in 97 years.
Iceland is one of the world leaders in utilising abundant, clean, renewable energy – over 85% of heating is powered by geothermal sources, and all electricity is generated by a combination of geothermal and hydropower. The country’s fortunate location in such a geological active region has made it a powerhouse of geothermal energy – the United Kingdom has even begun investigating the possibility of connecting to the Icelandic power grid in the future via a 1,250 kilometre undersea cable, providing power for the rest of Europe and even North Africa. Water is heated from beneath the ground, the pipes that carry hot water are placed under the roads of Reykjavik to keep them free of ice in the winter months and swimming pools and recreation facilities all utilise Iceland’s geothermal resources. The smell of sulphur, distinctive of geothermal areas, is the only minor grievance for visitors.
7. Iceland is the safest and most peaceful nation in the world
Iceland has ranked number one consistently as the world’s most peaceful country and has the lowest score in the Global Peace Index measure – the Institute for Economics and Peace study which takes into account a nation’s violent crime statistics, political instability, terrorism, weapons imports and prison population. Iceland also ranks highly in measures of social equality, social welfare, education and Iceland also has no standing army, with the lightly armed coast guard entrusted with the defence and monitoring of the nation’s interests. Icelanders are proud of their peaceful role in global affairs – the Reykjavik Summit in 1986 between US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev set the stage for the resolution of the Cold War a few years later.
8. Once an Icelandic horse leaves Iceland, it can never return
Horses were first brought to the island by Viking Age Scandinavians in 860 AD – further importation of horses was banned by the Icelandic parliament in 982 AD meaning the horses in Iceland today have been pure breed for over 1,000 years and are the only breed on the island. Natural selection and the frequently harsh Icelandic conditions have ensure the development of a long-lived and hardy breed, with two unique gaits and heavy coats. Icelandic horses are said to be friendly, docile and enthusiastic. The import of horses into Iceland remains illegal, and the export of horses is a one way trip – native Icelandic horses have little immunity to equine diseases found in other countries and so any reintroduction could spell disaster for the local populations.