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ICELAND is located in the North Atlantic Ocean about 298 kilometers or 186 miles east of Greenland and just south of the Arctic Circle. The island is roughly oval with the deeply indented coastline and numerous fjords and bays – a large, broad peninsula projects from the island’s northwestern corner.
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Several small islands lie off Iceland’s coast, notably Heimaey and Surtsey of the Verstmannaeyjar group. Iceland is composed of volcanic rocks that have pushed out from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, an area where molten material is continually extruded, pushing two of the Earth’s crustal plates apart. Hence, not surprisingly, Iceland has numerous volcanoes and lies in an active earthquake zone. The center of the island is a barren, uninhabited, high, rocky plateau composed of solidified lava from volcanic mountains.
The inhabited lowlands of Iceland, comprising about a sixth of the total land area, occur in the coastal regions, especially in the southwest and southeast. In the south (1,490 meters or 4,891 feet), Mount Hekla is Iceland’s most famous volcano and in the Middle Ages was regarded as being a “gateway to hell.” It has erupted several times in the island’s history, the last occasion being in 1980. Other signs of the volcanic activity lying just beneath the surface area provided by numerous geysers, bubbling mud pools, hot springs, and heated geothermal pools with water rich in dissolved minerals. Strokkur and Geysir are two of Iceland’s most famous geysers, while the hot springs used to heat most of the homes and businesses in Reykjavik.
Ice caps and glaciers cover about 11 percent of the land surface at higher altitudes. Vatnajokull, covering 8,547 square kilometers or 3,300 square miles in the southeast, is the most extensive Europe.
Iceland has numerous lakes, fast-flowing rivers, and waterfalls that harnessed to generate hydroelectric power that meets the island’s electricity needs. Trees are scarce and consist of a few birch and conifers, while the main vegetation grows at lower levels and consists of lichens, mosses, heather, and hardy grasses. Indigenous wild animals are quite limited with an absence of reptiles and amphibians, although some animals (reindeer and rodents) have either deliberately or accidentally introduced. A good variety of birds, some of which are migratory, inhabit Iceland. Seals and whales are common in Icelandic waters, as are the fish on which the country’s economy depends. Salmon and trout are found in Iceland’s lakes and rivers, which are not affected by any form of pollution.
Despite its northerly position, Iceland has a relatively moderate climate, which is influenced by the North Atlantic Drift/Gulf Stream’s warm waters. Summer temperatures are mild to cool, but it is cold in winter, especially in the north. Precipitation falls all year and is heavier in the south, with snow in the colder months on high ground and the north. Strong winds are characteristic of the winter months but can occur throughout the year, causing occasional dust storms inland. Permanent daylight occurs for three months in summer, and the beautiful Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) can be seen from the end of August.
Very little of the land in Iceland can be cultivated, and the main crops are root vegetables such as turnips and potatoes. The principal livestock is sheep, cattle, poultry, native Icelandic ponies, dairy produce, eggs, milk, meat, and wool produced for home consumption. Fishing and fish processing are the mainstay of the Icelandic economy, with much of the catch exported. Iceland has a 320-kilometer or 200-mile zone around its coasts, from which foreign trawlers excluded. The most important species include cod, haddock, herring, and shellfish.
Iceland lacks exploitable minerals, apart from diatomite, and must import raw materials for its industries, which do, however, benefit from the availability of cheap electricity. Aluminum and ferrosilicon, nitrates for fertilizers, cement, and chemicals produced for export. Other manufactured goods include paints, textiles, clothing, footwear, and knitted products. Books and published material are also economically significant. Fish and fish products remain the most important aspect of the economy, but tourism is of growing importance to the island.
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Iceland consists mainly of a central volcanic plateau with elevations ranging from 700 to 800 meters (2,297 to 2,625 feet) and is ringed by mountains. Lava fields cover about one-ninth of the country, and glaciers cover about one-eighth. Geologically, the country is still very young and bears signs of still being in the making. It appears abrupt and jagged without the softness of outline that characterizes more mature landscapes. The average height is 500 meters (1,640 feet) above sea level.
The largest lowland areas include Árnessýsla, Rangárvallasýsla, and Vestur-Skaftafellssýsla in the south and Myar in the west. In the plateaus, the land is broken into more or less tilted blocks, with most leaning toward the country’s interior. Glacial erosion has played an important role in giving the valleys their present shape. In some areas, such as between Eyjafjördhur and Skagafjördhur, the landscape possesses alpine characteristics. There are numerous and striking gaping fissures within the glacially active volcanic belts. Iceland straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is a large fissure resulting from the continuing separation of the North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate. This plate activity is responsible for most of the volcanic and seismic activity in the country.
The Greenland Sea, an extension of the Arctic Ocean, borders Iceland on the north. It also has a southern coastline on the Atlantic Ocean.
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Sprouting hot springs, or geysers, are found in low temperatures (near glacial regions, for instance), where underwater hot springs are located. The most famous is the Great Geysir in Haukadalur in South Iceland, from which the international word geyser is derived. It has been known to eject a column of hot water to a height of about 60 meters (200 feet). Another renowned geyser in the vicinity of the Great Geysir is Strokkur.
The Arctic Circle is the imaginary line that circles the globe at about 66.5° north latitude. Areas north of the circle experience the phenomenon known as the midnight sun, which is a period of time when the sun is visible for twenty-four hours or longer. During the summer solstice (usually June 21 or 22), the sun is visible on the horizon at midnight from all Arctic Circle points. As you move farther north, seasons of sunshine get longer, so that at the North Pole, there are six months of continuous sunshine from the vernal equinox (usually March 21 or 22) until the autumnal equinox (usually September 21 or 22). The Arctic Circle also serves as a boundary between the North Temperate and the North Frigid climate zones.
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