Iceland

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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 northwestern corner of the island.

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Several small islands lie off Iceland’s coast, notably Heimaey and Surtsey of the Verstmannaeyjar group of islands. 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 which rise volcanic mountains.

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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. Mount Hekla in the south (1,490 meters or 4,891 feet) 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 that is 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, of which Vatnajokull, covering 8,547 square kilometers or 3,300 square miles in the southeast, is the most extensive in Europe.

Iceland has numerous lakes, fast-flowing rivers, and waterfalls that harnessed to generate hydroelectric power that meets the electricity needs of the island. 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 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 warm waters of the North Atlantic Drift/Gulf Stream. 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, and 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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