About Iceland


Iceland was founded during the Viking Age of exploration and settled by Norsemen from Scandinavia and Celts from the British Isles. The early history of Iceland is chronicled in literary sources, the oldest of which is Íslendingabók (The Book of Icelanders) written about 1130. Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements), of 12th century origin, records the histories of the first settlers in Iceland and traces their descendants well into the 13th century. Íslendingasögur (The Sagas of Icelanders) preserve the histories, poems and legends – cultural legacy that Icelanders had inherited from their Viking ancestors.

The discovery of Iceland is attributed to the Greek explorer Pytheas who made an epic voyage of exploration to north-western Europe around 325 BC. He mentions a land, Ultima Thule, or Thule, in the farthest north, six days’ sailing north of Britain and near a frozen sea. He also describes the phenomenon of the Midnight Sun. On later medieval maps Iceland is depicted as Thule.

Settlement (870–930)
The first permanent settler of Iceland was Ingólfur Arnarson, a rich and influential Norwegian chieftain who sailed to Iceland to settle in 874 AD. Together with his wife, Hallveig Fróðadóttir, he built a homestead on a site that he named Reykjavík.

Most of Iceland’s first settlers came from western Norway, but some came from other Scandinavian countries, as well as from the Norse Viking Age settlements in the British Isles. The settlers who came from Norway were mainly big farmers and powerful chieftains who were dissatisfied with excessive power of King Harald I (Harald Fairhair). They sailed in open boats with their families, kinsmen, serfs and livestock and settled on the lowlands along the coast where they could pursue farming. They established large farms and sustained themselves mostly by breeding cattle and some fishing. According to the early Icelandic sources, some Irish monks were living in Iceland when the Nordic settlers arrived, but they departed soon after.

There was no central administration or government in the beginning, but the early settlers had continued a Norwegian tradition of laws and district-wide legal assemblies, Þing (Thing), led by chieftains (goðar). These local assemblies were held regularly every spring and autumn.

Commonwealth (930-1262)
In 930 AD the first Alþingi (Althing), Icelandic parliament, was established on the fields later called Þingvellir (Thingvellir) and a constitution was adopted for the whole land, modelled on the Norwegian constitution. Althing was both a legislative and a judiciary assembly and it was held annually at midsummer for 14 days. The laws were formulated, reviewed and amended by The Law Council consisting of the goðar and their advisors. The Law Council elected the Law-speaker whose job was to memorize the law and quote it. (The laws of the Althing were not written down until 1117-8 AD). Each goði (chieftain) was required to attend the recitation of the laws.

The convening of the first Althing marks the beginning of the independent republic. This period of governance is known as the Icelandic Commonwealth (Þjóðveldið) or Free State; “The Golden Age of Iceland”. The period 930–1030 is known as The Saga Age, since many of the events recorded later (in the 12th and 13th century) in the Icelandic sagas actually took place during this time. Moreover, many of the key events related in the sagas happened at Thingvellir. It was also at Thingvellir in the year 999 or 1000 that Christianity was adopted in Iceland.

The first bishopric in Iceland was founded at Skálholt in 1082, and in 1106 a second bishopric was established at Hólar. Jón Ögmundsson, the first bishop at Hólar, eager to eradicate all traces of paganism, also succeeded in changing the names of the days of the week, named after the pagan gods. Thus, týsdagr, after Týr (Tuesday), óðinsdagr, after Óðin (Wednesday), þórsdagr, after Þór (Thursday) and frijadagr, after Frigg (Friday) were changed to: “third day” (þriðjudagur), “midweek day” (miðvikudagur), “fifth day” (fimmtudagur) and “fast day” (föstudagur). He also forbade dancing and love poems.

1120s-1230s, the Great Age of Writing, was an epoch of remarkable literary achievements. Most of the Icelandic sagas were written during this time, as well as the great historical works: Íslendingabók and Heimskringla. Íslendingabók, the first national history, was written around 1130 by Ari Þorgilsson (Thorgilsson), called fróði – Ari the Wise (1067-1148). Heimskringla (The History of Norwegian Kings) was written by Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241).

The year 1220 marks the beginnings of “The Age of the Sturlungs” – Sturlungaöld. This was a period of internal conflict in Iceland, and the last period in Iceland’s nearly 400 years as an independent free state. The Sturlungs were members of the most powerful family clan; amongst them were the authors of the classic Icelandic sagas. The most famous and greatest of them all was Snorri Sturluson. Through marriages and political alliances, the Sturlungs dominated great part of the country, but other chieftains and influential families opposed them. The prolonged feuds and power struggles between the chieftaincies brought about economic and social ruin. At the time, the Norwegian king Hákon Hákonarson (King Haakon IV) was attempting to extend his influence in Iceland, as part of his campaign to unite all Norwegian Viking Age settlements. Several of the greatest Icelandic chieftains had become the King’s liegemen, while Snorri Sturluson had fallen out of favour, due to his support for Earl Skúli, King Haakon’s rival. In 1241, at King Haakon’s instigation, Snorri Sturluson was killed in Reykholt. Ultimately, 1262-1264, Icelandic chieftains were persuaded to swear allegiance to King Haakon IV of Norway, partly in the hope that he would bring peace to the country. 1262 marks the end of the Icelandic Commonwealth period.

Iceland under Foreign Rule
Under the Norwegian Crown, Icelanders became dependent on Norwegian ships for supplies, which often failed to come. A period of great hardship and desolation followed. Ice often blocked the fjords and the sea approaches. Violent volcanic eruptions, recurring epidemics and famine ravaged the entire country. In 1349 the Black Death afflicted Norway, cutting off all trade and supplies.

In 1380 the Norwegian monarchy entered into a union with Denmark; however, the change did not effect Iceland’s status. When in 1397 the Kalmar Union was formed between Sweden, Norway and Denmark, Iceland came under the dominant Danish crown. The conditions in the country worsened further. Icelandic chieftains were replaced by Danish royal officials. Althing became a court of law; judges were chosen by royal officers.

At the beginning of the 15th century, 1402-1404, the Black Death afflicted Iceland, killing more than a third of the population. In the period 1540-1550 Lutheranism was imposed on Iceland by the order of the Danish king, and first Lutheran bishop installed in Skálholt. The opposition to the Reformation in Iceland ended in 1550 when the last Catholic bishop, Jón Arason, was beheaded. In 1602 Denmark established a trade monopoly, forbidding Iceland to trade with any country other than Denmark, precipitating a period of extreme destitution. The monopoly remained in effect until 1787. The Danish Crown tightened its grip on Iceland on the constitutional level as well. In 1662, the Danish King assumed hereditary power, absolute monarchy was imposed in Iceland and the power of Althing significantly declined.

The 18th century in Iceland was a tragic period of population decline, increasing poverty and natural calamities. In 1703 when the first census of Iceland was conducted, the population numbered 50,366, and about 20% were destitute. After the smallpox epidemic in 1707, around 18,000 people perished. The series of natural disasters and famines that followed in their wake caused population decline to well below 40,000 twice more during the century. Katla volcano erupted in 1755 and in 1783 the catastrophic Laki eruption (Lakagígar) occurred, causing floods, ash and toxic fumes and the ensuing starvation killed 10,000 people.

Towards Independence
In 1800 the Althing was dissolved by royal decree and later replaced by the Supreme Court. However, by the middle of the 19th century a new national consciousness was revived in Iceland, and Jón Sigurðsson (Jon Sigurdsson) had become the great leader of the Icelandic independence movement. In 1843 the Althing was re-established as a consultative body, but only a few powerful feudal barons and landowners were elected. When in 1848 King Frederick VII of Denmark renounced his absolute power, it also led to the question of Iceland’s status in the new form of government. Jón Sigurðsson’s stance was that the king could only give his absolute power rule over Iceland back to the Icelanders themselves, since they were the ones who had relinquished it to the Danish Crown in 1662. In addition, Iceland had originally entered the union with the Norwegian monarchy as a free state with certain rights vouchsafed under the agreement from 1262-1264.

In 1854 the Danish trade monopoly lifted, finally granting Iceland complete freedom of trade. Freedom of press was established in 1855. In 1874 the millennium celebrations of the Settlement were held and King Christian IX of Denmark visited Iceland. He presented Iceland with a new constitution, granting the Althing legislative power in internal affairs. In 1904 the constitution was amended, and Iceland got home rule under Denmark. The first Icelandic minister was established in Reykjavik.

Home Rule to Sovereignty
Whilst the years of home rule (1904-1918) were characterized by progress in economic and social spheres, Iceland’s struggle for greater autonomy continued. On 1 December 1918, Iceland became a sovereign state, the Kingdom of Iceland, in a personal union with the Danish king.

In 1930 festivities were held at Thingvellir to celebrate the millennium of the Althing itself. This was the first general celebration of Icelanders attended by a substantial proportion of the nation. It is estimated that 30,000-40,000 people were present.

In 1944, Iceland rescinded its union with Denmark. On 17 June 1944, the Republic of Iceland was founded at Thingvellir, Iceland’s national shrine. 17 June was chosen since it is the birthday of one of Iceland’s national heroes, Jón Sigurðsson, “Iceland’s longed-for child, its honour, sword and shield”. The proclamation of the Republic of Iceland had ended seven centuries of foreign rule. A new epoch in the history of Iceland had begun.


Iceland´s Geography
Iceland is an island of 103,000 km2 (39,756 square miles) – 24% larger than Austria or slightly smaller than Kentucky.  Iceland is the second largest island in Europe. The average height of Iceland is 500 meters above sea level and the highest peak is Hvannadalshnjukur, rising 2,111 m above sea level (most maps and books will quote the height 2,119 m but it was re-measured in 2004 to a mere 2,111 m). Over 11% is covered with glaciers, including Vatnajokull which is the largest glacier in Europe and outside the arctic regions. That is more land covered by glaciers than in all of continental Europe. Deserts and lava fields cover 63% of Iceland, lakes around 3% and 23% is vegetated land.

Iceland is located in the North – Atlantic Ocean, east of southern Greenland and northwest of the UK. The southernmost point of Iceland is Kotlutangi (63°23´N), the northernmost is Hraunhafnartangi (66°32´N), the easternmost is Gerpir (13°30´W) and the westernmost point of both Iceland and Europe is Bjargtangar (24°32´W).

Situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland is a hot spot of volcanic and geothermal activity. In the past two centuries there have been about 30 volcanic eruptions and Hekla alone has erupted over 20 times since Iceland´s settlement. The geothermal heat supplies most of the nation with cheap, pollution-free heating and hot water.  Glacial rivers are harnessed to provide inexpensive hydroelectric power.

The Gulf Stream is what makes Iceland inhabitable, without it the whole country would most likely be covered with a shield of ice. The warm Gulf Stream tempers the winters so Iceland is not as cold as the name indicates.

Out of a population of approximately 320,000 around ¾ live in or around the capital of Reykjavik and its neighbouring towns in the south-west.  The rest live mostly around the coastline although part of the north-west is uninhabited. The central highlands are inhabited. About 20% of the 103,000 km2 are populated. This makes Iceland very attractive for nature enthusiasts; hikers, mountain bikers, nature photographers and bird watchers.

Literacy is among the highest in the world, about 99,9%, and average life expectancy is over 80 years. The National Church of Iceland, to which 88% of the people belong, is Evangelical Lutheran. Icelanders are a fairly homogeneous mixture of descendants of Norse and Celts; population of foreign origin is around 6%.

Iceland´s Economy
The standard of living is high, with income per capita among the best in the world. The economy is highly dependent upon fishing which accounts for 60% merchandise export earnings although less than 10% of the workforce is involved in fishing and fish processing. Like in many other western countries, two thirds of the working population is employed in the service sector, both public and private. Iceland is a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the European Economic Area (EEA) but is not part of the European Union.

Icelandic History
Settlement started in the late 800s by Norse Vikings and in 930 the Icelandic settlers founded one of the world’s first republican governments during the Old Commonwealth Age, described in the classic Icelandic Sagas. In 1262 Iceland lost its independence and did not become completely independent again until June 17, 1944 when the present Republic was founded. The country is governed by the Althingi (parliament).

Practical Info
Electricity: 230 volts, 50Hz, 2-plug sockets

Currency: Icelandic Krona – ISK (It´s easy and safe to change most currencies, credit cards -Visa/MasterCard accepted almost everywhere)

Time: Greenwich Mean Time – GMT

Language: Icelandic (English is widely understood)

Climate: Temperate, moderated by North Atlantic Gulf Current. Mild, windy winters and damp, cool summers. The average temperature of the warmest month is about 12°C (54°F) and of the coldest month about 0°C (32°F).

Clothing: Warm, wind-and-waterproof clothes are recommended as well as lighter clothes for nice weather. Basically, be prepared for anything.

Road system: In populated areas, asphalt but in the countryside there are a lot of gravel roads which demand attention. In the highlands there are only dirt roads and mountain tracks, many with unbrigded rivers. They require caution and skill. The fauna and vegetation are very sensitive and there are heavy fines for illegal off-roading.

Mobile phones: European system, US-phones need to be tri-band

The Lighter Side of Life
The most popular riddle to ask tourists: “What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest?” – You stand up! (since there are not so many trees and the birch trees that do grow wild are not very tall).

The first question Icelanders are likely to ask you: “So, how do you like Iceland?”  (Even if you just got off the plane…  It has almost become a national joke).

Wonders of Iceland

Iceland is a spellbinding country to explore. Characterized by extraordinarily diverse landscapes, unique geological features, colossal glaciers alongside active volcanoes, geysers and hot springs, glacial rivers, curious columnar basalt formations, beautiful waterfalls and moss covered lava, Iceland is a land of contrasts. With its dramatic natural phenomena and astounding historical and cultural heritage, Iceland inspires a sense of discovery, awe, delight and pure wonder.

Þingvellir (Thingvellir) is the most important cultural heritage site in Iceland, a national treasure of outstanding universal value. A World Heritage Site since 2004, Thingvellir is also remarkable in that in a single location, it combines a variety of geological phenomena found in very few places on Earth.

Thingvellir (“assembly fields”) is the site of the Aþingi (Althing), Iceland’s general assembly, established in 930 AD. The Icelandic Althing has a longer continuous history than any other assembly founded in the Middle Ages. Through landscape and archaeological evidence, Thingvellir offers a unique insight into medieval Nordic culture; it was the setting for many Icelandic sagas and remains hallowed ground for Icelanders today. As a reflection of its significance to the Icelandic people, Thingvellir was the first national park to be founded in Iceland.

Thingvellir rift valley was formed on the tectonic plate boundaries of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The landscape is characterized by fissures, clearly showing on dry land aspects of tectonic plate separation on a mid-ocean ridge. It is therefore of immense interest to geological science. The biggest fissure is Almannagjá (Everyman’s Gorge), which forms a cliff wall, a natural backdrop to the ancient assembly site. Moreover, Thingvellir is a place of great, awe-inspiring beauty. Surrounded by a ring of mountains, with its lava fields, grassy valleys, echoes of the sagas, the legendary river Öxará (Oxara) and the splendid Lake Þingvallavatn (Thingvallavatn), Thingvellir both embodies and evokes “the myth of a nation –Iceland”.

Gullfoss – “Golden Waterfall” is in the canyon of the glacial river Hvítá (Hvita) which originates at Langjökull glacier. Celebrated for its spectacular beauty, it is one of Iceland’s main sightseeing attractions. The waterfall is two-tiered, 2.5 km long, cascading down over a 20 m wide, 32 m deep crevice. On a sunny day, the waterfall appears golden, and a rainbow can often be seen arching over the whole site.

Geysir geothermal field
Haukadalur is home to geysers Geysir and Strokkur, one of the many sites in Iceland where the volcanic heat reaches the surface, creating a variety of hot springs, bubbling pools, fumaroles, billowing steam and fascinating colours. Although the Great Geysir is now quiescent, Strokkur erupts at 4-10 minute intervals, hurling a 20 m tall fountain of steaming water up into the air. At least 3 kings have visited this area and it remains one of the most famous sightseeing spots in Iceland.

Thingvellir, Gullfoss and Geysir form the essential components of “The Golden Circle” tour.

Blue Lagoon
One of Iceland’s unique and extremely popular attractions is the Blue Lagoon geothermal spring. Thanks to silica, other minerals and algae, the Blue Lagoon geothermal seawater is truly blue in colour and well known for its healing and restorative properties. During the summer, you can experience the Icelandic midnight sun in these surreal, volcanically created surroundings, with stunning views over lava fields.

Iceland’s highlands
Vastly contrasting landscapes characterize the highlands of Iceland, the uninhabited interior of the country. Mountain roads and the most popular hiking paths are located in the central highlands, traversing through a variety of impressive settings, from mysterious, intermittently desolate and verdant, to simply stunning wide panoramas. The most travelled hiking trail Laugavegurinn, from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk (Thorsmork), is in the highland wilderness, featuring mountains in almost every colour of an artist’s palette, big rivers, clear mountain brooks, natural hot springs and pools. Þórsmörk nature reserve is a hiker’s and outdoor enthusiast’s paradise, sheltered by glaciers and mountains, with beautiful ravines and valleys, wild rivers and amazing scenery.

One of the phenomena that make Iceland such a fascinating country are Iceland’s volcanoes. Volcanoes have built Iceland and the traces they have left of their activity over the ages are a scientist’s dream. The peculiar landforms, eerie lava fields and lava tube caves, black sand beaches and caldera lakes abound, and it is the ancient lava flows that have sculpted Iceland’s most spectacular mountains, plateaus and other remarkable topographical features. Additionally, the volcanic island Surtsey, also a World Heritage Site, has provided an invaluable opportunity to study the arrival of plant and animal life to a pristine new island.

Hauntingly beautiful, glaciers cover about 11% of Iceland. Together with the volcanoes they have carved “The Land of Fire and Ice”, creating its breathtaking fjords, mighty rivers and awe-inspiring scenery. The shimmering icecaps can be seen from many places in Iceland, and various guided glacier tours are available for closer exploration. Standing on a glacier in Iceland, enjoying the seemingly endless vistas, the extraordinary quality of light on a glacier and its eternity-evoking silence is a truly magical experience.

Jokulsarlon, “The Glacier Lagoon”, is located on the southeast coast of Iceland, between Breiðamerkurjökull glacier and the ocean. As the ice breaks off from the glacier, in all shapes and sizes, it fills the lagoon with shimmering floating icebergs, creating a scene of incomparable beauty. The interplay of the reflections of light with the blues, whites and aquamarines of the icebergs is fascinating. Sailing among the floating icebergs is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland. The lagoon is about 23km2 in size, and sometimes it’s possible to see seals swimming in the lagoon or resting on top of the icebergs.

Northern Lights
The Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis, are visible in Iceland from September through March, due to Iceland’s location on the edge of the Arctic, within the northern auroral zone. Considered by many the most magical of all natural phenomena, Aurora Borealis can be seen on cloudless nights. The sight of the luminous colours and forms unfolding in cascades across the starry night sky has inspired many myths. Northern tradition suggests that the Northern Lights were the glinting shields of the Valkyries and their armour, as they raced across the sky.

Midnight Sun
Summers in Iceland bring the Midnight Sun, a natural phenomenon, also known as the polar day, when daylight lasts almost around the clock. It can be compared to a sunset or twilight, when the landscape is bathed in very soft light. In Iceland, you can even play a round of midnight golf in Reykjavik, Akureyri and Westman Islands.

Icelandic sagas
Icelandic medieval literature, especially the Sagas of Icelanders and the Kings’ Sagas, are regarded among the most remarkable literary achievements of the Middle Ages. The Icelandic sagas have had an immeasurable impact on world literature. Most of the sagas were written in the 12th and 13th centuries and are the cornerstone of Icelandic nation’s modern culture. Geographically, every single part of Iceland has links to the events related in the sagas. Reykholt in West Iceland has a centre dedicated to Snorri Sturluson. Discovering this outstanding heritage alongside nature exploration adds an enormously enriching dimension to the experience of Iceland.

Glaciers in Iceland

Iceland is unparalleled as a place to study glaciers and glacial landforms. About 11% of the land area of Iceland is covered by glaciers, or about 11,400 square kilometres (4,400 square miles). By far the largest of the glacier ice caps is Vatnajökull (Vatnajokull) glacier in south-eastern Iceland. Covering an area of 8,300 km2, up to c. 900 m thick, Vatnajökull is equal in size to all the glaciers on the European mainland put together.

Other large glacier caps are Langjökull (Langjokull) (953 km2) and Hofsjökull (Hofsjokull) (925 km2) – both in the Central Highlands; Mýrdalsjökull (Myrdalsjokull) (596 km2), Eyjafjallajökull (Eyjafjallajokull) (78 km2) and the small Tindfjallajökull (Tindfjallajokull) (19 km2) in the South, and Drangajökull (Drangajokull) (160 km2) in the Northwest. On the tip of Snæfellsnes (Snaefellsnes) peninsula, across the bay from Reykjavík (Reykjavik), one of the smaller glaciers, Snæfellsjökull (Snæfellsjokull) (11 km2), can be seen in clear weather – a fascinating sight at sundown. The main reason that most of the glaciers are located in the Southern Highlands of Iceland is the much greater precipitation in the South than in the North. At the time when the country was being settled, the glaciers were small, but they grew fast when it started getting colder during the latter part of the Middle Ages and up to the turn of the 19th century. Travelling across the glaciers was rare in earlier times, but nowadays it’s quite common when the weather is good. However, inexperienced hikers should not undertake glacier trips unless accompanied by professionals. You can join a glacier tour in a super-jeep, or go snowmobiling.

Types of glaciers in Iceland
Glaciers are classified based on their size and their relationship to topography. Almost all types of glaciers are found in Iceland, ranging from the small cirque glaciers (named for the bowl-like hollows they occupy, called cirques) to extensive dome-shaped glacier ice caps reminding one of the inland ice of Greenland. Most glaciers in Iceland classify as ice caps. Ice caps are miniature ice sheets, covering less than 50,000 km2, which form primarily in polar and sub-polar regions that are relatively flat and high in elevation. Ice caps may cover an entire mountain range or a volcano. Iceland´s Vatnajökull glacier (8,300 km2) is the largest ice cap in Europe; the area it covers is bigger than the state of Rhode Island, USA, and, hidden beneath its ice cap are no less than seven volcanoes, most of them active. The ice caps are drained by broad lobe-shaped outlets or by valley glaciers of the alpine type. Glacier tongues that drain an ice cap or ice sheet and outlet glaciers are also found in Iceland. Breiðamerkurjökull (Breidamerkurjokull), Skeiðarárjökull (Skeidararjokull), Skaftafellsjökull (Skaftafellsjokull), and Svínafellsjökull (Svinafellsjokull) are some of the larger outlet glaciers that drain the ice cap Vatnajökull.

Formation of Glaciers
During the last Ice Age almost all of the country was covered by permanent snow and glacier ice. Glaciers form simply because more snow falls in the winter than can melt in the following summer. A glacier is a thick mass of ice that forms from the compaction and recrystallization of snow. When temperatures remain below freezing following a snowfall, a fluffy accumulation of new snow soon begins to change. Evaporation and recondensation of water causes recrystallization to form smaller, thicker and more spherical grains of ice. This recrystallized snow is called firn. As more snow is deposited and becomes firn, the pressure on underlying grains increases. When the thickness of the snow and ice exceeds tens of metres, the weight is sufficient to cause the firn to grow into even larger ice crystals. In glaciers where melting occurs in the zone of snow accumulation, snow may be transformed into ice very quickly by melting and refreezing (over several years).

Glacier features
The size and extent of glaciers are determined by the climate of a region. The balance between what accumulates high up on the upper part of the glacier, and what melts near the glacier’s foot (terminus) is called the glacier mass balance. Accumulation occurs high up on the glacier (accumulation zone) where snow doesn’t melt even during summer. The ice in a glacier is moving under the force of gravity and, as this material moves down the glacier, it eventually reaches the end of the glacier and melts in the ablation zone. The line that separates these two zones is called the equilibrium line. The elevation of this line varies each year depending on the temperatures that year and the amount of snowfall. If a glacier has more accumulation than ablation for several years, the glacier may advance. If more ablation occurs than accumulation, the glacier will retreat. At all times ice is continually moving down the glacier, even when the terminus is stable for several years. No matter what the size of the glacier, these basic principles determine glacier behaviour. The Icelandic ice caps, with their numerous outlet glaciers, are wet-based and temperate. This means that they are at the pressure melting point throughout the ice mass and during the whole year (except for the surface layers in winter).

The yearly average temperature in Iceland is around 5°C, so there would not have to be a great temperature drop for the glaciers to start growing and advancing again. The Icelandic glaciers are the so-called thaw-glaciers with temperatures around 0°C. Another characteristic of Icelandic glaciers is the great number of constantly moving glacier tongues. Sometimes they advance fast and then retreat gradually again, until the balance between the advance and the melting has been reached. The glaciers are an important source of water for the electrical production in the country. For that reason, they are being constantly monitored and comprehensively researched.

We have a few more driver-guides who work with us regularly and others who are free-lancers so we can take larger groups. We only use driver-guides who are safe drivers with good knowledge of Iceland and have years of experience.


Iceland contains some fascinating volcanoes. The volcanism in Iceland is attributed to the combination of Mid-Atlantic Ridge activity and hot spot activity. Eruptions occur about every 5-10 years. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is visible on land in Iceland and gives an indication of volcanic activity not normally observed.

Almost 60% of the world’s regional fissure eruptions have been in Iceland.

Iceland is one of the most active volcanic regions on Earth. It is estimated that 1/3 of the lava erupted since 1500 A.D. was produced in Iceland. Iceland has 35 volcanoes that have erupted in the last 10,000 years. Eleven volcanoes have erupted between 1900 and 1998: Krafla, Askja, Grímsvötn (Grimsvotn), Laki-Fögrufjöll (Laki-Fogrufjoll), Bárðarbunga (Bardarbunga), Kverkfjöll (Kverkfjoll), Esjufjöll (Esjufjoll), Hekla, Katla, Surtsey, and Heimaey. Most of the eruptions were from fissures or shield volcanoes and involve the effusion of basaltic lava.

The 1783 eruption at Laki was the largest single historic eruption of basaltic lava (12-15 cubic km). Recent eruptions include the 1974 -1984 eruption at Krafla, a brief eruption at Hekla in 1991 and again on 26 February 2000, four eruptions at Grimsvotn: in 1996, 1998, 2004, 2011 and the eruption at Eyjafjallajökull (Eyjafjallajokull) in 2010.

Want to learn more about Iceland and Volcanoes? Check out our sister site Iceland-Travel.com


Wildlife in Iceland is rich in birds and marine mammals but the only land mammal living in Iceland before we humans came was the Arctic fox. It is believed that the Arctic fox travelled across the frozen sea in the very distant past and found a home on this island.

Iceland is surrounded by the cool rich North Atlantic Ocean. A warm oceanic current, the Gulf Stream, sends a steady supply of warm water up past Iceland making it warmer than would otherwise be expected from a land at this latitude. The coastal waters of Iceland play a key role in making Iceland so rich in birds and marine mammals.


Although Iceland is Europe´s second largest island, it has only 75 breeding bird species. However, most breeding species are well represented and can easily seen around the island. For example, the most numerous bird in Iceland is the Atlantic Puffin, there being some four million pairs, and in a colony just outside Reykjavik there are about 30,000 pairs. In addition, over 370 bird species have been recorded in Iceland, an amazing total considering the small number of breeding species. The sheer abundance and accessibility of birdlife in Iceland is astonishing.


Given that almost 11% of Iceland is covered with glaciers, and over 60% is either lava fields or deserts, terrestrial mammals in Iceland are not many. The only original terrestrial mammal in Iceland is the Arctic fox. All the other mammals here today have been brought by man, knowingly or inadvertently. Among these are two species of mice, reindeer and the American mink, all of which can now be considered a part of the Icelandic environment.

Marine mammals are numerous in Icelandic coastal waters and currently 23 species of cetaceans are being spotted. The cool, clear North Atlantic Ocean encircling Iceland is rich with food for whales of various sizes and species. Most common are minke whales and white-beaked dolphins, but killer whales are also frequently seen and if you are lucky, you can see the huge humpback whales, waving their flukes and sometimes leaping, a sight that will leave you breathless. Sperm whales are rarely spotted and pilot whales only at times. Iceland´s vast and uninhabited coast still offers many inaccessible areas which provide sanctuary for the two species of seals that give birth to their pups in Iceland. The harbour seal is more common than the grey seal, with numbers in the tens of thousands. All the other seal species frequenting the Arctic can be found along the shore from time to time, even though visits from some are considered a rarity.


Iceland is home to one of the world’s largest colonies of puffins: over half of the world´s population of the Atlantic Puffin breeds in Iceland, somewhere between 3 – 4 million pairs each year. The total population of puffins in Iceland is estimated to be between 8 and 10 million birds. The Atlantic Puffin is one of the four species of puffins and the one most commonly found in Iceland. Icelandic word for puffin is “lundi”.

Latrabjarg, Hornbjarg, Hornstrandir, Haelavikurbjarg, Breidafjord and Lundey
There are a number of places in Iceland where you can see the Atlantic Puffin. Látrabjarg Cliffs (Latrabjarg) in the Vestfirðir (Westfjords), the westernmost point in Europe, is one of the three largest bird cliffs in Iceland. The other two large bird cliffs are Hornbjarg and the Nature Reserve Park of Hornstrandir, both in the north-west of Iceland.  Hornstrandir is an ideal place to combine hiking and bird watching. Other puffin areas are the Vestmannaeyjar, (Westman Islands), Breiðafjörður (Breidafjord) and Lundey – Puffin Island, just 3 minutes’ sailing from Reykjavik, which has a puffin colony of around 30 000 birds.

The puffins in Hornbjarg and Hælavíkurbjarg (Haelavikurbjarg) are more trusting towards people than in other places, due to the fact that these areas do not harvest puffins. No puffins or birds are caught in Hornstrandir Natural Reserve Park. We humans are only visitors in their backyard. Many puffins in that area are so tame that we can sometimes crawl slowly towards them and even gently touch them, without scaring them away.

Puffins have also started making their homes on the second newest island on our planet, Surtsey, which erupted from the ocean off the south coast of Iceland as a volcano in November 1963. However, only scientists are allowed to land on Surtsey, to be able to observe the ecological processes unfold, undisturbed by human interference.

Puffins 0n the Westman Islands
On the Westman Islands, which hold about half of all Icelandic puffins, the puffins are both harvested and rescued. Puffins have been a vital source of food through the centuries for Icelanders in the islands. However, they are harvested sustainably – Icelanders know they need them again next year. Icelanders also rescue puffins when in August millions of new-born puffins leave their burrows in the cliffs of Heimaey – the main island in the Westman Islands. Puffins leave at night using the moon to navigate, but the streetlights of Heimaey seem to throw some of the young birds off their flight paths. When that happens, it’s time for the children of Heimaey to launch the Puffin Patrol – a search and rescue operation for the befuddled birds, which, instead of flying out to sea, fly into town where they crash-land in the streets. The children of Heimaey have been rescuing young puffling chicks (“pysja” in Icelandic) for generations. In fact, at the end of summer, releasing the puffins by their hundreds to the safety of the sea has become a local tradition.

The South Iceland Natural History Institute has done extensive research into the puffins’ habitats and migratory behaviour. Air photographing and counting of the puffins’ nesting burrows has enabled ornithologists to assess that the Westman Islands habitat contains 1/5 of the world´s total number of puffins, confirming that the Westman Islands in Iceland are the largest single puffin colony in the world.

Puffins spend most of their lives on the water, coming ashore only to breed and raise their single puffling (chick) each year. Along with the other alcids (auks), puffins swim well underwater using their flapping wings to propel them under the surface and their webbed feet to manoeuvre. Their bodies, similar in shape to the flightless penguins, are wonderful for diving and swimming but clumsy in the air. Puffins can dive to depths of about 60 metres. Taking off from land, a puffin may jump from a cliff to get enough lift to fly. From the water, a puffin flaps furiously into the wind to get airborne, similar to how airplanes head into the wind during take-off. Though hardly graceful, they are surprisingly swift flyers, able to reach a speed of 88 km an hour by flapping their wings 400 times per minute.

There are many fabulous pictures of puffins with their bills full of dangling fish; often all neatly lined up. Hmmm … how can a puffin hold one fish while catching another? The answer lies in the fact that they use their tongues to hold the fish securely against spines in the roof of their mouths, while leaving their beaks free to open and catch more fish. Because of their specially adapted beak, a hungry puffin’s mouth is capable of holding up to 60 fish (albeit small ones) at a time.

The Latin name for Atlantic Puffin is Fratercula arctica – “little brother of the north”. The name Fratercula – “little brother”, or “friar” – may have come about because of their habit of holding their feet together when out of water, giving the appearance of praying. It could also have been an allusion to their black and white plumage resembling a cleric’s clothing. On the other hand, their multi-coloured beak has prompted people to give them nicknames such as “the sea parrot” and “clown of the sea”.


Iceland offers great opportunities for bird watching. The fact that Iceland lies in the North Atlantic just under the Arctic Circle and between Europe and the American continent, as well as having Greenland relatively nearby, has implications for the diversity of bird species in Iceland. Due to its geographical position, Iceland is famous for the occurrence of vagrants, and its location in the North Atlantic makes it an excellent place to look for rarely seen birds coming from both North America and Europe.

Two other characteristic elements also play a big role with regard to bird life in Iceland. Firstly, the Iceland lowlands have exceptionally mild winters given their northern latitude. This leads to hosting very unlikely winter visitors, such as the common European Grey Heron from Norway. Secondly, there are hardly any (real) trees in Iceland and summers are cool. These are unfavourable elements for many passerines. However, Iceland has a long coastline, providing both breeders of low coastal regions and cliff breeding birds with ample space for breeding.

The most sought after species by birders and birdwatchers visiting Iceland are the Icelandic Gyrfalcon, the largest falcon in the world, the Red-necked Phalarope and the Puffin. All can easily be found with some experience or local guiding. Bird watching in Iceland is a richly rewarding experience for everyone who enjoys nature.

Bird species seen in Iceland
Although Iceland is Europe´s second largest island it has only 75 breeding species. Most breeding species are very numerous, though, and are easily seen everywhere around Iceland. For example, the most numerous bird in Iceland is the Atlantic Puffin, there being some three to four million pairs. In a colony just outside Reykjavik there are about 30,000 pairs. The Icelandic bird list isn´t very long, but over 350 bird species have been recorded in Iceland, an amazing total considering the small number of breeding species.

Common on the cliffs of Iceland are the auks, species belonging to the same Alcidae family of seabirds as the puffins. The steep perpendicular cliffs are used mostly by the common guillemots (Uria aalge) and the closely related Brünnich’s guillemot (Uria lomvia) which is a more northern close relative of the common guillemot. On higher parts of the cliffs the Razorbill (Alca torda) is more common. The popular Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica) breed in self dug hollows on the edge of the rocks and grass turfs. Since they stay close to the edge and near their burrows, tourists can approach them easily. The Black Guillemot (Cepphus grylle), is also common in Iceland, especially in the Breiðafjörður (Breidafjordur) area. It breeds in rock hollows of lower coast lines.

Other birds are also typical for the cliffs. These are the kittiwakes (Rissa tridactylla) and the fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis). Kittywakes breed only on cliffs at the sea shore while fulmars can also be found much further inland and also on high mountain slopes along the coast. Fulmars resemble gulls but are in fact member of the Petrel family. Shags (Phalocrocorax aristotelis) and Northern Gannets (Morus bassanus) are also cliff breeding birds. Shags are more common in the western region (Snaefellsnes and Breidafjordur) while gannets frequent the south-western coasts of Iceland. Iceland’s national bird, the Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) habitually nests on cliff faces. This magnificent bird breeds in all parts of Iceland but is commonest in the north. The Falcon is most noticeable in autumn and is a great favourite with bird watchers.

Bird watching locations in Iceland
There are many places where one can visit these cliffs. Well known are the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands), Arnarstapi on the Snaefellsnes peninsula, the Breidafjordur area. The Breidafjordur is also famous for the sea eagle, also known as the White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla). By far the most famous place to visit cliff breeding birds is the Látrabjarg (Latrabjarg) Cliffs, located on the westernmost tip of the Vestfirðir (Westfjords) district. Other places of interest are the Grímsey (Grimsey) Island on the Arctic Circle north of mainland Iceland and, in the south, Ingólfshöfði (Ingolfshofdi) Cape and Dyrholaey. A special feature is Lake Mývatn (Myvatn) in northern Iceland where an exceptional number of duck species and other waterfowl breed.

The sheer abundance and accessibility of birdlife in Iceland makes it an ideal destination for birding and bird watching. A detailed description, specifying the types of birds you can see in and around Iceland through different seasons is provided on the accompanying Bird Watching page.

You will all have a tale to tell from your visit to Latrabjarg Cliffs. It’s a great place to see and photograph seabirds as the Arctic sun bounces on the horizon at midnight. Latrabjarg is as far west in Europe as any man will stand on solid ground, the continent’s westernmost boundary. It’s one of the three largest bird cliffs in Iceland, the other two being Hornbjarg and Hælavíkurbjarg (Haelavikurbjarg) in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. Latrabjarg is by far the easiest of the three to visit as a road leads practically to the cliffs’ edge and from the parking lot a walking path traverses the edge. In summer it is a popular tourist destination and the main attraction is the Puffin. In few places in Iceland, if any, are the puffins more trusting towards humans. For a few months every year, this massive 440 metre high and 14 kilometre long cliff becomes alive with the nesting activity of millions of seabirds. The seabird colonies at Latrabjarg are enormous, and they include the world’s largest known Razorbill colony at Stórurð (Storurd), ‘The Giant Boulders’, scree beneath the cliff. The puffins seen by their burrows at the cliff’s edge are not the most numerous species, but they are arguably the most noticeable. Other auks that breed at Latrabjarg are Razorbills, Common Guillemot and the Brünnich Guillemot, a high Arctic species that is at its southern breeding limit in Iceland, and one of the target birds for any serious birder and birdwatcher visiting the country.

The Icelandic Society for the Protection of Birds has taken part in establishing and running a nature reserve in the Southern Lowlands of Iceland, the Flói Nature Reserve. This is a wetland area rich in birdlife, Wildfowl and Waders being the most common birds in the reserve. The most common wader is the Dunlin, over 80 pairs/km. This is the highest breeding density ever to be reported for this species in Iceland.

Bird Watching

If your hobby is birding or bird watching, Iceland has a lot to offer. There are around 350 “Icelandic” bird species and about 75 of them breed in Iceland. A bird watching tour will typically yield 70-80 species in May and June, which is the best time to visit. Many species are abundant and easy to spot at this time of year. All the migrants will have arrived by this time and birds are very conspicuous, defending their territories. To European birders, Iceland is famous for its three breeding bird species of American origin: Great Northern Diver, Harlequin Duck and Barrows Goldeneye, and for one Arctic bird, Brünnichs Guillemot. Furthermore, all ducks are still in breeding plumage at that time and are easy to see. Bird cliffs especially attract many visitors, both general tourists and keen birders and birdwatchers.

Látrabjarg Cliffs and Hornstrandir Nature Reserve
You will all have a tale to tell from your visit to Látrabjarg (Latrabjarg) Cliffs. It is a great place to see and photograph seabirds as the Arctic sun bounces on the horizon at midnight. Latrabjarg is as far west in Europe as any man will stand on solid ground, the continent’s westernmost boundary. It is one of the three largest bird cliffs in Iceland, with the other two being Hornbjarg and Hælavíkurbjarg (Haelavikurbjarg) in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. Latrabjarg is by far the easiest of the three to visit as a road leads practically to the cliffs’ edge and from the parking lot a walking path traverses the edge. In summer it is a popular tourist destination and the main attraction is the Puffin. There are very few places in Iceland, if any, where the puffins are more trusting towards humans than in Latrabjarg. They seem quite unruffled by people´s presence, so much so that, if one silently approaches a perched bird and slowly reaches out, some of these wild puffins can be touched without them being startled or flushed. This trust towards humans has been developed over a long period and there is an obvious reason for it. The Latrabjarg Cliffs are not harvested – these puffins are never hunted.

For a few months every year, this massive 440 metre high and 14 kilometre long cliff becomes alive with the nesting activity of millions of seabirds. The seabird colonies at Latrabjarg are enormous, and they include the world’s largest known Razorbill colony at Stórurð (Storurd) – ‘The Giant Boulders’- scree beneath the cliff. The puffins, seen by their burrows at the cliff’s edge, are not the most numerous species, but they are arguably the most noticeable. Other auks that breed at Latrabjarg are Razorbills, Common Guillemot and the Brünnich Guillemot, a high Arctic species that is at its southern breeding limit in Iceland, and one of the target birds for any serious birder and birdwatcher visiting the country.

Other birdwatching areas in Iceland:
Vestmannaeyar (the Westman Islands) – Atlantic Puffin colony
Lake Mývatn – Europe’s most diverse waterfowl habitat
Breiðafjörður on the Snæfellsnes peninsula
Hafnaberg on the Reykjanes peninsula
Hrísey island near Akureyri, North Iceland
Langaness peninsula in the northeast
Dyrhólaey and Ingólfshöfði in the southeast
Papey island in the east
Valahnúkur and Arnarstapi in the Highlands

Bird watching seasons
Bird watching in autumn is very different from the spring. Birds are mainly seen along the coast and by the middle of October most migrants have left the country. The ducks are in eclipse (moulting). In addition, many migrants have left Iceland in the autumn. However, Iceland’s national bird, the Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) can be seen in autumn, and autumn is the best time to look for rarely seen birds. Sightings occur between September and November, with mid-September to mid-October being the best time. American waders are usually seen until early October, while the peak occurrence of American passerines is around October 10. American passerines have been noticed annually in Iceland since 1968 with the exception of 1994. After good South West winds, birders should keep their eyes open for American birds while birding in the Southwest or South of Iceland. Winter birding is more difficult and there are only a few species around, most of these being based in the Southwest part. On a good winter’s day the day list can reach 40 species (only in the South-West). On a good spring day birders can see up to 65-70 species in one day. Because there is daylight all night long, you can be bird watching for 24 hours a day.

Birders coming to Iceland in spring time, when bird life is at its highest, will be amazed at how common the birds are and how easy they are to find. As soon as you are out of the capital, the birds take over. Even in downtown Reykjavík you can find breeding birds such as the Arctic Tern, Greater Scaup, Tufted Duck, Gadwall, Common Eider, Common Ringed Plover and many, many more. At this time of year you can count on seeing all Icelandic breeding birds, but for some species, such as the Rock Ptarmigan and the Gyrfalcon, you need to travel a bit.

The biggest colonies of European & Leach´s Storm-petrels are at the Westman Islands. These birds arrive in April and a special trip around the colonies at night (preferably after mid-June) is needed to see these species. The largest Icelandic bird and the rarest is the White-tailed Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla). After decades of hunting and prosecution it was protected in 1913, but by then there were only about 20 breeding pairs. Last number seen was 57 pairs which is not many, considering it has been protected for almost a century. Breeding sites of the White-tailed Eagle are kept secret and most of them breed in the western part of Iceland. The beautiful shorebird Grey/Red Phalarope has become quite rare and the Icelandic population is now only 20-40 pairs. Without knowledge of breeding sites (which are also kept secret), this bird can be almost impossible to see during this time of year. Many birders coming to Iceland think they have a chance to see Snowy Owl in the highlands, but this is wrong as the Snowy Owl is only a very irregular breeder. There are 10-20 records annually, both in summer and winter.

Flói Nature Reserve
The Icelandic Society for the Protection of Birds has taken part in establishing and running this nature reserve in the Southern Lowlands of Iceland. This is a wetland area rich in birdlife: wildfowl and waders are the most common birds in the reserve. A few pairs of Red-throated Divers and Whooper Swans also breed in the area. The Greylag Goose is a common breeder and also a passage migrant. Mallard, Teal, Wigeon, Pintail, Tufted Duck, Scaup and Red-breasted Merganser breed, and Gadwall and Shoveler have also been seen during the breeding season. Eider Duck (about 900 pairs) breed on the island Kaldaðarneseyjar in the Ölfusá River, a few hundred meters away from the reserve, and a few pairs also in the reserve itself. The most common wader is the Dunlin, over 80 pairs/km. This is the highest breeding density ever to be reported for this species in Iceland. Some other common waders are the Black-tailed Godwit, Red-necked Phalarope, Golden Plover, Whimbrel, Snipe and Redshank. A few small Black-headed Gull colonies are scattered over the area. The Greater Black-backed Gull, Arctic Skua and Arctic Tern also breed. The Meadow Pipit is the only common breeding passerine. A few pairs of Redwings and White Wagtail also breed. Greenland White-fronted Goose, Greylag Goose, Snipe, Meadow Pipit, Snowy Owl, Wheatear and Redwing, among others, are common passage migrants. Few birds winter on the reserve because of the ice cover.


Many species of whales are spotted in the waters around Iceland. The cool, clear North Atlantic Ocean encircling Iceland is rich with food for whales of various sizes and species. Most common are minke whales and white-beaked dolphins, but killer whales are also frequently seen. The most famous killer whale of all times, Keiko, perhaps better known as Willy, was born and caught in Icelandic waters.

If you are lucky, you can see the huge humpback whales, waving their flukes and sometimes leaping, a sight that will leave you breathless. Humpback whale flukes are large, notched in the centre, and the whales nearly always show them when leaving the surface. Sperm whales are rarely spotted and pilot whales only at times. Porpoises frequently leap near the whale watching boats and follow them playfully around.

Thousands of tourists have enjoyed whale watching from various sites around Iceland. In the north of Iceland,
the main whale watching port is Húsavík (Husavik); in the Midwest are Ólafsvík (Olafsvik) on the Snæfellsnes (Snaefellsnes) peninsula and Höfn (Hofn) in the southeast of Iceland. The ports on the Reykjanes Peninsula are Keflavík (Keflavik), Sandgerði (Sandgerdi) and Grindavík (Grindavik) which are only a 40-45 minute drive from the capital Reykjavík (Reykjavik) and only 5 minutes from Keflavik International Airport. Whale watching is also available from the capital area, both from Reykjavik and Hafnarfjörður (Hafnarfjordur) harbour.

Whale watching is probably the single most popular activity for tourists in Iceland during the summer time and
it´s growing, although it is still far from being too commercial. The spotting locations are not swarming with other crafts full of tourists. Small groups are taken out. There are usually no other vessels except those of the local fishermen and, apart from sighting the majestic whales, the tour operators usually try to show their guests a variety of sea birds, such as the Atlantic Puffin and sometimes you can see some seals.

One of the most amazing mammals in the world, whales can boast of being the biggest animal ever, the mammal with the longest migration, the deepest-diving mammal and one that is capable of emitting the loudest noise in nature. In the world there are about 90 different kinds of cetaceans, or whales, dolphins and porpoises that have been recognised and registered as a special breed. In the last 10 years, there have been about 10 new species of cetaceans discovered but in the waters around Iceland it is possible to find over 23 different species. Icelandic waters cover areas of the cold Arctic sea in the north to the warmer sea, south of the country. Various ocean currents are constantly bringing food and creating conditions for good food areas where the currents meet and the long sun period during the summer provides good conditions for krill and other crustaceans, the basic food of the oceans.

Northern Lights

The Northern Lights, also called Aurora Borealis, and Norðurljós in Icelandic, are one of the most spectacular shows on this earth and can frequently be seen in Iceland from September through March on clear and crisp nights. The Northern Lights occur high above the surface of the earth where the atmosphere has become extremely thin, at an altitude of 100-250 km. They are created by electrically charged particles that make the thin air shine, not unlike a fluorescent light. Auroras can be seen in auroral belts that form 20-25 degrees around the geomagnetic poles, both the north and the south.

The name Northern Lights was first chronicled in the original Old Norse, as “norðrljós”, in 1230; while the name Aurora Borealis (“Dawn of the North”) is jointly credited to have first been used by Galileo Galilei and Petrus Gassendus in the 17th century. Derived from Aurora, the Roman goddess of Dawn, and Boreas, the Greek god of the North Wind, the name evokes some of the majestic, otherworldly splendour of an auroral display.

Solar wind and auroras
What causes this spectacular phenomenon, so characteristic of our northern skies here in Iceland? Well, it’s electricity that does it – and of course it all goes back to the Sun. Simply put, the auroras are caused by the interaction of the solar wind and its embedded magnetic field with the Earth´s magnetosphere. The solar wind´s stream of highly charged particles (protons and electrons) escaping the sun, interacts with our planet’s magnetic field and atmosphere. The particles are trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field and they begin to spiral back and forth along the magnetic lines of force – circle around the magnetic pole. While rushing around endlessly in their magnetic trap, some particles escape into the Earth’s atmosphere. They begin to hit molecules in the atmosphere and these series of tiny collisions cause the molecules to glow, thus creating the auroras.

Colours of the Northern Lights
As all of these magnetic and electrical forces react with one another in constantly changing combinations, these shifts and flows can be seen as the auroras gracefully “dance” alongside the atmospheric currents. White and green are usually the dominant colours but sometimes there are considerable colour variations, as the pressure and composition of the atmosphere varies at different altitudes. At extremely high altitudes where the pressure is low, there tends to be a reddish glow produced by oxygen molecules when they are struck by the particles of the solar wind. At lower altitudes, where there is higher pressure, impact-irritated oxygen molecules may glow with a greenish tinge and sometimes there is a reddish lower border created by particles colliding with nitrogen molecules in the immediate vicinity.

The phenomenon is easily explained by modern science. What our ancestors may have thought when they gazed into the brightly-lit winter sky is quite another matter. At all events, don’t let any scientific explanation spoil your appreciation of the beauty of the Northern Lights. They are a truly impressive spectacle, whatever their cause.


Iceland sits spanning the Mid-Atlantic Ridge tectonic plate boundary which separates the Eurasian and the North American plates. The ridge, an underwater mountain chain, extends about 16,000 km along the north-south axis of the Atlantic Ocean. A rift valley running along its spine is formed by plate tectonics and it’s the locus of new crust formation. Molten lava from beneath the Earth´s crust constantly wells up, cools, and is pushed away from the ridge´s flanks, widening the gap between the continents in the process. Iceland formed by the coincidence of the spreading boundary of the North American and Eurasian plates and a hotspot or mantle plume – an upsurge of abnormally hot rock in the Earth´s mantle. As the plates moved apart, excessive eruptions of lava constructed volcanoes and filled rift valleys. Subsequent movement rifted these later lava fields, causing long, linear valleys bounded by parallel faults. The divergence of the ridge started in the north about 150 million years ago and 90 million years ago in the south. These movements continue today, accompanied by earthquakes, reactivation of old volcanoes, and creation of new ones. Iceland is the largest island on the ridge because of the additional volcanism caused by the hotspot under the country, the Iceland plume, which is moving slowly across towards the northwest. Other islands of the Atlantic Ocean created by the volcanism of the Mid Atlantic Ridge are The Azores, Bermuda, Madeira, The Canary Islands, Ascension, St Helena and Tristan da Cunha.

Volcanism in Iceland
Because Iceland lies on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, it is being split by the movements of the shifting tectonic plates. The plates are moving apart, one to the east, the other to the west, and both the North American and the Eurasian systems are moving to the northwest across the hotspot. On top of hotspots there is generally a 20-100% molten layer at the depth of 5-20 km, which supplies sufficient material for eruptions. Iceland is home to more than 100 volcanoes, around 35 of which have erupted in recent history. The volcanism on Iceland is attributed to the combination of Mid-Atlantic Ridge activity and hotspot activity. Eruptions occur about every 5-10 years and primarily consist of basaltic lava and tephra. A few long-lived centres, such as the volcano Hekla, erupt more silicic magmas. The hotspot causes eruptions within the southern volcanic zone including volcanic systems such as Mt Hekla, Vestmannaeyjar (the Westman Islands), Katla caldera, Eyjafjallajökull (Eyjafjallajokull), the Laki area and the western subglacial part of the Vatnajökull (Vatnajokull) area where Grímsvötn (Grimsvotn) volcano is the most active.

Some of the most active areas of new crust formation are in the south-western parts of Iceland, accessible to tourists. The trip from Keflavík (Keflavik) airport to Reykjavík (Reykjavik) takes you along the edge of the North American plate where it meets the Eurasian plate. A drive to nearby Þingvellir (Thingvellir) valley, the site of the world’s first parliament, reveals an older part of the rift system, where you can see both sides of the plates´ boundary in one sweeping panorama. A flight to the island of Heimaey gives you a glimpse of the new land forming and of the hazards of living in the path of a spreading rift.

Iceland can be divided into three zones based on the age of the basaltic rocks. Tertiary flood basalts make up most of the northwest quadrant of the island. This stack of lava flows is at least 3,000 m thick. Quaternary flood basalts and hyaloclastites are exposed in the central, southwest and east parts of the island. The Quaternary rocks are cut by the neovolcanic zone, areas of active rifting that contain most of the active volcanoes. The rifts are topographic depressions bordered by and containing many faults. Fissure swarms make up most of the neovolcanic zone. The swarms are 5-10 km wide and 30-100 km long. The rift zones have opened about 30 m in the last 3,000-5,000 years. The neovolcanic zone is about one-third of the area of Iceland. Almost 60% of the world’s regional fissure eruptions have been in Iceland.

Volcanic eruptions
Iceland is one of the most active volcanic regions on Earth. It is estimated that 1/3 of the lava erupted since 1500 AD was produced in Iceland. Iceland has 35 volcanoes that have erupted in the last 10,000 years. Eleven volcanoes erupted between 1900 and 1998: Krafla, Askja, Grimsvotn, Loki – Fögrufjöll (Fogrufjoll), Bárðarbunga (Bardarbunga), Kverkfjöll (Kverkfjoll), Esjufjöll (Esjufjoll), Hekla, Katla, Surtsey, and Heimaey. Most of the eruptions were from fissures or shield volcanoes and involve the effusion of basaltic lava.

Iceland was buried under ice in the last Ice Age and all eruptions were subglacial. Fragments of the ice caps remain and Iceland continues to have numerous subglacial eruptions. Of the world’s known subglacial eruptions, 83% are in Iceland. The eruption at Grimsvotn is an example. Subglacial eruptions produce a special type of volcano, called a table mountain or a moberg mountain. Great volumes of meltwater, generated by subglacial eruptions, can burst out from beneath glaciers to produce enormous glacial floods called jokulhlaup. The discharge can be as much as 20 times greater than the flow rate of the Amazon River.

The 1783 eruption at Laki was the largest single historic eruption of basaltic lava (14.7 cubic km). Recent eruptions include the 1974-1984 eruption at Krafla, a brief eruption at Hekla in 1991 and again on February 26, 2000, the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010 and four eruptions at Grimsvotn: in 1996, 1998, 2004 and 2011.

Geysers and hot springs

Geysir is one of the main attractions on Iceland´s most popular sightseeing tour, the Golden Circle. All of the world’s spouting hot springs are named after Geysir in Iceland – in all languages other than Icelandic, the word “geysir” or “geyser” names the phenomenon. In Icelandic, it´s just the name of that single geyser, and although the word refers to all geysers in general, there´s only one real Geysir and that’s the one in south-west Iceland.

The first tales of the Great Geysir date back to the year 1294 when a powerful earthquake shook the southern lowlands of Iceland and changed the geothermal area in Haukadalur valley. Reports found in the written annals stating that “large hot springs” were formed, are now thought to indicate that the hot springs started to spout.
The fame of the area increased in the following centuries, especially that of the Great Geysir itself. This was not surprising as erupting geysers were at the time not known in Europe outside Iceland. The geysers in Yellowstone and New Zealand had obviously not been discovered at that time.

During the centuries after 1294 the intensity of the thermal areas evidently increased after large earthquakes, striking on average every 100 years. However, Geysir became dormant for a long while, until it woke up dramatically as an earthquake of 6.5 magnitude on the Richter scale hit the area on 17 June 2000 – coincidentally, Iceland´s National Day. Since then, Geysir has been erupting sporadically, but when Geysir performs, it sure lives up to its name, “The Geysir”, ejecting a jet of steaming water, between 60-80 m high.

Another geyser – Strokkur – is located less than 100 m away from Geysir and it erupts frequently, every 4-8 minutes. Strokkur is a fountain geyser, one of Iceland´s most famous, first mentioned in 1789. It is one of the very few natural geysers that erupts regularly, spouting steaming water up to about 20 metres.

Other geysers
As well as Geysir and Strokkur, Haukadalur area in south-western Iceland features smaller geysers, steaming fumaroles and colourful, mineral-rich pools and mud formations. It is also a great walking destination, with numerous marked walking paths that lead past hot springs and ancient silica deposits, where you can feel the heat underfoot as you stroll through this beautiful, surreal landscape.

Why does a geyser erupt?
Geysers occur in high temperature geothermal areas, within the zone of active rifting and volcanism, where the temperature in the subsurface system is higher than 200°C at less than 1 km depth. The temperature of the hot springs is up to 100°C and some are constantly boiling: if the temperature at depth rises above boiling, the hot springs erupt which means that they are geysers. Geysir’s eruption occurs when boiling water within the geyser, trapped by cooler water above it, explodes, forcing its way to the surface. In more detail, geysers erupt because the thermal water ascending through their channels boils at some depth below the surface.

As the water boils, it converts into steam and, since the steam occupies far greater volume than water, the water above in the channel is thrown high up into the air. At about 23 m depth in the Geysir pipe the water is at 120°C temperature. It is in equilibrium with the pressure of the water above in the pipe; i.e., the weight of the water above keeps the boiling down. At a depth of around 16 m, the temperature of the water sometimes rises above boiling, seen as increased turbulence at the surface. This turbulence (boiling) can increase to the point where the water above in the pipe is lifted slightly, and a chain reaction starts – the pressure decreases making further boiling possible and the water flashes into steam, resulting in an eruption in Geysir. The boiling then extends down into the pipe, throwing more water into the air. When all the water in the pipe has been thrown out, the water coming from depth changes immediately into steam and a steam eruption follows the water eruption, with accompanying noise. The water-phase lasts for a few minutes and the steam-phase considerably longer, gradually dying out and the cycle starts again.

For centuries the eruptions in Geysir were considered supernatural and many theories were built to explain these wonders. Don´t let the scientific explanations spoil your sense of wonder and magic. Be mindful of the fact that the silica sinter is delicate and, although constantly being formed, the process takes years. Respect needs to be shown for the fragile beauty of this unique area and nature must be allowed to evolve on its own. A good photograph is a much better souvenir than a piece of silica sinter.


“The Sagas of Icelanders have been the foundation of Icelandic culture, forged the nation’s identity
and inspired people to bold deeds in times of adversity.”

The oldest surviving Icelandic literature is poetry, some of it almost certainly composed before the settlement of Iceland, either in Scandinavia or Scandinavian settlements elsewhere. However, these poems are only preserved in Icelandic manuscripts, and nowhere else.

The poems can be divided into two categories, the Eddic and the Skaldic poems. The Eddic poems are composed in free variable metres. There are two distinct classes of Eddic poetry: the heroic lays and the mythological lays. The form of the Skaldic poetry is much stricter than that of the Eddic poetry. The syntax is very complex, and the skalds used highly specialized vocabulary.

The greatest of all the skalds was Egill Skallagrímsson. One of his best known poems is Höfuðlausn (Head Ransom), composed in York ca. 948. Egill was being held captive by Erik Bloodaxe, then ruling York, and was to be executed. During the night before the intended execution, Egill composed this poem in honour of his enemy, and was granted his own head as a reward.

Völuspá and Hávamál
The heroic lays are based on legends, many of which derive from continental Germany, and even from the Goths of south-eastern Europe. The mythological lays are about northern gods, and of wisdom attributed to them. The most famous of the latter are the Völuspá (Sibyl’s Prohecy) and the Hávamál (Words of the High One). Völuspá is spoken by a sibyl who tells the history of the world, of gods, men and monsters, from the beginning until the Ragnarök (Doom of the gods), when the gods will fall, the sun become black, smoke and fire will gush forth and the earth sink in total darkness.

The Hávamál is a didactic poem in which the god Óðinn (Odin) gives instructions about social conduct and speaks of runes and magical powers. The Hávamál was almost certainly composed before the settlement of Iceland, and handed down orally until it was written down in Iceland.

Iceland’s medieval chronicles
During the 12th and the 13th centuries there were some great historians at work in Iceland, concentrating on Icelandic history and the histories of the kings of Norway. The most important works of this genre are Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements), a detailed history of the settlement of Iceland, Íslendingabók (The Book of Icelanders), composed around 1125 by Ari Þorgilsson the Learned, and Heimskringla (Orb of the World), a history of the early kings of Norway. Heimskringla was written by Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). Snorri also wrote the Prose Edda, a handbook of prosody and poetic diction. In it are many tales of pagan gods and heroes.

The major categories of sagas include: histories, saints’ lives, Icelandic family sagas, kings’ sagas, contemporary sagas, chivalric romances and legendary sagas.

The Sagas of Icelanders
Islendingasögur – The Sagas of Icelanders (the “Family Sagas”) written in the 13th century, are the crown of Icelandic literature, and can be considered the first prose novels of Europe. Remarkably, the sagas were written in the vernacular Old Norse. These sagas are family chronicles, describing the events that took place during the period of the Icelandic Commonwealth in the 10th and 11th centuries AD. They were written by anonymous authors.

Around 40 family sagas are preserved in the manuscripts from the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. The artistic values of the best of the sagas are indisputable and they are amongst the most important European literary works of the past millennium. Most of the sagas bring together historical and fictional elements in a unified narrative. Their characterization is vivid and they show deep sympathy and understanding of human tragedy. The style is plain, unpretentious and concise, with adjectives used sparingly, and with great emphasis on dialogue.

The sagas are about love and hatred, family feuds and vengeance, loyalty and friendship, conflicts due to matters of honour, warriors and kings, and destiny. Some of the best known sagas are Grettir’s Saga, about the outlaw Grettir the Strong; Laxdaela Saga, a delicately woven tragedy, covering four or five generations, with women playing prominent roles; Egil’s Saga, about the defiant Viking warrior poet Egill Skallagrímsson; and Njal’s Saga, generally considered the greatest of them all, about two heroes, Gunnar, a noble warrior without equal, and Njáll, a wise and prudent man with prophetic gifts; their friendship and heroic deaths.

The sagas remain an intrinsic part of Icelanders’ identity today, and lie at the heart of Iceland’s modern culture. They have also had an enormous impact on world literature, and were admired by writers from around the world, including William Blake, William Morris, JRR Tolkien and Jorge Louis Borges, to name just a few.

The greatest collector of Old Norse manuscripts was the Icelander Árni Magnússon (1663-1730).
In 2009, the Árni Magnússon Manuscripts Collection was inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, world cultural heritage list, with a special mention of the major significance of the Sagas of Icelanders for the wider world.

*The title quote is from the foreword to Páll Bergþórsson’s The Wineland Millenium, by the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson