It has a population of 332,529 and an area of 103,000 km2(40,000 sq mi), making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe. The capital and largest city is Reykjavík. Reykjavík and the surrounding areas in the southwest of the country are home to over two-thirds of the population. Iceland is volcanically and geologically active. The interior consists of a plateau characterised by sand and lava fields, mountains and glaciers, while many glacial rivers flow to the sea through the lowlands. Iceland is warmed by the Gulf Stream and has a temperate climate, despite a high latitude just outside the Arctic Circle. Its high latitude and marine influence still keeps summers chilly, with most of the archipelago having a tundra climate.
According to Landnámabók, the settlement of Iceland began in the year AD 874 when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfur Arnarson became the first permanent settler on the island. In the following centuries, mainly Norwegians and to a smaller extent other Scandinavians settled Iceland, bringing with them thralls of Gaelic origin. From 1262 to 1814, Iceland was ruled by Norway and afterwards by Denmark. Until the 20th century, the country relied largely on fishing and agriculture. Iceland became independent in 1918 and a republic in 1944.
The geology of Iceland is unique and of particular interest to geologists. Iceland lies on the divergent boundary between the Eurasian plate and the North American plate. It also lies above a hotspot, the Iceland plume, which is believed to have caused the formation of Iceland itself, the island first appearing over the ocean surface about 16 to 18 million years ago. The result is an island characterized by repeated volcanism and geothermal phenomena such as geysers.
The eruption of Laki in 1783 caused much devastation and loss of life and affected Europe.
In the period 1965 to 1969 the new island of Surtsey was created on the southwest coast by a volcanic eruption.
Iceland is one of the most active volcanic regions on Earth, where almost all types of volcanic and geothermal activity can be found. The volcanism on Iceland is attributed to the combination of the Iceland plume hotspot activity and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge activity. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is visible on land.
Iceland’s landscapes forged by the processes of volcanism include rift valleys, geysers, hot springs, rhyolite mountains, columnar basalt formations, lava fields and lunar-like craters. Subglacial volcanism has created table mountains in northern and southern Iceland.
The blue lagoon
The warm waters are rich in minerals like silica and sulfur and bathing in the Blue Lagoon is reputed to help some people suffering from skin diseases such as psoriasis.The water temperature in the bathing and swimming area of the lagoon averages 37–39 °C (99–102 °F). The Blue Lagoon also operates a research and development facility to help find cures for other skin ailments using the mineral-rich water.
The lagoon is a man-made lagoon which is fed by the water output of the nearby geothermal power plant Svartsengi and is renewed every two days. Superheated water is vented from the ground near a lava flow and used to run turbines that generate electricity. After going through the turbines, the steam and hot water passes through a heat exchanger to provide heat for a municipal water heating system. Then the water is fed into the lagoon for recreational and medicinal users to bathe in.
Iceland has a strict code of hygiene and guests are required to shower before bathing.
Children under the age of 9 years old are only allowed entry with the use of armbands, provided free of charge. The lagoon is not suitable for children under the age of 2 years.
The rich mineral content is provided by the underground geological layers and pushed up to the surface by the hot water (at about 1.2 MPa (170 psi) pressure and 240 °C (464 °F) temperature) used by the plant. Because of its mineral concentration, water cannot be recycled and must be disposed of in the nearby landscape, a permeable lava field that varies in thickness from 50 cm (20 in) to 1 m (3.3 ft). The silicate minerals is the primary cause of that water’s milky blue shade. After the minerals have formed a deposit, the water reinfiltrates the ground, but the deposit renders it impermeable over time, hence the necessity for the plant to continuously dig new ponds in the nearby lava field.
A small experimental facility is still visible near the plant, where the engineers made decantation tests to evaluate the speed of mineral deposition, which is clearly a limiting factor both to the plant’s rentability and sustainability. Hence, geothermal energy exploitation at this location is not without environmental impact.
The Blue Lagoon is situated close to the world’s first renewable methanol plant, which uses Carbon Recycling International’s carbon dioxide to methanol fuel process.
The golden circle
The Golden Circle is a popular tourist route in southern Iceland, covering about 300 kilometres (190 mi) looping from Reykjavík into the southern uplands of Iceland and back. It is the area that contains most tours and travel-related activities in Iceland.
The three primary stops on the route are the Þingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall, and the geothermal area in Haukadalur, which contains the geysers Geysir and Strokkur. Though Geysir has been mostly dormant for many years, Strokkur, on the other hand, continues to erupt every 5–10 minutes.
Other stops include the Kerið volcanic crater, the town of Hveragerði, Skálholt cathedral, and the Nesjavellir and Hellisheiðarvirkjun geothermal power plants.