It’s summer; you wake up at midnight and watch the sun dip slightly below the horizon before it rises again brightly. Then the winter comes in with four hours of daylight and a view of the spectacular Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. These picturesque thoughts are no figment of imagination but commonplace events of a country in northern hemisphere, Iceland. The Republic of Iceland is an island in the North Atlantic Ocean in Northern Europe. Due its geographical existence as an island, this country is bereft of any border and is neighbour of Greenland, Norway, and the British Isles.
Reykjavik is the capital city of Iceland and a major North Atlantic port. Other significant ports and harbours are Akureyri, Hornafjordur, Isafjordhur, Keflavik, Raufarhofn, Seydhisfjordhur, Straumsvik and Vestmannaeyjar. The country takes pride in being the world's oldest functioning legislative assembly, the Althing, established in 930.
Iceland remains a subject of debate to determine whether it is the hottest or coolest country of Europe. It proves to be the hottest for its chic urbane temperament and coolest due to the chilling temperature. Iceland comes across as a product of nature’s whimsies with coexistence of volcanic mountains and lava fields along side of ice fields and glaciers. Nevertheless, whizzing past all the extremities of nature, the country emerged as an energetic and colourful cultural destination of Europe. The lure of famed nightlife, the rare glimpse of whales, attraction of nature’s virgin beauty, all collectively succeeded to bring home the tourists from all corner of the globe. Reykjavik was awarded the prestigious title of “European City of Culture” in the year 2000.
Icebergs in Jokulsarlon
Ironic it may sound but, geologically, Iceland is environmental ‘defaulter’. Situated on the North Atlantic Ocean just south of the Arctic Circle, Iceland is part of Europe with no resemblance in climatic conditions to its fellow European countries. There are active volcanoes in the island and it often experiences earthquakes. Vast lava fields, hot springs and geysers can be seen all over the country. Iceland also consists of high plateau and volcanic mountains and its coastal plain is indented with fjords. But ice fields and glaciers cover the highest areas and around eleven percent of the plateau. Approximately 10 percent of the island is buried under glaciers and the Highlands of Iceland, is a cold and uninhabitable desert.
Iceland is the world's 18th largest island. The majestic Mt. Esja, the blue waters of Faxafloi Bay and the mystical Snaefellsjokull glaciers create an out of world ambience with their un-spoilt beauty. Ecologically the country is quite diverse. Only one percent of the island supports forests (mainly birch) and woodlands. Vegetation and farming takes place along the coastal lowlands.
Animals in Iceland include the Artic fox and seals. The legendary whales can also be seen along the coast. The island is also the home to large colonies of nesting sea birds and colonies of puffins. It has four national parks: Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, Skaftafell National Park, Snæfellsnes National Park, and Þingvellir.
In tandem with its geographical diversity, the climate of Iceland is equally bizarre in terms of regular seasonal rotations. From the beginning of June until the middle of July, it’s summer time in Iceland. During this time the northern area of the country benefits from the "Midnight Sun" when the sky remains light at night. The phenomenon of the Northern Lights can be seen during mid-winter (November-December) when the weather is clear.
Generally the winters are long and bleak, with just four hours of daylight on some days. The capital city of Reykjavik has a very wet climate with winds and rain blowing in from the sea. However, the Gulf Air Stream prevents the city from becoming too cold.
The town of Akranes lies just across the blue straits and is visible from Reykjavík on a clear day. It is a blossoming industrial town with a focus on fishing and fish production. Located in northeast Iceland, Akureyri is one of the oldest towns in the country and has been a commercial port and market town since the 16th Century. Today, this “capital city of the North” boasts a population of over 15.000 people. It is regarded as the commercial center of North Iceland, with a steady base in fisheries, agriculture and services. Borgarnes is an attractive town with a population of about 2000, located 70 kilometres west of Reykjavík on National Highway No. 1.
Nordic and Celtic settlers were the original inhabitants of Iceland. Cold winters, ash fall from volcanic eruptions, and plagues adversely affected the population several times. But later on improving living conditions triggered a rapid increase in population that is presently around 290,000. Icelandic, a North Germanic language is spoken largely all over Iceland. Ninety-three percent of the people are Evangelical Lutherans. There are minorities in other Protestant religions and Roman Catholics.
View of Stykkisholmur Harbour
Iceland is assumed to be the last European country to be settled. The first people known to have inhabited Iceland were Irish monks or hermits who came in the eighth century. But left with the arrival of the pagan Norsemen, who systematically settled Iceland in the late 9th century. According to archeological sources, one Viking named Ingólfur Arnarson was the first settler. He arrived in Iceland accompanied by his family, servants and slaves in 874. He built his farm in Reykjavík, the site of the present capital.
During the next 60 years or so, Viking settlers from Scandinavia, brought along some Celtic people with them, spread their homesteads over the habitable areas. In the year 930, at the end of the Settlement period, a constitutional law code was accepted and the famous legislative assembly of Althing was established. The judicial power of Althing was distributed between four local courts and a type of a Supreme Court held annually at the national assembly.
Iceland was fairly independent for 300 years until in 1262, when it became a Norwegian crown colony. After the Treaty of Kiel in 1814, which saw Norway being handed over to Sweden, Iceland became a Danish dependency. In 1904 Iceland received home rule and finally in 1918 sovereignty, but was united with Denmark under the Danish crown. In 1940 Iceland was occupied by British forces, which were replaced in 1941 by American troops by special agreement between the Icelandic and American governments. Finally, on 17th June 1944, the Republic of Iceland was formally proclaimed.
Iceland became a charter member of NATO in 1949. At this time round, the United States signed a treaty with Iceland and took the responsibility for the defence of the island. Based on this agreement, the US continues to operate a military base in Keflavík, and Iceland is bereft of any armed forces of its own.
Iceland's Scandinavian-type economy is basically a capitalist system with enough provision for generous subsidies for overall development. It follows an extensive welfare system to ensure low unemployment, and remarkably even distribution of income. The Nordic island’s primary economic structure consisted of fishing and sheep herding for a living. The eruption of Askja volcano in 1875 devastated the Icelandic economy and caused widespread famine. Under this trying situation, over the next quarter century, 20% of the island's population emigrated, mostly to Canada and the US. But today Iceland is one of the ten richest countries in the world based on GDP per capita at purchasing power parity. The literacy rate and standard of living are topnotch by world standards.
The fishing industry is the backbone of the financial system here, which provides over 60% of export earnings and employs 8% of the work force. It is Iceland's most important resource, so it is not surprising that fish (cod, herring, plaice and salmon) features prominently in Icelandic cuisine. Naturally it remains sensitive to declining fish stocks as well as to fluctuations in world prices for its main exports, that is, fish and fish products. So tensions continue with Norway, Russia, and other nearby countries over fishing rights in the North Atlantic and adjacent seas.
Vegetables grown in Iceland include carrots, cabbages, potatoes and turnips and many other are cultivated in heated glass houses. Dairy products consist of a major part in the Icelandic diet. A milk curd called "skyr" is eaten as a dessert and also made into a drink similar to yoghurt.
The widespread availability of geothermal power, and also because of the numerous rivers and waterfalls that are harnessed for hydropower, residents of most towns have hot water and home heat for a low price.
Another sector of the economy that gifted Iceland a financial boom is tourism. It is expanding due to recent trends in eco-tourism and whale watching.
Other government policies include revising, diversifying and privatisation of the economy. The Iceland government has yet not taken the EU membership as they assume that it might result in losing control over their fishing resources.
Iceland boasts of world’s oldest legislative system. The modern parliament, called "Althing" or "Alþingi", was founded in 1845 as an advisory body to the Danish king. At present it has 63 members, each of whom is elected by the population every four years. The president of Iceland is ore or less a ceremonial office that serves as a diplomat, figurehead and head of state. But legal scholars in Iceland fail to distinguish the extent of the political powers possessed by the office of the president. It is seen that several provisions of the constitution appear to give the president some important powers but other provisions and traditions suggest differently.
The government is headed by the prime minister and together with the cabinet, takes care of the executive part. It is a rare phenomenon that no single political party in Iceland has received a majority of seats in Althing till date. So, the governments of Iceland have almost always been coalitions with two or more parties involved.
The town council elections are held every four years. There are 95 municipalities in Iceland that govern most local matters like schools, transportation and zoning. The country is split up between 26 magistrates that are the highest authority over the local police. In case of judiciary, the district court jurisdictions are spread over Iceland’s eight statistical regions.