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Iceland is an island of 103,000 km2 (39,756 square miles), with an average height of 500 m above sea level. Its highest peak, Hvannadalshnúkur, rises to 2109.6m, and over 11 per cent of the country is covered by glaciers, including Vatnajökull, the largest in Europe.
Situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland is a hot spot of volcanic and geothermal activity: 30 post-glacial volcanoes have erupted in the past two centuries, and natural hot water supplies much of the population with cheap, pollution-free heating. Rivers, too, are harnessed to provide inexpensive hydroelectric power. The electrical current is 220 volts, 50 Hz.
Out of a population numbering just over 320,000, and 75 per cent live in the capital, Reykjavík, and its neighbouring towns in the southwest. Keflavík International Airport is located about 50 km from the capital. The highland interior is uninhabited (and uninhabitable), and most centres of population are situated on the coast.
Iceland was settled by Nordic people in the 9th century – tradition says that the first permanent settler was Ingólfur Arnarson, a Norwegian Viking who made his home where Reykjavík now stands. The Icelanders still speak the language of the Vikings, although modern Icelandic has undergone changes of pronunciation and, of course, of vocabulary! Iceland is alone in upholding another Norse tradition, i.e. the custom of using patronymics rather than surnames; an Icelander’s Christian name is followed by his or her father’s name and the suffix -son or -dóttir, e.g. Gudrún Pétursdóttir (Gudrún, daughter of Pétur). Members of a family can therefore have many different “surnames,” which sometimes causes confusion to foreigners!
The National Church of Iceland, to which just under 80 per cent of the population belong, is Evangelical Lutheran. In addition to the many Lutheran churches in Reykjavík, there is one Roman Catholic Cathedral in Reykjavik.
In spite of its mid-Atlantic location, Iceland is on Greenwich Mean Time all year round.
In 930, the Icelandic settlers founded one of the world’s first republican governments; the Old Commonwealth Age, described in the classic Icelandic Sagas, lasted until 1262, when Iceland lost its independence. In 1944 the present republic was founded. The country is governed by the Althingi (parliament), whose members are elected every four years. Four-yearly elections are also held for the presidency; President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson was elected in June 1996 to succeed Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. The president plays no part in day-to-day politics.
The current government, after the 2013 elections, is made up from members of Althing from the Conservatives (Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn) and the Progressive party (Framsóknarflokkurinn), with prime minister Mr. Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson from the Progressives.
The economy is heavily dependent upon fishing. Despite efforts to diversify, particularly into the travel industry, seafood exports continue to account for 60 per cent merchandise exports earnings. Yet less than 10 per cent of the workforce is involved in fishing and fish processing. The travel industry makes up the second-largest industry in Iceland. The standard of living is high, with income per capita among the best in the world. The financial sector has been liberalised in recent years. The economy is service-oriented: two thirds of the working population are 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).
The 2008 bank crisis had a big effect on the Icelandic economy and the country is just beginning to get on even keel again.
Life expectancy, at 81.8 years for women and 77.4 for men, is one of the highest in the world, and a comprehensive state health-care system aims to keep it that way.