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Geography of the Iceland

Map Page 1130
Area 39,769 square mile (103,000 square kilometer)
Population 280,798
Capital Reykjavík
Highest Point 6,950 foot (2,119 meter)
Lowest Point 0 m
GDP per capita $30,200
Primary Natural Resources hydropower, geothermal heat.

ICELAND IS A volcanic island lying on the Mid-Atlantic Rift 170 mile (280 kilometer) southeast of Greenland and 500 mile (800 kilometer) northwest of . Iceland is a mountainous country with an average elevation of 1,640 foot (500 meter). Coastal lowlands (from sea level to 650 foot or 200 m elevation) ring the island and constitute one-quarter of its area. Most of the nation’s population lives in the coastal lowlands, especially in the capital region. Glaciers cover 11 percent of Iceland, which includes Europe’s largest, Vatnajökull, at 3,240 square mile (8,400 square kilometer). Glacial activity and marine erosion have carved coastal fjords and numerous valleys in the landscape; deep fjords are the hallmark of northwest (West Fjords) and east (East Fjords) Iceland. Despite its northerly latitude, Iceland has a maritime climate: cool summers and mild winters, owing to the moderating influence of the warm Irminger Current. Mean annual temperature ranges from 36 to 43 degrees F (2 to 6 degrees C) in the coastal lowlands and 37 to 39 degrees F (3 to 4 degrees C) in the mountainous interior. Reykjavík—the most northerly national capital in the world—experiences average temperatures of approximately 32 degrees F (0 degrees C) in January and 51 degrees F (10.6 degrees C) in July. Annual precipitation varies with local topography, particularly from rain shadows created by mountains and glaciers, and is typically greatest in fall and early winter. The highest annual precipitation (156 in or 400 centimeter) occurs in southeast Iceland on the Vatnajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers; the lowest (16 in or 40 centimeter) occurs in the volcanic desert north of Vatnajökull’s rain shadow. Rivers are numerous in Iceland because of abundant rainfall and glacial melt. The Þjórsá (143 mile or 230 kilometer) and Jökulsá á Fjöllum (128 mile or 206 kilometer) are Iceland’s longest rivers. Many rivers are being dammed for hydropower, which currently supplies 83 percent of Iceland’s electricity. Waterfalls are common in Iceland’s young volcanic landscapes, including Dettifoss (144 foot or 44 meter), Europe’s most powerful waterfall. Lakes are also numerous; some of the largest, Þingvallavatn (32 square mile or 84 square kilometer) and Þóisvatn (27 square mile or 70 square kilometer), are of tectonic origin, while others are created by lava or ice dams or volcanic explosions. Volcanic activity has created an abundance of geothermal areas marked by hot springs, mudpots, and geysers. Nonpolluting geothermal energy supplies 89 percent of Iceland’s heating needs. Iceland’s isolated locale has greatly influenced its biological diversity; flora is largely northern European in origin and includes 485 species of vascular plants, 560 species of bryophytes, and 550 species of lichens. Seventy-2 species of birds are known to nest in Iceland; waterfowl and seabirds are prominent. The arctic fox (Alopex lagopus) is Iceland’s only native land mammal. A striking aspect of the Icelandic landscape is the lack of tall trees. Prior to Norse settlement in 874 C.E., dwarf birch woodland covered about 25 percent of Iceland, chiefly in the lowlands. Cutting of trees for fuel and housing and heavy grazing by sheep diminished the woodland area and limited regeneration. Today birch woodland covers only 1 percent of Iceland. Sixtythree percent of Iceland is poorly or nonvegetated and erosion of exposed volcanic soils is a national problem.
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