Iceland is an island country located in the North Atlantic Ocean between mainland Europe and Greenland. It has a population of about 320,000 and a total area of 103,000 km².Its capital and largest city is Reykjavík.
Located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland is volcanically and geologically active on a large scale; this defines the landscape. The interior mainly consists of a plateau characterized by sand fields, mountains and glaciers, while many big glacial rivers flow to the sea through the lowlands. Warmed by the Gulf Stream, Iceland has a temperate climate relative to its latitude and provides a habitable environment and nature.
According to tradition recorded in Landnámabók, the settlement of Iceland began in 874 when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfur Arnarson became the first permanent Norwegian settler on the island. Others had visited the island earlier and stayed over winter. Over the next centuries, people of Nordic and Celtic origin settled in Iceland. Until the twentieth century, the Icelandic population relied on fisheries and agriculture, and was from 1262 to 1918 a part of the Norwegian and later the Danish monarchies. In the twentieth century, Iceland's economy and welfare system developed quickly. In recent decades, Iceland has implemented free trade in the European Economic Area and diversified from fishing to new economic fields in services, finance, and various industries.
Today, Iceland has some of the world's highest levels of economic and civil freedoms. In 2007, Iceland was ranked as the most developed country in the world by the United Nations' Human Development Index. It was also the fourth most productive country per capita, and one of the most egalitarian, as rated by the Gini coefficient. Icelanders have a rich culture and heritage, such as cuisine and poetry, and the medieval Icelandic Sagas are internationally renowned. Iceland is a member of the UN, NATO, EFTA, EEA and OECD. Iceland's membership of EFTA—a European trade bloc—means that it is not currently a member of the European Union. In addition to these organisations, Iceland is the sole partner of the Faroe Islands signatury to the Hoyvík Agreement.
Iceland has been hit especially hard by the current world financial crisis. The nation's ongoing economic crisis has caused significant unrest in recent months and made Iceland the first western country to borrow from the International Monetary Fund since 1976. Iceland's newly established minority cabinet is headed by the world's first openly gay head of government of the modern era.
A geologically young land, Iceland is located on both the Iceland hotspot and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which runs right through it. This combined location means that geologically the island is extremely active, having many volcanoes, notably Hekla, Eldgjá, Herðubreið and Eldfell. Iceland is one of two places on Earth where a mid-ocean ridge rises above sea level, making it an easily accessible site to study the geology of such a ridge. The volcanic eruption of Laki in 1783–1784 caused a famine that killed nearly a quarter of the island's population; the eruption caused dust clouds and haze to appear over most of Europe and parts of Asia and Africa for several months after the eruption.
There are also many geysers in Iceland, including Geysir, from which the English word is derived, as well as the famous Strokkur which erupts every 5-10 minutes. After a phase of inactivity, Geysir started erupting again after a series of earthquakes in the year 2000.
With this widespread availability of geothermal power, and because many rivers and waterfalls are harnessed for hydroelectricity, most residents have inexpensive hot water and home heat. The island itself is composed primarily of basalt, a low-silica lava associated with effusive volcanism like Hawaii. But Iceland has various kinds of volcanoes, many of which produce more evolved lavas such as rhyolite and andesite.
Iceland controls Surtsey, one of the youngest islands in the world. Named after Surtr, it rose above the ocean in a series of volcanic eruptions between 8 November 1963 and 5 June 1968. Only scientists researching the growth of new life are allowed to visit the island.
The climate of Iceland's coast is subpolar oceanic. The warm North Atlantic Current ensures generally higher annual temperatures than in most places of similar latitude in the world. Regions in the world with similar climate include the Aleutian Islands, Alaska Peninsula and Tierra del Fuego although these regions are closer to the equator. Despite its proximity to the Arctic, the island's coasts remain ice-free through the winter. Ice incursions are rare, the last having occurred on the north coast in 1969.
There are some variations in the climate between different parts of the island. Very generally speaking, the south coast is warmer, wetter and windier than the north. Low-lying inland areas in the north are the most arid. Snowfall in winter is more common in the north than the south. The Central Highlands are the coldest part of the country.
The highest air temperature recorded was 30.5 °C (86.9 °F) on 22 June 1939 at Teigarhorn on the south-eastern coast. The lowest was -38 °C (-36.4 °F) on 22 January 1918 at Grímsstaðir and Möðrudalur in the northeast hinterland. The temperature records for Reykjavík are 26.2 °C (79.2 °F) on 30 July 2008, and -24.5 °C (-12.1 °F) on 21 January 1918.