The colorful landscapes of Landmannalaugar in central Iceland

The land of fire and ice

Iceland is a country of extreme contrasts and dramatic landscapes. Widely known as "the land of fire and ice," Iceland is home to some of the largest glaciers in Europe and some of the world's most active volcanoes. 

Iceland is also the land of light and darkness. Long summer days with near 24-hours of sunshine are offset by short winter days with only a few hours of gloomy daylight—the perfect scenario for enjoying the magical Northern lights.

Sattelite image of Iceland

Some key numbers for Iceland

  • Total area: 103,592 km² 
  • Coastline: 6.542,4 km
  • Lakes and rivers: 2.757 km² 
  • Glaciers: 11.922 km² 
  • Sandplains  4.000 km² 
  • Lava fields 11.000 km² 
  • Forests: 1,907 km² 
  • Largest lake: Þingvallavatn 82 km² 
  • Highest point: Hvannadalshnúkur 2,119 m
  • Population: 368.792 (Jan. 2021)

ⓒ Copernicus Sentinel data (2020), processed by ESA

Size and location - a large island in the North-Atlantic ocean

Iceland is a relatively large island in the middle of the North-Atlantic ocean, just south of the Arctic Circle, between 63.4°N and 66.5°N latitude. Iceland stretches over an area of 103.592 km2 (39.997 sq mi), which is similar to Hungary and Portugal, or the US states Kentucky and Virginia. It is the second-largest island of Europe, following Great Britain, and the 18th largest island globally. At its widest, Iceland measures approximately 500 km (305 miles) east to west and 300 km (185 miles) north to south. 


Moss grown lava fields and volcanic raters are common landscapes in Iceland

The coastline of Iceland is 6.542,4 km (40.652,5 miles) long, and Iceland maintains a 200 nautical-miles exclusive economic zone, making the total economic area 751,345 km2 (290,096 sq mi). In addition, numerous smaller islands are found all around the coast, some of which are inhabited. The largest one is Heimaey in the Westman Islands archipelago in the south that is 13,4 km2, Hrísey island in Eyjafjörður fjord in the north covering 8 km2, and Grímsey, a 5,3 km2 large island lying on the Arctic Circle just north of Iceland.

Being an island it has no land borders with other countries. The nearest neighbor to the west is Greenland, just 286 km (180 miles) away, and although hard to grasp, stretches further south and east than Iceland, and in fact, in any direction. To the east, the Faroe Islands are closest or 420 km (260 miles), Scotland 795 km (495 miles), and Norway 950 km (590 miles). For a comparison of distances, It takes approximately five hours to fly from New York to Reykjavík and three hours from London.

Demography - Reykjavík is the capital

Areal photo of Reykjavík

Reykjavík is the northernmost capital on the planet

Iceland is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, with a population count of 368.792*. The capital of Iceland is Reykjavík which is located at 64.1° N latitude, earning it the title of being the northernmost capital of the world. Almost two-thirds of the inhabitants live in the capital area in the southwest and the rest of the population is spread around the long coastline, mostly in fishing villages and farmland regions. Akureyri in North-Iceland is the largest town outside the SW region, with a population of 18.933. Only 2.672 people live in the largest town of the Westfjords region, Ísafjörður, and Egilsstaðir is the most prominent town of East-Iceland with just 2.552 inhabitants.

*Numbers from January 1st, 2021

Weather and climate - milder than could be expected

Stapafell pyramid shaped mountain and seastacks on the coast of Arnarstapi

Stapafell mountain at Arnarstapi Nature Reserve in West Iceland

Iceland has a much milder climate than could be expected from its name and location on the globe. A branch of the Gulf stream brings warmer seas up to the south and west coast, moderating the climate significantly. However, it brings milder Atlantic air to meet Arctic air, resulting in frequent weather changes and storminess. There are significant regional differences in the weather with the northern part experiencing colder winter months and warmer summers than the south.

The average temperature in Reykjavík is +0.4°C in January and 12.5°C in July. The average for the year is 5.5°C. The average yearly precipitation in Reykjavík is 890. 

Iceland is one of the most volcanically active places on Earth

A helicopter flying over flowing lava in Iceland

An eruption started in Fagradalsfjall on the Reykjanes peninsula on March 19, 2021.

Iceland is one of the youngest landmasses on the planet, with the oldest rocks dating from just 14-16 million years ago. It is one of the most volcanically active places on Earth with 32 active volcanic systems erupting every four years on average. The island owes its existence to a unique geological setting. Iceland is a volcanic hotspot with a magma plume underneath the Mid-Atlantic Ocean Ridge where two tectonic plates, Eurasia and N-America, are spreading apart. 

Constantly growing in the middle - but not in size

Basalt cliffs in Iceland

The Bridge between continents in Reykjanes peninsula.

The landmass is continuously growing in the middle by about 2 cm per year, as it splits wider at the points where the Eurasian and North-American tectonic plates divide. However, the island is not growing in size since the edges are constantly being eroded off at a similar rate.

Eruptions take place in Iceland every four years on average. The latest eruption started in Fagradalsfjall on the 19th of March 2021, still ongoing six months later. The last volcanos to erupt before that were Holuhraun in 2014, Grímsvötn in 2011, and the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010. 

Iceland even keeps the world's newest island, Surtsey, which rose from the sea in a volcanic eruption between 1963-1967. Surtsey is considered a unique geological formation and has been listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Woman walking in a ravine in snow
Mountains in Iceland
People on basalt formation

The perfect location for the Northern lights

Northern lights over Hraunfossar waterfalls

Iceland is the perfect location to explore the Northern Lights

The extreme dark of the Icelandic winter has a few perks. Between September and April, Iceland is treated to a magnificent natural display: the aurora borealis, or what we commonly call the Northern Lights. They form when charged particles in Solar winds interact with the Earth's magnetic field. Most of them bounce back to space but a fraction of them gets directed towards the Aurora oval, a doughnut-shaped ring around the Arctic and the Antarctic. And Iceland is placed exactly under that oval.

Glaciers in Iceland - offsprings of frost and fire

Iceland holds several glaciers, the largest are Vatnajökull, Langjökull and Hofsjökull, covering about 9000, 1000 and 900 km2 respectively. Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Europe outside the polar regions. All glaciers in Iceland have been retreating at an accelerated rate since 1930 due to climate changes. It is expected that all glaciers in Iceland will have disappeared within the next 200 years.

Aerial photo of Vatnajokull glacier

Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Europe outside the polar regions.

It may sound like a contradiction, but it is a fact that volcanos produce glaciers. This is because volcanism builds mountains that reach up to colder levels in the atmosphere that absorb moisture from the air, feeding the glaciers on top.

Heat radiating from the volcanos melts the ice from below, and when enough water has collected to lift the ice cap on top, it bursts out from the glacier front and creates a flood or "jökulhlaup" on the outwash plain or "sandur" plain" in front. This process is so unique for Iceland that the Icelandic words for the phenomena are recognized as international terms.

You might also be interested in: