Pandemic got you feeling cooped up? Are you longing to take a trip to an exotic and faraway land? Consider traveling to two extraordinary locations that couldn’t be more different than home-sweet-home in America. You might want to button up your sweater as we embark on this tour of visiting Iceland and Greenland.
To give you some frame of reference, before the pandemic it’s estimated that 2 million tourists visited Iceland each year. Keep in mind that the country’s total population is just 364,000. In fact, visiting Iceland is on a lot of people’s “bucket lists” (including mine!). Maybe it’s the attraction to visit such a different environment… to experience the beauty of nature… to understand how and why humans have been able to survive in such extreme conditions for so many centuries. Consider some of these facts about Iceland.
Iceland Geography and Climate
Did you know that Iceland is located in both the Northern and Western hemispheres? It’s surrounded by more than 3,000 miles of coast. With its cold deserts, stretches of tundra, and vast lava fields, only about 25% of the island is habitable.
It’s hard to get a true sense of its size, but Iceland is huge: the 18th largest island in the world, and the 2nd largest island in Europe. It’s the westernmost country in Europe, and the least populated. Reykjavík, the capital, is the largest city in Iceland (about 216,000 in the capital region). It is also one of the smallest capital cities in Europe.
There are seven regions to explore when visiting Iceland, each with a different geography and cultural landscape. North Iceland has many different bodies of water, ranging from the Ásbyrgi Canyon area, as well as the Dettifoss Waterfall. Lake Mývatn and the nearby wetlands is home to a variety of waterbirds and rock formations.
The North is also the second largest urban area in Iceland, featuring the historic city Akureyri. If you drive along the coast of Iceland, as some tourists like to do, you’ll encounter a plethora of fishing villages. This makes sense given Iceland’s dependence on the sea for sustenance.
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Fire and Ice
Iceland is a land of glaciers on an arctic desert. It remains largely undeveloped and isolated—with untouched expanses of mountains, volcanoes, waterfalls, geysers, and hot springs.
Fun fact: Iceland has more hot springs and volcanic vents than any country in the world.
You’ve probably seen photos of Iceland’s hot springs (the famous Blue Lagoon, for example), and heard of its abundant geothermal energy. Volcanic activity created Iceland millions of years ago. Iceland sits over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a seam on the surface of the earth where the Eurasian and North American plates slide apart. This position makes Iceland a hotspot (literally!) for geological activity. There are more than 200 volcanoes on the island (about 120 are active).
Geothermal energy fuels many industries, and heats Reykjavík. According to one source, Iceland is among the world’s most eco-friendly countries; 30% of their electricity comes from geothermal sources, and the rest is from hydro power.
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What’s it like to live in Iceland?
Weather wise, the climate doesn’t change much. Reykjavík’s average temperature is 40 degrees (F). In January the average temperature is 31, and in July it heats up to a balmy 51.
There is an annual precipitation in Reykjavík of 160 inches, including 100 days of snow in the northwest, and just 40 in the southeast (that must be the equivalent of Iceland’s Florida). It’s also windy and foggy. On the plus side, aurora borealis is common in the fall and early winter.
Visiting Iceland Yesterday and Today
Humans have lived on Iceland for more than 1,000 years. Norse and Celtic people first settled in the area (with a heavy dose of Viking ancestry). Although Iceland remains isolated (it is 500 miles from Scotland, the closest European neighbor), throughout history it has aligned itself with European civilization.
Iceland today is ethnically homogeneous, without as much immigration and mixed cultures as most European countries. Iceland was ruled by Denmark until 1944; it didn’t gain full independence until 1994. There is a strong movement for Icelanders to preserve their language, customs, and traditions.
For a small population, Iceland’s economy is modern and the standard of living is similar to other countries in Europe. The economy is largely based on fishing and fish products. Iceland raises its own livestock (mainly sheep) and dairy. The country, surprisingly, is self-sufficient in terms of dairy and fresh produce. Greenhouses are used for some farming.
On an interesting note about population, Iceland’s annual growth rate has been declining since the 1960s. This is due to increased emigration (mainly to Canada and the U.S.) as well as a low birth rate.
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Iceland functions as a parliamentary democracy. An elected president runs the country. Iceland has one of the oldest legislatures in the world. The country is divided into 17 provinces, each with parliamentary representation.
As is common throughout Scandinavia, women occupy prominent government positions. The world’s first democratically elected female president was Vigdis Finbogadóttir (in 1980).
In general, Icelanders are well educated and highly literate. Iceland is proud of its prose and poetry tradition, especially ancient Icelandic sagas. The Icelandic language, which came from Old Norse, has changed so little over the years that Icelanders can easily read texts from hundreds of years ago.
Visiting Iceland: What to See and Do
How do most visitors spend their time when visiting Iceland? I checked with Rick Steves, and here’s what he recommended:
Day 1: Arrive, pick up car, go to the Blue Lagoon, then head to the South Coast; sleep along the South Coast
Day 2: Westman Islands side-trip (sleep along the South Coast)
Day 3: South Coast sights, to Reykjavík (sleep in Reykjavík)
Day 4: Golden Circle (sleep in Reykjavík)
Day 5: Reykjavík, or excursions — whale watching, horseback riding, glacier hikes, volcano cave tours (sleep in Reykjavík)
Day 6: Fly out
A Few Fun Facts About Iceland
- Icelanders call each other by their given names, even the president. The telephone directory is even listed alphabetically by first name rather than surname. All new first names never used before in Iceland must be approved by the Icelandic Naming Committee.
- As many as 80 percent of the population of Icelanders still believe in the existence of elves. Even today some roads have been rerouted so as not to disturb rocks or other places said to be the homes of elves.
- Iceland also enjoys some local cuisine that visitors may find off-putting. These include hákari (putrescent shark meat), súrsaöir hrútspungar (boiled and cured ram’s testicles), and lundabaggi (sheep’s loins cured in lactic acid)
- There are no reptiles or amphibians in Iceland, and it is illegal to own a pet lizard, snake, or turtle.
- Mosquitoes do not exist in Iceland (don’t pack your Cutter’s).
On that happy note, let’s extend our northern journey about 892 miles west and visit another frigid but enchanting place that falls under the “Fire and Ice” island category.
Moving on to Greenland
Once on a transcontinental flight I peaked out the plane window and saw Greenland far below. It was an immense mass of ice layers projecting from the deep blue Atlantic. It was hard to imagine that close to 58,000 Greenlanders inhabit this stark area.
For starters, you might wonder how you’d get to Greenland from Iceland. A little research taught me that there are two airlines that serve these destinations year-round: Air Greenland, and well, Air Iceland. Flights run from Reykjavík Domestic Airport to Nuuk Airport, or one of several smaller airports around the country. The flight will take about 3-4 hours.
Greenland: Not for Sale!
Back in 2019, a certain American president came up with the brash idea of buying Greenland. Not to stray too far into politics, let’s just say there a number of reasons why Greenland is such a ‘hot property.’
- It offers: A rich bounty of natural resources (ranging from oil to zinc and iron ore);
- strategic military placement (the U.S. already has one airbase on Greenland); and
- faster shipping routes (as the polar ice caps melt, new Atlantic “shipping lanes” open).
Conan O’Brian travelled to Greenland to broker the deal….
All About Greenland
Greenland is a fascinating island that is full of surprises. It’s the largest island in the world—more than three times the size of Texas. From north to south Greenland is 1,600 miles, and from east to west it runs about 650 miles. Most of Greenland lies within the Arctic Circle.
Its closest European neighbor is Iceland. And it is strangely close to Ellesmere Island, a territory of Canada (16 miles!). Politically, Greenland remains a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, although it has home rule.
Greenland is covered with ice sheets bridged by glaciers (at least 40 of them). One theory holds that there might actually be three distinct land masses below the surface of the island. Like Iceland, hot springs are common in Greenland. The island has about 20 rivers, which flow out forming small lakes (but only in the summer).
Unlike Iceland, Greenlanders are primarily native to their island. Close to nine-tenths of the population are of Inuit (Eskimo) heritage. The remaining tenth are most likely Danish. Anthropologists believe the Inuit people crossed the Canadian Arctic from North America—as early as 2,500BCE. The three main languages spoken on Greenland are Kalaallisut (the Inuit tongue), Danish, and English.
Greenland Then and Now
Several different cultures have been noted in Greenland throughout the centuries, with the Thule culture arriving in 1,100, and Inugsuk culture appearing in the 12th and 13th centuries. This was about the time that Christianity showed up. Norse settlers expanded Thule culture. Dutch and English whales arrived in Greenland during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Traditional Inuit culture is central throughout Greenland. The Greenland National Museum and Archives in Nuuk features displays of folk art including soapstone carving, kayak building, and drumming.
More than 80% of the people live in urban areas…or I should say “urban” in Greenland terms. The capital and largest city is Nuuk, which has over a third of the country’s people (18,000 people).
In contrast to Iceland, Greenland is much colder (with temperatures dropping far below 0, especially in the north). Weather changes rapidly (from sunshine to blizzard), and it is drier than Iceland. In fact, Greenland is considered an Arctic desert because of its lack of precipitation.
Like Iceland, Greenland’s survival and overall economy is based on the fishing industry. Tourism revenue has grown in Greenland. The government (aided by Denmark) employs nearly half of the workforce. As mentioned, several opportunistic countries have eyed Greenland for its vast and untapped natural resources. Right now there is limited oil drilling and mining around the country—but there is much more below the surface!
How do the people survive? Because of the harsh conditions, agriculture is only possible in the most ice-free regions in the south of Greenland. Fishing is plentiful, and Greenlanders are also hunters, catching seals, walruses, and whales for meat. They also raise sheep and reindeer.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Iceland and Greenland
Researching and writing about these islands in the North Atlantic brought up images of wilderness that is still pristine and rough. As you look through the photos and videos about these places, I’m sure you’ll also feel a sense of awe. But perhaps even more important, learning about life on Iceland and Greenland reminds us of how resilient and creative we humans have to be in order to survive.
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