The Iceland Guide

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The land and the people

The land: The shape of the land

The plateaux in the centre of the country are uninhabited but they provide summer grazing for sheep. Warmth–loving plants grow remarkably well on some of these plateaux as the winter snow protects them from spring frosts, and the relatively dry summer means that soil temperatures are higher than in the flat lowlands. Plant life is not found everywhere, however; vast areas have been laid bare by the glaciers and the many violent eruptions of the volcanoes have smothered the land in lava, ash and cinders. Where water is present, dwarf shrubs and bogs are found and many lavafields are extensively covered with a rich, soft carpet of moss.

The east coast and the north–west peninsula are dominated by beautiful fjords that were made by great glaciers plucking rocks from valley sides, widening and deepening them in the process. The fjords only occur in the old basalt regions, the ice having changed small V–shaped valleys into steep–sided U–shaped ones, leaving behind mountainsides with step–like slopes. These steps are formed out of individual lava flows, which were very fluid and flowed long distances from their sources. There were none of the great explosions usually associated with the other types of eruption, but sandwiched between the layers of basalt are beds of ashes that were produced during separate and more violent eruptions.

The hillsides are usually covered with massive scree slopes (caused by frost shattering the rock), leaving little room at their base for cultivation or settlements. While sheep farming was originally the major economic activity of the fjords, this has given way to fishing as they have numerous natural harbours. There is usually only one settlement in each fjord, often in the lee of the hills or sometimes on a spit of sand that may project out into the water.

There are numerous lakes around the country which have been formed in a variety of ways; the largest two, Thingvallavatn (84km²) and Thórisvatn (70km²) both of which are in the south–west, were formed by a sudden drop in the level of the ground; others, like Lögurinn in the east, were formed by glacial erosion. Mývatn in the north was created by the damming effect of a lava flow, while the craters produced by eruptions may become the site for a lake once the volcanic activity has ceased: an example is Öskjuvatn in Askja, which is the deepest lake in the country (217m). Grænalón (to the west of Skeiðarárjökull) is an example of an ice–dammed lake; the numbers of these are changing as the glaciers alter their size. Glaciers often form small meltwater lakes at their snout — the number and shape of these is altering too as the climate changes. The last type of lake is a lagoon lake; Hóp (45km²), which is in the north, is an interesting example.

There are many rivers in the country, generally running north or south–west. None of them are navigable as their current is often too rapid and varies too much through the year. The three main types of rivers found in Iceland are the jökulár (glacial rivers, whose greatest flow is in July or early August), dragár (which drain old basalt areas in summer and autumn), and lindár (spring–fed rivers which drain lavafields and have a nearly constant discharge).

The rivers that flow from the glaciers carry a huge quantity of sand and gravel downstream, which is then dropped to form the glacial sands (sandur) so common on the south coast. The constantly changing paths taken by these rivers have been a great barrier to road transport and in particular to the completion of the ring road.

The surface of the lavafields is so broken and porous that there are few rivers that cross them, so the rain and melted snow seeps through the upper surface, reappearing at the side of a river perhaps a few kilometres away. Those rivers that pass through the old basalt areas have carved some magnificent canyons, often lined with regularly–shaped basalt columns that have been exposed by the water.

In many cases, the rivers have produced waterfalls such as Dettifoss (44m and Iceland's largest waterfall) on Jökulsá á Fjöllum and Gullfoss (32m) on the Hvítá Some waterfalls, such as Skógafoss (60m), fall over old sea cliffs.

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The land and the people

The first explorers
The Age of the Settlement
The conversion to Christianity
The discovery of Greenland and America
The collapse of the Commonwealth
The Dark Ages
The nineteenth century
The twentieth century
Culture in the Icelandic environment
Old Icelandic literature
Eddic and skaldic poetry
The Sagas
Later literature
Modern literature
Painting, sculpture and music
The Icelanders
Traditional living conditions
The seasons
Changes in the modern world
Independent minds
Superstition, morality and the media
The land
On the edge of Europe
The shape of the land
The volcanoes
The glaciers
The natural world
The climate
The economy and infrastructure
Industry and energy