Iceland is an island nation located in the Norwegian Sea, between Greenland and mainland Europe. Although Iceland is located close to the Arctic Circle, it has a much more temperature climate than might be expected. This is thanks to strong ocean currents, which bring warmer waters from the Gulf Stream that moderate the Arctic climate. Winter temperatures typically range between 10 and -10 degrees Celsius in the winter, with highs of up to 20 to 25 degrees in the summer months.
To most people in the Western world, Iceland is known only as the birthplace of Bjork, the quirky lead singer of the Sugarcubes who went on to carve out one of the most unique singing careers in musical history.
Iceland has also earned for itself the title of “Most Peaceful Country” for a solid ten years in a row, according to the Institute of Economics and Peace. Iceland’s low crime and violence rates, low percentage of incarcerated citizens, and high level of social stability have earned it this ranking, and likely contributed to its designation in a 2009 academic study as the world’s happiest country, too.
The first Scandinavian settlers arrived in Iceland around 874 CE, but the island had been settled briefly before then by Celtic monks. However, it was Scandinavian Viking explorers who first circumnavigated the island, and who founded the first permanent settlement.
After several hundred years, Iceland fell under the rule of the Denmark-Norway alliance. Over the next several centuries, Iceland became one of the poorest European countries. There were epidemics of plague during the 15th century and smallpox in the 18th century, along with widespread famine as a result of massive death of livestock after volcanic eruptions.
After the Napoleonic Wars Iceland fell under solely Danish rule. In the 19th century Iceland was granted a limited form of independence, and eventually in the early half of the 20th century Iceland was established as a sovereign state. In 1944 Icelandic citizens voted to establish a republic and a constitution. After World War II Iceland’s economy improved substantially, becoming a much more prosperous country in the 21st century.
Iceland has just one native mammal: the Arctic fox, a small fox with thick fur. In the summer months the fox’s fur is a light brown; during the winter, the animal has white-and-grey fur that helps it blend in with a snowy environment. The fur of the Arctic fox has more insulating power than that of any other mammal, and its powerful hearing allows it to detect the sounds made when its prey move underneath snowdrifts.
In the plant world, there are many more native species. The black-and-white birch trees that dot the landscape are the one of the few native trees, and are quite different from the birches seen in other parts of Europe. In Iceland many birches are “dwarf”, and grow to only a few feet, whereas European birches can top 20 feet tall. Another native tree is the juniper, which in Iceland grows more as a low-lying shrub than a tall bush or tree.
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