Iceland is an island country located in the North Atlantic Ocean. Lying on the constantly active geologic border between North America and Europe, Iceland is a land of vivid contrasts of climate, geography, and culture. Sparkling glaciers, such as Vatna Glacier, Europe's largest, lie across its ruggedly beautiful mountain ranges; and the offshore Gulf Stream provides a surprisingly mild climate.
Especially for what is one of the northernmost inhabited places on the planet. Iceland was founded more than 1,000 years ago during the Viking age of exploration and settled by a mixed Norse and Celtic population. The early settlement, made up primarily of Norwegian seafarers and adventurers, fostered further excursions to Greenland and the coast of North America.
Iceland has been divided according to the four points of the compass. The centre of the country is uninhabited. In the southwest several fine natural harbours have directed interest toward the sea, and good fishing grounds lie off the shores of this region. The middle west is divided between fishing and farming and has many places of great natural beauty. The north is divided into several smaller districts. The southern lowland comprises the main farming region. Soil and climatic conditions are favourable.
Animal life was brought over by humans. Later, horses and reindeer were introduced, and many are still found in the northeastern highlands. Birdlife in Iceland is varied. Many nesting cliffs are densely inhabited, and the colony of ducks at Lake Myvatn, in the north, is the largest and most varied in Europe. Salmon and trout abound in the lakes, brooks, and rivers. The fishing banks off the Icelandic shores are abundantly endowed with fish, although these resources have been considerably eroded by overexploitation. There are no reptiles or amphibians in Iceland.
The climate of Iceland is maritime subarctic. It is influenced by the location of the country on the broad boundary between two contrasting air currents, one of polar and the other of tropical origin. The climate is affected also by the confluence of two ocean currents: the Gulf Stream, from near the Equator, and the East Greenland Current. The latter sometimes carries Arctic drift ice to Iceland's northern and eastern shores.
Although its northernmost points nearly touch the Arctic Circle, Iceland is much warmer than might be expected. Although winters are fairly dark, Reykjavik averages nearly 1,300 hours of bright sunshine a year. Often the aurora borealis is visible, especially in fall and early winter.
The population of Iceland is extremely homogeneous. The inhabitants are descendants of settlers who began arriving in AD 874 and continued in heavy influx for about 60 years thereafter. Through the centuries it has evolved into modern Icelandic, which is used throughout the country. Historians differ on the exact origin and ethnic composition of the settlers but agree that between 60 and 80 percent of them were of Nordic stock from Norway. The rest, from Scotland and Ireland, were largely of Celtic stock. The dominant language in the period of settlement was Old Norse, the language spoken in Norway at the time.