Nation occupying an island in the Atlantic Ocean, 600 mi W of Norway, just S of the Arctic Circle. The island has deep fjords, large icefields, some 200 volcanoes, and hot springs. The climate, however, is relatively mild because of the North Atlantic Drift, a continuation of the warm Gulf Stream. Iceland may be the Ultima Thule of the ancient world, that most northerly land of Europe, visited by Irish monks before the ninth century a.d. Norse settlers arrived between a.d. 850 and 875, fleeing from the rule of King Harold I of Norway.
Reykjavik, the capital, was founded c. 875. From Iceland the famous Norse explorers Eric the Red and Leif Ericson sailed west to North America c. 1000. Iceland became a feudal state of warring chiefs over whom King Haakon IV of Norway failed to achieve full control, but between 1261 and 1264 he did get his suzerainty acknowledged. When Norway came under the Danish crown in 1380, so did Iceland . In the late Middle Ages Iceland ic fishing fleets often battled with the English over fishing rights around the island . In the 17th and 18th centuries pirates raided the coasts, epidemics and volcanic action took many lives, and exclusive trading rights granted a Danish company brought economic hardship. The 19th century saw a rebirth of national culture and agitation for independence. A constitution and some home rule were obtained in 1874, and in 1918 Iceland ’s status became that of an independent state, united only through the king with Denmark. The British occupied Iceland in 1940 after Denmark’s fall to Germany; and British and U.S. forces defended Iceland in World War II. By popular vote the connection with Denmark was ended, and on June 17, 1944, Iceland proclaimed itself a republic.
Since 1958 Iceland has been engaged in a controversy with other nations, especially Great Britain, over fishing rights in what it claims are its territorial waters, leading to the so-called Cod War, which has come near violence. By 1977 Iceland had succeeded in clearing its 200-mile offshore zone of foreign trawlers. In 1980, Vigdis Finnbogadottir was elected president thus becoming the world’s first popularly elected female head of state. Iceland is known for its active volcanoes. In 1973, Edful on Heimaey erupted sending a lava flow into the town threatening the harbor. Pumps delivered by the U.S. Navy deluged the lava flow with seawater, halting the flow and saving the harbor. In 1996, a subglacial eruption under Lake Grimsvotn in S central Iceland creating a jokulhlaup or flood wave of almost a cubic mile of water cascading down to the coast. Iceland ’s two-house legislature, the Althing, which first met in 930, is the oldest in Europe.