It is known as ‘The Land of Fire and Ice’
“The Land of Fire and Ice” is a very apt, if Game of Thrones-esque title, and it’s easy to see where it comes from. Of course, ice is the country’s namesake, and 11% of its total land surface is covered by glaciers. It has 269 glaciers in total, and its largest one, Vatnajökull, covers an area of almost 8000 km² in volume, making it the largest glacier in Europe by volume. The ‘Fire’ refers to Iceland’s 30-40 active volcanoes, and the country experiences a major volcanic event roughly every five years; the last major eruption was the Bárðarbunga volcano in 2014. (This interesting article by Andrej Flis predicts which volcanoes are likely to erupt next, based on the latest meteorological data). Accompanying this abundance of volcanoes are numerous active geysers, such as the famous Strokka, which erupts every 6-10 minutes and can shoot out a steaming fountain of water up to 40 metres high.
You can stand at the line that divides two continents
Þingvellir National Park is one of only two places in the world where you can see this phenomenon, where two tectonic plates – here the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates – meet above sea level. At this UNESCO World heritage site you can literally stand right between these two continents, as pictured above. If you’re a keen diver, you can swim underwater in a fissure called Silfra and touch the two tectonic plates at the same time! The plates are drifting apart at a rate of around 2.5cm per year, causing tension which results many of the aforementioned volcanic eruptions in Iceland.
You can learn more about the movement of tectonic plates at this interactive website.
Unusual daylight and darkness
During the winter, the days in Iceland are very short – yes, even shorter than the UK! Reykjavik is lucky to see 4 hours of daylight in the winter, as the sun rises at around 11:30am and sets at roughly 3:30pm. The Westfjords only get around 2 hours and 45 minutes of daylight. However, these winter months are the best time for tourists to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights, as long as there are no clouds to block the view.
In stark contrast to this, from mid-May to mid-August the sun only sets for a few hours each day, resulting in a whole 24 hours of daylight! During the summer solstice, usually around the 21st of June, the sun does not set below the horizon. This results in a phenomenon known as “The Midnight Sun”, which is exactly what it says on the tin: the sun remains visible at midnight, pictured above.
Both of these unusual day lengths are caused by the Earth’s tilt on its axis. This, and the way our planet revolves around the sun and rotates on its axis, is what causes seasons to occur. In the summer solstice, the Northern Hemisphere is at its maximum tilt towards the sun, and Iceland is one of the nations far enough north to always experience the sunlight at this time. However, in the winter months, it is the Southern Hemisphere who experience their maximum tilt towards the sun, resulting in the longer periods of darkness in the North.
Luckily for us, we’ll be in Iceland during this glorious period of 24 hour daylight, allowing us to conduct our research at all hours!