OFFICIALLY PART OF Europe, Iceland has been a republic since 1944. The capital city is Reykjavik and the population (2007 est.) is 311,400. The total area of the island is 39,768.5 sq. mi. (103,000 sq. km.). Glaciers cover approximately 11 percent of the landmass. Iceland is located in a geological hotspot and has several active volcanoes. During the last glaciation, Iceland was completely covered with ice. Colonists, primarily from Norway, first settled Iceland in the late 9th century. According to DNA studies, approximately one quarter of the original population was composed of women from the northern British Isles. Woodland cover, now around 1.3 percent of the total landmass, was then approximately 30 percent. The settlers brought a farming economy based on sheep and cattle. With a climate generally unsuitable for grain growing, the main agricultural crop has been the grass on which the livestock have depended for winter fodder. The failure of grass in past centuries frequently led to famines, which caused considerable loss of life. From the late 19th century onwards, fisheries dominated the economy.
The climate of Iceland is largely determined by its position in the middle of the North Atlantic, at a point where contrasting cold and mild ocean and air currents meet. This makes the climate highly variable on all time scales, from days to centuries. The island is favorably influenced climatically by its proximity to the Irminger Current, a branch of the Gulf Stream. How ever, the Arctic Sea ice, also called drift ice, which is brought to Iceland by the East Greenland Current, has a mainly negative effect. The ice, which may have given the country its name, acts as a heat sink and lowers temperatures on land and, in the past, could block harbors and thus prevent fishing and the access of trading ships. Information on the past incidence of the ice reaching the coasts is a useful climate proxy indicator.
It has been suggested that Iceland experienced a relatively mild climate during the early centuries of settlement, but evidence is largely circumstantial. Barley, for example, which needs relative warmth during the growing season, seems to have been cultivated. Serious erosion, caused by livestock grazing and woodland clearing, was undoubtedly as large a contributing factor to later economic difficulties as climate change may have been.
Iceland's climate has varied considerably during the approximately 1,100 years since human settlement began. From around 1200 c.E., historical evidence begins to shed light on climate change, although 1430-1560 there are very few contemporary sources. From 1600, there is sufficient evidence to be able to reconstruct climate and sea-ice indices. The general view has been that 1600-1900 was unfavorable climatically, but a scrutiny of the data shows much variability. In particular, there was a relatively mild period 1640-70. The 1780s are likely to have been the coldest decade of the 18th century, but this was compounded by volcanic activity from the Lakagigar eruption in 1783. The 1801s and 1830s were also comparatively cold. The last great famine occurred in Iceland in the 1880s, when cold years and much sea ice occurred.
The first meteorological observations on Iceland were made 1749-51, but a continuous series does not begin until 1820. From that time on, there is detailed information on climate change provided by a number of systematic observations and historical records. The modern era of observations began with the establishment of the Icelandic Meteorological Office (Ve5urstofa islands) in 1920. By the 1920s, a marked warming trend was well under way. Sea ice was an infrequent visitor until the cold period 1965-71. Since the 1980s, there has been a warming trend in the temperature records for Iceland, with very little sea ice reaching the coasts.
sEE ALso: Drift Ice; Glaciers, Retreating; Glaciology; Greenland Ice Sheet; Volcanism.
BIBLIoGRAPHY. Chris Castledine, Iceland—Modern Processes and Past Environments (Elsevier, 2005); A.E.J. Ogil-vie and Trausti Jonsson, eds., "The Iceberg in the Mist: Northern Research in Pursuit of a 'Little Ice Age,'" Climatic Change (v.48/1, 2001).
Astrid E.J. Ogilvie Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research University of Colorado
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