This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by ePublishing Partners and AirPano, now available on Google Arts & Culture
It is located on both the Iceland Hotspot and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the Eurasian and North American plates meet, making for dramatic geography and the somewhat unpredictable nature of its land and waters.
Iceland’s 4,970-kilometer (3,088 mile) coastline is punctuated by many fjords. Most of the country’s people live along the coast. The interior of the island is a cold and uninhabitable combination of lava fields, mountains, and sand.
Most visitors fly into Keflavík airport, about 50km (30 miles) from the capital Reykjavík. Nearly two thirds of Icelanders live in the Greater Reykjavík area (population 215,000) and it is the heart of the country’s cultural and economic life.
Looking at the city from the air you’ll notice the colorful, Lego™-like quality of the brightly painted rooftops. Many buildings are covered in corrugated metal that stands up to harsh conditions and solves the problem of a shortage of timber.
The biggest church in Iceland (built 1945-1986) is named after the seventeenth-century poet and clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson. Its design suggests the basalt lava flows common in the Icelandic landscape. A dramatic statue of explorer Leif Eriksson stands outside.
This small airport is only 2 km (1.2 miles) from the city center. It serves flights inside Iceland and over to Greenland and the Faroe Islands, as well as private flights and small international charters.
You can't avoid this lake in the city center whose name means “The Pond.” People come to feed birds and jog and cycle round the outside. The city hall, several museums, and part of the University of Iceland are nearby.
Svartifoss is one of the most popular sites in Vatnajökull national park in southeast Iceland. The dark lava columns give it its name which means ‘Black Falls’. Most of the year, the falls are over 20 meters (65 feet) high.
What looks like moss is actually a lichen that grows abundantly in the lava slopes and plains of Iceland. Some Icelanders use it in folk medicines to relieve chest ailments or in traditional dishes like breads, porridges, and soups.
Harnessing the Hydro
Many Icelanders have access to inexpensive hot water, heat, and electricity because of hydroelectric power stations. About 75 percent of Iceland’s energy comes from this source, and nearly all of the rest comes from geothermal sources.
The hexagonal columns were created as cooling lava contracted. The stress in the contracting rock was equal in all directions, causing the lava to crack apart in a pattern of nested hexagons, the most efficient packing shape (like beehive cells).
The Base of the Falls
Hikers, beware! You can see that sharp rocks fill the base of the waterfall. They are sharp because sections of the hexagonal basalt columns break off faster than the falling water erodes the edges.
Jökulsárlón Ice Lagoon
About 370 km (230 miles) east of Reykjavík, the Jökulsárlón Ice Lagoon is a relatively recent natural wonder, the result of a warming climate. As huge blocks break off the glacier, Breiðamerkurjökull, they float into the water of the lagoon.
The pieces of ice look creepy, don’t they? Icy water, volcanic ash, and soil combine to create this unique phenomenon. This ghostly landscape has been the setting for Hollywood blockbusters including A View to Kill, Tomb Raider, and Batman Begins.
This mouthful of a word is the name for the vast area of sand plain that dominates this part of the country around Jökulsárlón. It means “broad forest sand” which suggests that it may have had more plants long ago.
Below Sea Level
The lake is the lowest place in Iceland at 200 meters (660 feet) below sea level. In summer, icebergs melt and roll down the channel to the ocean. In winter, the lake usually freezes and locks the ice in place.
About 40 percent of Iceland is covered by an uninhabitable interior desert called The Highlands. Most of the Highlands are above 400-500 meters, and when rain or snow falls, it soaks into the ashy ground so quickly that hardly any plant life ever grows.
Most of the country’s high temperature geothermal areas are found here.
1.8km-long Lake Onefndavatn is a favorite of anglers. Of about 50 lakes in the area, according to a local guide, brown trout is caught in 20-30, mostly 2-6 pounders, but sometimes up to 10 pounds.
Fifty percent of Iceland is completely devoid of vegetation. However, you can see rims of bright green along some of the inland lakes. These are extremely small and fragile ecosystems, which the government is trying hard to protect.
During the 1990s, the Ministry of the Environment established a regional plan for the the Central Highlands. The first step was extensive inventory and mapping. Based on these surveys, the Ministry limits building and activity to certain zones.
The Blue Lagoon Thermal Resort
One of the most visited attractions in Iceland, this spa is located in a lava field on a peninsula in the southwestern part of the country. Bathing in these warm mineral-rich waters soothes some people suffering from skin conditions.
The lagoon, opened to the public in 1992, is man-made and fed by water from the nearby geothermal plant.
The water comes from 2,000 meters below the surface where freshwater and seawater combine at extreme temperatures. On its way to the surface, it picks up silica and other minerals and emerges at a soothing 100° F (38° C).
Svartsengi Power Station
In the distance you can see smoke and steam rising from the geothermal power station that is the source of Blue Lagoon’s water. It produces 76.5 megawatts of energy, and about 475 liters/second of 194 °F (90 °C) hot water.
Visitors in Abundance
Blue Lagoon claims that it “enables you to soak away the stresses of modern life.” More than 400,000 people visit the resort each year, sometimes on the way to or from the airport. There is a popular hotel nearby.
This mountain offers panoramic views on clear days, with easily accessible hiking trails. At the top are several small buildings and an abandoned tower, used by the U.S. Navy when it had a radar station there in the 1990s.