People are always asking me about Eskimos, but there are no Eskimos in Iceland.
The eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull in April 2010 emitted between 150,000 and 300,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, but according to the Environmental Transport Association, the subsequent ban on flights prevented the emission of around three million tonnes, so there was a substantial net benefit. There was also a smaller effect of cooling by the volcanic ash cloud as it blocked sunlight from getting to the earth. However, volcanoes aren’t a major source of carbon dioxide in any case; total emissions from volcanoes on land are estimated to average about a hundredth of human emissions, and measurements of CO2 levels over the past 50 years do not show any significant rises after volcanic eruptions.
Icelandic volcanoes have past form. A little over 200 years ago, in 1783, the eruption of a volcano in Iceland sent a huge toxic cloud across western Europe. The eruption lasted until early February 1784, and it is considered to be the biggest lava eruption on Earth in historical times. About 3 cubic miles of lava (12 cubic km) was pumped out over an area of 220 square miles (565 square km). The rank atmosphere led Icelanders to dub the period the Móðuharðindin, or 'Hardships of the Mist', but the effects were felt much further afield: 1784 saw water levels in the Nile fall to their lowest ever level and Japan suffered one of the three worst famines in its history.
Iceland is a bigger country than most of us realize. At 39,000 square miles, it is the same size as Cuba, 25% bigger than Ireland and 50% bigger than Sri Lanka. Despite this its population is slightly smaller than that of Croydon: 310,000. This means that, per head of population, Icelanders read more books, eat more sugar, keep more shotguns, drive more four-wheel drives, produce more poets and have more Nobel Prize winners (just the one) than any other nation. In 2007, Iceland was ranked the most developed country in the world by the United Nations.
There are very few surnames in Iceland. Those people who do sport them usually claim Danish ancestry and are generally considered snobs. The naming convention is strict: each child takes on the first name of their father or mother as a second name and adds 'sson' if they are a boy or 'dottir' if they are a girl. This means it is perfectly normal for everyone in a family of four to have different surnames. The Icelandic telephone directory is arranged by first names and then by profession to minimize confusion. Non-traditional first names have to be approved by The Icelandic Naming Committee before they can be used - one of the rare recent exceptions made was for Russian pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, who is now an Icelandic citizen.
About 10% of Icelanders still actively believe in the existence of a hidden world of elves, dwarves and spirits with magic powers called huldufolk. 10% deny their existence, whilst the balancing majority of 80% refuse to rule it out. Icelandic roadworks often require the movement of large rocks and boulders, which are the traditional haunts of the hidden people. The authorities have reacted in different ways to these local concerns: sometimes construction projects are delayed to allow the elves time to move on, sometimes the road's path is slightly diverted, and on other occasions the rocks are moved with the help of spiritualists.
Icelandic is the oldest language in Europe. The Icelandic for 'sleep' is sofa.
Dublin, though a place much worse than London, is not as bad as Iceland.
Recently, Iceland's main impact on the rest of the world has been financial. In 2003 three Icelandic banks - Landsbanki, Kaupthing and Glitnir - began buying foreign assets. By 2006, the average Icelandic family was three times as wealthy as it had been in 2003, but the prosperity ended abruptly in October 2008, when the three banks failed.
Iceland now faces an economy saddled with debts running at 850% of GDP, or £224,000 owed for every man, woman and child in the country. The UK fell for the charm of the young Icelandic bankers, and deposited more than £30 billion into Iceland during the boom times.
Educational institutions have been particularly badly affected: Oxford University alone has lost £50 million. As several commentators have remarked, economically speaking Iceland is no longer a country but a failed hedge fund.
Despite being the youngest island to form geologically, Iceland was one of the last places on earth to be inhabited by humans.
It was first settled in the 9th century ad by immigrants from Scandinavia. Iceland's first settlers called it 'Snowland', although 'Butterland' was also suggested as the grass was so rich it seemed to drip butter.
In Iceland, no one is considered so unimportant that they do not deserve an obituary, so newspapers print dozens.