Iceland Looks Ahead

For twelve centuries the people of Iceland have struggled against countless obstacles and won. There is ample reason to believe that they will continue to do so in the future. The country’s natural resources are meager, yet on this small, remote, rugged island nation, Icelanders have developed one of the world’s most enviable standards of living. Iceland is a peaceful nation. Its major battles have been against nature—the agents of fire, ice, and the sea—rather than other humans.

Forecasting the future of any country is, at best, an imprecise science. Geographers, however, do have a competitive edge in looking ahead. Their broad view of the world makes it possible to consider the importance of both physical and human elements of a place. These varied elements are analyzed in a number of ways. One view considers the many environmental interactions that give character to a place. In Iceland, for example, geology, climate, and the sea have played a profound role in the development of a unique land and culture.

Certainly, these elements will continue to be of great importance. Geographers also are keenly aware of the importance of space and time. In order to understand Iceland’s past, present, and future, it is essential to consider the importance of its remote location. It also is essential to look to the country’s past if one is to understand the present and draft a map to the future.

LIVING IN A HARSH LAND

Iceland is a harsh land. The history of its people is marked by their constant struggle against nature’s elements. Nature’s whims cannot be controlled. Humans can take steps to avoid or minimize the impact of natural hazards. As yet, however, we can not control earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, storms, or climatic changes. Of all the forecasts, perhaps the safest is to foresee a continuing fundamental relationship between Icelanders and their natural environment.

Earth Hazards

Aspects of environment, such as earthquakes and volcanoes, become hazards only in relation to human presence. Iceland’s population is growing, settlement is expanding, and various types of development are occurring away from traditional population centers. These conditions suggest that conflicts between land and life will become increasingly frequent and severe. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and periodic flooding caused by lava outbursts and melting glacial ice will continue to take their toll. No spot on the island is free from seismic (earthquake) activity, and most of Iceland is subject to the effects of volcanic eruptions.

Weather and Climate

Global warming could have a positive impact on Iceland’s weather and climate. In late 2002, however, another—and much different—scenario was presented. Some scientists now believe that conditions in the North Atlantic Ocean are beginning to change. They fear that the North Atlantic Drift, the warm water extension of the Gulf Stream, may weaken or even disappear as a result of these changing conditions. Such changes, they caution, have occurred on a number of occasions, including during the historic period. And change can come very rapidly, in just a year or two. If this happened, eastern North America and Western Europe—and Iceland—could suddenly experience a 10°F (3°C) drop in temperature. Such a change would have a huge effect on Iceland, including a rapid expansion of area buried beneath glacial ice and permanent snowfields.

Glaciers

Glaciers remain somewhat of a mystery. Scientists are not sure, for example, whether they grow when conditions warm (contributing to more evaporation and precipitation), or cool! Even in the North Atlantic region, some glaciers are ablating (melting away) while others are growing (in Scandinavia, for example). It seems probable that whether Earth is warming, or the North Atlantic area is on the brink of rapid cooling, that Iceland’s glaciers will experience some change in size and area covered.

Greater confidence can be expressed in terms of glacially caused flooding. Severe jökulhlaups, the flooding resulting from lava-caused glacial meltwater, will continue to pose a threat.

Vegetation

When the first European settlers arrived some 1,200 years ago, they described the island as being covered by dense forests. Because of extensive overcutting for lumber and fuel, nearly all the island’s forests have been removed. Today, the government is supporting an ambitious program of reforestation. Also, as Iceland’s population becomes increasingly urban, the importance of livestock grazing (particularly sheep) may decline. Sheep, in particular, tend to overgraze pastureland, which, in turn, can cause severe erosion.

The Sea

The warm waters of the north Atlantic Ocean are the source of Iceland’s moisture and relatively mild climate. Should conditions change, as suggested in the discussion of “Weather and Climate” earlier, the impact on Iceland would be profound. In the past, most Icelanders have looked seaward for many of their needs. People came and went by sea. The sea provided their livelihood, as fishing dominated the nation’s economy. Even ocean current–carried driftwood was gathered and used for fuel and building. Today, most people traveling between Iceland and a continental mainland do so by air. The country’s economy also is changing. Nearly 75 percent of the labor force is engaged in manufacturing or providing services, and only 12 percent of the people rely on fishing and fish processing. In the future, Icelanders will be less dependent upon the sea for transportation or livelihood.

A STURDY PEOPLE LOOK AHEAD

Iceland’s major strength, today and in the future, is its people. The population is healthy, well educated, socially integrated, and enjoys one of the world’s highest standards of living. Few conflicts exist, whether within Iceland, or between the country and other lands. It is a peaceful country with little crime, little poverty, and little social diversity.

Geographers often speak of centrifugal versus centripetal forces—those conditions that can drive a society apart, or those that tend to draw it together. By nearly any measure, Iceland’s population contributes to a centripetal force. The country’s society is very cohesive and should remain so in the foreseeable future.

Population

Iceland’s population of 286,000 is growing at a very slow and manageable 0.5 percent per year (versus the world average of 1.3 percent). Neither the current population, nor its rate of growth, poses a challenge to the country’s area, economy, facilities, or services. In fact, Iceland appears to be one of the few countries on Earth that actually could benefit from population gain.

It is unlikely, however, that the island will experience any large or rapid gain in population. Most of Iceland’s people are urban, educated, and affluent. And most women are in the work force. All four of these factors help contribute to a low birthrate and declining rate of natural population increase. It also is doubtful whether Iceland will gain many new immigrants. The island’s natural environment and remote location work against attracting new settlers. So, too, do the high cost of living and very homogeneous population. Iceland’s population should remain quite stable, experiencing slow growth that can easily be accommodated.

Government

Few countries in the world can match Iceland’s political stability, a condition that almost certainly will continue. One question mark rising above the country is its possible future participation in the European Union (EU). For the time being, at least, Icelanders are happy to remain completely independent of this growing union of European countries.

Economy

Recent decades have seen a major shift in Iceland’s economy. Traditionally, the people have turned to the land and sea for their resources and livelihood. Today, primary industrial activities such as farming, herding, mining, and fishing amount to but a small percentage of the national gross national product (GNP). Nearly all Icelanders—about two-thirds of the total work force—are engaged in service industries. A well-educated and hard-working population is Iceland’s chief resource today. Certainly the importance of a variety of postindustrial service-based activities will increase. Iceland’s economy appears to be on secure footing and should continue to diversify and grow in the foreseeable future. Short of some global cataclysm, only a devastating natural catastrophe could change this optimistic forecast.

LINKAGES

Even though Iceland is remote, it becomes increasingly less isolated.With jet aircraft, satellite and fiber optic communications, the Internet and e-mail, Iceland’s location is no longer a major limiting factor to movement. People, materials, and information move to and from the island freely. Such linkages certainly will continue to improve in the future. This will encourage Iceland’s population to be even move closely drawn into the global community.

LOOKING AHEAD

Geographer Erhardt Rostlund once said, “The present is the fruit of the past and contains the seeds of the future.” Iceland’s present has been fashioned by a sturdy people living in a harsh environment. Through their tireless work, determination in the face of adversity, and faith in themselves and their land, they have created a way of life that is first-rate by any world standard. By these efforts, Icelanders already have planted the seeds of their own future. And the results of their harvest almost certainly will be bountiful.