To answer your question straight away: No, Iceland is not a continent. But we can see why you would think that when you look at a map. You might also ask yourself what continent Iceland is on. That requires a more complicated answer.

Iceland is not on one continent but two!

If we dust off our geology, you might remember that the world sits on tectonic plates. Most countries are just on one plate, but the thing is, Iceland is on two. The North American plate and the Eurasian plate. That means Iceland is technically in two continents. The fact that Iceland stands on plate boundaries also explains why there is so much volcanic activity.

Is Iceland in North America or Europe?

Although theoretically, we could split the country to be legally in both North America and Europe, Iceland is considered to be in Europe. Iceland is part of the EEA (European Economic Area), and since most of the island is on the Eurasian plate, it makes sense not to divide the nation to be in two continents legally.  No Icelander argues for it, and we all consider ourselves to be European. This is mostly because in the olden days almost all of our foreign contact was to European countries.

You can see where the plates split

You can dive between continent in Iceland
You can even dive between continents in Iceland!

There is a visible crack that runs through the whole island. And you can see it for yourself. The most popular place to see the split is definitely Þingvellir national park. If you take the Golden circle route, you are certainly going to view it. In Almannagjá in Þingvellir you are actually walking down the split and are between continents. Another, not as famous, place to see the crack is at the Bridge between continents at Sandvík. There you can walk over a bridge and be between two tectonic plates. It’ a popular photo spot. You can also go down to the crack and walk along with it.

Read more about tectonic plates on Wikipedia! 

It was the summer of 1967. The world was taken by space fever, and the first Apollo astronauts were in training. But were they training at NASA in Houston, Texas? No, they were stationed in Iceland, studying rocks.

Why train in Iceland?

Tectonic plates meet in Iceland

You may know that Iceland stands on two tectonic plates, unlike most countries. NASA scientists speculated that the moon would have rocks similar to the ones on Earth from tectonic plate shifting or volcanic activity. The astronauts needed some geological training to be able to recognize different moon rocks. That way, when they got home, all of the moon rocks would differ from one another. Both Icelandic and American geologist helped with training the Apollo men.

The moon vs. Iceland

Iceland looks like the moon

Iceland is not only known for its hákarl and puffin but also stunning scenery and beautiful nature. A nature that is very similar to the view of the moon, with vast and abandoned spaces Iceland has some very moon-like craters. The astronauts of Apollo had gone to Hawaii, Alaska and the meteor crater in Arizona, they all agreed that Iceland was the place on Earth most like the moon. So keep that in mind when you go traveling in the highlands, you’re halfway to the moon.

You can pretend to be an astronaut in Iceland!

Námaskarð near Mývatn - be an astronaut

Today 52 years after the Apollo astronauts came to Iceland Icelanders still remember it. Heck, we even have licorice called Apollo. Icelanders like most of the world, have fond memories of the missions to the moon. And it feels quite extraordinary to say “did you know Neil Armstrong came here to train for the moon landing.”

Even you can visit the same places in Iceland that the Apollo astronauts visited. Drekagil, Mývatn and Askja are all public places, and it’s free of charge for you to go in your Cozy Camper and pretend to be an astronaut for a day.

People often say that Iceland and Greenland should switch names since Iceland is green and Greenland is so icy. But what would be the fun in that? Icelanders love when other people are surprised by how green our country is.

 It’s technically true, Iceland is green

Iceland is green

It’s true, though: Iceland is much less icy than Greenland and has a much milder climate. Glaciers cover approximately 11% of Iceland, compared to 80% of Greenland. Additionally, Iceland’s weather is much more temperate than Greenland’s. It’s due to the Gulf Stream that brings mild Atlantic air to Iceland’s south and east coasts. Interestingly, it’s this Gulf Stream that causes so many of Iceland’s notorious quick weather changes, which happen when the mild air meets the colder Arctic air. It also leads to more rainfall in the southern and western parts of the island.

 Hrafna-Flóki started this mess

So from where did these mismatched names come? Iceland got its name when a Viking named Hrafna-Flóki ran up a mountain, saw a fjord full of icebergs, and called the country Iceland. The name stuck. Even though the rumor back then was that Iceland was so fertile that “butter dripped from every blade of grass.”

 An Erik the Red solidified it

Iceland has green moss

Another Viking, Erik the Red, named Greenland. He fled to what is now Greenland after he was banished from Iceland for killing three people in a feud. He named the island Greenland to attract other settlers to his new, frigid home. Native Greenlanders call their country Kalaallit Nunaat. Which is Inuit for “Land of the People.” You can imagine they are not very happy that the rest of the world uses Erik the Red’s misnomer instead.

 

Anyway, now you know – if you’re looking for a beautiful green island to drive around in your Cozy Camper, the right choice is Iceland, NOT Greenland! Bon Voyage!

Sounds like a stupid question right? Well it is actually a pretty common one! In short the answer is this:

Iceland sits on two continents. Geographically it is situated both in Europe and North America.

 

Iceland belongs to Europe

Let’s dive in. Yes, Iceland is a part of Europe. It belongs to Scandinavia along with Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. Before gaining independence in 1918 Iceland belonged to the kingdom of Denmark. Cultural similarities between the two countries (and the rest of the Nordic countries) are still strong to this day.

 

The rift between the two tectonic plates

A big part of what makes Iceland so unique is that is sits on top of two tectonic plates. The Eurasian plate and the North American plate meet in the Mid Atlantic Ridge. The two continents move away from each other by 2 cm every year and this movement fuels the highly volcanic activity of Iceland. In fact, there are a number of small earthquakes taking place every single day in Iceland. These earthquakes can be caused by both the tectonic plates movements and volcanic activity. If you are curious about this daily activity the Icelandic Met Office keeps a (almost) real-time map of every earthquake each day. 

 

Picture from the Icelandic Met Office, 29.10.2018.

As you can see on the picture above the activity follows the lines of the  where the two tectonic plates meet. This is no cause for alarm mind you. The earthquakes mostly happen in uninhabited places so it is unlikely you will even notice them.

 

Volcanic activity in Iceland

Since Iceland is so uniquely situated in the Mid Atlandic Ridge it has unusually high volcanic activity. There is a hot spot below the country fueling the numerous eruption. This consequently makes Iceland one of the youngest countries on the planet. There is constantly new land being formed. Iceland is similar to Hawaii in this perspective. Both are small islands far away from mainland and both are sitting on hot spots. In Iceland, eruptions happen every 5 years.

Picture from Lava Center.

Lava Centre in Hvolsvöllur has a fantastic interactive exhibition on Iceland! In the the picture above you can see the hot spot below Iceland and in the exhibition you can walk around it to really feel the scope of it.

 

Cultural belonging

Some might say Iceland belonged to the two continents both geographically and culturally. Iceland’s locations actually made the country quite valuable during WWI as a naval base for both British and American soldiers. Up to that point Icelanders had been a rather isolated and poor nation so the “occupation” was welcomed by most. The american soldiers brought some brand new and exciting things to Iceland. TV’s, new music, pantyhose’s, chewing gum and sodas to name a few. More importantly they build roads,  airports and bigger harbors and thus accelerated Iceland’s arrival into the 20th Century.

 

Yes, they do, and 44 years ago it destroyed 1/3 of the town. Luckily the people were evacuated.

The Eldfell eruption in 1973

Vestmannaeyjar eruption 1973
Photo: The Atlantic

Early one January morning in 1973, the people of Vestmannaeyjar islands, more specifically in the town on Heimaey Island, woke up to a scary sight. A vast crevice had ripped open in the earth and lava was gushing out. It was just 1 kilometer away from town. Thankfully, the ash was blowing out to sea instead of raining down on the town. People managed to escape down to the harbor. By sheer luck, the entire island’s population managed to get to the mainland of Iceland, because there had been a storm and all the fishing boats were docked at the harbor. The evacuation was very successful, and Icelanders opened their homes to the survivors. A few hundred people stayed behind on the island to help.

Battling the lava flow

The eruption lasted for six months. The island’s primary industry is fishing, and the island has a natural harbor. During the eruption, the lava was approaching the harbor fast and was going to seal it off, stripping the people of their livelihoods. Someone got the crazy idea to spray the lava with sea water to make it harder and pile up instead of flowing freely into the harbor. All available pumps and hoses were brought in, and in the end, the plan worked. The harbor was saved from filling up with lava, and the inhabitants still make a living out of fishing, mostly. Many people did not return to the islands after the eruption since a lot of houses burned down or were buried in ash, and obviously, people were frightened. Waking up with an erupting volcano in their backyard wasn’t something they expected to ever live through.

Vestmannaeyjar islands
Photo: Iceland Monitor

Is it safe to visit Vestmannaeyjar?

Yes, it’s entirely safe, and people still live there in a thriving community. Geology and volcanology have come a long way since 1973, and all earthquake and tremor activity is monitored. In fact, we recommend you visit the island because it has a fantastic birdlife, fun tours and activities!