Another side to the Land of Fire and Ice

Krafla geothermal power station in northern Iceland

It seemed like every geography teacher that I knew had visited Iceland – apart from me. Finally, this Easter holiday, I got my turn to visit this geographer’s paradise. Along with my sixth form geographers, I went on a 5 day tour of South Iceland to marvel at the glaciers, waterfalls, volcanos and dynamic coastlines.

I was well aware that Iceland was a physical geographer’s playground – and admittedly it was – but as a human geographer I was amazed by how much human geography Iceland has to offer!

Here are some examples of the human geography in Iceland to whet the appetites of my fellow human geographers:

Health geography

In 2016, Switzerland overtook Iceland to take the top spot (a position long held by Iceland) in the rankings of longest male life expectancy. In fact, it’s widely believed that Iceland is the most obese country in Europe – even more obese than the USA. This is mainly thought to be due to the rising cost of living, which makes it cheaper to buy less healthy food for families and has led to a large increase in the consumption of fast food. There is also believed to be a cultural disinterest among Icelanders in improving their own health.

Another interesting aspect of health geography in Iceland is a rise in alcohol consumption. Between 1992 and 2012, alcohol consumption rose by 35% in Iceland, as opposed to a 2.5% decrease in OECD countries as a whole.

Migration

After visiting Iceland, I assumed that the country had negative net migration. However, when I looked into it, I discovered the rate to be 4.2 migrant(s)/1,000 population, with nearly half of all migrants coming from Poland. This is due to the boom in the tourist industry, and the country is estimated to need 4,000 foreign workers to fill the labour gap by next year if the industry continues growing at the same rate.

Economic geography

Iceland’s economic geography seems to be as extreme as its landscape. Unsurprisingly, tourism represents a large proportion of Iceland’s GDP.  The number of tourists has actually doubled since 2010 (around 1.3 million in 2015) and revenue from foreign tourists has increased by 31% between 2010 and 2015. In opposition to this booming industry and income, I was interested to learn about the major financial crisis between 2008 and 2011, due mainly to inflation and banks being unable to refinance their debts.

Environmental geography

All geography teachers know that Iceland is the only country in the world which obtains 100% of its electricity and heat from renewable sources. However, emissions in 2013 were 24.8% above the emissions in 1990. This is believed to be due to tourism traffic and a rise in aluminium smelting – there are currently 3 operating aluminium smelters in Iceland.

I hope these examples have convinced you that Iceland makes a fascinating case study for human geography, as well as the obvious physical topics. If you’d like more detail on the topics I’ve introduced here, there’s a wealth of information available from Icelandic news reports (such as Iceland Monitor and Iceland Review) and intergovernmental organisations (such as the OECD and the WHO). So next time you work on a new case study, why not consider moving away from traditional locations and surprise your students with unexpected information from countries they may not have even considered?

Rebecca Priest photoRebecca Priest is a Geography Teacher at King Edward VI High School for Girls in Birmingham. She is currently studying for a MA in Geography Education at the Institute of Education and presented a session on ISM at the GA’s 2015 Annual Conference. 

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