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Why Iceland Imports Ice From Other Countries

The name Iceland is a misnomer. In reality, the country is stunningly green, especially during summer, and only about ten percent of Iceland is actually covered with permanent ice. This is largely due to the warm North Atlantic ocean that keeps the island's climate warm and its coasts ice-free throughout the winter, despite being located so close to the Arctic.

Legend has it that Iceland’s Viking settlers chose such a morose name to keep out people looking to settle in new lands. They hoped that the word “ice” would discourage people from coming here and discovering that their island was actually green and bountiful. But that is just a myth. Truth is, Iceland had many names in the past. When the Norse explorers Naddador first landed on Iceland, it was snowing and so he named the country Snæland. Later, when Swedish Viking Garðar Svavarosson arrived, he named the island Garðarshólmur (“Garðar’s Isle”). In the 9th century, a Viking named Flóki Vilgerðarson went in search of Garðarshólmur. When he reached there he was very ill-prepared for the winter. While waiting for spring one day, he climbed a mountain and was disheartened to see a fjord full of icebergs. It was sheer disappointment that led him to give the island its current name.

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Jökulsárlón glacier lake, Iceland. Photo credit: Txetxu Rubio/Flickr

So ice, as it turns out isn’t as plenty in Iceland as it name might suggest. Sure there are floating icebergs which you could theoretically mine ice from, and glaciers which you could break with a pickaxe to fill your glass, unless you want to draw the wrath of environmentalist, ice—even in icy countries—are manufactured. But here is the thing: Iceland is notoriously expensive.

Because of its remote location and unfavorable climate, like many northern islands, Iceland relies heavily on imports for many products including oil, wheat, vegetables and other food. This means that things are very expensive in Iceland, and correspondingly Icelandic people enjoy some of the highest salaries in the world. This leads to high labor cost and anything that is manufactured in Iceland eventually turns out to be expensive as well. It’s a vicious circle.

It turns out that ice imported from other countries are as much as forty percent cheaper than ice produced in Iceland, despite the fact that electricity is incredibly cheap in Iceland because of the country’s abundant hydroelectric and geothermal resources. So Iceland imports tons of ice from Norway, Britain and even the United States. This ice is sold to grocery stores to keep produce as well as meat and fish fresh.

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A typical Icelandic landscape—waterfalls and lots of greens. Photo credit: Lenny K/Flickr

While some might argue that transporting ice between countries has a detrimental impact on environment because of all the greenhouse gases the ships emit, one must not forget that Iceland already has a lot of inbound shipping for all the variety of things the country can’t produce. So it makes sense to utilize this existing transport service to import some ice rather than try and make it at home. It makes more economic sense to use their cheap electricity for more power intensive operation such as aluminum smelting. As much as one-fourth of all electrical energy produced in the country goes towards aluminum production, placing the country at 11th place among aluminum-producing nations in the world.

Iceland also enjoys a lot of free trade among European nations ever since it became a member of the European Free Trade Association in 1970. A lot of capital, labor, goods, and services between Iceland, Norway, and the EU countries can make free cross-border movement. This also includes—as you have guessed—ice. Importing ice to Iceland is tax free, which helps to keep prices low.

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A lonely house stands near the Eyjafjallajökull glacier on the south coast of Iceland. Photo credit: Vincent Moschetti/Flickr

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