How did Iceland get its name?

How did Iceland get its name?

One of the most commonly asked questions is “Why is Iceland Green and Greenland is Ice?” and "Why is Iceland Called Iceland?". I would be lying if I said it hasn’t crossed my mind a few times. Iceland is known for its vibrant green meadows and enjoyable summers. While Greenland is known for being very cold and snowy, with not much greenery at all. So why are the names opposite? At first, it appeared to get its name from an ancient story, passed down from generations. On the other hand, science and climate change also made some progress in this as well. Keep reading to find out why Iceland is green and Greenland is Ice.


First, let’s learn about Greenland. While Iceland has become a popular tourist destination over the years, Greenland has sort of fallen behind. Or it may just be a best-kept secret. It is a beautiful island nation which is located between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. It is also the largest island in the whole world. While most islands have turquoise blue waters and sandy beaches, Greenland is a little different, in a good way.

It is a playground for arctic lovers who want an adventure. Some common tourist activities in Greenland are soaking in their hot springs and marveling at the glaciers. You can take boat tours to get up close and personal with the humongous icebergs. If you are adventurous, do a guided hike on one of the ice sheets. With an average winter temperature of 38 Degrees Fahrenheit, it stays relatively cold most of the time. The southern part of the island in the summer months can get well into the sixties, providing warmer relief. Greenland is truly a majestic winter wonderland. Which should probably be called Iceland with that description alone. Greenland does attract some pretty decent tourism though, averaging about 60,000 people a year!

Colorful houses in Greenland

Did you know that Greenland has a very unique location? It is located both north and south of the Arctic CIrcle. Due to this, they host the Arctic Circle Race every year. The race is 99 miles long and takes three days to complete. They also have a 62-mile race option for those not ready to take on the 99 miles. The racers will make their way through rough yet beautiful terrains by ski. They need to be visible from both the front and back at all times. A perk is that all racers get to stay at the camp, which is known to provide gorgeous views of the northern lights. The race is a great cause too, bringing awareness to the environment and beauty around us. If you are caught littering at any point, you are automatically disqualified from the Arctic Circle Race. 

Speaking of the Northern Lights, Greenland is one of the top places to spot them. This is in addition to Iceland, Finland, Norway & Alaska. Since spotting the Northern Lights is on the bucket list for most people, it generates a lot of Greenland’s tourism. Ilulissat, which is a city in Greenland, is one of the best places to spot them. This western UNESCO World Heritage site has cliffs and icebergs, making it a beautiful backdrop for the Northern Lights. Ilulissat has thousands of icebergs and you can see them right from the hiking path. The dancing lights are surprisingly around all year long. But, due to the midnight sun in the summer months, they do not become visible during that time. From September to the beginning of April, you can see the Aurora Beaulius. Normally at midnight on clear and dark nights. 

Even though Greenland is now known for its frigid temperatures it really is a beautiful place. It was once and still is, known for its nature. Outdoor lovers can spend their day on a boat whale watching or hit the remote hiking trails. That means Iceland’s neighbor could be a fun getaway for those winter weather lovers. 


Iceland is a Nordic island country in the North Atlantic Ocean that is a sparsely populated country in Europe. Iceland has become a popular tourist attraction over the years. Mostly due to it being featured in travel articles, movies, and television shows. Yes, the country does have massive glaciers and icefields. But, it also has beautiful green pastures and farms. It can be visited both in the summer and the winter. Depending on what adventure you are looking for.

It is a bit warmer than Greenland annually. Winters do still average about 38 degrees Fahrenheit. While summer months climb higher to 75 degrees Fahrenheit in June & July. Even with the range of temperatures, Iceland attracts 1.8 million visitors every year. That is almost 70% more than the tourists Greenland gets each year. 

Green mountains in Iceland

Iceland is its own beast. Becoming a sought-after destination by nature lovers from all over the world. Tourism for the country began to climb as once-popular movies and television shows featured it. Iceland has a diverse landscape of green meadows and ice caves. The stunning black sand beaches of Vik, Iceland draw photographs from all over the world. Hikers visit the famous Þingvellir National Park, which attracts over 700,000 people a year alone. 

In addition to the gorgeous landscapes, Iceland also has a lively city. Reykjavik, Iceland is a hot spot for both food and nightlife enthusiasts. The now popular city was founded back in AD 874 by Ingólfr Arnarson. Then the city was officially founded in the 1700s when urban development started. There were houses being built specifically to be home to the wool industry, which was an important role of Reykjavik. Other industries there that were booming during that time were sulfur mining and even shipbuilding.

Today it is known as one of the cleanest and safest cities in the entire world. This also draws a lot of solo visitors who want to explore the country by themselves. Reykjavik makes a safe center location for tourists who want to explore by car and venture out during the day. There are plenty of hotels in the central city for visitors to stay in, ranging from luxury to low budget. Hostels are another fun and cheap option in the city as well. It can make a great area to meet other travelers and locals. Trying out the food scene in Reykjavik is a must! From locally caught seafood to underground pubs, there is truly something for everyone. 

The Story

Now that we have learned about both Iceland and Greenland, we can get to the ancient tale. The story goes that the Vikings in Iceland thought it would deter people away from visiting their beautiful island. To do this, they avoided the over settlement and told them how beautiful Greenland was instead. This story was the most common result when researching the answer to the most asked question. “Why is Iceland green and why is Greenland Ice?” As the answer is true, there are other factors that go into this bizarre yet clever story. So let’s break it down to the beginning. 

Viking Longships in Icelandic


Back in 850 CE the first Viking to ever land in Iceland did so. His name was Naddador. When he arrived in Iceland the snow was falling all around him. He then gave the country the nickname of “Snow Land”. 

A while later, Viking  Flóki Vilgerðarson made his way to Iceland. He had a sad story that he carried with him. On his way to the country, he lost his daughter and also his livestock shortly after. He was heartbroken when he arrived. He took some time exploring the area and climbed a large mountain. Once he reached the top, he looked out at the vast land beneath him. WIth the bay filled with icebergs. At that moment, he decided to rename “Snow Land” to Iceland. 

Erik the Red

Greenland was found in 982 A.D. by Erik the Red. He found his way to southeastern Greenland, where it was once warmer than it is today. Erik fled Iceland after being convicted of murdering three people. Icelandic law demanded death or exile for murder. Instead of losing his life, he chose to run instead. Which is how he found himself out on the open seas, which eventually led him to Greenland. Erik settled down in the country and is the one who gave it the name of Greenland. Legend says the reason he named it Greenland, was so more people would move there. 

Once Erik settled down, smaller settlements started to appear within the country. The Vikings who began to settle in did not know it was a Medieval Warm Period. This means that the warm climate of the Northern Atlantic Ocean would not last forever. The Indonesian volcanic eruption in 1257 CE would cause the Little Ice Age. That made the temperatures colder in both Iceland and Green. The weather affected everything from crops to cattle. Eventually, the Vikings could not stand to stay there any longer. Food became scarce and the cold became outright dangerous. Greenland became a ghost country for a while after all of the Vikings moved on to warmer weather. Ironically, most of them ended up in Iceland after all. 

Climate Change

Climate change played a big factor in Greenland literally icing over. Back in A.D. 982, Greenland was still covered in ice but the grass became very vibrant during the summer months. Animals such as sheep would graze in the meadows and farms were still operating. This mainly happened in the southwestern corner of Greenland. Which is near the same latitude as Iceland. 

Unfortunately, climate change is affecting the Inuit people of Greenland. Which is about eight percent of their total population. The coldness did affect the crops and fish, which declined the food market. This affected all of the Greenlandic people.

Icebergs Climate Change Iceland

The Gulf Stream

We can’t forget to give the gulf stream some love on this one. Iceland's sea normally sits at a temperature of 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Which is most certainly warmer than the country of Greenland. Iceland's climate is milder, which then results in very green summer months. Despite it being frigidly cold in the winter too. 

The gulf stream is a strong warm current that flows in the North Atlantic Ocean. It goes from the Florida coast north until it turns east into North Carolina. It carries more water than all of the world's rivers combined. The gulf stream moves continuously northeast across the ocean. It can also move pretty fast at a maximum of 5.6 miles an hour. The average speed sits at four miles per hour. 

The Future 

With climate change being an ongoing topic and issue over the past thousand years, it is now affecting Greenland. The ice sheet in Greenland is now melting, which results in making Iceland colder. This could happen due to constant melting ice that is making the North Atlantic Ocean colder. Since colder temperatures slow a Gulf Stream, the warm water from the Gulf of Mexico will no longer make it to Iceland. If this does continue over time, Iceland and Greenland could switch climates. This would be a full-circle story for the Greenland and Iceland name controversy. The scientists are predicting this would happen in the next hundred years, if at all. 

Luckily, the melting ice ended up revealing gas, oil, and different minerals. As a result, investors from other countries are interested in investing in Greenland. Resource extraction could be a big game-changer for the Greenlandic population. This can attract new jobs which will result in more money for the locals of the country. This would be the only positive of climate change in Greenland.

So why is Iceland Called Iceland when Iceland is green and Greenland is ice? It all started with a story about Vikings. Then climate change took over and now the story is coming true. What happens in the future to Greenland is not set in stone. Only time will tell. Until then, we will enjoy the icey country for its natural beauty and quaint towns. 

The article was written by: Leah BIlquist.

[Go Back]