1918: The Year of Sovereignty, Polar Bears, Katla & Influenza

Updated: Jul 17

By Natalie Guttormsson


The following article is not as cheerful as some of our recent blog posts, but it is an important story in Iceland's history to share, especially during this time.



December 1st marks the day Iceland gained sovereignty from Denmark in 1918, known as Fullveldisdagurinn. Iceland had been under foreign rule since 1262 and although complete independence wouldn’t come until 1944, the 1918 achievement was worthy of celebration after decades of campaigning and negotiating.

Small crowd gathered outside of Anarhóll on December 1, 1918 in Reykjavík, Iceland. This marked Iceland's sovereignty from Denmark. #icelandhistory #anarholl #spanishflu #influenza #iceland1918 #icelandsovereignty #reykjavikhistory
Arnarhóll, Dec. 1 1918 - Ljósmyndasafn

In addition to the hard work that went into achieving sovereignty, 1918 was a very harsh year for Icelanders. While much of the world was still fighting World War I, Iceland was at war with nature. The winter of 1918 is known as the Great Frost Winter or Frostaveturinn mikli, the coldest winter of the twentieth century. The lowest recorded temperature was -37.9C (-36F) at Grímsstaðir á Fjöllum in North-East Iceland. That is very cold considering the average winter temperatures for Iceland are between 0C (32F) in the South and -10C (14F) in the North.


Due to the war, there was a coal shortage across Europe and at this time roughly 45% of Icelanders still lived in traditional turf houses. The winter was so cold that the waterway between Iceland and Greenland was filled with icebergs and the fjords were blocked by pack ice, trapping fishing vessels in the harbours. The ice also enabled approximately 27 polar bears to make their way to Iceland that year.


If the first part of 1918 was bad, the fall was worse.

Iceland volcano Katla erupting in 1918. volcanoes in iceland katla volcano iceland during world war one iceland history spanish flu in iceland #iceland #volcanoes #icelandhistory #largevolcanoes #blacksunday #spanisflu #1918influenza
1918 Katla Eruption - RÚV

On Friday, October 12th, the volcano Katla erupted. Katla is one of the largest volcanoes in Iceland and is partially covered by the Myrdalsjökull glacier, north-east of Vík in Southern Iceland. The eruption lasted until November 5, spreading ash that poisoned crops and flooding the plains below. Sunday October 13th was called “Dark Sunday” due to the thick amounts of ash in the air.


On October 19th, just one week after the eruption, a referendum was held in Iceland to approve the treaty for Sovereignty from Denmark. It was approved and was a crucial lead up to the December 1st declaration.


However, something dark also came to Iceland on that very same day. Influenza.


The disease came on three different boats that all arrived in Iceland on October 19th. One freighter from the US and one passenger boat from Copenhagen arrived in Reykjavík with the virus, and one British trawler brought the virus to Hafnarfjörður (a small fishing village at the time).


Within one month one fifth of Reykjavík was bedridden with influenza. Icelanders who weren’t living in turf houses were living in cramped living conditions, often with whole families living in just 1 or 2 room homes. Those that sought an escape from their crowded homes went to the cinemas which were worse for spreading the disease. An estimated 10,000 Icelanders were infected with influenza.