Iceland’s picturesque scenery is often described as otherworldly. The unique barren landscape featuring winding rivers, geysers, black beaches, and volcanoes is a consequence of the polar climate coupled with intense volcanic activity. There is one exception though. One important element that adds to the alien landscape look is the fact that, for the most part, there aren’t many trees in Iceland. One may think that the lack of many forests in Iceland is natural – due to the harsh far-northern climate, or the volcanic activity on the island. However, unlike the striking geological features, the tree-poor state of Iceland has actually been man-made.
How Did Iceland Lose its Forest?
Iceland once had authentic forests – mostly consisting of resilient birch trees – but it had suffered drastic, total deforestation at the hands of its first settlers, the Vikings. Prior to the first human settlements, about a fourth of Iceland was covered in woodland – especially by the coast. However, the first settlers at the end of the 9th century had quickly started to cut down the forests to make room for agricultural and grazing land and to make use of the timber – the main building material at the time. It is believed that the entire island was completely deforested in just three centuries.
Iceland: The ‘Wet Desert’
Stripped of its native tree cover, Iceland suffers from the same woes that are typical for other deforested areas, with the top issue being soil erosion. The severe soil erosion is caused by the disappearance of trees and other vegetation covers, combined with the harsh climate, the volcanic activity which periodically exposes the soil to ash, lava, and gasses, and also with human activity such as grazing farm animals. Cover vegetation has been disappearing in many parts of the country. When the bare soil is exposed to Iceland’s strong winds, sandstorms occur and further damage the land. They can have an adverse effect on Iceland’s specific farm animal population and have been recorded to damage the human property, mostly cars. Despite the climate being cold and humid, the experts state that Iceland is a prime example of the desertification process. “We call it wet desert”, says Gudmundur Halldorsson, research coordinator of the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland.
Although the deforestation of Iceland happened such a long time ago – almost ten centuries have passed – the consequences have remained, culminating at the end of the 19th century. In 1882, a massive sandstorm near Rejkyavik killed sheep and dried out an entire lake by filling it with sand and dirt. Right after the unfortunate event, the first reforestation and soil conservation measures were established by the government.
Reforesting Iceland is a Slow Process
Reforestation and afforestation have a long tradition in Iceland, but still, the results are barely noticeable – only a tiny fraction of the land is now covered in forests. The country has a goal to create a 5% forest cover in the next 50 years. However, because of many factors, the target is difficult to reach. “At the speed, we’re at now, it would take 150 years to do that.” – says Saemundur Thorvaldsson, a government forester.
There are many factors contributing to the slow pace of afforestation. Because of the harsh climate, all plants in Iceland grow slowly. When restoring sites, it takes quite a lot of time to establish even the basic low vegetation cover, let alone to get to the tree planting phase. Climate change has also entered the picture resulting in high tree mortality, especially among the native birches planted half a century ago. The freely grazing sheep have a tendency to worsen the issue as well.
Still, the Icelanders are not giving up on their trees. Besides the intrinsic value of forests and the need to protect and restore the land’s soil, planting trees is important for climate change mitigation and for reaching Iceland’s ambitious climate goals. A prospect of developing a local lumber industry instead of relying solely on imports is also promising. In order to be successful, Iceland’s foresters had to abandon the traditional “hard” conservation, which aims for restoring the native tree species only. As we learned earlier, the native birch has not been doing so well under the changing climate.
Today, Iceland reforestation programs also include Sitka spruce, Lodgepole pine, Russian larch, and black cottonwood. Genetically, these trees originate mostly from Alaska. Since tree imports are prohibited, all the planted trees were grown from seeds in Iceland – within the special tree nurseries.
The world has a lot to learn from Iceland – but not just from their modern reforestation techniques and the dedication in making them work. Iceland’s example can also teach us that ecosystems can never truly recover from and “adjust” to large-scale deforestation events and that the consequences of deforestation can be experienced for more than a thousand years.
“Vikings Razed the Forests. Can Iceland Regrow Them?. 2017. New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/10/20/climate/iceland-trees-reforestation.html
“Iceland Is Growing New Forests for the First Time in 1,000 Years”. 2018. National Geographic Short Film Showcase: