The landscape of Iceland has changed a lot in a thousand years. When the Vikings first arrived in the ninth century, the land was covered in 25 to 40 percent forest. Within a few centuries, almost all of the island’s trees were slashed and burned to make room for farming. This rapid deforestation has resulted in massive soil erosion that puts the island at risk for desertification.
Today, the Icelandic Forest Service has taken on the mammoth task of bringing back the woodlands. With the help of forestry societies and forest farmers, Iceland’s trees are slowly beginning to make a comeback. Watch this short film by Euforgen to learn more about how their efforts are working to benefit Iceland’s economy and ecology through forestry.
“It’s definitely a struggle,” said Mr. Jonsson, a forester who works for the private Icelandic Forestry Association and plants saplings with volunteers from the many local forestry groups in this island nation of 350,000 people. “We have gained maybe half a percent in the last century.”
Even in a small country like Iceland, a few million trees a year is just a drop in the bucket.
Iceland’s austere, largely treeless landscapes, punctuated by vast glaciers and stark volcanoes, have long been a favorite of the film industry.
The picturesque vistas also have helped fuel a tourism boom. Nearly 1.8 million foreigners visited the country last year.
But with that beauty comes a problem that Icelanders have faced for centuries. The lack of trees, coupled with the ash and larger pieces of volcanic rock spewed by eruptions, has led to severe soil erosion.
With vegetation unable to gain much of a foothold, farming and grazing have been next to impossible in many parts of the country. And the loose soil, combined with Iceland’s strong winds, has led to sandstorms that can further damage the land — and even blast the paint off cars.
Iceland’s farmers struggled with erosion and windblown soil for centuries. But in the decades that followed a particularly destructive sandstorm east of the capital, Reykjavik, in 1882, the government established reforestation and soil conservation efforts.
Reforesting more of the Icelandic countryside would have benefits beyond helping farmers and stopping sandstorms. As climate change has become a greater concern, Iceland’s leaders have viewed reforestation as a way to help the country meet its climate goals.
Despite the widespread use of geothermal energy and hydropower, Iceland has high per-capita emissions of greenhouse gases, largely because of transportation and heavy industries like aluminum smelting. The government is working with the European Union and Norway to meet an overall goal of a 40 percent emissions reduction from 1990 levels by 2030. Separately, Iceland has its own target of a reduction between 50 percent and 75 percent by 2050.
Trees, by incorporating atmospheric carbon dioxide into their trunks, roots and other tissues, can offset some of the country’s emissions.
“An important contributor to Iceland’s mitigation policy is planting trees,” said Gudmundur Halldorsson, research coordinator of the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland. “It is a big discussion here.”
But as Mr. Jonsson’s work shows, once the trees are gone, it’s no easy task to bring them back.
When Iceland was first settled at the end of the ninth century, much of the land on or near the coast was covered in birch woodlands.
“The people that came here were Iron Age culture,” Dr. Halldorsson said. “And they did what Iron Age culture did.”
The settlers slashed and burned the forests to grow hay and barley, and to create grazing land. They used the timber for building and for charcoal for their forges. By most accounts, the island was largely deforested within three centuries.
“They removed the pillar out of the ecosystem,” Dr. Halldorsson said.
Eruptions over the ensuing centuries from some of Iceland’s many volcanoes deposited thick layers of volcanic material. The ash, while rich in nutrients, made for very fragile, poor soil that couldn’t hold water and moved around as the wind blew.
As a result, Iceland is a case study in desertification, with little or no vegetation, though the problem is not heat or drought. About 40 percent of the country is desert, Dr. Halldorsson said. “But there’s plenty of rainfall — we call it ‘wet desert.’” The situation is so bad that students from countries that are undergoing desertification come here to study the process.
For Saemundur Thorvaldsson, a government forester who works with volunteer groups and farmers in the Westfjords region of northern Iceland, the “right” tree about 30 percent of the time is birch, the same species that was dominant when Iceland was settled. Birch can tolerate poor soils, and although it grows very slowly it eventually provides shelter for other species.
Most of those other species — Sitka spruce, lodgepole pine, black cottonwood — originated in Alaska. They are now grown as saplings at greenhouses in Iceland, because importing live trees is prohibited.
They grow faster than birch, so as a way to store carbon they are more effective. But everything in Iceland grows slowly, Mr. Thorvaldsson said. At one forest outside Isafjordur, planted in the 1940s, spruces were perhaps 50 feet tall. In southeast Alaska they could easily reach three times that height, he said.
How Iceland is benefiting from Climate Change