Iceland


Environmental History

Introduction

Deforestation

Laki Volcano

References


Introduction

    Environmental history is a sub-discipline of history that emphasizes the role nature, ecology, and the environment play in human affairs as well as the ways in which human affairs impact the environment. Iceland offers several interesting case studies in environmental history, two of which will be highlighted in this article. First, it will briefly touch on deforestation, which is an example of humans impacting their environment and those environmental impacts turning around and impacting human events. Second, it will discuss the eruption of the Laki volcano in 1783-1784 and its effect on historical events in both Iceland and the rest of the world.

Deforestation

    According to the Icelandic Forestry Service, at the time of the main thrust of Iceland’s human settlement about 1150 years ago, birch forest and woodland covered between 25 and 40 percent of Iceland’s land area. However, the Viking settlers who first came to Iceland in large numbers began cutting down the forests to create fields and grazing land for agriculture and pastoralism. Sheep were particularly important to early Icelandic society both as a source of wool and food. Grazing by sheep has the effect of preventing forests from regenerating as sheep eat young trees before they have a chance to grow. It is important to note that prior to Viking settlement, there were no sheep or other large mammals on the island and so deforestation can be directly attributed to human actions. In addition to grazing, Icelandinc settlers used the birchwoods in as a source of fuel, building material, and charcoal for smelting. However, grazing remained the primary use of most woodland throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By the mid twentieth century, forested lands reached a minimum of less than 1% of Iceland’s total land area.
   
    Deforestation has had a large impact on the course of human history in Iceland because of the environmental impacts of deforestation. Deforestation has dramatic effects on soil quality, as trees are needed to hold soil together, which creates a stable basis for building as well as protects land from erosion and flooding. Forests also hold nutrients in the soil, so less forested land mean less arable land. Moreover, forests are important for the winter grazing of sheep, so less forested land means less ability to feed sheep. It is likely that deforestation (in addition to changing climate in the little ice age and the periodic eruption of volcanoes) constrained Iceland’s population, which remained more or less unchanged for the first thousand years of Iceland’s history.

    Iceland has since recognized the need for conservation of its forests, first passing legislation to conserve and replenish forests at the end of the 19th century in the wake of massive sandstorms near the capital city of Reykjavik. These sandstorms were caused by the degredation of soil associated with deforestation. Despite almost a century of efforts, more than 1/3 of Iceland is still considered a desert today and no more than 1 percent of the country is forested.

Laki Volcano

    A second example of environmental history is the way in which volcanic eruptions can influence the course of human history. In June of 1783, the Laki volcanic fissure in Iceland erupted and continued to do so sporadically for eight months. One of the largest volcanic explosions in history, the Laki eruption killed not only 20 percent of Iceland’s population, but also led to cold summers across Europe, the Mediterranean, the Americas, and even parts of Central Asia. These cold summers led in some instances to famine, which in turn led to instability and revolution. One roadside sign this author read in Iceland even claimed that the Laki eruption contributed to the French Revolution!
 
    In Iceland, the volcanic eruption had two main effects. First, the volcano destroyed agricultural land. About 565 km2 of land were covered by lava extrusion at a depth of about 20 m. Second, sulfur dioxide released from the volcano resulted in a haze of sulfuric air, which enveloped the island. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, sulfuric dioxide can cause significant respiratory problems in humans and animals as well as significant irritation and even burns of eyes and skin and gastrointestinal problems. As a result, 80 percent of Iceland’s sheep, 75 percent of its horses, and 50 percent of its cattle died. 13,000 Icelanders died of famine and disease, or about 1/5 of the population.

    In terms of global effects, Laki immediately affected plants, animals and humans in continental Europe and points further east. This is partly because the prevailing winds at these latitudes are westerlies, which drove the sulfuric haze away from Iceland and towards Europe. Sulfuric dioxide also interacts with atmospheric water to form sulfuric acid, which results in acid rain, which we know destroys vegetation. As a result, places like Prague, Munich and even Japan experienced famine.

    Moreover, Laki’s eruption altered the global climate for several years. Laki’s eruption was exceptional for the sheer volume of sulfur dioxide it produced (122 megatons) and because its eruption column was so high, extending from 9 to 14 kilometers into the air. This meant that up to 95 megatons of sulfur dioxide reached the upper levels of the troposphere and lower levels of the stratosphere. Because of Laki’s location, this sulfur dioxide entered the polar jet stream and quickly spread around the world. The overall climatic effect of Laki was a decrease in global temperatures of around 1.5 degrees Celsius (as measured in North America and Europe) because of an increased albedo in Earth’s atmosphere. This made 1783, 1784, and 1786 the coldest winters on record in the eighteenth century and led to a cascade of environmental effects, ranging from ice forming on the Mississippi River near New Orleans to the worst famines on record in Japan.

References

“Forestry in a treeless land.” Skógraektin. Accessed Nov. 12, 2017. <http://www.skogur.is/english/forestry-in-a-treeless-land/>

Harris, Richard. “Viking Farms Tell Cautionary Climate Tale,” NPR, Dec. 3, 2007. Accessed Nov. 12, 2017. <https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16835101>

Fountain, Henry. “Vikings Razed the Forests. Can Iceland Regrow Them?” The New York Times, Oct. 20, 2017. Accessed Nov. 12, 2017. <https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/10/20/climate/iceland-trees-reforestation.html?_r=0>

Mikhail, Alan. “Ottoman Iceland: A Climate History.” Environmental History, Vol. 20 Issue 2, Apr. 1, 2015, pages 262 – 284. Accessed Nov. 12, 2017. <https://academic.oup.com/envhis/article-lookup/doi/10.1093/envhis/emv006>
 
“Toxic Substace Portal – Sulfur Dioxide.” Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Accessed Nov. 12, 2017.  <https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/mmg/mmg.asp?id=249&tid=46>

By: Riley Collins