The Natural Context
Many of Iceland’s barren landscapes do not occur naturally. They result from over a millennium of human-caused deforestation, soil degradation, and erosion.
The Natural Context
Iceland’s environment is already marginal for forest growth. Forests were never very large: Icelanders have a joke that, if lost in an Icelandic forest, a person can stand up, look over the trees, and find his way out.2 This wasn’t always the case, though. In the late Miocene, around 15 million years ago, Iceland was host to a wide diversity of subtropical flora. GrÝmsson et. al report that forests of sequoia, beech, and magnolia used to cover the island (GrÝmsson et. al, 2007).3 As the Earth’s climate cooled, these subtropical forests gradually died off. By the start of the Pleistocene, pine, birch, alder, and a few other species still lived in Iceland. With each glaciation, cold climates restricted the range of the forests, with pines dying out 1.1 million years ago and alder disappearing by 500,000 years ago.1 Iceland’s modern-day forests are almost entirely composed of downy birch, with a few stands of rowan and aspen surviving in sheltered spots.1 While species-poor, this birch forest still covered much of the island at the time of human’s arrival. As the early settlers would come to discover, the forest played a crucial role in the health of Iceland’s environment.
In the late Miocene, Iceland was home to an array of subtropical tree species. The environment may have resembled this beech-magnolia forest, found today in the southeastern United States.
Human settlement brought massive changes to Iceland’s landscape. The first Icelanders originated from Iron-Age Scandinavia; more information about them can be found here. As soon as they arrived, they began to slash and burn the forests, clearing land for sheep pasture and farmland.4 These practices can lead to deforestation anywhere, but Iceland was particularly susceptible. Icelandic soils are generally aeolian deposits of volcanic ash, and are uniquely vulnerable to erosion (Arnalds, 2008).5 In fact, Iceland’s soils are more susceptible to wind erosion than any soil in the world; only lunar soil blows away more easily.2 More information about Iceland's unusual erosion rates can be found at this link. And Iceland has plenty of wind, with a harsh, stormy climate leading to heavy aeolian and water erosion. Once forests no longer held the soil in place, erosion proceeded at a rapid rate. Soon after humans arrived and began to farm, Iceland had lost almost all of its forests.
Since the first settlers arrived, sheep grazing has been a mainstay of Icelandic life. Unfortunately, sheep thrive in open spaces, and sheepherding settlers quickly razed Iceland’s forests for pasture. Further grazing on deforested land prevented the return of stabilizing vegatation, leading to desertification.
Even once widespread forest clearing ceased, the environmental impacts of deforestation remained. Iceland’s poor soils, lacking stabilizing vegetation, easily eroded away. Intensive sheep grazing prevented any vegetation from taking hold in the desertifying land. This environmental degradation continued for a millennium, and today, much of Iceland is considered a desert (Arnalds, 2008).5 Fields of sands and ash cover the interior, and no plants grow on what used to be forested land. Aside from ecological destruction and lack of farmland, Iceland’s desertification has led to sandstorms that sweep down from the interior. These clouds of dust can wipe out crops and livestock, threatening the livelihoods of Iceland’s farmers.6 After one particularly bad sandstorm in the late 19th century, Iceland decided to do something about its deforestation problem.
link. Iceland even has a nascent forestry industry, with thinned trees processed into forest products.
With nothing to hold the poorly-consolidated soil in place, Iceland’s strong winds lead to massive sandstorms. These clouds of dust sweep across the landscape, devastating the environment and threatening the livelihoods of Icelanders living in their path.
Replanted forests, like this one, are becoming more common in Iceland. Still, issues remain -- the forest above is of non-native spruce, not native birch, and forests still cover just 2% of the island.
Still, issues remain for Iceland’s reforestation project. Despite the relative successes of tree planting, the environment is devastated compared to its original state. And while any tree planting is beneficial, only around 30% of the replanted forests are native birch.1 Another significant obstacle is motivation. Reforestation is expensive, and despite the significant societal and environmental benefits of forests, replanting them in Iceland is not profitable. Iceland has handled this by granting the task of reforestation to government agencies and nonprofit groups. However, Iceland was hit hard by the 2008 recession, and it struggles with motivating voters to put tax dollars into forestry projects.1 Despite the vast scale of the problem and the challenges still present, Iceland has made substantial progress towards reversing deforestation. For one of the world’s most devastating examples of environmental catastrophe, Iceland is doing an admirable job of regenerating its environment.
2 Maksimov, Boris “Rolling Back Iceland’s Big Desert.” BBC News, BBC, 2 August 2005 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4737743.stm
3 GrÝmsson, F. and Denk, T. (2007), Floristic turnover in Iceland from 15 to 6 Ma – extracting biogeographical signals from fossil floral assemblages. Journal of Biogeography, 34: 1490–1504. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2699.2007.01712.x
4 Harris, Richard “Viking Farms Tell Cautionary Climate Tale.” NPR, 3 December 2007 https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16835101
5 Arnalds, Ëlafur “Soils of Iceland.” J÷kull, Iceland Glaciological Society and Geoscience Society of Iceland, No. 58, 2008 http://jardvegsstofa.lbhi.is/lisalib/getfile.aspx?itemid=1878
6 Fountain, Henry “Vikings Razed the Forests. Can Iceland Regrow Them?.” New York Times, 20 October 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/10/20/climate/iceland-trees-reforestation.html?_r=0
7 “About the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland.” Soil Conservation Service of Iceland, http://land.is/about-soil-conservation-service-of-iceland/
By: Matthew Magann