Upon visiting Iceland, one of the most beautiful places on the planet, you’ll quickly discover that there are few trees at all on this green landscape. Iceland had lost around 95% of it’s forests, but from what cause? We’ll discuss what caused the forest loss and learn whats going on in Iceland right now that may change how the world reforests the planet. Today sustainable forestry done by the Icelandic Forest Service (IFS) is aiming to bring these forests back in full and they have a big vision for what the future of Iceland’s forests will look like.
Given most of Iceland’s landscape, it seems like there are no forest here at all but they do exist. The forests here are usually quite small in comparison to other places and they’re nowhere near the size that they used to be. Most of Iceland’s forested areas are scattered around the perimeter of the island and may contain a few hundred to a few thousand trees in each section. In the far northeast section of the island, there’s Hljóðaklettar National Park where Iceland has it’s most densely forested areas. When you can find these forested areas, they look something like this.
Most forests here aren’t the type of dense, large forest cover you think of. These are more like “pockets” of wooded areas than heavily forested ones. This is the reality of what most of Iceland’s landscape actually looks like.
It would be easy to think that ancient glaciers or volcanic eruptions were responsible for deforesting most of Iceland but it wasn’t any of those things. It was humans.
What Happened to Iceland’s Forests?
When I used to live there at a young age, I always thought it was because of Iceland’s numerous volcanoes and high volcanic activity. Since it’s such a small island I assumed they were all burnt away by lava flows and eruptions. But according to Skógræktin, the Icelandic Forest Service, it turns out the trees (which were mostly Birch) in Iceland were all wiped away from the landscape by our own species. They were all deforested ages ago by the Vikings for ship building, sod roof construction, tools, livestock grazing and fuel. At one point nearly 1/3 of the island was covered by birch trees. Over the course of centuries, according to Hreinn Óskarsson from the IFS,
“only 1% Iceland was left with forest cover”Hreinn Óskarsson – Icelandic Forest Service
This was 1 culture of people that nearly decimated an entire island of it’s forests simply because the balance went unchecked. Once the Vikings had run out of this valuable resource uncontrolled deforestation they had turned to traveling further west to Canada. Here we see traces of numerous Viking camps in places like Newfoundland where they razed more trees and sent them back to Iceland, continuing to do the same activity that they’ve always done. This sounds a lot like what humans still do today with certain resources, we plunder an area of a specific resource until its gone and move on to another site. Not giving any thought to the impact this will have on the planet and climate change. Here we are more than a thousand years later… and nations around the world were still making the same mistakes. Thankfully, “modern day Vikings” through science, community and knowledge are changing the future of forestry (and possibly climate change) in ways we never imagined, until now.
How Iceland is Using Sustainable Forestry to Grow Trees
The forestry services in Iceland are working with NordGen, a genetic resource center that safeguards the sustainable use of forest plants and farm animal genetics. NordGen’s goal is to ensure the diversity and conservation of these genetics for use in climate change, future food sources and agricultural production. All done in a sustainable way that works with the environment. This is the same organization that’s responsible for the management at the world famous Svalbard Global Seed Vault, that protects and stores seeds from around the world.
By using genetics provided by NordGen, the Icelandic Forest Service crossed a Siberian Larch and a European Larch species to develop a new hybrid that’s better suited for Iceland’s changing climate. According to Prostur Eysteinsson, the Director of the Icelandic Forestry Service, they are planting nearly 3 million seedlings a year and are very optimistic about the future of the forests and forestry in Iceland.
The Icelandic Forest Service and other conservationists have been working for the past century to rebuild Iceland’s forests. One of their biggest challenges is soil erosion. Since their are no root systems from trees the only thing keeping the soil intact is vegetation, which Iceland has already lost 50% of. The trees themselves used to protect the soil and vegetation from volcanic ash with their canopies. Now when volcanoes erupt, fields are blanketed with hot ash and vegetation has to start over from scratch. The government of Iceland in conjunction with numerous local organizations is working to replant the Birch forests. With the amount of seedlings they are planting every year, they are starting to see forests come back quite quickly. Ironically, the factor that’s helping the forests to grow back so quickly… is climate change.
Climate Change, Iceland’s Forests and “the Catch”
The warmer winters and hotter summers in Iceland due to climate change are helping vegetation to come back at astounding rates. This is great news for the conversation organizations, forestry services and people doing work on the ground planting these trees. Its also good news for the farmers and the people of Iceland because it helps create a better quality of life and cleaner air. But there are a few catches to this:
- Some species of trees may have problems with warmer winters and we may see those die out if they don’t adapt.
- Warmer summers may bring diseases and insects that may affect plant growth of species that have grown in Iceland for centuries.
- Other invasive plant species may be able to grow with a warmer climate now in Iceland.
Iceland has already lost one of it’s glaciers Okjökull due to the climate warming so fast. So while vegetation is coming back to Iceland at rates never seen before, it’s coming back at what cost?
The Future of Iceland’s Forests
The people of Iceland are very forward thinking and close with Nature. In 2017 Iceland elected their Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, whose also an environmentalist. In a interview with Time magazine she had said
“We are very conscious of being green.”Katrín Jakobsdóttir – Prime Minister of Iceland
She had also given a speech at the United Nations Climate Summit in which she stated “Globally, we need to do more to protect carbon sinks, plant trees and reverse desertification”. With this leadership and modern way of life in Iceland, the future of the environment here is looking very good. Even ‘Iceland Travel’ has developed a program where in any one of three tours travelers can stop at a tree nursery in Reykholt and help plant birch trees on their way to the next destination. These kinds of activities in combination with the Icelandic Forest Service and other organization’s efforts are growing back forests full of a variety of different tree species, They are rapidly changing Iceland’s natural landscape. The native landscape of Iceland may be restored beyond prior levels within our lifetimes.
What we see done here to reforest the island using a century of knowledge and modern science may inspire other countries adapt these methods using their own native species. If we see countries from around the world growing and planting trees at the rates that Iceland in doing it, around 3 million+ per year, collectively we can make a huge difference to impact our changing climate. The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed globally will help lower global temperatures and humans will begin to benefit the global landscape we are responsible for.