Construction Approved on New Hydroelectric Power Plant

A preliminary construction permit for a hydropower plant was approved by the Árneshreppur municipal council in the Westfjords on Wednesday, reports.

The plant will be located in the remote Strandir region, near the Hvalá river on Ófeigsfjörður fjord, which contains the most running water of any river in the Westfjords. The magnitude of the river has long made the area one of interest for utilization.

The new hydroplant would utilize an alluvial reservoir just below the Hvalárvatn lake for its operations, but the municipality has set some conditions for this utilization, one of which is that there must be an area that is left undisturbed between the reservoir and the edge of the river. The company will also be required to submit monthly environmental assessments and supervisory reports during construction.

According to Eva Sigurbjörnsdóttir, chair of the Árnehreppur municipal council, the preliminary license was unanimously approved. The permit currently allows for road construction at and around the site of the future plant, as well as the building of a bridge over the Hvalá river, worker’s facilities, and a sewage system. It also allows for geological surveys around the site.

“Icelanders know these changes from personal experience”

Sólheimajökull glacier

German president Frank-Walter Steinmeir accompanied Icelandic president Guðni Th. Jóhannesson on a visit to the Sólheimajökull glacier in South Iceland, where children and teens attending the Hvolsskóli school in the town of Hvolsvöllur have been taking regular measurements of the glacier’s retreat since 2010. RÚV reports that the students shared their most recent, and rather surprising data with the two presidents during the visit, which was meant to highlight climate change issues for the German public.

The presidential visit to the glacier took place during the Frank-Walter’s official visit to Iceland, and began at a sign that the Hvolsskóli students had erected as a place-marker nine years ago. According to students Vala Saskia Einarsdóttir and Sigurpáll Jónas Sigurðarsson, “[t]he glacier has retreated 379m [1,243ft] since 2010 and it is now 697m [2,286ft] from our sign. When we started, it was 318m [1,043ft away from the sign], so this is an enormous recession.”

There was also no lagoon visible on the glacier site when the students started measuring its retreat in 2010. Today, the lagoon in front of the glacier tongue is enormous, and it gets bigger and bigger every year. Vala and Sigurpáll said that when they started working on the project four years ago, they didn’t realise the magnitude of the situation, nor how important the measurements that they and their fellow students were taking would prove to be. “But today, I think we’re going to look back and realize how remarkable this was and how lucky we are to get to take part in this, to see what is happening around our planet, because it’s just awful.”

Frank-Walter was accompanied by 20 members of the German press on his visit to the glacier and wanted to use the visit as a way of creating awareness about climate change issues among his countrymen. “We who are visitors from abroad can see this well, but Icelanders know these changes from personal experience. That’s why they move through nature with consideration and respect and are determined to fight climate change,” he stated.

Seal Pup Born at Reykjavík Zoo Raises Ethical Concerns

Kobba, one of two female seals that live at the Reykjavík Family Park and Zoo gave birth to a seal pup on Tuesday night, Vísir reports. While the pup, who has yet to be sexed by zoo staff, is feeding well and appears to be in good health, following its mother wherever she goes, its birth has raised concerns about the suitability of the zoo’s seal habitat as well as the pup’s future.

The zoo’s seal enclosure has been home to three seals, two females and one male, since it first opened in 1990. The adults are all around thirty years old. The enclosure is, however, fairly small, meaning that there is not enough space to accommodate more than three adults. Current law prohibits animals that have been raised in captivity or domestic situations from being released into the wild. As such, all seal pups that have been born at the zoo – around 30 in total – have, up until now, been euthanised.

Times have changed

Marine biologist and Reykjavík Family Park and Zoo division head Þorkell Heiðarsson told Vísir that times have changed and that it would be nice to see the seal facilities expanded – to make the seal pond large enough for more animals and also deep enough for the seals to dive in.

“It’s important that the park be at the forefront of stewardship of the animals that are here…We need to take initiative…that’s my general opinion on the issue,” he remarked. The fate of the zoo’s seal pups has been a particularly hot button issue since TV presenter and former City Councillor Gísli Marteinn Baldursson tweeted about it. Þorkell says that the increased public scrutiny hopefully means that planning for an expanded enclosure can get underway soon.

Even so, Þorkell wanted to remind people of how much public attitudes have changed toward seals since the zoo first opened. He explained that Icelanders used to consider seals vermin on the country’s shores. At that time, people were concerned about seals carrying ringworm, as well as upset about the damage that they did eating through fishermen’s nets. Because of this, people were actually paid to shoot seals, which, when combined with environmental changes in the ocean and indirect fishing, has caused the population to decline significantly over the last 30 years or so. There were about 33,000 seals around Iceland in 1980, whereas today, there are only about 7,000.

“They have a very strong instinct for fishing”

Þorkell says that the law governing the release of animals into the wild is also complicated because it’s intended to apply to domestic pets that would be unable to take care of themselves in nature, not wild animals. Þorkell believes that seals born in captivity have the ability to learn the skills they need to survive in the wild. In fact, he conducted a small study with two young seal pups to see if they could learn to catch live fish and said that “they have a very strong instinct for fishing.”

He also noted that in the wild, mother seals stop caring for their pups after only two months, forcing them to become self-sufficient. As such, he believes that the best thing would be to release seal pups born at the zoo instead of euthanising them and also stated that it would be his preference to release the new seal pup into the wild this September.

Parliament Lifts Sunday Bingo Ban

A bill lifting the legal ban on public gatherings and gambling on religious holidays was passed by Alþingi on Tuesday, RÚV reports.

Per a law that went into effect in 1997, it was technically illegal for Icelanders to engage in any form of gambling – such as bingo or the lottery – or to hold dances or private parties in restaurants or other public venues on Sundays, as well as on traditionally Christian public holidays such as Good Friday, Easter, and Christmas. This law was not, however, enforced and had long been protested by organizations such as Vantrú, an atheist organisation that has hosted a well-publicised Good Friday Bingo event every year for over a decade.

The bill was introduced by Independence Party MP and former Attorney General Sigríður Á. Andersen in February. It was approved with 44 votes in its favour on Tuesday and had support on both sides of the political spectrum, although this was not true among Centre Party MPs, all of whom voted against it.

In addition to overturning prohibitions on various entertainments on religious holidays, the new bill also overturns previous legal articles which prohibited “hotel operations and related services, the operation of pharmacies, gas stations, car garages, shops at airports and duty free, flower shops, kiosks, video rentals, as well as grocers with a retail space of less than 600 square metres (6,458 sq ft) where at least two thirds of the sales turnover is from foodstuffs, beverages, and tobacco.”

The“bingo ban” law made exemptions allowing art exhibitions, film screenings, and theatre performances to go on during religious holidays, but only after 3.00pm. (This limitation has also now been lifted.)

“With this, the last impediments to providing and enjoying services on the National Church’s specified religious holidays have been eliminated,” wrote Sigríður in a post on her Facebook page. She reiterated, however, that “…the bill was not intended to decrease the significance of religious holidays. The days in question are part of our Christian heritage and as such, they should of course be commemorated as they arise. However, everyone must get to do this in their own way.”