Why are there no trees in Iceland?

hekla forest project

The short answer: sheep. According to the earliest records of the settlement of Iceland, the island was forested everywhere between the highlands and the coast when the Norse first arrived. Often, these semi-historical accounts in the mediaeval sources have to be taken with a grain of salt, but this assessment has been backed up by modern science, which estimates that approximately 40% of the island was covered by birch forests prior to settlement.

Over time, the settlers cut down trees for charcoal, tools, houses, and ships. Because Iceland’s environment is relatively harsh, once trees were felled in large numbers, it was difficult for them to grow back.

Perhaps the largest impediment to reforestation, however, was sheep grazing. It has long been traditional in Iceland for farmers to let their sheep roam in highland pastures during the summer, and then to collect them in the fall. This sheep grazing caused immense damage to Icelandic forests, from which they are still recovering. To this day, most tree plantations in Iceland need to be fenced in, to prevent sheep from destroying young saplings.

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Is Iceland Spar your national crystal? Is it a popular product in Icelandic gift shops?

iceland spar geology crystal

Iceland has no official “national crystal,” but if such a title were ever bestowed, Iceland spar would likely be a contender. Known alternatively as Icelandic spar or optical calcite, this crystal gained its name from its initial European introduction via the Helgustaðir mine in East Iceland during the 17th century (although the crystal is found in other parts of the world).

Iceland spar is celebrated for its unique optical properties, most notably its capacity for double refraction. This characteristic has made it a subject of extensive scientific inquiry. Historically, Iceland spar may have served navigational purposes. It’s speculated that Vikings used a “sólarsteinn” or sunstone, to determine the sun’s direction under cloudy skies or twilight conditions, and the likely candidate for this sunstone is Iceland spar.

We reached out to two gift shops in Reykjavík to inquire about the availability of Iceland spar. Only one shop sold the crystal – and it was imported rather than locally sourced.

How can I see the northern lights?

northern lights iceland

By looking up, of course! Technically, you can see the northern lights anywhere in Iceland, as long as the sky is clear enough. There are great places in Reykjavík that you can view the aurora from, but as you might expect, it’s ideal to go out into the countryside, as far away from the city lights as possible. 

You really want clear skies when hunting for the northern lights in Iceland. Because the northern lights depend on weather conditions, solar activity, and the earth’s atmosphere, seeing them isn’t always a given. You might want to read up on aurora forecasts here before you head out, which can be accessed at Icelandic Met Office’s official website.

Many tour operators offer special northern lights tours, where a bus will take you outside the city in search of this natural phenomenon. Your guide will be acquainted with the best spots and will have consulted the forecast beforehand, so this is a good bet for travellers who just want to show up with a camera and hope for the best. The northern lights being a natural phenomenon, the usual caveats apply, though many tour operators will offer another tour on the house if the “green lady” doesn’t make an appearance.

What do we know about the 2023 Reykjanes eruption at Litli-Hrútur?

reykjanes eruption 2023

Update: The Litli-Hrútur eruption ended on August 5, 2023. For information on the ongoing 2023 eruption near Grindavík, see this article.

An eruption began on the Reykjanes peninsula at 4:40 PM on July 10, 2023. It is the third eruption in three years at the site, and experts say the region has entered a period of increased volcanic activity that could last decades or even centuries. No inhabited areas or infrastructure are currently threatened by lava flow from the eruption, but gas pollution is a significant risk, both at the site and across Southwest Iceland and the Reykjavík capital area. A seprate article provides information on hiking to the eruption.

Uplift, earthquakes, eruption

In June, Iceland Review reported that steady uplift (land rise) had been measured on the Reykjanes peninsula since early April of this year. While the uplift of over 2 centimetres (around one inch) indicated that magma was collecting below the surface of the peninsula, there were still no indications if or when it would breach the surface. In early July, an earthquake swarm began on the peninsula, culminating in an M5.2 earthquake on the evening of July 9. The eruption began the following day, July 10, at 4:40 PM. This pattern – uplift followed by a period of strong earthquakes and then finally an eruption – mirrored the 2021 and 2022 eruptions at the same site.

Rannsóknarstofa í eldfjallafræði og náttúruvá, Háskóli Íslands.

Typical fissure eruption

The eruption is a fissure eruption that opened exactly where experts had predicted it would: between Litli-Hrútur and Mt. Keilir, just north of the 2021 and 2022 eruption sites. As is typical for fissure eruptions, its activity was most intense when it began and has decreased since. The eruption is relatively small but could last a long time. While the 2022 Reykjanes eruption lasted just short of three weeks, the 2021 eruption lasted around six months.

2023 Reykjanes eruption july 17
The Volcanology and Natural Hazard Institute of the University of Iceland. Landsat image from July 17 showing the lava fields created by the 2021, 2022 and 2023 eruptions, as well as burning moss on a 2 km long stretch east of the lava flow.

Figures from the first week

Between July 11-23, the eruption’s lava flow averaged 14.5 cubic metres per second, lowering to 13 cubic metres per second between July 13-17. Due to the margin of error in measurements, researchers say the difference is not significant. By July 17, the surface area of the lava frield created by the eruption was 0.83 square kilometres [0.32 sq mi], and its volume was 8.4 million cubic metres. The edge of the lava advanced 300-400 metres [980-1,300 ft] daily within the first week, with the distance being highly variable from day to day. The lava is around 10 metres thick on average but over 20 metres at its thickest.

All of these figures are quite similar to last year’s eruption in Meradalir but 2-3 times higher than the figures of the Geldingadalir eruption in 2021. So far, the current eruption is not threatening inhabited areas or infrastructure, though pollution from its gases as well as from wildfires set off by the lava are a significant risk for people at the site as well as further off.

Where to find more information

Iceland Review’s most up-to-date coverage of the eruption can all be found in one place.

Those who would like to know more can read about the geology of the Reykjanes peninsula or follow the University of Iceland Volcanology and Natural Hazard Group on Facebook for scientific updates in Icelandic and English.

Several live feeds of the eruption are available online, including here and here.

Information on hiking to the eruption.

This article will be updated regularly.

Where does the trash go in Iceland?

recycling iceland

With plentiful geothermal and hydroelectric energy, Iceland has earned an international reputation as a leader in environmentalism.

The whole story is of course more complicated. For example, in 2009, the average Icelandic household produced just above 400 kg of waste annually. As of 2021, Icelandic households were producing 667 kg of waste annually, compared to the EU average of 530 kg. According to EuroStat, in 2021, the last year for which statistics are available, Iceland placed eighth for average waste produced by household in the EU and EEA. 

So where does all the waste go?

According to the Environment Agency of Iceland, of the 1,305,000 tonnes of waste produced in 2021, 54% was used as filler, 20% was exported for recycling abroad, 13% went to a landfill, 8% was recycled domestically, 2% was composted, 1% was burned for energy production, and 1% was burned with no energy production.

Notably, these statistics are by weight and also include waste from construction, mining, and road work. The percentage of waste represented by filler therefore includes large amounts of gravel, sand, and stone, and not necessarily household waste.

Iceland has also begun sending increasing amounts of its waste abroad. This June, SORPA finalized plans to send combustible waste to Sweden for incineration. There was also considerable controversy this year when it came to light that contrary to public statements, SORPA had been sending milk cartons abroad for incineration for 16 years. They had previously stated that they were recycled domestically.

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What’s the status of the Ísafjörður cruise ship terminal?

ísafjörður cruise ship

In 2022, Ísafjörður, a town with a population of around 2,700, received some 86,000 passengers from cruise ships alone and predictions only have cruise ships increasing in this remote region of Iceland. Ísafjörður, the 13th-largest town in Iceland, is its 3rd-busiest port of call for cruise ships.

Indeed, due to the volume of cruise traffic to the town, Ísafjörður port manager Guðmundur M. Kristjánsson recently stated to Vísir that they have not been able to keep up with demand and have had to turn away some prospective visitors.

Because of the ever-increasing scale of cruise ship traffic, local authorities have begun an ISK 1 billion [$7.6 million, €6.8] expansion to the Ísafjörður harbour.

Construction on the project began in 2021 and aims to expand the harbour by developing the Sundabakki area. Upon completion, the harbour will be able to accommodate two large cruise ships at a time.

In the annual financial plan of Ísafjarðarbær, Ísafjörður Harbor is expected to take in ISK 500 million [$3.8 million, €3.4 million]. Of this total, 344 million ISK comes from foreign parties.

 

 

 

How do I access the 2023 Reykjanes eruption?

reykjanes eruption 2023

An eruption began on the Reykjanes peninsula at 4:40 PM on July 10, 2023. It is the third eruption in three years at the site. The eruption area has been opened to visitors and below is all the necessary information on how to access it, including directions, route information, and safety considerations.

Checking conditions

To receive the most up-to-date information about access to the eruption site, it is best to check safetravel.is. The Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management website and Facebook page also provide information about safety at the site. Information on air quality in Iceland is available at loftgaedi.is. The site may be closed with short notice due to weather conditions or gas pollution, so make sure you check first before heading out.

Driving and parking

All off-road driving is illegal in Iceland. The hiking route to the eruption is accessed from Suðurstrandarvegur (Route 427). Cars must be parked at marked parking lots and parking on the side of the road is forbidden. Parking has a cost of ISK 1,000 [$7.60, €6.80] and can be paid online, more information is provided on-site.

Hiking route

The hike to the eruption is around 10km one way across uneven terrain. Hikers experienced with Icelandic conditions may be able to complete the hike in two hours one way (four hours round trip). Those with less experience should expect a hike of 3-4 hours one way, 6-8 hours round trip, which does not include time spent at the eruption itself. Hikers need proper footwear, warm clothing, and a wind- and rain-proof outer layer, and must bring food, water, and a fully charged cell phone. The hiking route is clearly marked from the available parking lots. More detailed information on hiking routes is available on visitreykjanes.is.

Safety risks

Visiting an active eruption poses several risks. One of the main risks is gas pollution, especially when conditions are still. Toxic gases from eruptions are heavier than the atmosphere meaning they gather close to the ground and in low-lying areas. This means that eruption sites pose a particular risk for children and pets, who are also more sensitive to toxic gases. Hikers are strongly discouraged from bringing young children or dogs to the eruption site. Surgical masks do not protect against toxic gases at eruptions.

Hikers are also encouraged to stay at a significant distance from the fresh lava, as new rivulets can break through suddenly and be difficult to escape from in due time. Visitors to the eruption should not under any circumstances walk on fresh lava: while the surface may look solid and cool, lava can remain molten underneath for years and even decades.

More about the eruption

For curious readers, Iceland Review has compiled an article with more information about the eruption itself. Several live feeds of the eruption are available online, including here and here.

This article will be updated regularly.

How long does it take to walk around Iceland?

Ring Road South Iceland

The first thing we have to say: don’t plan on doing this! Iceland has plenty of beautiful hiking areas, and you should stick to those for your adventure. Many do choose to bike-pack around Iceland, but walking the ring road would be dangerous, with cars blasting past you on narrow mountain passes – not so much fun!

Route 1, the road that runs along Iceland’s coast and connects most major towns, is approximately 1,300 km, or about 800 miles long. Of course, many visitors to Iceland choose to do the ring road in a car. If you’re in a real rush, you could do it in two days (but that wouldn’t be much fun). Realistically, most people doing the ring road will want to spend anywhere from three days up to a week on the trip.

For walkers, assuming an optimistic pace of 20 miles per day (2 miles per hour, over the course of 10 hours. Not easy, but doable on a paved road), you could potentially complete this journey in a bit more than a month.

An interesting side note is the story of one Reynir Pétur Ingvarsson, sometimes referred to as Iceland’s Forrest Gump. In 1985, he walked around the entire island to raise money for Sólheimar eco village. For the record, he completed his walk in 32 days. So, it is possible, but we would not recommend it for your next vacation!

What kind of radio stations are there in Iceland?

Radios

We might get most of our talk shows and music through podcasts and streaming services these days, but for foreign residents, travellers, and Icelandic language learners, listening to the radio is still a great way to get immersed in Icelandic culture.

Here are some of the top radio programmes in Iceland. Note that in addition to broadcasting on the air, many of these programmes also have a presence on digital streaming platforms as well.

National Broadcaster: Ríkisútvarpið (RÚV) is Iceland’s public service broadcaster and operates several radio channels. It offers news, cultural programming, music, and more.

Commercial Radio: Various commercial radio stations operate in Iceland, playing a range of music genres, including pop, rock, hip-hop, electronic, and more. Some of the popular commercial stations include FM957, X-ið 977, and Bylgjan.

Music Radio: Several radio stations in Iceland focus on specific music genres such as classical, jazz, alternative, and indie music. Examples include Rás 2, which offers alternative and indie music, and Rás 1, which plays a mix of popular music and other programs.

Talk and News Radio: Stations like Bylgjan FM provide news updates, current affairs discussions, and talk shows covering various topics, including politics, sports, and entertainment.

Regional and Community Radio: Iceland also has regional and community radio stations that serve specific areas or communities. These stations often focus on local news, events, and community-related content.

 

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Why is Iceland called Iceland?

greenland

A popular story about the settlement of Iceland goes like this: to attract settlers to their new colony in Greenland, crafty Viking marketers named the settlement Greenland to attract more settlers. Iceland, so the story goes, was the more desirable real estate, and its settlers named it Iceland in order to guard their well-kept secret.

It’s a good story, but unfortunately, not entirely true.

There is good reason to believe that at the time of its settlement, Greenland was, in fact, rather green. Ice core analysis from the Greenland ice sheet suggests that from 800-1300 CE, average temperatures were slightly higher in Greenland than they are today. Norse settlements (creatively named the Eastern Settlement and the Western Settlement) were clustered around the southern tip of Greenland, at more southern latitudes than Iceland itself. Over time, the climate deteriorated, disease struck the settlers, and isolation from commerce gradually wore away at these settlements until they had disappeared by the 15th century. At the beginning of its settlement, however, Greenland may well have supported limited farming and may have been much greener than it is now.

Iceland, though warmed by the jet stream, is still rather cold. And although the Norse settlers did come to Iceland for the plentiful farmland, some of the first adventurers to come across Iceland were left with a rather cold impression. According to Landnámabók, the first person to spot Iceland was a Norwegian sailor named Naddodd. He lost his way sailing from Norway to the Faroe Islands when he came in sight of a huge land mass. He went ashore in Eastern Iceland, near where the town of Reyðarfjörður sits today. He allegedly climbed a mountain and looked around for signs of humans, but he did not see anything. He went on his way, sailing to the Faroe Islands where he would settle in 825. And he told everyone that would listen that he discovered – not Iceland – but Snowland! Clearly, the Norse had a tendency to be rather descriptive in their naming. Their name for the New World, Vínland, referred to the wild berries that were found in abundance near their camps at L’Anse aux Meadows.

So while it’s true that Iceland is relatively more habitable and verdant than places at similar latitudes, it’s not entirely a hidden paradise either. Indeed, as we write this (nearly June), sharp, cold winds and hail continue to buffet visitors!