Spanning across new national parks, devastating mudslides, and ambitious climate goals, here’s a summary of Iceland’s biggest nature news stories of 2020.
National Parks and Nature Conservation
Several of Iceland’s popular natural areas were officially protected this year by the Ministry for the Environment, including the Geysir area and Goðafoss waterfall in North Iceland. Other big conservation projects are in the works: In the Westfjords, Dynjandi waterfall was given to the state as a gift and a national park is to be established around it. Snæfellsnes National Park is also set to be expanded.
Possibly the biggest nature story of the year is the proposal to make Iceland’s Central Highland into Europe’s largest national park, covering around 30% of Iceland. This would also make it the national park that represents the highest percentage of the total area of any country, with over 40,000 km² of the total 103,000 km² surface area of Iceland. A bill outlining the park’s establishment was introduced in Parliament by Iceland’s Minister for the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson on November 30. However, it is still being hotly debated in parliament and has yet to be passed. Learn more about the proposed Highland National Park.
Magma and Earthquakes in Southwest Iceland
In late January, Icelandic authorities declared a state of uncertainty due to possible magma accumulation a few kilometres west of Þorbjörn mountain. Land rise and earthquake swarms were detected in the area, suggesting magma was accumulating underground. Nearby residents prepared for a possible eruption, though authorities stated it was more likely the activity would calm without one, and that has indeed been the case. Land rise under the mountain stopped by early May, though experts say there is an “active long-term process” ongoing in the area and the possibility of renewed activity cannot be discounted.
Storms and Avalanches
Three large avalanches swept across the Westfjords in January, hitting Flateyri and Súgandafjörður. Their timing was chilling: they occurred one day before the 25th anniversary of a deadly avalanche in the same area that killed 14. Though no one was killed, the avalanches caused property damage and one 13-year-old girl was rescued after being buried in snow for half an hour. Iceland Review interviewed photographer Ragnar Axelsson, who witnessed and captured on film the aftermath of both the 1995 and 2020 events.
No Icelandic winter passes without at least one winter storm. Extreme weather on Valentine’s Day caused travel disruptions, power outages, and property damage. ICE-SAR teams across the country responded to nearly 800 calls in a single day due to the storm.
While Iceland’s government protected many natural areas this year, others may soon be used for new resource extraction projects. A large area in South Iceland containing historic site Hjörleifshöfði was sold to a sand mining company while one Canadian mining company acquired all the rights to gold mining in Iceland. St-Georges Eco-Mining hopes to use robots and geothermal energy to mine “eco-friendly” gold on the island.
In December 2020, Iceland’s government revised its climate goals, stating it would now aim for a 55% reduction in emissions by 2030, rather than 40% as was decided at the beginning of the current government’s term. The revised policy means Iceland’s greenhouse gas emissions are expected to be 55% lower in 2030 than they were in 1990. Iceland plans to become carbon neutral by 2040. Though it seems to be acting on climate goals now, Iceland’s Environment Minister stated in November that the country could owe billions due to not fulfilling its previous commitments to the Kyoto protocol.
The year ended on a tragic note for residents of Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland when a series of mudslides destroyed more than a dozen homes and historic buildings in the town. Luckily no fatalities resulted from the catastrophic events, though the town was evacuated and many local families did not get to return to their homes for Christmas. The government has pledged its support in rebuilding the town, though it will likely take months to even assess the extent of the damage.