Year in Review 2020: Nature

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.

Resource Extraction

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.

Climate Goals

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.

Seyðisfjörður Mudslides

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.

Parliament Debated Highland National Park Until Midnight

Heated debate in Iceland’s Parliament lasted until midnight last night, RÚV reports. The topic was a bill proposing a Highland National Park, which if established would be the largest national park in Europe. While some MPs argued the bill went too far in preventing power plant development, others said it made too many concessions at the expense of the environment.

As the fall term draws to a close and 2021 elections approach, the governing coalition is hurrying to introduce and pass some of its most significant bills. Environment Minister Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson introduced the Highlands National Park bill in the chamber yesterday afternoon, calling it a unique opportunity for Althingi to create the largest national park in Europe and Iceland’s largest contribution to nature conservation in the world. Guðmundur asserted that the establishment of the park would strengthen tourism, create public jobs, and support municipalities across the country.

Opposing Views on Energy

MPs had opposing views when it came to the park, particularly on the topic of current and future energy development in the highland. Several power plants are currently within the proposed borders of the park – the bill proposes defining them as “peripheral areas” of the park and that the land they occupy not be protected. Further energy development within the park’s borders would, however, be prohibited.

Read More: Proposed Highland National Park

Independent MP Rósa Björk Brynjólfsdóttir stated that too many power plants were allowed within the park’s borders and the bill had made too many compromises at the expense of the environment. Progressive Party MP Halla Signý Kristjánsdóttir argued, however, that the bill threatened energy security by preventing energy development. The bill would affect existing overhead power lines in the highland, as well as planned underground cables and maintenance of the existing transmission system, she stated.

Criticise Lack of Consultation With Municipalities

Several MPs were critical of what they called a lack of consultation with municipal authorities, particularly those bordering the proposed park. Independence Party MP and former Minister of Transport Jón Gunnarsson stated that the bill was put together too quickly and felt personally that views on the project had diverged rather than come to a consensus.

Iceland’s Highland to Become Europe’s Largest National Park

Iceland’s Central Highland region is set to become the largest national park in Europe, covering around 30% of Iceland. This would also make it the national park that represents the highest percentage of the total area of a 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.

“The Highland holds one of the greatest natural treasures that we Icelanders collectively possess, so it is a logical measure to establish a national park there,” stated Guðmundur Ingi. “It is quite clear that the establishment of the Highland National Park would be a huge advantage for Icelandic tourism and, in fact, for the national economy as a whole, especially during the recovery period after the coronavirus pandemic.” Guðmundur called the proposed park Iceland’s largest contribution to nature conservation, adding that it was important to preserve the highland for future generations.

Park Will Double Protected Areas in Highland

Iceland’s highland region is one of the largest unpopulated regions in Europe and an important breeding ground for birds such as pink-footed geese. Around half of the proposed area of the park is already protected, including under Vatnajökull National Park, Hofsjökull glacier, and popular hiking area Landmannalaugar. The proposed park would unite already protected areas and expand them to create a single, unified Highalnd National Park. The park is to be separated into six administrative regions to be jointly managed by municipal and state authorities. A special board will be established to oversee the park’s management, consisting of local and state representatives as well as other interested parties.

Read More: Proposed Highland National Park

Several power plants are currently within the proposed borders of the park – the bill proposes defining them as “peripheral areas” of the park and that the land they occupy not be protected. The Highland National Park is expected to have a positive impact on rural development, creating sustainable employment opportunities both for municipalities bordering the park as well as across the country.

Guðmundur Ingi oversaw the protection of the popular Geysir area and Goðafoss waterfall earlier this year.

Proposal for Expanded Highland Protections Protested

Energy companies and some local municipalities are hotly contesting a new proposal to expand environmental protections within the Icelandic highlands, RÚV reports. Per a proposal put forth by the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources, a new and expanded national park would include Vatnajökull National Park – already the largest national park in Western Europe – as well as 85% of the central highlands.

The boundaries for the new national park were suggested by a bipartisan committee appointed by the ministry in April 2018. The committee, which included MPs from all of the sitting parties in Alþingi as well as representatives from the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities, maintains that expanding the boundaries of the protected area would not negatively impact Vatnajökull National Park’s recent designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The proposal has since been opened for public comment, but will only remain so for the next two weeks, or until August 13.

Although the Association of Local Authorities has been part of the proposal process, however, many municipalities whose boundaries fall within the proposed national park feel that they were not appropriately consulted.

Ásta Stefánsdóttir, head of the district council of Bláskógabyggð in West Iceland says that it was the committee’s job to make proposals about the new national park, not to specifically evaluate the pros and cons of whether this should be done at all. Bláskógabyggð feels that this evaluation has yet to be done and that the current proposal represents an encroachment on the zoning power of local municipalities.

“There are large areas within the highlands that are within Bláskógabyggð and farmers and residents have put a lot of work into reclaiming the land, for instance, in marking riding trails and guiding traffic there, i.e. ensuring that people don’t enter sensitive areas and the like. People are only concerned because if there is some kind of centralised agency, some kind of government agency, which oversees this, that that will somewhat undercut all this volunteer work that people have done.”

Energy companies have also expressed opposition to the proposal. Samorka, the federation of energy and utility companies in Iceland, says that under the new protections, that all new energy generation and transmission would be prohibited in almost half of the country, making current laws about energy protection irrelevant.

For its part, Landsvirkjun, the National Power Company of Iceland, says that it is necessary that all of its power plants remain outside of protected areas and says that the utilisation of energy resources in the highlands have considerable economic significance for the country overall. The renewable energy produced in the highlands, it says, is the foundation of the nation’s economy and overall quality of life today.