Lupine Propagation Threatens Nature Preserve: ‘We want to keep our Icelandic flora’

Lupines may be beautiful, but they’re also an invasive species. RÚV reports that lupine propagation around the Krossanesborgir nature preserve near Akureyri, North Iceland, may well be having a significant—and negative—impact on indigenous plant and animal life.

‘The point of no return’

As Egill Bjarnason explained in his 2018 New York Times article about the ongoing lupine controversy in Iceland, “[t]he blue Nootka lupine are native to North America and a familiar sight in flower gardens there. They have spread wildly in Iceland since their introduction in the late 1970s to halt soil erosion.”

But while the plant does have positive attributes (it’s a free ‘fertilizer factory,’ as Egill explains), and while tourists and even many Icelanders love the plant for its characteristic violet-blue blossoms, it spreads much more easily than originally anticipated and, among other places, has made significant inroads in Iceland’s central highlands, where originally, it was thought it wouldn’t be able to survive.

Locals used to be encouraged to spread the seeds—some villages would even distribute free scoopfuls of seeds at gas stations. But in spring 2018, the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland stopped its seed distribution program after 42 years, with director Arni Bragason remarking of the plant and its impact on the local environment, “We’re at the point of no return.”

Timing is everything

Krossanesborgir was designated a nature preserve in 2004 in order to protect its diverse plant and bird life. But with the encroachment of lupine in the area, this this ecosystem is now endangered, says Jón Ingi Cæsarsson, the former chair of the Akureyri organizational committee.

“All of the undergrowth and moor vegetation is going to vanish and instead, we’ll have these tall, beautiful plants. But that’s not something we want—we want to keep our Icelandic flora, especially in these nature preserves,” he said.

Local officials are aware of the lupine situation and the plant is cut back on a regular basis, including in Krossanesborgir, says Rút Jónsdóttir, Akureyri divisional manager.

“We usually begin [cutting back lupines] around June 15-20,” she explained. Working out the right time to start the mowing is difficult, she continued: too early, and birds will still be nesting in the area; too late, and the lupines will already bloomed. (Timing is everything when it comes to lupine eradication, explains Egill. “Killing the plant is a three- to five-year process that involves cutting them back at the peak of the bloom, when the plant is putting its energies into the flowers and the roots are correspondingly weakest. Mowing down the plants has proved more effective than herbicides.”)

‘It will take off if we don’t rein it in’

The lupine has not yet made significant inroads within Krossanesborgir, but Jón Ingi is nevertheless concerned that it may only be a matter of time. Roughly 30 species of birds nest in the area, he explained, making the area particularly important from a preservation standpoint.

“The lupine is here and is lying in wait and will take off if we rein it in. We’ve seen what happened on Hrísey [a small island in Eyjafjörður, north of Akyreyri, known for its bird life]. The number of breeding birds will most definitely decrease [in Krossanesborgir], just like happened there.”

Iceland’s First Electric Aircraft Has Arrived

Iceland’s first electric aircraft arrived by ship in Sundahöfn Harbour yesterday, Vísir and Stöð 2 report. The aircraft, which is a small Pipistrel Velis Electro two-seater, will primarily be used for pilot training. The Velis Electro, which is produced in Slovenia, is the world’s first electric powered airplane to receive a Type Certificate from EASA.

The purchase of the aircraft was the initiative of Matthías Sveinbjörnsson and Friðrik Pálsson, who have launched an effort to electrify Iceland’s aircraft fleet. In an interview with Stöð 2 News last night, they stated that the arrival of the aircraft is an important first step in making aviation in the country eco-friendlier.

“We have been working on this for more than two years now,” Matthías says. “The next steps involve bringing together a group of people who are interested in the issue and are willing to help us out,” Friðrik adds.

They say that the aircraft will probably not take off until next spring. Preparations, such as registration and training, are estimated to take a couple of months.

Electrically powered passenger planes may become a reality in just a few years

Electrically powered aircrafts have existed since the 1970s but most of those who have been produced since then have either been unmanned or experimental prototypes. However, there has been a growing interest in the development of electric passenger aircrafts in recent years, primarily due to their reduced environmental impact.

But are electric aircrafts a realistic alternative to traditional petroleum-powered airplanes? Friðrik and Matthías are certain that in just a few years, electrically powered passenger airplanes will become a reality. They point out that a 19-seat electric aircraft, E-19 Heart Aerospace, is currently being developed in Sweden. If all goes according to plan, the aircraft will be operating within five years.

“The wait is shorter than people think,” Matthías says.

Fewer Mated Arctic Fox Pairs in Hornstrandir Than Last Year

Arctic Fox Iceland

Hornstrandir Nature Preserve in the Westfjords has half the number of arctic fox pairs with young than it usually does at this time of year, RÚV reports. The drop in the number of mated pairs comes even as the animals’ territory has doubled in size. Human foot traffic through the area is thought to disturb the foxes a great deal, particularly mothers who are still nursing their young and have to stay in their dens.

These findings were among those made by the Icelandic Institute of Natural History (IINH) and their collaborators at the Arctic Fox Centre after their yearly site visit to Hornstrandir from June 17 – 30. During this time, researchers made stops at every known burrow in the reserve and made note of whether these were inhabited, as well as tracking foxes’ movements in and out of them. Three burrows were monitored for twelve hours, specifically to monitor how long adult foxes spent in them, and what food they brought back to them, if any. A log was kept of any food scraps that had been left in or around the burrows and stool samples were collected for future study.

Researchers also monitored and made observations about the number of visitors moving through fox-inhabited areas, as well as their behaviour around burrows. As IINH reported on its Facebook page, visitor traffic was minimal at the start of the expedition, but it increased during the almost two weeks that researchers were present in the reserve.

Even though the number of mated arctic fox pairs with young is significantly less than usual, the research teams affirm that the overall status of the population is good. Even so, researchers plan to monitor human traffic through Hornstrandir and another expedition to the reserve is already planned for later this summer to check in on the status of the arctic fox population at that time. Researchers hope that any travellers to Hornstrandir will follow the directions of the park rangers, stay on marked paths, and not disturb any wildlife they may encounter while visiting.

A Third of the World’s Golden Plover Nest in Iceland

Golden Plover Iceland

More than a third of the world’s golden plover and around 27% of the world’s whimbrel populations nest in Iceland, RÚV reports. These findings were among those included in a paper entitled “Icelandic meadow-breeding waders: status, threats and conservation challenges,” published in the most recent issue of the Wader Study journal of shorebird science. According to the paper, the main threats to both bird species are habitat loss and climate change.

The article was coauthored by Dr. Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, a specialist at the South East Iceland Nature Research Center, and colleagues at the University of Iceland’s South Iceland Research Center, the University of East Anglia in the UK, and the University of Aveiro in Portugal.

Iceland has an incredibly large population of wading birds compared with those in neighbouring countries, where these birds’ habitats have been aggressively infringed upon, particularly due to agricultural expansion. However, in Iceland “…substantial expansion of agricultural land only began after the 1940s,” reads the paper abstract. “…Large areas of natural or semi-natural habitats are therefore still common and widespread in Iceland, and the current mosaic-like landscape created by areas of agricultural land within these habitats may help to provide the resources needed by the very large populations of waders that breed in the country.”

While wader species “have all been protected from hunting and egg-collecting by law since the 20th century,” however, these bird population still face threats in Iceland. “[L]owland landscapes in Iceland are changing quite rapidly, as a result of agricultural expansion, afforestation, shrub encroachment and widespread construction of summer cottages, and all of these developments pose potential threats to these species.” There are, explain the authors, no specific conservation efforts are currently aimed at meadow-breeding waders in Iceland.

In addition to the golden plover and whimbrel, roughly 12% of the world’s redshanks, 10% of the world’s dunlin, 7% of the world’s black-tailed godwits, and 3% of the world’s oystercatchers and snipes nest in Iceland as well.

In addition to habitat encroachment, climate change poses an incredible threat to Icelandic wildlife. A recent report projected that around 90% of animal species that call Iceland and the surrounding waters home will disappear in the next 50 years due to climate change.

Icelanders Feel ‘Flight Shame’ Over Increased Air Travel Emissions

Eighty-three percent of Icelanders traveled abroad last year—the highest percentage of citizens to do so since 2009. This data was published in a report by the Icelandic Tourist Board, which also found that on average, Icelanders took 2.8 trips out of the country in 2018. Although climate change issues have become increasingly prominent in the public consciousness, Kjarninn reports that that Icelanders are generally unwilling to reduce the number of flights they take. As such, a new Icelandic word has been coined to describe Icelandic travelers’ guilty conscience over the negative effects that increased air travel has on the climate: flugskömm, or ‘flight shame.’

The Icelandic Tourist Board has conducted its survey on Icelanders’ travel habits since 2009. The survey asks respondents to comment on their travels during the previous year as well as what their travel plans are for the coming one. The percentage of Icelanders who travel abroad has steadily and dramatically increased. In 2017, 78% of Icelanders had traveled abroad; in 2009, only 44% had. As of last year, then, this percentage has nearly doubled.

The actual number of trips that Icelanders take abroad has also gone up significantly. While the average number was 2.8 trips in 2018, 12% of respondents said they’d taken five or more international trips in 2018, 20.7% said they went on three trips, and 44.9% said they went on three or more trips.

Looking ahead, Icelanders don’t seem to have any intention of decreasing their trips abroad, either: 52.6% of respondents said they were planning a city break abroad in 2019, 43.5% were planning a holiday in a “sunny country,” and 34.7% said they’d be visiting friends or relatives who live abroad.

Iceland’s emissions have been on the increase in recent years. Last year, the country’s greenhouse gas emissions were equivalent to 4,755 kilotons of carbon dioxide (excluding the LULUCF emissions from 2017). This is a 2.5% increase in emissions from 2016 and a 32.1% increase since 1990. Increased tourism has played a large part in this increase—the tourism industry has more than tripled in size since 2012. It’s five times larger than it was in 1995.

Air travel is, obviously, a big part of Icelandic tourism and the country’s increased greenhouse emissions are mostly attributed to the aviation sector. Per data published by the Environment Agency of Iceland, emissions from flights to and from Iceland increased by 13.2% between 2016 and 2017. Emissions in 2017 amounted to 813,745 tons of carbon dioxide, although this can’t be considered a final total because it only accounts for flights taken within the EEA. As such, emissions from flights to and from the Americas, the EU, and other parts of the world are not accounted for by that data.

Multiple surveys have shown that Icelanders are fairly unwilling to change their travel habits in order to lessen their environmental impact, even as they are open to changing other environmentally unfriendly habits. A Gallup poll taken in January showed that in the previous twelve months, more than half of Icelanders had changed their daily grocery shopping habits to lessen their environmental impact. In addition, just under two out of three Icelanders noted that they had made behavioural changes because of the environment. Meanwhile, 40.8% of Icelanders said they had not changed their travel habits to reduce their environmental impact in the last 12 months. About 20% said that they’d changed their travel habits somewhat and only 5.2% said they’d changed them significantly. It appears, therefore, that Icelanders are more willing to change their consumption habits based on environmental concerns than they are willing to change their travel habits.

Students Start Weekly Strike for Climate

A demonstration will be held in Austurvöllur square on Friday afternoon to raise awareness and urge governmental action on climate issues. The event, which is being organized by the National Union for Icelandic Students (LÍS) and the Icelandic Upper Secondary Student Union (SÍF), was announced on Facebook and per the description, will be held every Friday going forward from noon to 1pm.

“The strike is inspired by Greta Thunberg whose school strikes for climate in Sweden have garnered widespread attention,” explains the event post. “Tens of thousands of youth have followed her example and went to the streets to object to the authorities’ lack of action, in Belgium, Britain, USA, Australia, Germany, Sweden and other countries.”

The organizers point to a recent Gallup poll in which 62.6% of Icelanders reported having changed their behaviour in recent years to lessen their impact on the environment and climate. The survey showed that 51.6% of Icelanders have specifically made changes to their daily shopping habits in order to reduce their environmental impact. Around one quarter of Icelanders also reported having changed their travel habits for the same reason.

“The government published an environmental plan for 2030 with the goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2040” write the student organizers. “While we support this plan, further action is needed. The current plan is not conducive to reaching the goal of staying below 1,5° C warming. We demand actions that have the capacity to reach that goal.”

“According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2,5% of GDP must be reserved for actions towards keeping the temperature rise within 1.5° C. The Icelandic plan is to spend 0,05% of GDP per year for the next five years. We demand that Iceland rise to the challenge, listen to the scientists, declare an emergency and reserve at least 2,5% of domestic GDP for direct climate actions. The labour market must also take responsibility and therefore a certain change of mindset must take place.”

“We demand drastic action,” the event post reads in closing. “Now. For coming generations.”

Report on Economic Impact of Whaling Incites Criticism

A recent report on the economic impact of whaling has incited criticism and accusations of bias, RÚV reports. A primary point of contention is that the report characterises nature conservation groups as terrorist organisations and suggests that Icelandic legislators should perhaps consider levying anti-terrorist legislation against them, as is done in other countries.

The report was co-authored by economist Oddgeir Ágúst Ottesen at the Institute of Economic Studies. Minister for the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson expressed some disbelief about the terrorist characterisation and said that it made him wonder about the authors’ personal motivations. Moreover, he says that he has some doubts about the correlations that the report draws.

Rannveig Grétarsdóttir, the CEO of whale watching company Elding and the chair of the Whale Watching Association of Iceland, leveled similar critiques earlier in the week during a current events TV program where she and Oddgeir debated the report and its claims. Rannveig didn’t mince words, calling the report one-sided propaganda.

“There is a lot of propaganda in the report,” said Rannveig, continuing by saying that its findings read like foregone conclusions. It discussed the impact of whale watching on whaling, but not the reverse, she said, and neglected to get the opinion of anyone in the whale watching industry.

“It’s very strange,” she said. “I have 40% of the whale watching in the country and am the chair of the Whale Watching Association, and no one talked to me.” Oddgeir contested this, saying that he had spoken to staff at whale watching companies.

Doesn’t have to be one or the other

Oddgeir also dismissed the claim that whaling’s low profit margin and the overall negative press earned by the industry should be taken into account when considering whether or not to allow whaling to continue.

“It doesn’t really matter for society what the [company’s] earnings are. It doesn’t hurt society as a whole that the [whaling] company pays good wages and turns a small profit,” he said, versus a scenario in which the company made substantial profits but paid low wages. Oddgeir continued by saying that tourism in Iceland had continued to flourish in spite of the fact that whaling has continued, and that whaling has has also not had an impact on the sale of Icelandic fish abroad.

Oddgeir rejected the accusation that he’d written the report with a particular agenda and had already made his mind up about the conclusions he’d draw before he even finished it. He said that it wasn’t a matter of choosing one thing over the other: “Whale watching can absolutely continue, even if there is whaling.”

False correlations

The report asserts that should whaling continue, there would be a 40% increase in Icelandic export revenue, as a result of there being more fish in the country’s coastal waters. This assertion goes far beyond what other organisations, such as the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute, have been willing to state in regards to the whaling industry’s sustainability. For instance, Gísli Víkingsson, a marine biologist at the Marine Institute, said that he believes that whaling is sustainable, but said that he thinks it’s wrong for people to kill whales in order to increase the fish stock. The claim about increased export potential also rings false to Minister for the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson.

“…I think we need to take a very close look at this part about the ecology of the ocean, where the conclusion drawn is that by hunting more whales, we increase the number of fish in the sea,” Guðmundur remarked. “[T]hey come to the conclusion that there’s a direct relationship between the two. Although there’s a connection, [the report] doesn’t take into account the costs that would result from starting to increase whaling, for example, as regards Iceland’s reputation.”

Waste Disposal Disrupted in Westman Islands

Waste disposal in the Westman Islands has been disrupted since December while the Heimaey town council awaits an environmental assessment report on the environmental impact of waste incineration, Vísir reports.

Council members expressed frustration with the delay with the environmental impact report, which they say will also delay the town’s plans for the construction of a new waste-to-energy plant.

The Heimaey town council is expected to announce updated rules on waste disposal on the island next week.