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.

Deep North Episode 35: Of Ashes and Evergreens

hekla forest project

Icelandic forestry is no longer the oxymoron it once was, but as it grows in importance as well as size, so also grow disagreements about its future and methods. At the centre of the debate is the coming merger (or rather, reunion: the once-united agencies were split apart in 1914) of the Icelandic Forest Service and the Soil Conservation Service, which has thrown some of these disagreements into sharper relief, including the use of non-native species and the role of the carbon credit market in Icelandic forestry. No matter their differences, everyone who participates in the afforestation effort’s goal is simple: to reclaim a part of the original landscape. One of Iceland’s greatest successes in the field is Hekla Forest (Hekluskógar), nestled in the once-lush Þjórsárdalur valley.

Read the story here.

Of Ashes and Evergreens

hekla forest project

We come to the windswept, barren highland for solitude. To be alone, away from it all. The immense openness of Iceland’s landscape is only rivalled by the silence that can be found there, punctuated by sharp winds and distant bird calls. But the ash and gravel that cover this subarctic desert hide a story. Out here, so far removed from people, we stand among the scars of human settlement. We come to nature to escape ourselves but find instead a mirror. We are not so alone in this strange and empty place. This, too, is manmade.

hekla forest project

New growth

A new footbridge spanning the Þjórsá river in South Iceland opened in 2021. This was celebrated by hikers eager to further explore this scenic region of Iceland, but it also inspired a different kind of celebration; it was the first major construction project in a millennium to be built with timber sourced exclusively from Iceland.

Last year also saw several other milestones in Icelandic forestry, with a Sitka spruce near Kirkjubæjarklaustur, South Iceland reaching 30 m [98 ft], a post-Ice Age first, and forest coverage finally surpassing 2% of Iceland’s total land area. Admittedly, this figure includes shrublands as well but, in 1990, forest coverage only accounted for 7,000 hectares [17,000 acres]. The figure now stands around 45,000 hectares [110,000 acres], more than a five-fold increase over the course of 30 years. And where just decades ago only a handful of sites were considered viable for forestry, Icelandic forests are growing in places once considered beyond the pale of the habitable world.

hekla forest project

Icelandic forestry is no longer the oxymoron it once was, but as it grows in importance as well as size, so also grow disagreements about its future and methods. At the centre of the debate is the coming merger (or rather, reunion: the once-united agencies were split apart in 1914) of the Icelandic Forest Service and the Soil Conservation Service, which has thrown some of these disagreements into sharper relief, including the use of non-native species and the role of the carbon credit market in Icelandic forestry. No matter their differences, everyone who participates in the afforestation effort’s goal is simple: to reclaim a part of the original landscape. One of Iceland’s greatest successes in the field is Hekla Forest (Hekluskógar), nestled in the once-lush Þjórsárdalur valley.

It is generally agreed that prior to human settlement, some 20 to 40 per cent of Iceland was forested. The Book of Settlements states that “there were forests everywhere between the mountains and shore.”

The Hekla Forest Project

Hekla is one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, and since forestry efforts began in the region, it has seen five major eruptions. The birch woodlands around Hekla are quite resilient and can survive eruptions, even when only the tops of the trees are left sticking out of the newly deposited ash and tephra. This is important because other vegetation such as grass and low-lying shrubs do not survive eruptions. Forests, especially tall ones, form durable shelters which prevent ash from spreading and forming deserts on nearby land.

hekla forest project

Experience has shown that Hekla eruptions regularly deposit half-metre-thick ash layers up to 10 km [6 mi] from the volcano. With the next eruption of Hekla only a question of when, not if, the Hekla Forest is also an important investment in the future of this region of Iceland.

“By the turn of the century, forests in this region of Iceland had been reduced to a few isolated patches along Þjórsárdalur valley and Búrfell mountain,” explains Hreinn Óskarsson, former director of the Hekla Forest Project. “But thanks to afforestation efforts, the region is now one of Iceland’s largest wooded areas, extending up Hekla and the surrounding slopes to an elevation of 600 metres.” For the previous generation of Icelandic foresters, elevations above 200 metres were considered the limit.

hekla forest project
hekla forest project
hekla forest project

Some of the methods that have enabled this success, Hreinn says, are the use of soil-stabilising plants like lyme grass and lupine, and the use of fertilisers. Chemical fertilisers often suffice, but in particularly troublesome areas, bone meal is used, an effective slow-release fertiliser. Thanks to these methods, the birch forests of this region have expanded more than any other Icelandic woodland in recent years.

When the Soil Conservation Service acquired Gunnarsholt farm in 1926, it and many surrounding farms had been abandoned to the encroaching sand drifts. Centuries of sheep grazing and soil erosion had left swathes of once-productive farmland in South Iceland little more than a desert. Gunnarsholt became something like a living laboratory for soil conservation work in Iceland, ultimately becoming the headquarters of the Soil Conservation Service. The work there was a great success, and at its height, Gunnarsholt was the largest farm in Iceland, with 1,600 sheep and 600 cattle raised on what had been desert in living memory. During this time, the Forest Service protected the remnants of birch woodland and experimented with new tree species but did not work on the afforestation of eroded land. Although forestry and soil work share many goals, such as reducing erosion, the Forestry Service and Soil Conservation Service seldom worked together. One project, however, was fated to bring these star-crossed agencies back together.

The Icelandic word mörk, like in Þórsmörk, derives from the Proto-Germanic *markō, meaning a frontier or boundary. Because forests often marked the edges of the map, where settlements ended, this term was also used for any region on the edge of a nation or culture. Hence the English term march denoting a border territory, and a marquis or margrave who rules over such a territory. Icelandic mörk also shares this root with Denmark. This sense of mark also indicated signs that set aside territories, like landmarks, and over time, the word acquired a general meaning of “sign,” or “impression.”

It was due to the Soil Conservation Service’s success in the region that in 2007, a contract was signed between the Forest Service, the Soil Conservation Service, and the state to finance the project that would become the Hekla Forest. A century after forestry and soil conservation efforts began at Gunnarsholt, 90,000 hectares of wood- and shrubland now grow around the volcano Hekla. Small teams, both volunteers and workers, work tirelessly to repair the damage done by humans here. One individual can plant several thousand saplings in a day, with a small team armed with nothing but an ATV and some fertiliser planting tens of thousands in a day. The work is difficult, often done in the wind and rain, and the mechanical rhythm can take a toll on one’s back. Planters stab at the earth with a shovel, plant a sapling, and throw in a handful of fertiliser all in one deft movement, and then it’s two paces forward and the same thing again, for hours. The hard work means that the teams working in Hekla Forest have to take frequent breaks, often working for three days straight and then resting for two. But during the bright, clear summer nights of June, some teams have been known to work all day, challenging each other to surpass their records.

hekla forest project
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In addition to being an inspiring success story, the wooded lands known collectively as Hekla Forest are also providing a model for other forestry projects in Iceland, due to the use of native species and close cooperation between agencies, municipalities, and private landowners. Of the 1,000 km² to the north, west, and south of Hekla, up to 600 km² [232 mi²] will be covered by native birch and willow forests in the next 50 years. The area comprising these forests represents approximately 1% of Iceland’s total land area.

Financing forests

In December of 1997, Julia “Butterfly” Hill climbed up a California redwood. When she eventually climbed down, it was a full 738 days later, in December of 1999. In addition to protecting a nearly 1,000-year-old tree from being logged by the Pacific Lumber Company, she was also setting a dramatic precedent for environmental activism, a stunt both to be imitated and dispersed into the popular imagination.

These days, environmental activism looks decidedly less free-spirited, major forestry projects more likely to be spearheaded by international financiers than by stereotypical activists. For better or for worse, activism has been monetised in the form of the international carbon credit market.

hekla forest project

Established by the framework of the Kyoto Protocol and refined by the Paris Agreement, international markets in carbon trading have emerged which seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through financial mechanisms. Carbon credits, which represent one tonne of CO2 or equivalent greenhouse gas, are traded with the goal of reducing global emissions. In theory, nations that come under their allowed limits can sell their excess emission permits to others that have exceeded their limit. The system also allows participants to offset emissions through environmental projects in developing nations and green investments such as forestry. A key requirement behind this system is that of “additionality,” that is, the actions must not be already required by law or otherwise expected to happen without human intervention.

Additionally, a voluntary carbon credit market exists for organisations wishing to go carbon neutral. When travellers are asked to check a box to make their journey carbon neutral, it is of course not the airline itself planting trees. Instead, companies can choose to approach brokers who will manage the company’s investments in environmental projects.

icelandic forest hekla

However, the voluntary carbon market presents a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, the barrier to certification must be sufficiently low to encourage investment and participation, while on the other hand, standards must be high enough for these projects to actually have the impact they claim. Many early carbon sequestration projects were uncertified, meaning that they can’t be used on this voluntary market. The best of these projects, however, will insist that a company cut their operating emissions down as far as possible, and only then will they cover the difference.

For some working in Icelandic forestry, the entry of private enterprise is one of the most exciting directions in the field today. Until very recently, Icelandic forestry was almost entirely funded by the state. But planting can prove expensive. Very expensive: the lifetime cost of the Hekla Forest Project, including planting an annual average of around 280,000 new saplings, is estimated to be ISK 6 billion [$44 million, €40 million].

Afforestation is a term used for forestry in regions that have not previously supported woodland. Reforestation refers to replacing woodland that has been lost in the recent past. Afforestation is particularly difficult, as these regions often have sparse, nutrient-poor soil. Although Iceland once supported extensive forests, it has been deforested for so long that forestry efforts are considered a form of afforestation.

Indeed, Iceland may prove to be particularly attractive for NGOs and corporations looking for green investments, precisely because its centuries-long struggle with forestry has been so difficult. Iceland’s afforestation struggles have produced some of the best-monitored forests in the world, with comprehensive statistics and metre-by-metre vegetation surveys going back for decades. Of the several international projects currently active in Iceland, at least two are currently within the bounds of the Hekla Forest: Mossy Earth, a UK-based non-profit which focuses on rewilding ecosystems with native vegetation, and Land Life, a Netherlands-based company that specialises in data-driven carbon offset projects. Such companies have also allowed large carbon-emitting industries to help finance forestry efforts, the Icelandic fishing industry now a major player in the field as well.

Missing the forest for the trees

But there are critics of this style of environmentalism, those who doubt that the climate crisis will be solved by market mechanisms. Critics, such as former Assistant Director of the Soil Conservation Service Andrés Arnalds, state that at best, these projects may delay more meaningful environmental action, and at worst, may not actually offset carbon as claimed. “Very often, these carbon offsets can be a kind of modern indulgence. Companies buy off their green sins and continue with business as usual,” Andrés says.

“Even relatively bare grasslands can store surprising amounts of carbon,” Andrés says. “What looks like empty land to many can store up to two-thirds of the carbon that a forest would.” Additionally, afforestation projects often harrow large portions of land before planting. Such practices disturb the soil and can even aid in carbon release, meaning that carbon offset projects themselves can often be significant sources of emissions.

To be able to plant at scale, many carbon offset projects are also monocultures, which isn’t ideal from an ecological perspective, Andres explains. “Icelandic forestry has, for a long time, focused simply on planting trees. But a forest is also an ecosystem with everything that lives in it. It’s not simply a collection of trees, but that’s what they’re planting: trees, not forests.”

hekla forest project
hekla forest project

Planting can be difficult, and historically, the most effective method for large-scale planting has been monoculture plantations. Over time, however, Icelandic foresters have switched to a method that prefers small monocultures of different species clustered together, such that one hectare might have several different monocultures. This, in theory, combines the efficiency of large-scale planting with a more diverse landscape.

And then there’s the fact that the native Icelandic forest, overwhelmingly composed of birch, is a monoculture as well. When we think of biodiversity, our mind often drifts to the tropical rainforest and images of multicoloured flowers, vibrant birdlife, and dense, verdant forests. This is of course an image Iceland will never live up to, but nevertheless, Iceland has its own native biodiversity that’s worth protecting.

For Andrés Arnalds, the Hekla Forest is one of the best models we have: “It’s just a classic example of what we can achieve in Iceland. So many local people have gotten involved in planting, and we’ve restored so much diversity in the Hekla region in the last years.”

Guest workers

The use of birch in Hekla Forest isn’t just a political statement; as a native species, it’s well suited to the local conditions. “Birch is a pioneer species,” says Hreinn. Such pioneer species are often the first species to colonise an ecosystem after a disruptive event like a volcanic eruption or forest fire. “Birch also produces many seeds at a young age,” he says, “meaning that it can spread very quickly under the right conditions.” 

A mature tree can absorb some 22 kg of CO2 annually, the approximate equivalent of 180 km [112 mi] driven in an average passenger vehicle.

Although birch is in many ways the ideal candidate for reforesting Iceland, certain non-native species have also played a key role in Icelandic afforestation. Lodgepole pine, for instance, can tolerate nutrient-poor soils, meaning that it can be used in areas that would otherwise remain empty. Likewise, the aforementioned lupine was intentionally introduced from Alaska to the Icelandic landscape for its nitrogen-fixing properties. Now blanketing many hillsides, it is considered by some to be an invasive species. 

Hreinn Óskarsson, however, is quick to remind me that Hekla Forest has not prohibited the use of non-native species: “What the Hekla Forest Project has done is encourage the use of native species, but it’s a diverse area. It’s not obligatory to just use birch, but that is our main goal. We want to promote biodiversity in the area, and many species in Iceland have grown to be dependent on birch woodlands. Often, with non-native plantations, we don’t get the kind of biodiversity that we’d like to see.”

Hreinn isn’t a purist about what does or doesn’t belong in Icelandic woodlands, and he reminds me that some 2-300 species of flora which we consider to be Icelandic have been imported through the ages. While it’s nice to think that the Hekla birch forests represent a return of the landscape that would have once greeted Icelandic settlers, the goal isn’t simply to revert to a state before human intervention. “The goal,” says Hreinn, “is to restore the function of the ecosystem. We want to see less erosion and more even runoff in the landscape. We want to see stable soils that can withstand catastrophes and to create taller vegetation that both stands up to eruptions and can sequester carbon. But this doesn’t mean simply spreading trees everywhere. We want to expand and preserve birch woodland, without restricting other land use.”

hekla forest project
hekla forest project

Nevertheless, even the best-intentioned projects can have unforeseen consequences. The Icelandic landscape has been barren for so long that forests, even native ones, can cause disruptions to established habitats. Many shorebirds, such as the golden plover, sandpiper, and oystercatcher make their nests in open areas of the lowlands. They prefer these open areas so they can better spot predators like foxes, and increasingly, domestic cats. Notably, they refuse to nest near treelines because they associate trees with predator activity, and even a small stand of trees can deny these birds a large nesting area. 

“We have to accept that human settlement has already totally changed the flora in Iceland,” Hreinn explains to me. “We haven’t seen a reduction in these bird populations yet, but we should also think about how our situation was at the time of settlement, with vast birch woodlands across the lowlands. Now, we’re beginning to see birds in Hekla Forest that we never saw before. In the future, we may well not have the same species at the same sites. Quite simply, we’re creating new habitats.”

Restoring an ecosystem

In the early aughts, one German by the name of Thomas Mann (no, not that Thomas Mann) worked in the Hekla Forest area, shortly before the official founding of the project in 2007. In his evenings and days off, he was accustomed to taking long hikes through Þjórsárdalur valley. He would often take clippings from the day’s work, mostly poplar or willow, and plant them here and there. There wasn’t much method to these trips, and although many of these saplings never took hold, some did, especially those that grew near lupines. 

Not all non-native species are considered to be invasive species, even if they are widespread. Invasives are non-native species which threaten local biodiversity, but plenty of non-native plants manage to find sustainable niches of their own. 

One area in particular that Thomas wandered was Sandártunga, a sand-strewn lava field and historically one of the most degraded areas of the Þjórsárdalur valley. It still presents its difficulties to afforestation today, but among the pockets of lupine and open stretches of gravel, there now also stand the defiant descendants of Thomas’ efforts. It’s not hard to imagine that soon, in decades, not centuries, these lonely trees will be crowded in by other adventurous pioneers. 

Since 2021, Hekla Forest is no longer an independently funded project. But the idea of the project nevertheless lives on, and it is now listed on the Natural Heritage Registry, among such prestigious peers as Gullfoss waterfall, Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, and Reynisfjara beach. As puffins and plover begin to descend on Iceland with the coming of spring, this time of year likewise sees a flock of students, volunteers, scientists, and landowners descending on Hekla Forest to continue this important work.

Use of Lodgepole Pine in Reforestation Sparks Feud Between Agencies

icelandic forest

The coming merger of the Icelandic Forest Service and the Soil Conservation Service has led to a debate over the use of invasive species in reforestation and land reclamation work.

Central to the debate between the two agencies is the place of the lodgepole pine, and whether it belongs in Icelandic forests.

Pinus contorta, with the common name of lodgepole pine, is a species native to the West Coast of North America. It has been introduced into Icelandic forestry in an attempt to help with the reforestation of Iceland, but some warn against negative consequences of invasive species.

Read more: Forests Now Cover 2% of Iceland

 

The Icelandic Forest Service, in their resolutions from the 2022 general meeting, recently condemned what they believed was a campaign against them by the Soil Conservation Service, which publicly critiqued the use of lodgepole pine in Icelandic reforestation attempts.

In their resolutions, the Icelandic Forest Service stated that “the campaign tries to discredit the ambitious and successful work that has been carried out in the most forest-deprived country in Europe and the seventh most forest-deprived country in the world, where natural forests grow on only 1.5% of the country and cultivated forests on only 0.5% of the area of the country. The cultivation of new forests is the most effective weapon in the fight against soil erosion and also one of the most cost-effective methods to reduce the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

Read more: Lupine Propagation Threatens Nature Reserve

 

However, the Soil Conservation Service has rejected the suggestion that they have worked against the Icelandic Forest Service by critiquing the use of lodgepole pine.

“The Soil Conservation Service has stated that the first choice for reforestation is Icelandic birch and that local varieties should be used if available,” said Árni Bragason, director of the Soil Conservation Service,in a statement to Fréttablaðið. “Birch has grown in Iceland for thousands of years and is adapted to the conditions here. However, we also know that birch is not necessarily the best tree for all uses.”

Árni has also drawn comparisons with the lupine: “I hope that people will plan the cultivation of the lodgepole pine and its cultivation area so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes we made with the lupine.”

Lupine is a flowering plant native to Alaska and is considered an invasive species by the Icelandic Institute of Natural History. Because the lupine is a type of legume, it helps fix nitrogen into the soil and was introduced in Iceland with the hope of aiding in land reclamation. Now, lupines are estimated to cover some 314 km² of Iceland, and some conservationists fear for its impact on native flora.

Read more: Government Publishes Joint Policy on Land Reclamation and Reforestation

 

“Those who work in land reclamation and forestry of course must take responsibility [for the lupine]. Although we acted in good faith at the time, we did not foresee how invasive the species is,” Árni stated.

Árni said he wants to encourage Jónatan Garðarsson, chairman of the Icelandic Forest Service, to present facts instead of repeating what are, in his opinion, empty claims.

“It is good for everyone to know the facts and get out of the echo chamber […] because otherwise there is a risk that such misinformation will come to dominate the discussion.”

Árni has also stated that he has used lodgepole pine as Christmas trees in the last years.

 

Icelandic Forestry Service Asks Public For Help

icelandic forests birch reforestation

The national collection of birch seeds began last week in Garðsárreittur in Eyjafjörður. The national initiative aims to reforest 5% of Iceland in birch forests, and volunteers from throughout Iceland are invited to gather birch seeds for the project.

Over the weekend, some 50 volunteers were able to gather some one and a half million seeds. An impressive number, but around 450 birch seeds fit into one teaspoon alone.

Currently, only around 1.5% of Iceland is forested with birch. In an interview with RÚV, Kristinn H. Þorsteinsson, project director of the initiative stated: “In order to be able to cover the country and get up to 5%, we need many hands, we need the whole nation. We need individuals, companies, schools and families to help out.”

The project began in 2020 in response to the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Now, the goal is to reforest 5% of Iceland, equating to around 5,000 square kilometres,  with birch.

In the above video from the Icelandic Forest Service, the collection of birch seeds is demonstrated for those wanting to help out.

Birch trees begin developing their seeds in early September, and they can be collected up through November, according to Hreinn Óskarsson, forestry expert at the Icelandic Forestry Service.

The initiative is also enlisting the help of several companies in Iceland, including Bónus and Olís, where volunteers can donate any seeds collected. Both Bónus and Olís will be accepting seed donation at all of their locations.

Seeds should dried before being donated. More information is available at the initiative’s website.

Government Publishes First-Ever Joint Policy on Land Reclamation and Reforestation

Minister of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir has released the Icelandic government’s first-ever joint policy on land reclamation and reforestation. This per a press release on the government’s website on Friday.

The plans for land reclamation and reforestation look ahead to 2031, but the primary action plan covers 2022-2026 and will shape the government’s priorities in these areas for the coming years. The action plan calls for research on the impacts of land reclamation, reforestation, and the restoration of biodiversity in the wetlands, as well as the creation of new quality criteria for reforestation land selection, and an evaluation of carbon balancing for emissions accounting. Another primary objective aims to restore the ecosystems of disturbed lands, wetlands, and both natural and newly cultivated forests.

In her capacity as Minister of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, Svandís Svavarsdóttir’s focus is on the protection, proliferation, and integrity of Iceland’s ecosystems, reads the press release. She also seeks to promote nature-based solutions in climate matters, as well as solutions that are in line with international agreements, support sustainable land use, increase knowledge, cooperation, and public health, and promote sustainable development in rural Iceland.

“I place a lot of emphasis on food production that’s based on sustainable development, whether that’s at land or at sea,” remarked Svandís. “With this plan, land reclamation and reforestation both contribute to sustainable development of communities all around the country. There will be employment opportunities in richer natural resources and development will be built on a sustainable foundation.”

See Also: New Report Examines Food Self-Sufficiency in Five Nordic Island Societies

The policy has been prepared in accordance with recent laws on land reclamation, forests, and reforestation and outlines the government’s vision for the future in these areas, as well as its core values and attendant priorities. The policy is also guided by developments at the international level and Iceland’s international agreements with the United Nations and other global organizations.

It has been in the works since 2019, when project boards were appointed with the task of formulating proposals for both a land reclamation and a national forestry plan. The two boards presented their proposals at an open forum in spring 2021, after which, the proposals were submitted to the Ministry along with an environmental assessment and a summary of the main comments received. The full policies, both the long-term 2031 plan and the 2022-2026 action plan, are available on the government website.

Citizen Scientists Wanted to Monitor Land

GróLind, a project to monitor Iceland’s soil and vegetation resources through remote sensing data, is turning to the public for help.

Jóhann Helgi Stefánsson, environmental scientist and project manager at GróLind, has stated that the project “is an opportunity for people to monitor the land in an organized way, see the results of reforestation, see the development of vegetation and have a direct impact on the knowledge we are creating every day.”

GróLind’s land monitoring began in 2019. Among other research goals, the project investigates sheep grazing patterns, and how vegetation develops on grazed and protected lands.

Now, the project is looking for citizen volunteers to help gather further data. Volunteers will use an app, and along with some basic training, monitor small areas of land throughout the country. By using a pole provided by Landgræðslan, Iceland’s foundation for land reclamation, volunteers will mark the center of a 50m area in diameter and report the findings back to GróLind.

In combination with other systems like satellite imagery, the data will hopefully contribute to a fuller picture of land use in Iceland.

Those interested in volunteering are encouraged to watch the instructional videos provided on the Landgræðslan YouTube channel, or else to visit the GróLind website.

 

 

Six Million Plants This Year, But Production Still Short of Carbon Neutrality Goal

Iceland needs to rapidly increase its plant cultivation in order to meet the government’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2040, RÚV reports.

Þröstur Eysteinsson, director of the Icelandic Forest Service, says that in order to meet the goal, plant production in Iceland will have to at least double over the next three to five years, and that production capacity will need to increase even more after that. Currently, there is not enough room in local nurseries and greenhouses to meet this demand.

“As the situation stands, our greenhouses are at full capacity,” Þröstur explained in an interview. “Because it’s May, the spring sowing has already been planned out and it isn’t possible to add anything that will be ready in spring 2023, that is to say, next spring. So for any new projects that are coming in, the earliest they could get plants is 2024.”

The Forest Service intends to deliver six million plants this year, says Þröstur, which is equivalent to pre-crash levels of production. “It was around five million last year, and four million the year before that. This is a rapid increase. Then we need seven to eight million next year, which we may not manage, and ten to twelve in 2025.”

Forests Now Cover 2% of Iceland

Elliðárdalur Reykjavík

Forests and bushes now cover over 2% of Iceland, Vísir reports. That number may not seem like much, but since 1990, the surface area covered by forest or shrubs in Iceland has increased more than six times over – from 7,000 hectares to 45,000. In 20 years, the number is expected to be 2.6%.

The Icelandic Forestry Association (IFA) held a conference last week where the milestone was celebrated. “This is big news,” stated Arnór Snorrason, a forester at the IFA research station at Mógilsá. It’s not only forestry efforts that have increased these numbers, but also Iceland’s remaining natural birch forests, which Arnór says have finally begun expanding for the first time since Iceland was settled.

Read More: One Man Reforestation Project

As much as 40% of Iceland’s surface area was covered by forest before permanent settlers arrived in the ninth century. They chopped down wood for kindling and cleared land for grazing, and their livestock later prevented trees from growing back.

Read more about the history of reforestation in Iceland here.

New Path Paved Through 85-Year-Old Forest

A team of some of Iceland’s most experienced loggers is in the process of cutting a path through Vaðlaskógur, an 85-year-old forest that stands across from Akureyri, on the other side of the Eyjafjörður fjord in Northeast Iceland. RÚV reports that the felling will make way for a a 2 km [1.2 mi] walking and cycling path, as well make way for hot water pipes from the Vaðlaheiði tunnel to run water to a new bathing area in the forest. An estimated 130 tons of timber will be cut down in the process.

“You can read the history of Icelandic forestry here,” says Ingólfur Jóhannsson, managing director of the Eyjafjörður Forestry Association who is overseeing the project. “People were just experimenting in 1936, when planting started here—no one knew what [species] would thrive in the country.” Ingólfur says that at the time, pretty much anything and everything was planted in the area. “…[S]ome [trees] lived and some died, and that was the foundation for our forestry work today.”

Screenshot, Vísir

Today, several species of spruce grow in Vaðlaskógur, as do beach pines, pitch pines, mountain pines, Alpine firs, rowans, and multiple willow species. All told, Ingólfur estimates that there are some thirty species of trees growing in the forest.

The diversity of species makes this a complicated process for the loggers, who must be selective and ensure that they aren’t felling just any tree. The eleven-person team was assembled from experienced professionals hailing from Reykjavík, Skagafjörður, Akureyri, and Egilsstaðir and will spend about two weeks completing the project. The resulting timber will then be used for building materials and firewood.

Although a number of trees will need to be cleared for the project, Ingólfur spoke highly of the planned outdoor area, which will be easily accessible to visitors. “Paths are also valuable in forests.”